[More entries still to be written soon...]
Wow. Just wow.
I am so glad I happened to hear a tune on Late Junction a fortnight ago by a certain Mary Hampton. I recall hearing her sing another song a few years ago which piqued my interest, but her new single, entitled "Hoax and Benison", really grew on me, even inspiring song ideas of my own. So I was doubley happy to hear that she was playing a UK tour of Secret Gardens and Enchanted Follies, which even included the lovely Queen Anne's Summerhouse that I'd visited and photographed last year (right), only a few villages away!
So I gathered together as many friends as I could rally at short notice, and we made the trek into the woods despite the incessant rain which probably deterred a lot of people, since the event was to be held outdoors beside the folly. When we arrived, we found a couple of gazebos sheltering flightcases from the downpour, but luckily no people as everyone had relocated inside the Summerhouse. This was no mean feat, as the sole room in the place was what could only be described as compact and bijou, even for a Queen. Yet somehow the forty folk fitted into every nook and cranny in the place, some in the kitchen, and five of us on the bed ;-) I was in fact seated on the edge of the bed betwixt the drummer's bass drum and Mary's elbow, so you could hardly get a more intimate venue!
The gathered throng epitomised the English spirit of triumph over adverse weather, and many were picnicking on provisions sat on blankets on the floor until the performance began. One side of the room was full of instruments: double bass, cello, violin, trumpet, flute, recorder, accordion, vintage drumset, Mary's three rather special guitars and Korg SV-1 stage vintage piano (used on only three songs, as a Clavinet, Rhodes electric piano, and grand piano). On the other side of the room, the engineer had a very well-spec'ed Digico SD9 desk which seemed like an alien artefact in this antique setting, and a small PA just for Mary's vocal mics and guitars - everything else was acoustic, which was perfect in an octagonal room only twenty feet across.
After welcoming everyone and thanking our courage for braving the weather, Mary began the first song Island by asking for anyone with bunches of keys to jangle them at any time during the song, which was a lovely icebreaker. From my close vantage point, I snapped a copy of the set list, which is basically the new album Folly framed at start and end with two other songs from her previous album My Mother's Children, plus another (as yet) unrecorded gem in the middle: Pear Tree, a jolly folksong from Sheffield which told a funny tale, exquisitely sung acappella by all five musicians, accompanied by Alice and Jo playing a children's clapping game. The band were appropriately dressed for such a fine venue, in elegant vintage dresses as if they had walked out of the antique portraits on the walls. It didn't seem right to shatter the pin-drop-quiet ambience by taking photos with a flash, so I just got a couple without to prove to myself that I'd not dreamt all this. I only had my simple pocket camera (whose flash just makes people look bad anyway) and hardly dared move (save to wipe away a tear) or breathe lest the mics hear me. Besides, I was too close anyway to even get in the whole band, who have been photographed much better elsewhere. I hope someone else with a good camera got chance to capture these photogenic musicians in such a special setting before it became full of people.
The percussionist Alistair Strachan who was sat next to me (on the windowsill!) also doubled up on some very atmospheric cornet playing which reminded me of vintage Faust in their quieter moments. He also had a nice collection of curious sound-making devices, such as bells and bird-calls, as well as a sample player triggering birdsong recordings. His drumkit made even mine seem modern and extravagant: just a bass drum, a snare (variously covered with blankets or uncovered for differing sound) and a 'well-loved' cymbal which looked like it dated from Victorian times and had seen action in World War One. His playing was so sensitive and subtle as to be hardly describable as rhythmic, which perfectly suited this delicate music, yet where needed provided good grooves underpinning the rest of this impeccable band: Seth Bennett's masterful double bass, Alice Eldridge on cello and Jo Burke playing soaring violin and singing delicious unison lines with Mary. What a joy it must be for her to have such a marvellous string trio to dance around her guitar lines, and the sound they made was truly wonderful to behold from one metre away!
Besides Hoax and Benison, which had me in tears, my other favourites were Island and Pear Tree, as well as the chilling gothick dirge that is Forget-me-not, which had Mary doubling on drone flute over a dark string drone she described as "frightening", albeit without the harmonium of the album version. (Listening later I'm also continually captivated by the rare jewel that is her setting of an Emily Dickenson poem in the song No. 32.) But all of the music is of such high quality I was quite dazzled.
The sublime set of songs melted past our ears oh too quickly and afterwards Mary invited us to come back another year, so watch this space (this was in fact her second concert here). I was first in the queue to buy her four albums including her latest masterpiece Folly which isn't yet released. As we chatted she also signed a 7" single for me, which will no doubt become priceless in future once people find out about her magic music.
So I am now swimming through these lovely albums as I write this, knowing that their discovery has come at a perfect time as I am currently assessing my own folksongs and wondering what next to do with them (well, record them of course!). Mary has undoubtedly carved out a very cool niche, which others have described as folk-noir and attic folk, and reminds me of the tender heartfelt beauty of Nick Drake. Yet her voice, her expression and even her guitar-playing, is quite unique and fragile but rich with charisma. Her first few albums are delightful, but with this new one she has blown the doors off. It's hard to see how you could get any better than this. Her surrealist lyrics and quirky music couldn't be more suited to this charming tour of eccentric and esoteric follies; I hope she continues this tour indefinitely, and if she doesn't then I might just have to follow in her footsteps and take up the cause... (-: Paul and I were already dreaming of a quadraphonic speaker setup on the roof terrace... ;-)
Massive thanks are due to
The Landmark Trust for putting
up with the mass invasion of muddy boots (we took our shoes off). I was going
to shout out between songs that we should man the horses and invade nearby
Warden Abbey over yonder hill
instead, for more space. Hmmm...
Another glorious summer's day at Waddesdon Manor. First I photographed my old band Africa Junction performing a nice set including guitars and balafons amongst a sea of West African beats. Then followed a lovely walk in the enchanting orchid woods and gardens with Chrissie and Julie (acting as chivalrous chaperone! :-) Later on, after spending an idyllic hour lying under a tree watching clouds and relaxing, we performed with Vitae Drummers on the main stage, which was much fun as ever.
[I hope to write more and add some new photos soonish...]
[WARNING: High quality content! Click all the links... :-]
Watching supacool streetdance group Urban Strides perform this piece (complete with Apache breaks :-) later on made me realise it's about time I talked about popping. Even though I love various dance forms such as African and Indian classical dance, my favourite dance genre is undoubtedly this noble art of making your body look so cool, mixing acrobatic dexterity with gravity-defying balance, robotic poise and fluid movement. Done well, it brings tears to my eyes and goosebumps to the flesh. I just love the whole concept of rival gangs dancing their battles instead of fighting (-: "This is how you settle arguments in outer space" :-)
One of my heroes is the incredibly talented David Elsewhere, who shot to fame when a video of his amazing 2001 Kollaboration performance went viral years before Youtube was even thought of. His later videos also rock. Of course, connoisseurs will point out that many of his moves owe a huge debt to the undisputed original master of the form, Mr. Wave from the legendary New York City Breakers, who were just too cool for words.
These days, of course, now that the scene has exploded globally, it is getting really out of hand!!! (and yes, that is music by Robert Schroeder in 1984!) Check also these:
© copyleft Malcolm Smith 2011-01-03 - last updated 2011-07-29