Live Review | The Rock, Maltby | Review by Allan Wilkinson
When Ruth Notman’s debut album Threads found its way onto my CD pile a couple of years ago, it came at a time when I was becoming more and more aware of the emergence of a new generation of folk singers, eager to celebrate the music of the likes of Nic Jones, Dougie MacLean and Sandy Denny, to the irritation of some of the old guard, who had claimed these artists as their very own. Fortunately, I remain untarnished by this strange idea that these so called icons should be left untouched for fear of fire, brimstone and the wrath of what or whoever etc. The truth is, Ruth can sing the telephone directory for all I care; her instantly recognisable voice to me is as vibrant and alive as a Saturday night and as fresh as a sweet Sunday morning. Beginning her musical journey at the tender age of just thirteen years old, Ruth sought out the local folk clubs in and around the Nottingham area (those that would allow someone so young to play that is), encouraging her to eventually enter a competition for young folk musicians in the East Midlands. Once she had gained a reputation as a promising young singer and musician, along with a musical partnership with the equally young fiddle player Bryony Bainbridge, Ruth went on to reach the finals of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award and was immediately snapped up by Mrs Casey Records, with whom she signed a record and management deal. Since then, Ruth has become a familiar face in clubs and at festivals all over the place. Tonight I met up with the Mansfield-based singer after months of trying to pin her down. We agreed to meet up at the Rock in Maltby, where we fully intended to catch up on the Ruth Notman story so far, after which she would perform a couple of sets of songs and quite predictably, giggle throughout, reminding us all of one important thing, that she is just a normal 21 year-old enjoying her youth, whilst being at the same time a talented singer who contributes something very special to the folk world. Despite the Rock being at barely half its capacity tonight, after a most welcomed and successful string of sell-out gigs, an unfazed and entirely cheerful Ruth Notman filled all the remaining gaps with her bubbly personality and her own distinctive sound. Equally confident on both guitar and piano, as well as singing unaccompanied, Ruth’s first appearance at the Rock brought with it a selection of beautiful songs from both her first album Threads as well as her latest CD The Life of Lilly, both released through Mrs Casey Records. Starting with an unaccompanied “The Hedger and Ditcher”, Ruth weaved through some of her best loved songs including the traditional “Billy Don’t You Weep For Me”, learned from the singing of Nic Jones, the jaunty “Limbo” and Dougie MacLean’s sublime “Caledonia”. Ruth always ensures that there is a long pause before the beginning of each song, where the singer appears to gather herself momentarily. This shows both confidence and composure and clearly draws a line between the artist and the girl with the giggles, both of which are an essential part of any of her gigs, whether it be on her own as a solo artist, with her regular sideman melodeon player Saul Rose or with the extended trio, which includes cellist Hannah Edmonds. Take the spirited girl away from this and you are left with just a bunch of songs. It really does come as a well balanced package. Sometimes from the stage, especially a large stage with a bank of bright lights such as those at the Wesley Centre, it’s difficult for a performer to gauge to what extent the audience is on their side. Prompting communal singing is probably the best way of finding out and Ruth did this several times throughout the two sets tonight, most notably on “Rory McCrory”, a traditional song from West Cork and then again on “Who’s the Fool Now”, a song memorably performed during the early 1970s by Robin and Barry Dransfield. Towards the end of the night, Ruth also performed a stunning version of “The Waters of Tyne”, presumably indicating that the Dransfield’s brilliant Rout of the Blues LP resides somewhere in Ruth’s folks’ record collection! But I’m just guessing here. There’s something astonishingly beautiful about the melody of “The Lark in the Clear Air”, which this reviewer never tires of hearing. The song has been sung many times by this young performer, having been a familiar song around the house for many of her formative years and which has now finally surfaced on the Life of Lilly record, and not a moment too soon. Introducing the song, Ruth gleefully admitted that she likes singing this song because “it’s under three minutes long and nobody dies in it!” Although Ruth is a fine interpreter and arranger of both traditional and contemporary songs, it’s with her own compositions that tends to render me spellbound. Ruth immediately clears up any ambiguity during her introduction to her beautiful “Over the Hill”, which is clearly not about being ‘passed it’ at all, but literally being geographically over a hill, a song written at a very young age for Ruth’s late aunt. The recorded version on the first album has an astonishing beauty, superbly complemented by Saul Rose’s melancholy melodeon accompaniment. Tonight Ruth softened even the hardest of hearts with her gorgeous performance of the song. “Lonely Day Dies”, another self-penned song from the Threads album, was written whilst Ruth was doing her A levels and by her own admission, includes a familar Westlife-type key change on the recorded version, which tonight remained mono-keyed for convenience. From the new album, Ruth performed another one of her compositions, “Holding On”, which once again incorporates everything that is good about Ruth’s songwriting. Incidentally, we can also look forward to the song being included on the forthcoming Folk Against Facism compilation CD. As a classically trained musician, Ruth exercises her arranging skills exceptionally well on the traditional “Cruel Sister”, which on record is almost operatic in scope and astonishingly dramatic in feel. On stage with just the piano, Ruth manages to bring some of that drama to life, albeit in a more underplayed fashion, yet losing none of its original power. Concluding the two sets tonight, Ruth performed the aptly titled Richard Thompson song “Farewell Farewell”, a song originally sung by Sandy Denny, a singer Ruth has an immense appreciation of. Tonight Ruth told me that she tries not to listen to Sandy an awful lot in order to avoid singing too much like her, which she admits she has to do with everyone she listens to. “I have to take a step back and monitor how much I’m listening to each person”. Returning to the stage for a final encore, Ruth chose to sing the John Tams song “Hold Back the Tide” unaccompanied, which also concludes the new album. I would imagine nothing less than a bright future for Ruth Notman, especially if she continues to demonstrate this contagious zest for life and living, together with an intuitive choice of material and an increasingly mature musical talent. By her own admission, Ruth gets terribly nervous sharing with the world her own compositions, especially the more personal songs, but one would hope that in time, her confidence will grow sufficiently enough for us to hear more of these sensitive and beautiful songs.