With central government funding for all local authority services being progressively and drastically reduced, support from councils for cultural activities is an increasing rarity. So, for arts centres such as the Ashcroft in Fareham, Hampshire, there’s no better way to demonstrate their continued relevance to the community than by presenting a programme that has people clamouring for tickets. With sold-out shows on consecutive nights in early March, Kris Drever followed by Steve Knightley, the Ashcroft more than met that challenge. Folk Radio went along to the first of these events to chat with Kris and afterwards to savour a great gig.
Support for Kris, for most of the dates on this tour, came from Canadian banjo player and singer, Kaia Kater. A native of Montreal, a city rich in traditional music, she nevertheless became fascinated by the music of the Appalachians and moved to West Virginia for a while to develop her music, learning from that tradition. Her set was a mix of traditional songs and her own compositions suffused with Appalachian style. She will be back in the UK later this year, playing dates with Tim O’Brien in May and festival appearances in August.
Kris Drever’s set began with Beads and Feathers, Sandy Wright’s song that was included on his first solo album, Black Water, back in 2006 and which has since become a firm favourite both with Kris and his audiences. Always a sound plan to start with such a song, Kris’ unique voice and familiar lyrics, you could sense people settling into their seats with smiles on their faces. It was followed by Hard Year a track from 2016’s If Wishes Were Horses album, the lyrics developing a similar theme, stand up for yourself, don’t be hoodwinked into believing the lies told daily by politicians and their cronies. Still plenty of smiling faces around but, for those listening more closely to the lyrics, growing recognition that Kris has the fire in the belly that ensures his songs can be both entertaining and agitating at the same time.
Sideswipes at politicians continue to crop up through the evening. The song that has given Kris one of his two nominations at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards is the album’s title track If Wishes Were Horses. It’s nominated for best original song and includes the delightful lines, I wish that politicians ties would tighten up when they told lies. In the era of Trump, singing this prompted Kris to tell of his yearning for the days when his local MP could be held to account for the small matter of lying about whether he’d leaked a Scottish Office memo. Kris isn’t a performer who feels the need to tell jokes, but his understated, often sharp, humour is nevertheless a vital part of his between song chat. A song was introduced as being “from the point of view of the moon… if the moon had a hangover” and after the show he’d be at the merch desk just “to listen to your problems.”
Returning to songs from some of his favourite songwriters, Lal Waterson’s Midnight Feast, in a stripped down solo version, sounds almost a different song from the recording he made with Lau and Karine Polwart. But the perfect match of voice and guitar raises the hairs on the back of your neck. He followed this with Boo Hewerdine’s Harvest Gypsies, another perfect blend, a set from Kris just wouldn’t be complete without this song.
Then a run of three songs from the Wishes album, When We Roll in the Morning, Capernaum and the Wishes song itself, before a couple more of the songs that have become indelibly associated with Kris over the last decade. He recorded Sandy Wright’s Steel and Stone for the Black Water album in 2006, but it’s lost none of its impact, distilling something beautiful from the ugly landscape of Grangemouth oil refinery. Phil Colclough’s The Call and The Answer presents a far more direct message, a straightforward listing of what two lovers can mean to each other.
The evening was rounded off with three more songs from Wishes, The Longest Day, When The Shouting is All Over and the closer, I Didn’t Try Hard Enough, Kris’ entry into the ‘all-time best break-up song competition.’ If it seems a little odd to end a gig on such a topic, I can only suggest you listen to the track on the album. In Folk Radio’s review, Peter Shaw called the arrangement ‘jaunty’, and that’s a perfect description. If, after the passage of time, you’ve no regrets that the relationship ended, and good things have taken its place, why not give the song an upbeat tempo?
The solo tour in support of If Wishes Were Horses has ended, but Kris will play two dates in May with the full band he used on the recording. Those will be nights well worth travelling to see, but if you can’t make it to either London or Edinburgh, treat yourself to a copy of the album, plenty of people did after the Ashcroft gig and they certainly won’t have regretted it.