Jackie Oates

Live Review | NCEM, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson

As the autumn nights draw in and darkness fell early upon the city of York, I walked cautiously the short distance between the car park and the National Centre for Early Music, carefully avoiding the fallen leaves on the ground; hazardous little blighters they are. I approached the old church with its looming bell tower, aware that I was once again being watched by an assortment of mythological beasts, the ones carved into the 12th Century Romanesque porch that is, not the early arrivals for the concert I hasten to add and I soon found myself in the warm and inviting foyer of the converted St Margaret’s Church for another in the series of prestigious NCEM concerts organised by the Black Swan Folk Club.  I spoke to organiser Roland Walls in the foyer, who was slightly concerned at the number of ticket sales but still expected a good crowd nonetheless.  Katriona Gilmore was carefully arranging the concessions stall, fanning out copies of the Shadows and Half Light CD upon the table top, whilst avoiding the possibility of upsetting the merchandising bearing the name Jackie Oates, which now includes pretty t shirts as well as the customary CD back catalogue.  The foyer provides an ideal place for social gathering, where friends meet up and re-unite in a spirit of pre-concert enthusiasm.  Many a folk luminary has been encountered in this very room over the years including Stefan Grossman, Tim O’Brien, Robin Williamson, John Renbourn, Martin Carthy and most memorably, the wonderful Nic Jones, who was in attendance the last time Jackie appeared here with her former band Rachel Unthank and the Winterset back in 2006.  Tonight I chatted to old pals Katriona and Jamie, two rising talents of the British folk scene, just prior to them scuttling onstage in order to provide the support for the main concert.  During their set, Jackie watched intently from the back of the hall, seated over the threshold of the ‘green room’ and sipping a hot beverage.  Isn’t it lovely when the main act watches their support and thoroughly enjoys it?  Having said that, it would be difficult not to enjoy a set by this young couple, who can often be seen around the festival circuit, whether they be Kerfuffling or Tiny Tin Lady-ing, or whether they be donning their bright red tunics as part of the Frumptarn Guggenband.  Katriona, pronounced Katrina with a silent ‘o’; take it from me, I have it on very good authority (her mum), and partner Jamie, play their own blend of contemporary folk, which tonight included the tunes “Middle of May/Big Nige”, Katriona’s songs “Suzannah” and “Travelling in Time” as well as Jamie’s “So Long”, together with a traditional song new to the duo’s repertoire, “Nothing At All” and finally “All Along the Barley”; providing a captivating start to the evening.  For Jackie Oates, Day 10 of her current tour started in the little town of Cockermouth on the edge of the Lake District and specifically in the Cumberland Pencil Museum, where her bass player James Budden, an artist therefore a pencil enthusiast, browsed the exhibits with keen interest.  Tonight though, the pencils were back in their box, the canvasses locked away in the cupboard and the instruments were out on the NCEM stage as we settled down for Concert 10 of the band’s current tour.  Sharing centre stage with Jackie tonight was long term musical partner James Dumbelton on guitar, mandolin, shruti and fiddle, flanked by the aforementioned artist/musician James Budden on double bass and finally multi-instrumentalist Mike Cosgrove playing all the rest, including keyboards and accordion.  Although Roland’s initial concerns about ticket sales were probably warranted, all fears were soon dispelled as lots of people turned up unexpectedly to pay on the door, and Roland’s team were soon running in and out of the hall with more chairs just as Jackie’s first set got underway.  Starting with “The Miller and His Three Sons” from the new Hyperboreans album, the band soon settled into the flow of their set, providing the National Centre for Early Music with some of the sweetest sounds since Emily Smith’s appearance there a few months ago.  Jackie and the band performed several songs from the new album as well as a couple from her second album The Violet Hour including the delightful “Wishfulness Waltz”, a song written by her brother Jim Moray, and just the one from her solo debut of 2006, the utterly gorgeous “Lavender’s Blue”, an old folk song popularised by Burl Ives in the 1949 Disney film So Dear to My Heart.  The nursery rhyme has been played about with by many a potential hit seeker over the years but Jackie captures its innocence brilliantly well here, with a simple vocal delivery and steadily building arrangement, pretty much faithful to her recorded version.  Traditional song is where Jackie’s heart is and “Young Leonard” is another in a long line of songs derived from the “Lakes of Shilin”, popularised by Nic Jones a few years ago and more recently by Martin Simpson as “Lakes of Champlain” on his award winning Prodigal Son album.  Jackie’s arrangement once again changes location to that of Marsh Green, ‘a murky pond in Ottery St Mary’ in East Devon, but maintains its engaging narrative and is very much in tune with the concept of an evolving tradition.  As an ardent lover of Cornish music, Jackie recently said during a festival fiddle workshop, that the music of that part of the country is gaining popularity now, largely due to the endeavours of Neil Davey, who she describes as the ‘God of Cornish music’.  Jackie’s passion for this particular strain of Celtic music is almost tangible as the band performed a set of Cornish fiddle tunes tonight, including the same tune that Jackie taught at that very workshop at the Shepley Festival back in May.  After sitting through that workshop as a spectator and hearing that tune being relentlessly dissected into each of its component parts, it was a thrill to finally hear the tune with a full band accompaniment.  Jackie described her BBC Folk Award winning arrangement of “The Lark in the Morning”, from her second solo album as a ‘pastoral idyll’ before performing this beautiful song tonight, advising the audience to avert their eyes from the normally handsome James Dumelton during the performance.  James went on to contort his face throughout the song, vocalising a series of strange Indian mantras, whilst plucking violin strings with one hand and working the droning shruti at the same time with the other.  This I assume is probably closer to the arrangement destined for the next Imagine Village album that Jackie has recently been working on.  The surprise song on the new album is “Birthday”, the old Sugarcubes song written by Bjork.  The song has been given a delicious arrangement, which Jackie and the band simply glide through with no apparent concerns, especially in regard to its almost sinister undertones; of threading worms on a string and keeping spiders in a five-year-old girls pocket, not to mention the idea of sewing ‘birds in her knickers’.  At first the song seems at odds with what you would normally expect from Jackie Oates, but it works tremendously well.  If Bjork’s lyrics weren’t so vividly evocative you would have thought something had been lost in translation.  With the confession “it’s my hidden love of pop music” Jackie sings the lyrics as innocently as the five-year-old they are about.  “It reminds me of my best friend Ben when we were growing up in Stafford” she went on to tell me afterwards.  Taking up the Shruti, a laptop-shaped Indian harmonium, also popularised by Karine Polwart in some of her shows, Jackie sang one of the most heart-achingly sad songs of the night.  “Past Caring”, based on a poem by Henry Lawson, tells of the hardships that women endured in the Australian bush, learned from the singing of Martin Wyndham-Read.  Jackie tells of an ‘eerie silence’ whenever it is performed, and tonight was no exception, you could’ve heard a pin drop.  Saving the best almost until last, the band performed the infectious title song from the new Jim Moray produced Hyperboreans album, written by collaborator Alasdair Roberts.  Describing the subject of the song as ‘mythical people who dwell in Arctic places beyond the Tundra – a bit like the Lake District’, Jackie recited a key line in the song, ‘We’ll go to our unwed bed, daring to make our ardour’ going on to joke “I’d love to say that to someone”.  With Dave Wood’s “May the Kindness” as the final encore, Jackie Oates and her band concluded tonight’s performance and along with it, probably made some good friends here in York.  Having found her voice and her place on the folk music scene with three exceptionally strong solo albums, Jackie Oates can now boast having a tight and engaging live acoustic sound all her own, with a little help from her friends of course, whilst maintaining the integrity of the music she obviously loves.  After the show I found a quiet corner of the main hall to have a few words with Jackie, as the guys from the band, together with the Black Swan crew, began to clear the stage.  Seated before me, the winner of this years’ BBC Horizon Award was clearly pleased with her performance tonight and although ‘giddy’ would be totally the wrong word to use, there was a sense that this young girl would just love to jump up and punch the air, if her normally composed character would allow it.  Smiling throughout, Jackie willingly fell into a casual and informal conversation about the road so far and the different path choices she has negotiated along the way.