Pat Collins’ Silence: the sounds of wind, water, bird song, and the past conjure the spirit of place

Pat Collins’ <em>Silence:</em> the sounds of wind, water, bird song, and the past conjure the spirit of place

Two films with the same title were released in 2016. Martin Scorcese’s Silence (which I have not seen) received all the attention, but there was another Silence, directed by the Irish documentary film-maker, Pat Collins. An undemonstrative film, it will not be to everyone’s taste, being slow, meditative and melancholy, and having little in the way of a story. But I loved it and, thanks to MUBI streaming, I have watched it twice. Continue reading “Pat Collins’ Silence: the sounds of wind, water, bird song, and the past conjure the spirit of place”

Thea Gilmore with strings: mainstream or lightning?

On my way to see Thea Gilmore play the Liverpool Phil last Friday I was having my doubts. The concert was billed as ‘Thea with strings’ and strings were all over her new album Regardless when I gave it a listen on Spotify. As a Thea fan since the early days I have to say that I was not impressed. Catchy and with echoes of classic sixties pop though some tunes are, overall the album seems over-produced: a little too slick, too mainstream.

Mind you, that seems to be what Thea is after just now: as she remarked onstage at the Phil, the album was knocking at the door of the top 40 (having been album of the week on  Radio 2 that week), and she urged us to go out and buy it because ‘for independent artists like me, these things do really matter’. The album eventually made it – reaching 39 on the week of its release.

Despite my reservations about Regardless, the Phil show proved that Thea and her band are still rocking it out, while the additional strings – in the form of a string quartet of musicians from Manchester – sounded less lush and orchestral than on the record.  In fact, the string arrangements were subtle and varied, reminiscent of the way in which Van Morrison integrated strings in his live performances in the 1970s (on It’s Too Late to Stop Now.., for instance).

Why the strings? Thea had told Seven Streets before the show that the experience of recording Don’t Stop Singing, the album on which she created music for unrecorded Sandy Denny lyrics, that led her to Regardless: ‘The Sandy Denny album allowed me to play around in a way that I never had with my own music and I liked the sound of my voice with strings. That had a huge impact and carried through to this new album’, she said.

This was only the second time on the Philharmonic stage for the Cheshire-based singer, having only played the Phil once before as a member of the Sandy Denny tribute show last May. But, as she told the Echo in another pre-show interview, she has worked in Liverpool, with producer Mike Cave, for the best part of a decade:

I work in Liverpool a lot. It’s become a bit of a second home for me. I try to explain to people – Liverpool is like a free state. Everything is different. It’s like entering another country. In the rest of the country there’s that British miserableness that at its worst wills other people to fail. But I’ve never seen that in Liverpool. There is this heart of community in everything – and people want you to do well.  I’m an Oxford girl by birth, but coming to Liverpool to work with Mike opened my eyes to a new city and I couldn’t help but love it.

The show opened with ‘This Is How You Find The Way’ off the new album, then entered more familiar territory with the lovely ‘Old Soul’ and ‘Beautiful Hopeful’ off last years Beginners EP.
Two more songs from the new album followed: ‘Start As You Mean To Go On’, which she jokingly introduced as her ‘power pop anthem’, and then the quieter ‘This Road’.  Thea explained that this was the first song she wrote after the birth of her second child: ‘the first time I picked up my guitar after what had proved to be a difficult birth and frightening first few months, this song fell out’:

This road ‘s a gift to you, my child
I will walk with you as far as I can go
Take your time, my love, take it slow
This road is the only one worth walking

The spell-binding centrepiece of the show was a pertinent pairing of her cover of the best-known song of the Great Depression, ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime’ with a spine-tingling unaccompanied performance of ‘The Amazing Floating Man’, Thea’s response to our very own banking crisis.  You could have heard the proverbial pin drop during her stunning rendition:

Roll up, roll up
For the best show in town
See him balance the books
As the markets crash down
And he never does much
But he does what he can
The Amazing Floating Man

Rejoined on stage by the rest of the band, Thea rocked out on the old favourite ‘Mainstream’, a song whose sentiment seems just a little ironical now: ‘Are you going to swim the mainstream? Or are you going to make that lightning?’  She followed that with several more songs from the new album: ‘Spit and Shine’, ‘I Will Not Disappoint You’, ‘Regardless’, ‘Love Came Looking For Me’ and ‘Something to Sing About’.

The show was rounded off by last year’s single ‘You’re The Radio’ and two contrasting songs from the Sandy Denny project: the dark and disturbing ‘Pain in My Heart’ and the anthemic ‘London’.

The encore featured a rousing ‘This Girl is Taking Bets’ and finished with Thea singing the poignant closing track of the new album ‘My Friend Goodbye’, accompanied just by Nigel Stonier on acoustic guitar.

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Thea Gilmore: on tour in New Brighton

Thea Gilmore: on tour in New Brighton


In the Blue Room of New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion Thea Gilmore was explaining how she and partner Nigel Stonier had, for the last five years, organised a literature and music festival in their home town of Nantwich in Cheshire.  ‘Anyone know the material for a fifth anniversary?’ she asked.  One guy suggested bacon.  ‘Er, no…but you can stay at my house anytime’, she responded.  The answer is wood, and wood became the theme for the concert that Thea and her band gave at this year’s festival: every song had to be wood-related, and it fell to Thea to sing an old German folk song made famous by Elvis Presley.

‘Wooden Heart’, sung solo by Thea midway through Sunday night’s show in New Brighton, was just one of the spine-tingling highlights of a superb concert; to hear it was worth the price of admission alone.  She took the song at a slower pace than Elvis and scoured it clean of the jaunty, tripping rhythm of the original, paring it down to the intimate love song that lies at its core:

Can’t you see
I love you
Please don’t break my heart in two
That’s not hard to do
Cause I don’t have a wooden heart

Gilmore is an accomplished vocalist who can belt out a mean rocker or, as here, infuse a romantic ballad with a sensuous intensity.  She did a creditable job of retaining the original German words sung by Elvis a year after he had completed his military service in Germany:

Muß i’ denn, muß i’ denn
Zum Städtele hinaus,
Städtele hinaus
Und du mein Schatz bleibst hier

(Got to go, got to go,
Got to leave this town,
Leave this town
And you, my dear, stay here.)

Earlier, Thea Gilmore had arrived on stage with her band, comprising guitarist, producer and partner Nigel Stonier, Che Beresford on drums, Alan Knowles on acoustic bass and accordion and Tracy Bell on keyboards.  On two numbers the band was augmented, and its average age considerably reduced, when joined onstage by six year-old Egan – Nigel and Thea’s eldest child – who wielded a child-size violin.

Gilmore had kicked off with ‘Contessa’ from 2008’s Harpo’s Ghost, and there were to be a fair few numbers from the extensive Gilmore back catalogue in the course of the evening – for as she informed us, after tours promoting albums of songs by Dylan and Sandy Denny, she was thrilled to be doing what she likes doing best, singing the songs that she writes herself.  She’d thought long and hard about the songs she really wanted to sing, and had dusted off a fair few which have not been performed for years. She’s halfway through recording a new album, due out in the spring, and at the gigs there is very limited edition EP available, called Beginners – because it’s a sort of taster for the main course to follow. She did two numbers off the EP, and one completely new song which may, or may not, be on the next album.

There were no Dylan covers in this show, but there were two of the previously unpublished Sandy Denny songs that Gilmore was commissioned to set to music, which comprised the album Don’t Stop Singing and were featured in the tribute show that toured the country this summer, The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny.  Here she featured ‘Don’t Stop Singing’ and the Olympic summer single ‘London’.

Following the pen-portrait of an unwelcome reminder of a dissolute past in ‘Contessa’, we were treated to Thea’s angry and bitter portrayal of political arrogance  in ‘God’s Got Nothing On You’ before she presented a song off the new EP, ‘Beautiful Hopeful’, all about the tribulations that await young musicians entering today’s music business. A little later Thea talked at some length about the process of making an album: always having too many songs, finding that after a while a dozen or so songs seem to chime together, leaving many more to be sadly cast aside. This was by way of an introduction to one of those songs – ‘The Amazing Floating Man’ – that appears on the new EP.  Thea half-apologetically presented the song as being about the banking crisis; it was a solo a capella performance that lifted the hairs on back of your neck:

Roll up, roll up
For the best show in town
See him balance the books
As the markets crash down
And he never does much
But he does what he can
The Amazing Floating Man

By way of complete contrast (and you do get that with Thea – her songbook displays a tremendous variety of mood and material) we were treated us to a lively performance of the raunchy ‘Teach Me To Be Bad’: as she said, a song that ‘celebrates sex and the little devil in all of us’:

If I were coming off the rails
Dropped my eyes and dropped my dress
Would your moral stand prevail
Or would you fold like all the rest
Ooh ain’t we got fun
Ooh let’s come undone
I said one two well hand me a light
Oh three four I don’t wanna be right

By way of contrast, another new song from the EP, ‘Me By Numbers’ carried the refrain:

I can be a good girl
I can be a queen
I can be a soldier
I can be the thinking man’s dream
I can be a warrior
I can be the eye of the world
But  most of all
I can be a good, good girl

Thea Gilmore grew up in Oxfordshire, her interest in music developing from listening to her father’s record collection, which included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and The Beatles. She began writing poetry at the age of 15 as a way of coping with the divorce of her parents, and got an early start in the music industry, working in a recording studio and recording her first album Burning Dorothy as a teenager in 1998.  In the following four years she released three more albums that earned her a growing critical reputation, but no chart success. It was around this time that I first discovered her songs: I remember listening repeatedly to Rules for Jokers, her third album that had standout tracks such as ‘This Girl Is Taking Bets’ and ‘Things We Never Said’, on the drive to and from work in 2001.

That album also included a song called ‘Inverigo’ that I could never really figure out: it had a lovely melody, but the meaning of some of the lines, and particularly the title, always puzzled me. On Sunday night, introducing the song to the audience in the Blue Lounge, Thea solved the mystery.  She wrote ‘Inverigo’ in Italy, in the town of the same name; she was there with her partner,  Nigel Stonier, who was recording an album.  Though the trip, for her was ‘little more than a jolly’, at the time she needed to convince a record company that she had songs worth backing.  ‘Inverigo’ was written in the company offices, they liked it, and she got a contract.  After the concert, as Thea signed my copy of her new EP, I explained how that title had mystified me for a decade or more. ‘Well, there you go’, she replied, ‘puzzle solved’.

We are running from storms of our youth into more of the same …
We are free as the wind through the trees or so we are told …

In the last 15 years, Thea Gilmore has produced another ten albums, and has established a reputation as one of Britain’s leading songwriters.  Though they can be a little uneven, each of her albums contains at least one gem that ranks alongside the work of the best lyricists.  Joan Baez recognised her worth, picking up on ‘The Lower Road’ from Liejacker, and recording her version of the song on The Day After Tomorrow, and inviting Thea to join her tour.

After she recorded ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ for a Dylan covers CD for Uncut Magazine in 2002, the accolades poured in, including one from Bruce Springsteen who, on encountering Gilmore backstage at a 2008 concert, showed his appreciation for the track, calling it ‘one of the great Dylan covers’. For, alongside her own songwriting credentials, Thea Gilmore is also a gifted interpreter of songs written by others.  Some of these are to be found on Loft Music, an album of cover versions she put out in 2004; it includes wonderful interpretations of songs as varied as Pete Shelley’s ‘Ever Fallen in Love’, John Fogerty’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’, the great Phil Ochs song ‘When I’m Gone’, and ‘Buddy Can You Spare a Dime’.  Other favourites include great versions of Pete Burns’ ‘You Spin Me Round’, Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’ and Springsteen’s ‘Cover Me’.  And then of course there is her album of songs by Sandy Denny, and her recreation of Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding.

I have my own strong favourites from her own compositions; one that I always hope she will sing live is ‘Old Soul’, and she did not disappoint on this occasion.  When we hear a song it may have a personal meaning that can differ from the writer’s original intent.  I listened to ‘Old Soul’ a long time before I became aware that old souls are those that have experienced several previous incarnations from which they have gained greater wisdom.  On this video clip, Thea introduces the song, talking about how it was written while she was pregnant, and how the lyric’s meaning for her was related to the imminent birth of her child:

To complete an evening of great music, Thea returned for the obligatory encore: a rousing rendition of the apocalyptic call to arms, ‘Are You Ready’, with its chorus ‘We will ride, are you ready? reinforced by blistering accordion, before things quietened down with another new song, a hushed ballad ‘Goodbye My Friend’.

Setlist

  • Contessa
  • Don’t Stop Singing
  • God’s Got Nothing on You
  • Beautiful Hopeful
  • Red White and Black
  • Teach Me To Be Bad
  • The Amazing Floating Man
  • Me By Numbers
  • Old Soul
  • Roll On
  • You’re the Radio
  • Inverigo

Encore:

  • Are You Ready?
  • Goodbye My Friend

See also

The Lady: Sandy Denny tribute at the Phil

Sandy Denny by Keith Morris 1972

The lady she had a silver tongue. 
For to sing she said, 
And maybe that’s all. 
Wait for the dawn and we will have that song. 
When it ends it will seem 
That we hear silence fall.

The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny is a touring monster of a show that celebrates the musical legacy of the folk icon who, in the years since her tragic death in 1978, has come to be regarded by a new generation of musicians as one of Britain’s finest female singer songwriters. We went along to the opening night of the tour at the Liverpool Philharmonic.

The show began promptly at 7:30 and was so efficiently compered by producer Andrew Batt that the stage came to seem like a revolving door as musicians entered stage left and departed stage right as soon as they had done their bit.  But, at just under three hours with a short interval, there was a lot to cram in. The Lady not only traces Denny’s entire musical legacy, encompassing her work with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, her solo career as well as new songs discovered in Sandy’s archive and completed by Thea Gilmore on her acclaimed album Don’t Stop Singing.  It also ropes in a remarkable gathering of musicians to perform Sandy’s songs.  The performers  included contemporaries who worked with Denny, such as Maddy Prior, Dave Swarbick, Jerry Donahue and PP Arnold as well as younger musicians who have been inspired by her work, including Joan Wasser (aka Joan As Policewoman), Green Gartside, Thea Gilmore, Sam Carter, Lavinia Blackwall (of Trembling Bells), Ben Nicholls (Dennis Hopper Choppers) and Blair Dunlop (The Albion Band).

Andrew Batt, who has been involved in compiling recent collections of Sandy’s material was creative producer of an earlier London staging of this concert to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Sandy’s death. Then last year Thea Gilmore was approached by the Denny estate to put music to the words of previously unknown songs found among Sandy’s papers.  Andrew decided it was an opportune time to restage the London concert as a national tour, this time expanded to include Thea Gilmore’s songs.

In her short career, Sandy Denny wrote an astonishing range of songs, many in the folk tradition such as ‘Fotheringay’ which imagines the last night of Mary Queen of Scots’ life, and which sounds as if it was composed in the 16th century.  Then there were the later songs from her (to my ears) over-orchestrated solo albums on which her voice was swamped in sickly-sweet strings – great songs, though, such as ‘Like an Old Fashioned Waltz’ and ‘I’m A Dreamer’. Sandy’s songs were deeply personal and reflective compositions in which her ideas were often expressed through vivid evocations of the natural world – especially her love of the sea and the shore, hills and fields, the sky and birds in flight.  To my mind, there are few finer opening lines than:

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving 
But how can they know it’s time for them to go? 
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming 
I have no thought of time

Sandy Denny died, aged only 32, from head injuries sustained when she fell down stairs at home.  For many years she had struggled with loneliness and drug and alcohol problems.  Her husband had left her, taking their baby daughter with him.  What came across from so many of the songs in the show was a deep undercurrent of melancholy, a sense of isolation, pain and vulnerability.

The show opening with ‘A Sailor’s Life’, sung by Lavinia Blackwall accompanied by Dave Swarbrick on violin, evoking the days when Denny and Swarbrick were both members of Fairport Convention. Blackwall also sang  ‘Late November’, her beautiful voice sounding remarkably close to Denny’s.

If Fairport were the most important group in English folk-rock in the 1970s, Steeleye Span were always snapping at their heels. Maddy Prior was a founder member and gave a great performance of ‘Fotheringay’, the song which gave its name to Sandy’s short-lived band.

Thea Gilmore gave us some of the songs from Don’t Stop Singing – the album on which she has created the musical arrangements for lyrics left unrecorded by Sandy.  The title song is one in which Sandy expresses the determination to overcome any problems life might throw at her with music: ‘don’t stop singing ’til you drop’. ‘London’ rocks along, and with its catchy chorus of ‘I wish I was in London, that’s where I want to be’, this year of all years it ought to be a hit. It’s getting airplay on Radio 2 at the moment, so it might.

‘Glistening Bay’ proved to be a great song infused with archetypal Denny imagery of the sea, nature, and the sense of passing time.

Oh those hills were tall and winding, all the roads they did divide
And when we reached the top we stopped to see over the side
Oh the fickle sea I’ve always loved
And to this very day
I do recall that city far below me like a glistening bay. […]

I do recall I took a stone and felt it with my hand
I sat there on the high cliff top upon the warming land
I hid the precious stone I held inside a weathered tree
The perfumed cedars caught the wind which blew in from the open sea

A handful of small coloured flowers were nestling in the grass
I tossed them to the blustery sky and watched them as they danced
Oh the fickle sea I’ve always loved and to this very day
I’ll see those flowers come floating down towards the glistening bay.

Gilmore doesn’t attempt to copy Sandy Denny’s vocal style: the songs emerge sounding more Gilmore than Denny, and they all benefitted here from the sparseness of the arrangements: on the album, there are far too many strings for my taste.  The hairs on the back of the neck moment came with Long Time Gone with its aching chorus:

Will he come, will he ever come, will come again to me?

Thea was ably supported by Nigel Stonier on guitar.  This is a recent live version of the song from a performance at Cecil Sharp House with Liz Hanks on cello.

All who took to the stage exhibited great musicianship, but there were some contributions, as well as those already mentioned, that stood out for me.  Joan Wasser gave one of best solo numbers in the show, seated alone at the piano and singing ‘No More Sad Refrains’. She also gave strong performances of ‘By The Time It Gets Dark’ and ‘The Lady’.  Throughout the show guitarist Jerry Donahue played excellent lead guitar very reminiscent of Richard Thompson.

Another memorable moment came when the voices of Thea, Maddy and Lavinia were joined by Dave Swarbrick’s violin for a beautiful rendition of what I think is my favourite song of Sandy Denny’s after ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’.  ‘The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ is a green hymn that speaks of man’s despoilment of the land:

As gentle tides go rolling by,
Along the salt sea strand
The colours blend and roll as one
Together in the sand.
And often do the winds entwine
Do send their distant call,
The quiet joys of brotherhood,
And love is lord of all.
The oak and weed together rise,
Along the common ground.
The mare and stallion light and dark
Have thunder in their sound.
The rainbow sign, the blended flower
Still have my heart in thrall.
The quiet joys of brotherhood,
And love is lord of all.

But man has come to plough the tide,
The oak lies on the ground.
I hear their tires in the fields,
They drive the stallion down.
The roses bleed both light and dark,
The winds do seldom call.
The running sands recall the time
When love was lord of all.

‘Bushes and Briars’ is another great Sandy Denny lyric, based on an old Essex folk song, here performed (if I remember correctly) by Maddy Prior, Thea Gilmore and Lavinia Blackwall:

I can’t believe that it’s so cold
And there ain’t been no snow.
The sound of music it comes to me
From every place I go.
Sunday morning, there’s no one in church
But the clergy’s chosen man
And he is fine I won’t worry about him
Got the book in his hand.
There’s a bitter east wind and the fields are swaying
The crows are round their nests.
I wonder what he’s in there saying
To all those souls at rest.
I see the path which led to the door
And the clergy’s chosen man
Bushes and briars, you and I
Where do we stand?
I wonder if he knows I’m here
Watching the briars grow.
And all these people beneath my shoes,
I wonder if they know.
There was a time when every last one
Knew a clergy’s chosen man
Where are they now? Thistles ans thorns
Among the sand.
I can’t believe that it’s so cold
And there ain’t been no snow.
The sound of music it comes to me
From every place I go.
Sunday morning, there’s no one in church
But the clergy’s chosen man
Bushes and briars, thistles and thorns
Upon the land.

But the truly outstanding performance of the evening came for me when soul singer PP Arnold (‘Angel of the Morning’  and ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’) walked out on stage. I was surprised by this: I hadn’t noticed she was part of the ensemble, and I would not have associated her with the world of English folk.  But, as Andrew Batt pointed out in his introduction, she did sing on one Sandy Denny album – as well as providing backing vocals on Nick Drake’s  ‘Poor Boy’. Her gospel-infused take on  ‘Take Me Away’ was simply stunning:

Such sweet love is so hard to find
Look around, these are troublesome times
The sun beats down on our hunger and thirst
It would soon all be over if we let it be worse

Yet when I revisited Sandy Denny’s version, I realised the gospel sensibility was already there in the original.  PP Arnold is making her version available as a free download here.

The finale was, of course, inevitable, with the entire ensemble on stage to perform ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’. I can see why they did this, but it was a rather ragged and noisome performance of an introspective song that is best performed as a solo.  Perhaps they could have done a solo version earlier in the show and still ended with the ensemble version.

It had been a great show, if slightly marred by the less than perfect sound balance in the Circle (I’ve experienced this before at the Phil). The vocals, especially were distorted, making the lyrics hard to hear at times – not what you wanted in a homage to a great songwriter.But it was great to hear these songs live, performed by consummate musicians. Sandy Denny’s legacy is well worth celebrating.

Afterthought: noone sang ‘The Pond and the Stream’, a song  inspired by the reclusive folk singer Anne Briggs that has something of the essence of Denny in these lyrics:

Annie wanders on the land
She loves the freedom of the air
She finds a friend in every place she goes…
There’s always a face she knows
I wish that I was there […]

We all live in the city
And imagine country scenes
Poor among the rich
Within four walls and out of reach
We live behind a screen