Bright Phoebus reviewed

So On A Friday, Dan and I went for his birthday to see the Waterson-Carthy clan and guests play a gig of the 'great lost album' Bright Phoebus, at the Barbican.

The Barbican is, of the last year, now my most-frequented music venue. In the last year, I've seen Sparks, John Zorn, and now this gig in their main hall. I saw Eliza Carthy over summer, and she'd played a couple of Watersons' songs; and then, reading the gigs in advance, seeing that her and Jarvis Cocker would be sharing a stage was something i put in my diary about 6 months in advance.

So we went, and I thought, seeing a hall very nearly full, that this could all have been a Victoria Coren-esque hype trick; like when she announced the funeral of a fictional man, just to see what freeloaders would turn up, the story of the 'folk Sgt. Peppers' album that only ever had 1000 copies printed could just be a ruse to see who's going to turn up and pretend they know the words to sing along to. And, yes, there was a new book that Marry Waterson had compiled of her mum Lal's drawings, poems, writings, and a new cd of unused demos by the Mike and Lal Waterson, so there was a plug in it all somewhere. The night showcased all the songs from the Bright Phoebus LP (credited merely as 'songs by Mike and Lal Waterson'), plus a few songs that had only ever been demoed.

But onstage, we had almost the entirety of the remaining Waterson-Carthy lot: Lal's children Marry Waterson and Oliver Knight, Mike and Lal's sister Norma, Mike's Wife Ann and (their daughter?) Ella, Norma's husband Martin and their daughter Eliza. and through the evening, the emotional performances from Martin and Norma who had played on the original recording, it just became blindingly obvious that this wasn't just a public celebration, but a private one too. Given that Martin and Norma got together through the recording of the album, the night had an extra resonance. By the end, I felt like we'd been allowed to see this family celebrating the life and talents of their deceased, and that if they hadn't done it on stage in front of hundreds, they'd have been doing it at home anyway. That made it a real night to cherish.

Not knowing the songs made the rollercoaster of styles even more surprising, although it turned out I knew two of them: 'fine horseman' as a cover by Anne Briggs (I never realised it was a cover) and 'magical man' from my mum's 'New Electric Muse' compilation. The band (a four-piece backing band behind the changing front-people taking centre stage) played these pop songs, ballads, and dour psychedelic folk; and as the jaunty pop songs did that folky thing of throwing in and dropping beats wherever they liked, I realised, yes, this is beatley. This is what Beatle-ness is; the audacity to write intelligent pop songs and intersperse them with genuinely moving art songs. I'd never realised that before. I've been thinking about it recently, because I tried to make a Gorky's compilation, and couldn't. I couldn't fit them onto one disc, partly because of the variety of kinds of music they played. So then I realised, I'd have to make three separate mixtapes: Go Pop! with Gorky's, Chill Out with Gorky's, and Freak Out with Gorky's. Then it could work. Now I see that it comes from (at least) the Beatles, who were progressive enough to include pop music in their repertoire.

With the guest artists, highlights for me were John Smith singing a song (I can't remember the title) which was delicate and gorgeous and dynamic as anything, followed up by Jarvis singing 'The Scarecrow' which was the most mind blowing thing I've heard since... last time I was at the Barbican, for Zorn's 60th birthday gig. That performance was mentally scarring. The words were so descriptive and suggestive, the performance so in tune with them and emphasising of them, the music such a mix of happy, sad, and wistful, and the moment so unique and fleeting, that as Dan remarked, it was worth the price of admission alone.

So it was a great night. The music left me puzzled sometimes, wondering if it were that great or if it was just familiar memories that made it appear so; sometimes, the familial nature of the whole thing was the point; other times, there was no doubt that this was incredible song writing.
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