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The Memory Band, The Luminaire, London, June 2nd 2010

June 14, 2010

We’d enjoyed the Memory Band gig back in March and I remember mentioning then that I’d been sorry not to have caught their Wicker Man show, during which they play most of the songs from the film. They’d played the sensuous Wicker Man song Gently Johnny at that show and my appetite was whetted, so I was pleased to see that they were doing the pagan thing at The Luminaire tonight.

I arrived just before they came on and settled myself down with a Sierra Nevada, ready to enjoy the soundtrack coming alive. The opening title song of the film is a slightly altered and anglicised version of The Highland Widow’s Lament, a ballad written by Robert Burns:
   O, I am come to the low country,
   Och on, och on, och rie!
   Without a penny in my purse
   To buy a meal for me.
   One time I had a hundred sheep,
   Och on, och on, och rie!
   Skippin’ on yon narrow creek
   And growin’ wool for me.

The Memory Band from Hungry Hill on Vimeo.

As the video shows, they performed the show in a line, which was very effective and gave an intimate feel to the songs, which are, after all, quite ‘organic’ in the manner of the film itself.  The ballad is a sombre scene-setter for the film in that it prefaces the main action by giving some background – the Highland clearances and the apparent loss of the ‘old ways’. I’d love to ramble on at length here about the film and its meanings, but I fear I’d never stop, so on with the music…

The band assembled for this evening comprised ringleader Stephen Cracknell on guitar and vocals, Sam Carter on guitar and vocals, Rob Spriggs and Dan Mayfield on viola and violin respectively, Hannah Caughlin and Helene Bradley on vocals and Sarah Scutt on accordion and recorder. They did a fine rendition of Corn Rigs, one of the better-known songs from the soundtrack and, like the first one, based on a ballad by Robert Burns, but this time of a more earthy and sensual variety, in keeping with most of the rest of the soundtrack songs:
   The sky was blue, the wind was still,
   The moon was shining clearly,
   I set her down with right goodwill
   Among the rigs o’ barley.

Most of the songs in The Wicker Man were written or adapted from traditional songs by American Paul Giovanni, which gives them a strange aura that’s almost traditional folk, but also quite stagey – none more so than the rollicking pub singing of The Landlord’s Daughter, which the band perform lustily. The four singers succeeded in giving the vocals some ‘oomph’, while the accordion and fiddles kept things rolling along. Gently Johnny is the flipside of the previous number, an intimate and sensuous song and a plea for young men not to rush things, so to speak…

Britt Ekland – or, more likely, her 'bum double'

Many of the rest of the songs are similarly overtly sexual, but their tone is often quite restrained and sedate, from Fire Leap to the often covered Willow’s Song, as lip-synched by Britt Ekland. In fact, Britt didn’t just not sing the song, it also wasn’t her derriere in the film – she had a ‘bum double’. One highlight of the show was a well-executed rendition of The Maypole Song, with its appropriate ’round’ sound and structure:
   In the woods there grew a tree
   And a fine, fine tree was he
   And on that tree there was a limb
   And on that limb there was a branch
   And on that branch there was a nest
   And in that nest there was an egg
   And in that egg there was a bird
   And from that bird a feather came
   And of that feather was a bed
   And on that bed there was a girl
   And on that girl there was a man
   And from that man there was a seed
   And from that seed there was a boy
   And from that boy there was a man
   And for that man there was a grave
   And from that grave there grew a tree…

The old traditional song Summer Is Icumen In finishes off the film as the wicker man burns, but most of the rest of the music is weirdly unrooted in tradition, which gives it a magical and unworldly feel and which The Memory Band capture very well. I was just disappointed that there wasn’t a giant Spinal Tap-style conflagration on stage to complete the evening. Still, that’s ‘elf ‘n’ safety for you…

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