Ralph McTell

Live Review | Memorial Hall, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Traditionally, on the last Sunday before Halloween, Sheffield City Centre plays host to the UK’s largest Halloween party, which attracts somewhere in the region of 30,000 visitors, most of whom come suitably dressed for the occasion.  Pushing my way through more Gouls than the House of Lords and more Goths than Whitby seafront, I made my way towards the City Hall, and at one point, being so totally disorientated with all the goings on, I found myself walking in completely the wrong direction.  I had to ask Frankenstein the way, as you do.  As the “Time Warp”, courtesy of the sing-along-a-rocky-horror-show taking place inside the City Hall, filtered through the front gates, where a ludicrously colourful 12-seater fairground ride swung majestically through the air, missing the hall’s imposing Doric columns by less than a metre, Ralph McTell was taking the last of his three guitars out of its case ready for his appearance at the venue tonight.  You almost feel sorry for a songwriter who is forever plagued with requests for that one hit, that one song that everyone remembers, even though there’s almost a thousand others to choose from.  As a member of the ever increasing bunch of people who’s had a crack at writing songs, I personally wouldn’t mind a “Streets of London” under my belt.  Truth is, Ralph is no one trick pony at all and he has dozens of great songs in his repertoire, a handful of which came out tonight.  Dipping into a back catalogue that stretches back to the late Sixties, Ralph sang a variety of songs including “The Mermaid and the Seagull” from his very first LP Eight Frames a Second, the sleeve of which credits one Henry VIII on jug and a Whispering Mick on washboard.  Besides all the kitchen utensils, the guitar has always featured pretty high up on any Ralph McTell recording and he claimed tonight that he has now lost count of exactly how many guitars he owns.  Less than Keef though, he admits.  As a guitar player, McTell still holds his own, whether it’s on blues standards such as Blind Blake’s “Georgia Bound” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Guitar Shuffle”, both of which were played tonight on a National Steel guitar, or as fine accompaniments to contemporary ballads such as “Maginot Waltz” and “Lunar Lullaby”, all of which benefit from his fine and assured touch.  The very name the singer goes by indicates precisely where his musical loyalties lie; half folk (the Ralph coming from Vaughan Williams) and half country blues (his surname borrowed from Blind Willie McTell, the wonderful 12-string blues guitar player from Georgia) and throughout his long career that spans four decades at least, McTell has maintained his love for this sort of music and has never lost sight of his debt to the great blues guitarists who went before.  Performing songs from much of his back catalogue of albums, McTell remained on form throughout the performance.  When it did eventually come round to the inevitable “Streets of London”, McTell admitted that “it’s hard to get past this one” but still lives in the hope that he didn’t actually peak at around twenty-two when he wrote it, or indeed just thirty when he had the big Top of the Pops hit with it.  Finishing with “Michael in the Garden” and a final encore of “Lost Boys”, Ralph McTell rounded off an evening of good well-crafted songs, written by a writer who settles for nothing less than songs of outstanding quality and timeless beauty.