Nancy Kerr and James Fagan

Live Review | The Rock, Maltby | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Believe it or not, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan have been working together as a duo on the folk scene for twelve years now and in that time they have managed to make several albums, walk away with the Horizon Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2003, tour extensively throughout the world and make plenty of friends along the way. And if that wasn’t enough, they have found time to make what we all believed to be a ‘marriage made in heaven’ become a reality by tying the knot to become hubby and wife for real and as they say, ‘jobs a good ‘un’. Tonight at The Rock, armed with a couple of fiddles and an eight string Stefan Sobell guitar shaped bouzouki, the duo performed several of their finely arranged songs and tunes to a delighted audience in Maltby, near Rotherham. Playing two sets to a healthy sized audience, Nancy and James performed several songs, some traditional, some contemporary, some old, some new, some borrowed and some blue; and so ends any further reference to marriage from this point on. Nancy and James appear to live and breathe their craft. They talk fluently about all aspects of traditional folk music and seem to absorb sponge-like all the influences made available to them. This is in no small part due to their celebrated lineage; Nancy’s parents being the much loved singer Sandra Kerr and Northumbrian piper Ron Elliott and James hailing from the popular Australian family folk band that is ‘The Fagans’. In the past twelve years, the couple have absorbed each others culture and traditions and in particular, the indigenous songs and ballads from both sides of the planet. Somewhere along the way, Nancy has developed an antipodean vernacular in much the same way Cath Mundy ‘rubbed off’ on Jay Turner. This isn’t a bad thing, this is evolution. The songs that evolve from such partnerships are an important part of traditional music, and I suppose in some small way, part of the make up of World Music in general. Taking parts of old English ballads and transforming them into something new, with a more Anglo/Australian emphasis, can only be a good thing. There is something of the gypsy about Nancy Kerr, both in her appearance and in her fluid fiddle playing. Opening tonight with a gypsy-style fiddle tune, together with one of the many traditional songs on the theme of the “American Stranger”, Nancy plucked and scraped in such a fashion as would have you swear there were two fiddles involved. Having cleverly detected that her second fiddle was still in its case and that James was standing stage-right with nothing but a bouzouki in his hands, I could only assume she was doing it all by herself. Adding to the delightfully enigmatic background that Nancy and James come from, it is without any surprise that the couple have been known to allow a film crew into their home – a narrow boat on the Kennet and Avon canal near Bath no less – to talk about anything from the evolution of fiddles and bouzoukis in traditional music, to the DNA of folk songs. It is with such a passion for this music that the couple live their lives, that it is impossible not to be informed by it, or equally touched by it at the same time. In “Barbara Allen”, one of the most popular of all ballads, Nancy adds her own composition “April Friend” not just as a song tagged onto the end, but interwoven, like inextricably clasped hands, and in doing so, breathes new life into an old song. The same was attempted with Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be” and Joe Hill’s “Pie in the Sky” but possibly not with such a great impact as the first coupling. When you hear artists of the calibre of Nancy and James perform songs by Alistair Hulett and Jez Lowe, you are reminded once again of the remarkable contribution that these two writers have given to folk music. Their songs are obviously contemporary but have a quality that is timeless. Hulett’s “The Sons of Liberty” from Nancy and James’ latest CD Strands of Gold and Jez Lowe’s “The Bergen” are typical of this style of song writing and give the impression both in lyric and in melody, of being much older than they actually are, yet still remain fresh and accessible. The epic “Jack Orion” has lost nothing of its raw power since its first appearance on the couple’s 1998 CD Starry Gazy Pie. With a nod to those whose efforts of keeping this song alive, most notably Bert Jansch, the couple launched into an exciting, table thumping, foot stomping version of the old Child ballad like there was no tomorrow. Level pegging on the string count thus far, Nancy strove ahead of the race by producing an autoharp (presumably Australian, due to the sound hole being in the shape of that country) for their arrangement of “Allan Tyne of Harrow”. There is something endearing about a musical instrument that has to be cuddled whilst being played and which lends itself to sensitive arrangements of beautiful songs. How ever hard you try, you just can’t imagine “Pretty Vacant” being played on one. With two songs from both sides of the world completing the set, a Gerry Hallom arrangement of a poem by the Australian poet Henry Lawson in “The Outside Track” and finally a well known song from Nancy’s neck of the woods “Dance to Your Daddy”, with probably more fishy references than is really necessary in a song, the duo rounded off a really great night, being coaxed back onstage for a final set of tunes in the form of “Meggy’s Foot/Coates Hall”.