Live Review | NCEM, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson
A bit of a coup for the Black Swan Folk Club tonight as they staged one of only eleven shows in the maiden tour of Chris Wood’s new project, Handmade Life. The very thought of putting together a musical combo comprising guitar, trombone, cello and drums was at first slightly disconcerting. What kind of din would this combination make? With Chris Wood at the helm however, those initial doubts were soon diminished. After getting things underway with a couple of solo performances, “The Grand Correction”, which is one of the featured songs on Chris Wood’s new album Handmade Life and “The Cottages Reply” from his previous album Trespasser, Chris introduced his fellow performers to the stage as ‘the best band in the world’. The band comprised of fellow Imagined Village musicians Andy Gangadeen on Drums and Barney Morse Brown on Cello as well as Robert Jarvis on Trombone. Speaking after the show, Chris told me “The guys are unbelievable; I wasn’t sure it was going to work, drums, trombone, cello, voice and guitar. Everyone’s got great ears on them, everyone’s listening like crazy to each other, and it’s just all working, it’s coming together and it sounds gorgeous”. Chris Wood has become something of a national treasure over the last decade, particularly on the English folk music scene, not least for his voice and his delicate musicianship on both guitar and fiddle but also for his uncompromising political views and honesty on stage. It has to be said, his popularity has taken far too long to get off the ground really, whilst working on a wealth of notable music projects, collaborating with the likes of Martin Carthy, Andy Cutting and more recently, the beast of a band known as The Imagined Village, the 17-piece multi-cultural revue from which the majority of this current band derives. The Arts Council contacted Chris with a view to funding a project of his own choice, to which Chris promptly got the ball rolling on Handmade Life. I asked Chris whether he first came up with the material and then went in search of musicians to perform that material or whether it was the other way around. “It was something I’d been thinking about for a little while; I’d already done a couple of gigs with Barney and Rob on trombone and cello before, I’d gone to Belgium and done a gig, a double header with Martin Simpson and I thought this is no good two blokes playing guitars, how boring is that? So I thought I’d let Martin do his thing but I thought what I’d do is change it up a little bit and so I asked Barney and Rob if they’d come”. Initially, the thought of drums and trombone brought to mind a potential racket over Chris’s particularly sensitive guitar playing but it was surprisingly mellow, with an even distribution of sound throughout the set, largely due to fellow English Acoustic Collective member Rob Harbron’s clever touch at the sound desk. Chris explained why he chose such an unusual combination for both the album and the tour. “The reason for those instruments is because a lot of the songs are stories, they’re narratives. Now, I love harmony, I just adore harmony and I don’t think you can really be sung a story by more than one voice, you can’t really hear a story from several voices, I don’t think you can, some people do but I just don’t. I knew I wanted harmonies but I wanted to keep the narrative integrity. So think of it not as trombone and cello but think of it as three voices, and then it works”. The new album is not officially due for release until March 2010 but Chris has decided to make it available to those who attend these concerts. “I think it’s incumbent on us to favour the people who actually come out to the gigs. There’s so many other things that the people tonight could have done, but they didn’t do those, they got off their arses and they came to see a gig and that’s fantastic”. Chris Wood is enormously proficient in the art of storytelling and over the last few years has managed to do this with his voice alone, that and a very distinctive guitar style reminiscent of Martin Carthy, but the new material is enhanced by some intuitive musicianship and inspiring arrangements, which is largely down to the cohesive playing ability of Chris’s new collaborators. “They take these songs and they make them incredibly muscular. When you’re on your own you can do so much but when I finish off as a soloist, these lads pick it up from there and sculpt it. It’s the same thing but it’s just sort of bigger and deeper and richer. Don’t ask me how they do it, they’re not playing what I’ve told them to play, that’s the whole point, that was the big agreement at the beginning, they’re not parts, they’re not playing parts that I’ve told them to play, they’re playing what they want to play. I mean I’m just really relishing not being in control, everyone’s just doing what they want and it’s turned out better than I could possibly have dreamed”. The best examples of these arrangements are of course in the material from the new album such as “Turtle Soup”, “Caesar”, “My Darling’s Downsized” and “No Honey Tongued Sonnet”, all of which were introduced during the course of two exciting sets tonight. Utilising these musicians on established arrangements from Chris’s back catalogue was also evident on songs such as “Albion”. When Chris appears solo these days he has taken to humming the haunting opening section to this song in lieu of a fiddle, or in this case two fiddles. Drummer Andy Gangadeen took command of the two fiddles tonight to keep the metronomic ticking clock pulsating throughout the performance of the song. On the traditional songs, Chris pointed out that he is often conscious of the presence of the spirit of his predecessors who perch upon his shoulders when performing such material. “If you play these songs the same each night, you tend to get a spectral dig in the ribs”. “Cold Haily Rainy Night”, previously re-invigorated by The Imagined Village with Chris taking the lead, still had the spirit of Martin Carthy watching over his shoulder even though he’s not quite dead, as the present band provided yet another fresh arrangement to this old night visiting song. Opening the second set, Barney Morse Brown performed “Catherine Wheel”, a clever cello solo incorporating some equally clever EZ sampling foot work, which had heads at the back of the room searching in vain for the other players. Robert Jarvis’s own party piece came at the end of “Spitfires”, when he did a pretty convincing impression of the fighter aircraft coming in to land, with only the aid of his instrument and an expert trombone embouchure. “Johnny East” is a song written by Hugh Lupton, no stranger to Wood’s repertoire. His award winning lyrics to the ‘chip shop song’, “One in a Million”, brought both Wood and Lupton to the attention of a much wider audience when they picked up the BBC Folk Award for best original song in 2005. Introducing another Lupton song, Chris explained why he loves this writer’s songs so much, “He’s a really lovely writer; when he writes a story or a lyric, you always get a really strong sense of who the story is being told by. It’s a thing that Phillip Pullman is always going on about, who is telling this story, where are they standing, what are they writing”. Finishing off with another song from his award winning Trespasser album, “Summerfield Avenue”, Chris and the band, by this time joined by Rob Harbron on concertina, rounded off one of the most inspiring concerts this reviewer has witnessed at the NCEM for a good while, a notion agreed upon by the many who thanked organiser Roland Walls as they left the venue tonight.