Live Review | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | Review and Interview by Allan Wilkinson
A certain name has appeared on publicity material for the Barnsley House Concerts for what seems like months now, as well as on a poster for last years’ hugely successful Wombwell Mad-Fest, but due to unforeseen circumstances, including visa problems and the cursed snow, fate has dealt blow after blow for those of us eager to see Pamela Wyn Shannon at the Wheelhouse, a venue which seems tailor made for such a delightful performer. Tonight, Pamela finally made it to the venue and I must say it was certainly worth the wait. Appearing precisely how she appeared in the November 2008 article in fRoots magazine, with predominantly autumnal colours, including trademark green beret and accompanied by her husband, Pamela performed a variety of songs, some old, some new, but the bulk of the songs from her thoroughly engaging Courting Autumn album. Always conscious of this ridiculously restrictive politically correct world we now live in, I avoid personal statements on appearance like the plague, especially when addressing young women, but to sum up my precise thoughts on the matter, allow me to quote Ian Anderson, editor of fRoots from the aforementioned article: “She turns out to be tallish, attractive, with engaging eyes, a sensible dress, long auburn hair, a green beret and an air of intelligent distraction about her”. Yes Ian, my thoughts exactly. I had the pleasure of staring right into those ‘engaging eyes’ when I spoke to the songwriter for a good half an hour before the show, when we sat in Hedley’s dining room, discussing such things as the snow, this prolonged winter, her baptism into the Church of Pentangle and her wonderful album Courting Autumn. As a newly re-located American to these shores, I enquired where Pamela spent much of her early years. “I spent most of my recent years in Massachusetts so I feel more like a New Englander at this point but I did grow up outside of Manhattan, about half hour outside of the Big Apple and then some parts of my life were in Pennsylvania because my parents lived in different places. Then I lived in France for a while and I lived in Ireland for a while, so I’ve been all over”. There’s a distinctly different feel to each of Pamela’s first two albums, the first one Nature’s Bride being predominantly Irish traditional in feel, whereas Courting Autumn follows more English themes. I sensed a desire in Pamela to explore more pastoral themes in her music, possibly influenced by the early British folk guitar pioneers. “I grew up without a tradition, without people going to the pub or going over to people’s houses and playing fiddles and flutes, I grew up by listening to the radio and I had an older brother who had lots of records and CDs and so the first influences were the radio and albums that were given to me, which was a lot of rock, 1970s and 1960s psychedelia, which I really loved. Then I heard Irish music. I was always interested in acoustic music, every time I heard something like early Strawbs, my ears would all sparkle”. You only have to be in the company of Pamela Wyn Shannon for a few minutes before you discover what an informed guitarist she is. She has the sort of elongated yet elegant guitar playing fingers that the German Renaissance master Durer would be frothing at the mouth over, which probably helped in her decision to become a guitar player in the first place. “I wanted to study guitar but my mother said the only way I would get lessons is if I studied Classical so I studied six months of Classical and that was basically it. I almost went to school for Classical guitar but at the last second I decided to go to art school in every rock ‘n’ roller’s tradition; go to art school, dress in black and join a band. I had a 1965 Jazz Master and an amp and you know.. it’s fun”. “Then I heard the Incredible String Band and my band mates would make fun of me ‘all you wanna do is sit around and shake lentil beans all day’ I was like ‘YES’. I parted with them and did my own solo thing and went into the singer-songwriter thing but didn’t really feel completely at home there. Bands like Pentangle were always my dream band and that’s why I came over to the UK. I saw them for their final concert, I played at the same thing at the Green Man Festival; it was like being baptised in the Church of Pentangle. The rain was coming down and I was like ‘I don’t care, let it rain’ it was so wonderful to be there”. Tonight, down in the Wheelhouse, Pamela released her guitar from the confines of its case on the small stage, before a couple of dozen enthused music fans who trust promoter Hedley Jones implicitly – he hasn’t let them down yet – to perform a couple of sets of well overdue songs at the venue, from one of the few American song writers to recently grace the pages of fRoots magazine. Starting with “Tis Rambletide in Ambleside”, which features Pamela’s delicate touch on guitar reminiscent of a young Bert Jansch, together with ambient baby sounds courtesy of little Daisy, the youngest member of the audience, Pamela seemed relaxed and quickly became accustomed to the pastoral environment. Actually, Hedley’s place is in the middle of Wombwell in industrial South Yorkshire, but once in the Wheelhouse it’s easy to forget that, and with the help of Pamela’s distinctly enchanting songs, we might have been – for all intents and purposes – somewhere in the Lake District. The theme of Autumn is so vividly captured on Pamela’s album Courting Autumn, that you are left in no doubt as to which is Pamela’s favourite season. I was keen to discover whether the songs on the album were written specifically to address the things Pamela wanted to say about the season, or whether they just came along organically from the subconscious. “I think it was just such a natural thing, a sort of concentration of all the autumns of my life really, just all the things that I’ve been through in the autumn. Living up in New England for the years that I have, which is really an incredible place in the autumn, I was living as a caretaker in a house museum, pretty isolated and so I was really clued in with the seasons and nature, so it was easy for me to dive deep into it. So I guess it’s been a culmination of years of artwork that’s been focused on autumn. I’ve always wanted to chase autumn around the world and go to every country and have autumn for a year”. “Pipkin” is one of the most memorable songs on the album with it’s cascading guitar flurries and climbing chord patterns, which both reflect and capture the natural patterns of the song’s main theme, that of a seed coming apart from its pod and being carried away with the wind, expertly performed by Pamela in its rawest acoustic form. The only consideration for a performer when performing totally acoustic in such an environment is how to balance the voice with the guitar. In previous shows at this venue Carrie Elkin’s voice dominated everything, whether accompanied by partner Danny Schmidt or guitarist Robby Hecht, whereas Vanessa Peters’ delicate voice was maybe at times slightly overpowered by the combined strumming of hers and Manuel Schicci’s guitars. Tonight however, there was a perfect balance between Pamela’s beautifully enchanting voice and the assured playing on her trusty Lowden. Experimenting with languages, Pamela invited her husband up to help sing a couple of newer songs towards the end of the first set. The duo introduced “Diod y Dial”, a song written by Pamela and then translated by the couple into Welsh as well as a Meic Stevens song, allegedly the Welsh Bob Dylan, with the sublime “Can Walter”. The album’s opener “O Bittersweet Dear Madeline” became the concert’s closer with time remaining for a couple of traditional songs right at the end, one of which showcased the real beauty of Pamela’s guitar work. With an assured flat pick style, reminiscent of some of Steve Tilston’s best playing, “Courting Coat” tells the tale of courting from the male point of view, a little hard to imagine Pamela shaving off her beard and sporting her courting coat, but I was willing to allow my imagination to be challenged momentarily. After such a concentrated experience of all things autumn, it only remained for me to enquire what of the other three seasons. Did Pamela have any plans for completing the four seasons as Vivaldi had done before her? “I have three albums half finished and since I do it myself I’m on a very low budget home grown thing and so it might take a little longer until some nice smiley businessman comes and says ‘I wanna give you a record deal’ but those days seem to be sort of, erm..” With such a remarkable take on autumn, without a doubt my favourite season, we can only hope the other three will eventually come along sometime soon.