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The Owl Service album launch, Cecil Sharp House, London, May 20th 2010

May 24, 2010

And so to Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and very much the ‘headquarters’ of English folk music just as Lord’s Cricket Ground is of English cricket a mile or so away. And like Lord’s, it’s steeped in its history. The twin pillars of the English folk revival of the early 20th Century were song collector Cecil Sharp and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s largely as a result of their efforts, and those that followed them, that we have an archive of traditional English music – admittedly partial, but still invaluable.

Cecil Sharp House was opened 80 years ago and is a wonderfully atmospheric building, part institute and part library – reflecting the kind of early 20th-century optimistic institution for self-improvement that has almost disappeared. Indeed, the whole EFDSS side of folk music is frequently derided for looking backwards, being enslaved to the tradition, being stuffy and so forth. While it’s true that a lot of its people are getting on in years, there’s no denying that younger folkies (much younger than me) have found the resource and support of EFDSS to be unique and invaluable. The EFDSS is what we make it.

The launch of The Owl Service’s new album gave a chance to showcase some other acts (and their friends) on the fine Rif Mountain label, brainchild of the indefatigable Steven Collins. Due to demand, the event had moved upstairs to the large Kennedy Hall, which is a marvel of wood, mural, glass and curtain. Dom Cooper, mainman with The Straw Bear Band, kicked off the evening with a well-sung pair of a cappella songs, The Bitter Withy and Nottamun Town. These were appropriate choices, as both reflect an aspect of Rif Mountain’s attitude that I admire – they are firmly in the tradition, but both songs are peculiar and surreal, allowing the modern interpreter space to give them a sprinkling of strangeness to attract the ear that’s perhaps deaf to ‘As I walked out, hey nonny…’

Next on were Jason Steel and Nancy Wallace, who performed four of the songs we’d heard at the Green Note recently – I Will Walk With You, Polly On The Shore, Blackwaterside and Goodnight, Irene. Nancy’s singing was fine, as was Jason’s playing, but his mike was playing up. In fact, dodgy sound became the theme of the evening, which is mildly irritating, but forgivable – this felt like a party among friends rather than a formal recital. And at £5 for a whole evening’s music (including a free limited edition CD), who’s complaining?

They were followed by Cumbrian pianist and singer Jen Ord, who performed a few of her own songs as well as standards The Cuckoo, Dashing Away With The Smoothing Iron, I Live Not Where I Love and the shape-shifting tale of lust and passion, The Two Magicians. Her playing is extremely competent and her singing fine, but there’s a little too much polish and performance for my tastes.

Then came Roshi Nasehi, a young Welsh-Iranian singer and pianist who celebrates her Iranian roots with an engaging ‘torchsong’ style. Finally, The Owl Service took to the stage – all eleven of them on this occasion, which took some doing and which resulted in quite a few sound glitches and fluffs. The playing was spirited and fun, but I’m not entirely convinced by the strength of the lead singers. With that much sound behind, you need a lusty performer or two to keep the song on track.

They played lots of standards that I guess are on the forthcoming album (I wasn’t taking notes), topped off by a rousing performance of Willie O’Winsbury. As we left, I helped myself to an owl-shaped home-baked biscuit, and very delicious it was too.

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