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Bellowhead, Show of Hands and Chumbawamba, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, May 2nd 2010

May 3, 2010

The lovely people at Folk Against Fascism were holding their ‘Village Fete’ at the Southbank before the evening’s gig, but the wet English weather conspired to force us indoors to enjoy the Oysterband’s ceilidh, followed by various episodes of Morris action and beer-drinking. Astral pointed out the pervading smell of cider, so we must have been in a minority. It was an entertaining afternoon and then, after a swift pizza, it was off to the auditorium for the main event.

Things didn’t start well, as singer Jo Freya came out to welcome us, outlining the resistance to fascists aligning themselves with folk music and then ruining it by saying how excited she was that her mother, a long-time Tory voter, was going to vote Labour in the upcoming election. [Sigh]… I’d really like to know why that’s relevant to Folk Against Fascism. Daily Mail-reading old folkies might be annoying (and they usually are), but their voting Tory is not a fascist act. We’re not all knee-jerk lefties, you know.

Perhaps Jo might like to know why I have no intention of voting Labour – here are a few reasons, based on the actions of the Labour government: illegally invading Iraq, initiating ID cards, promoting 28-day detention, turning a blind eye to rendition, preventing the investigation of massive corruption involving BAE, replacing Trident, abolishing the 10p tax rate, presiding over a greater wealth gap than the one they inherited, having their snouts in the expenses trough, failing to regulate the financial industry even after bailing out the banks…

I could go on, but we’re here for the music. Before Chumbawamba came on, young singer and fiddle-player Jackie Oates took to the stage for a solo song, and then the band gave us an entertaining set without too much of the annoying trad-rad ranting with which I (perhaps unfairly) associate them. Torturing James Hetfield is an amusing song in response to the Metallica front-man’s approval of the band’s music being used to torture inmates at Guantanamo. Dance, Idiot, Dance is their reaction to the BNP’s attempts to ‘reclaim’ folk music, plus, as the band say, it’s a lovely opportunity to ridicule the neo-fascists while rhyming ‘cold lasagne’ with ‘Britannia’.

OK, last bit of party politics coming up… Their blog is very refreshing on the reasons for not voting at the forthcoming general election, so I’ll quote it without comment (but, as you’ll guess, tacit approval):

People worked, fought (and some died) for the vote. But they did it because they wanted it as a right, not an obligation or a duty. As a right to be used wisely and sensibly. Right now we live in a country where cynicism of the major parties is at an all-time high; understandably so. Basically, they’re all crooks, the lot of ’em. Why shouldn’t I have the right to refuse to support any of them? Why should I have to demean my intelligence, my work and my ideas by thinking that by putting my cross in a box I am suddenly A Participant In This Democratic System?…
There’s an awful lot of ground between “Can’t be bothered to go down the Polling Station” and “People fought for the right to vote. It’s my duty!” An awful lot. It’s in that space that campaigns can be fought, laws can be made and broken, communities strengthened or crushed. And it’s in that space where the real stuff happens.

Show of Hands

Next on stage, after Jo Freya had sung a solo, were Show of Hands, whose award-winning anthem Arrogance, Ignorance And Greed grabs the greedy bankers by the throat but, as with much radical music, it’s surely a case of preaching to the converted. What’s more interesting is their despair at what’s happened to the English countryside and to English cultural life in a more fundamental way. The song Country Life has a sharp eye for the reality:
   Working in the rain cutting down wood
   Didn’t do my little brother much good,
   Lost two fingers in a chainsaw bite,
   All he does now is drink and fight,
   Sells a bit of grass, hots up cars,
   Talks of travel, never gets far,
   Loves his kids, left his wife
   An everyday story of country life…

Meanwhile Roots more controversially tackles perceived cultural desolation head-on:
   Rule Britannia or Swing Low…
   Are they the only songs we English know?
   Seed, bark, flower, fruit,
   They’re never gonna grow without their roots,
   Branch, stem, shoot,
   They need roots.
   And everyone stares at a great big screen,
   Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens,
   Australian soap, American rap,
   Estuary English, baseball caps.

Hmmm, there’s a danger here of them not only sounding like saloon-bar whingers, but also of getting the facts wrong. The English peasantry was uprooted and urbanised a long time ago, so the process of stripping away of roots has been going on a lot longer than the song might suggest. What’s more, Roots speaks approvingly of the ‘Afro-Celt’ penchant for singing, dancing and telling stories late into the night. ‘Afro-Celt’ is an unfortunate phrase in suggesting an obvious fraternal link between two broad cultures, but the endemic racism suffered by two Afro-Celts I know about in some detail – Phil Lynott and footballer Paul McGrath – suggest a less happy link. And in my experience Irish bars are more likely to be filled with American music than Irish music, so Show of Hands’ cultural complaints have a wider significance than perhaps they admit.

The homogenisation of modern Western multinational culture affects us all, so let’s get on with belting out those traditional songs too – talking of which, they did fine versions of Adieu, Sweet Lovely Nancy and The Keys Of Canterbury, while Santiago was a touching tribute to Chilean political exiles. Sam Lee joined them for a couple of songs, while Tim van Eyken performed in the solo slot before Bellowhead came on.


Folk’s modern-day figureheads gave a fine performance and concentrated on the music rather than the politics. Starting with old favourite Prickle-Eye Bush, they rattled through a jaunty Roll Her Down The Bay, pretty Fakenham Fair and the wild prancing of Rochdale Coconut Dance and more. As I mentioned in my recent (and seemingly contentious) Jim Moray review, Astral and I enjoy them very much, but without losing sight of their ‘stagey’ quality that doesn’t always sit easily with the rootsier, everyday end of folk. No matter, they were great fun, and the evening finished nicely with two acoustic numbers that we all joined in with – songsheets having been handed out earlier.

So a mixed evening overall, with my political hackles raised, though they were smoothed down by a swift final pint with Astral, the Browne Bluesman and Mrs B in The Wellington next to Waterloo. That pub’s fine painted ceiling, showing scenes from the Battle of Waterloo, is a reminder of an older English nationalism, and our modern nervousness about such military triumphalism is, in my eyes, a good thing rather than a reason to want a more confident and perhaps arrogant identity. Long live English unease!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2010 10:21 pm

    Another cracking bunch of insights and fresh perspectives, to go with your Jim Moray post — cheers!

    Meanwhile, on a point of deep pedantry, referring explicitly to your tacit approval is a tad oxymoronic, no?

  2. brandnewguy permalink*
    May 3, 2010 11:09 pm

    I think I meant to be amusing, but my intentions and actions are not always aligned 😉

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