Chris Wood and Ruth Notman

Live Review | Drill Hall, Lincoln | Review by Allan Wilkinson

I arrived at the Drill Hall in Lincoln earlier than expected, having negotiated a traffic-free A57, just about all the way.  Sitting in the Armoury Cafe Bar, waiting to grab a coffee, still seething after having to pay twice in the 24 hour car park next door due to a mixture of bad eyesight and poor lighting (note to self: press the yellow button first for night parking you fool), I was privileged to hear some sweet piano tunes filtering through from the main hall.  Ah, I thought, that would be young Ruth Notman in there, giving the soundman an easy job tonight no doubt.  If you’ve ever had the good sense to buy a ticket for a Ruth Notman gig, you will notice it comes with a guarantee that you will get two very definite things for your money.  Firstly you will encounter a chirpy Nottinghamshire lass with a beaming smile and an infectious sense of fun; you feel that much of what she says has just popped into her head a microsecond before.  Secondly, you will hear one of the most distinctive voices on this or any other music scene for that matter.  Her debut album Threads made everyone sit up and listen from the likes of Kate Rusby, Kate Rusby’s number one fan Mike Harding, Bob Harris, Colin Irwin and John Tams, whose recommendations should never be taken lightly.  Accompanying herself on guitar and piano, Ruth played a few of the songs from the album in a faultless performance tonight at the Drill Hall.  Opening with the unaccompanied and timely seasonal song “The Holland Handkerchief”, learned from the singing of another great Northern voice, Norma Waterson, Ruth was in no hurry to get through this set.  Composed and seemingly relaxed, taking a few seconds to gather herself before each song, Ruth went on to sing some of the most memorable songs from her debut, “Billy Don’t You Weep for Me”, “Fause Fause”, “Cruel Sister” and the quirky yet brilliant “Limbo”, which Ruth still sort of apologises to Eliza Carthy for.  No need, Ruth’s version is a folk classic in its own right.  What makes Ruth so special is that she has the ability to take a song like Dougie Maclean’s “Caledonia”, already a much loved and definitive statement, then make it her own.  The side of Ruth Notman that has only been marginally tapped into is her writing ability.  The album contains three of her own compositions, one of which was written for a school project.  “Lonely Day Dies” is a beautiful song with or without the Westlife key change (without tonight), and the recorded version has one of the defining moments on the album, courtesy of Saul Rose’s beautifully underplayed melodeon.  Ruth is hoping to take some time out soon to deliver an eagerly anticipated Threads II, and this reviewer is hoping for some new originals, as well as rewarding some established songs with a Ruth Notman makeover.  Tonight, the audience was having none of it.  There was no way Ruth was going to be allowed to leave the stage after her allotted spot was up and she returned to sing the aptly titled Richard Thompson song “Farewell, Farewell”, which I’m sure would have Sandy Denny raising a pint of beer to, wherever she is.  I suspect that if you stick two leads into a Martin guitar, you get a much better sound.  I’m not up on the technicalities, but tonight I noticed that after doing just this, the guitar in question sounded absolutely amazing.  It might also have something to do with open tunings, good wood from good trees or just that on this occasion it was in the hands of Chris Wood.  For an intimate performance in the company of Chris Wood, you need the guitar to sound good, and he was at pains to point out that he’d driven all the way up from Kent and the least he could do was put the guitar in tune and make it sound good for us.  This Summer, getting up on the main stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival, directly after an enthusiastic Orkney fiddle band, Chris was determined to bring some “church bells music” to the fields of Cherry Hinton.  I knew exactly what he meant, and tonight, I had returned specifically to hear some more church bells music, delivered by one of England’s finest singer-songwriters.  From the start, Wood wanted to get a feel for exactly who his audience was; what could he get away with and who would he upset?  Uncompromising in his attitude and conviction to his beliefs, Chris Wood cares not one jot about whose toes he might or might not tread on.  This is one of Wood’s great strengths; that he can fearlessly speak his mind as he enlightens those of us who hadn’t noticed, that there’s a lot more to our history than ‘they’ let on.  Chris Wood is involved in a number of projects and appears to be a very busy man.  One of those projects that he’s involved in is the Imagined Village, the 17-piece multi-cultural ‘revue’ which has been making its appearance at festivals and concert halls throughout the year, attempts to explore what Englishness is all about.  Describing “Cold Haily Windy Night” as a “very sexy little song”, Chris performed a stripped down version of the song in the manner it was first intended, with a gentle touch, but at the same time losing none of its power.  Wood speaks about our hidden heritage with an air of authority, but you’re always under the distinct impression that he’s still uncovering little treasures of English history on an almost daily basis and is in turn fascinated by each newly upturned stone.  Referring to John Ball as a sort of cross between Winston Churchill and Ian Dury, the Lollard priest friend of Watt Tyler, who was a thorn in the side of the authorities, came to a sticky end, which was graphically described by Wood through almost gritted teeth.  Sydney Carter’s beautiful song “John Ball” brings home some of the history we in this country are sometimes afraid to face, accompanied by one of Woods’ most inspired guitar accompaniments with some chords that haven’t been invented yet.    Claiming that the subject matter of “One in a Million” is essentially a true story, albeit with an unknown origin, Wood re-told the story of Billy Smith and Peggy Sue, which held this silent audience transfixed throughout.  Chris and storyteller Hugh Lupton, who wrote the lyrics to this compelling story, picked up the BBC Folk Awards Best Song Award in 2006 for the song that never fails to tug at the heartstrings.  Known to play two fiddles at the same time, Wood saved his party piece for another day and played “Princess Royal” using the conventional method instead.  A tasteful fiddle player, Wood plays gently and sensitively, whether on an instrumental Morris tune or accompanying himself on a song such as “True North”, a song from a new project about Parliamentary enclosures entitled On Common Ground again with Hugh Lupton.  Inspired by watching Jonathan Miller’s A Brief History of Disbelief, “Come Down Jehovah” describes Wood’s stance on religion in a song he refers to as an “atheist spiritual, which basically points out to those who tend to forget, that we already have Paradise here on Earth, and we’d better start enjoying it whilst we can”.  Amen to that.  Abandoning the ritual encore, Chris introduced his last song of the evening as a song about everything; a song that for him, puts everything into context.  “Summerfield Avenue” is the opening song on Chris Wood’s outstanding current album Trespasser, which I imagine ten minutes after this performance was out of stock at the concessions stand, and rightly so.