Old December: seasonal tidings

Old December: seasonal tidings

Let’s sing for old December. Thea Gilmore’s 2009 album, Strange Communion – one of the best ‘Christmas’ albums ever – has been reissued this month in an expanded form. Christmas is in quote marks there because Strange Communion is not a conventional seasonal album, but one that raises a glass to all, ‘whoever you praise.’ The collection’s true inspiration is the conjunction of celebrations that mark this season

Raise a glass for these days
And sing, sing, sing for old December

To mark this re-release, here’s a re-post of my original blog post from December 2009:

It seems to be a rich year for Christmas albums (and I am not referring to the Dylan one).  For jazz, Carla Bley has produced the excellent Carla’s Christmas Carols, while the greatly-underrated Thea Gilmore has produced what may be, for me, the best non-jazz album of 2009: Strange Communion.

Actually, Christmas album is a bit misleading: this collection of songs  is redolent of all things wintry, the sense of short December days, cold outside and warmth within.  So Christmas is here, but more in its pre-Christian pagan form.

The album contains 8 originals and 2 unusual covers: Yoko Ono’s incandescent ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’, which in Gilmore’s arrangment really does conjure up that sense of muffled silence as snow falls, and ‘The St Stephens Day Murders’, a little known Elvis Costello song, that sonically comes from the same place as the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ but which has lyrics that illuminate the mad hilarity and agony of an English suburban family Christmas.

Sefton Park 70

On the stunning opening track Thea, singing acapella,  is joined by the Sense Of Sound Choir on ”Sol Invictus’, that invokes the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus (‘Unconquered Sun’), whom the third century emperor Aurelian elevated to one of the premier divinities of the Roman empire, inaugurating the tradition of  celebrating Sol on December 25.

Come the dark
Come the cold
Come the beating air
Chill the night
Sol delight
Will be dancing there
And rise up, rise up
Days stretching weary wings

Come the day
Come the dawn
Somewhere in the rain
Low my heart
Low my life
Forget everything

Come the day
Thief of the night
Lift his voice to sing
Now rise up, rise up
Ever victorious

Low the tide
Low the light
Comes the sun again
Now rise up, rise up
Ever victorious

Low the tide
Low the light
Comes the sun again

Elsewhere, Thea Gilmore’s lyrics invoke the old Yule or Yule-tide pagan winter festival, later absorbed into the Christian festival of Christmas. In pre-historic times, winter was a very difficult time for people in the northern latitudes: the growing season had ended and food stocks would br running low. As the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon, people feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and cold. After the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. Although many months of cold weather remained before spring, they could take heart that warmth and growth would return, so the concept of birth and rebirth became associated with the winter solstice. A slight elevation of the sun’s path would be noticeable just a few days after the solstice – perhaps by December 25, the date on which celebrations were often timed to occur. In AD 730, the English historian Bede gave December 25 as the first day of the pagan year and wrote that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated all night:

They began the year with December 25, the day some now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen term Mōdraniht, that is, the mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through

So this is far from being a sugary, American-style Christmas album in the Christian tradition. Thea Gilmore has blended many different traditions and cultural commentaries on winter darkness and rebirth.  In ‘Midwinter Toast’ she sings:

I don’t believe in many things
But here’s my hymn to you all

‘Cold Coming’, inspired by TS Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’, the story that began with ‘a heart upon the straw’ is pursued to our ‘streets paved with light’, its meaning ‘the old reunion of the rebel with the fight’.

It was a cold coming
With stars upon the ground
And the sky was burning
And all the world was sound
It was a love beginning
A heart upon the straw
And the children were singing
Our Lord, our lord, our lord
Do you sing that song?

It was a cold coming
The streets were paved with light
You could hear the engines running
You could hear them all night long
It was a strange communion
His name raised up in lights
The old reunion
Of the rebel with the fight

Strange Communion does have a potential top ten Christmas single – ‘That’ll Be Christmas. The traditional Christmas staples – mulled wine, mistletoe – are here, but Gilmore cleverly crafts her words to take a swipe at Christmas while simultaneously celebrating it, which is probably how a lot of us feel about the whole thing.

This approach is captured, too, in Elvis Costello’s only Christmas song , The St Stephen’s Day Murders, about the day after after Christmas.  Elvis wrote and recorded the song for a Chieftains album in 1991. The lyric is a perfect portrayal of family life in the aftermath of Christmas. He is remembering , perhaps , extended family gatherings in his Anglo-Irish Liverpool-London childhood:

The good will that lasts till the Feast of St. Stephen
For that is the time to eat, drink and be merry
Till the beer is all spilled and the whiskey has flowed
And the whole family tree you neglected to bury
Are feeding their faces until they explode

There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias
Mixed up with that drink made from girders
Cause it’s all we’ve got left as they draw their last breath
Ah, it’s nice for the kids as you finally get rid of them
In the St. Stephen’s Day Murders

Aside from ‘Sol Invictus’, the most beautiful song on the album is ‘Drunken Angel’, which could have appeared on any Gilmore album and could be listened to in July, even though it is drenched in mid-winter imagery.  It is a song of affirmation and faith in beauty, feelings and renewal:

Winter tells its truth to anyone who will listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low…

There are some things broken and some things to hold tight
To the few brave birds of the season who are sky-writing
Shine your light…

Now is the time that I will raise my eyes and be honest
And look out across the plain of another tired and reckless year
Give thanks for the love and wonder that was hurled upon us…

A drunken angel danced into my heart
Singing lonely days and a brand-new start

You can hear the howl of wings
You can feel it when the wine is flowing
The tired and the lonely lay down their weary heads
And, baby, sometimes the beauty in this world
Comes from just not knowing
Feeling instead

Sefton Park 64

The album has been picking up glowing reviews everywhere.  The Independent carried an insightful review this week, which included these comments:Gilmore opens the album with ‘Sol Invictus’, a pagan hymn to winter solstice, sung a cappella with the Sense of Sound Choir, before offering ‘Thea Gilmore’s Midwinter Toast’ in agnostic manner. “I don’t believe in many things, but here’s my hymn to you all”, she admits, facing the uneasy prospect of the new year with hope but no illusions. T S Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ provides the opening image to ‘Cold Coming’, Gilmore’s folk-rock rallying-cry celebrating Jesus as outlaw revolutionary, “the old reunion of the rebel with the fight”, and finding an even colder coming in “the ringing of the till” […]
Winter tells its truth to anyone who’ll listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low.

Lest her Christmas slip too far towards the cautionary and sober-sided, Gilmore offers her own unabashed attempt at a Christmas single with ‘That’ll be Christmas’ – and makes a better fist of it than most, mingling sharp coinages like “faith, hope and gluttony” with unusually fresh, evocative images over a rolling pop groove streaked with slide guitar. This album’s “Fairytale of New York”, meanwhile, is not so much her melancholy separation song ‘December in New York’, as the celtic-flavoured duet ‘St. Stephen’s Day Murders’, an obscure Elvis Costello oddity on which DJ Mark Radcliffe plays the Shane MacGowan part, brusquely sharing anticipation of “laughter and tears over Tia Marias”. But it’s another obscure cover, of Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen, the Snow is Falling’, which provides the album’s most magical moment, Gilmore’s delivery a hushed murmur over a shimmering synth-pad sparsely illuminated by the occasional chime.

Elsewhere, ‘Old December’ is another non-denominational celebration of the season – “whoever you praise, raise a glass to these days” – while acoustic guitar and an intimate shiver of strings lends an Astral Weeks ambience to the lovely ‘Drunken Angel’, which carries much the same message in more evocative language, promising that

Winter tells its truth to anyone who’ll listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low.

Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Thea Gilmore at the Epstein: covers and old favourites

Thea Gilmore at the Epstein: covers and old favourites

Thea Gilmore

Thea Gilmore seemed surprised that so many people had turned up to see her – enough to fill the Epstein Theatre – on the same night that Dolly Parton was doing her thing down at the Arena.  But Thea’s fans are nothing if not loyal: when she asked how many members of the audience had previously attended one of her gigs, the response was pretty well unanimous. For myself, as the links at the foot of this post reveal, I’ve seen her on several occasions now, and been a fan of her music since the late nineties.

Indeed, Thea was in reflective mood last night, musing over the fact that it’s been 17 years now since she recorded her first album – at the age of 17. With no new album to promote, she was free, she said, to play what she liked, and to range over her extensive back catalogue.  So what we got was a selection of old favourites and some classic cover versions.  No-one, I think, does cover versions as good as Thea’s, except, perhaps, Bruce Springsteen.

As usual, her husband and producer Nigel Stonier accompanied her on guitar and keyboards (he had also opened the show with a supporting set of numbers from his new album – the best of which was an old song, now re-worked, ‘Messin’ With Fire, which he originally wrote with the jazz vocalist Clare Teal. Apart from Stonier, Thea’s current band makes an unusual line-up – in addition to Stonier, there’s Liz Hanks on cello and Susannah Simmons on violin.  Oh, and 7-year old son Egan on fiddle for a couple of numbers at the end.

Thea opened with two numbers from 2002’s Songs from the Gutter – ‘And We’ll Dance, taken at a much faster pace than on the album, and ‘Tear It All Down’.  Then came a superb cluster of songs – ‘Old Soul’, one of my absolute favourite Thea Gilmore songs, followed by the superb version of ‘All You Need Is Love’ which she recorded for a Mojo magazine cover mount. Slowed-down and with all the orchestration stripped out, it’s a brilliant interpretation.  She sang it at the Hillsborough Justice gathering before the new inquest began; after singing it at the Epstein she said how nervous she felt singing it in this city.  She needn’t have worried.

After that came ‘This Road’, the beautiful song from last years Regardless album which, as Thea explained, she wrote as an expression of love for her children: ‘this road is the only one worth walking’.

Two more outstanding moments were interpretations of songs by others –  David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and an exquisite reading of George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’.

We left the Epstein fired up by a great concert, with the rousing choruses of the final encore, ‘Are You Ready’, ringing in our ears.

Setlist

And We’ll Dance
Tear It All Down
Old Soul
Beautiful Hopeful
All You Need is Love
This Road
Josef’s Train
The Man Who Sold the World
Goodbye Old England (For Victor)
To the Bone
Start As We Mean To Go On
Love Came Looking For Me
You’re the Radio
London
Encore:
Regardless
Summertime
Are You Ready

See also

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.

See also

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

Thea’s birthday tribute to Bob

A few years ago, on a cover CD, Thea Gilmore presented the readers of Uncut magazine with one of the best Dylan cover versions ever recorded.  Now, as a 70th birthday tribute to Dylan, she has incorporated her reading of ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’ into nothing less than than a complete re-creation of the album from which it derived – John Wesley Harding.

Reuniting with guitarist Robbie McIntosh and drummer Paul Beavis, who both played on the ‘Augustine’ cover back in 2002, Thea and her husband, bassist and producer Nigel Stonier went back into the studio in February to record the rest of the album tracks.  In the sleevenotes, Gilmore questions the wisdom of the enterprise: ‘Can one – should one – attempt to re-record, reinterpret, a forty-year old, somewhat legendary piece of work, a piece of work which could be argued to be inseparable from its author? Probably not’.

Fortunately, Thea Gilmore threw caution to the winds and has come up with a stunning new interpretation of one of her favourite Bob Dylan albums. She explains:

I’ve always thought that, whilst clearly other Dylan albums may have more ‘famous’ and ‘iconic’ songs, and more of those moments that are alleged to have changed music forever, [John Wesley Harding] is his most sustained, satisfying record. It runs beautifully from start to finish, songs bounce off each other, characters seemed unfathomably but implicitly linked, and the sense of earthiness and economy in Bob’s lyrics is startling.

Personally, I have to admit that JWH is not an album that I often play in its entirety.  I find its spartan arrangements and opaque lyrics a hard listen.  I’ve never really understood what’s going on in most of the songs, though I think Thea is spot on when she talks about the way that the ‘characters seemed unfathomably but implicitly linked’.  Until the last two songs (that seem to belong to a different album altogether, perhaps Dylan’s next, Nashville Skyline) it’s like entering a world complete in its imagining: a surreal, biblical American frontier landscape.  What does it mean, ‘to breathe the air around Tom Paine’? Or to dream you saw St. Augustine ‘with a blanket underneath his arm and a coat of solid gold?’

From my standpoint, therefore, it’s an advantage that Thea Gilmore does not attempt to replicate the sparseness of the original album in its entirety.  The arrangements on her album are sonically varied, ranging from the title track, with mandolin and Dylanish harmonica to out-and-out rockers like ‘Drifter’s Escape’ and ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ (sounding like Neil Young and Crazy Horse at full throttle) to ‘Dear Landlord’ sung beautifully with simple piano accompaniment.  Thea’s vocals are outstanding, too, on her passionate rendition of ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’, with its ringing, Byrds-redux guitar chords.

Thea’s vocals are excellent on all the songs, but the album’s success is also due to the quality of the band and the arrangements.  For the album sessions Thea reassembled the team that had produced the mighty version of  ‘St Augustine’ for Uncut – Robbie McIntosh on guitar, Paul Beavis on drums and Nigel Stonier on bass.  Robbie McIntosh’s coruscating lead guitar lifts the hairs on the back of your neck, most especially on ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ and ‘The Wicked Messenger’. Elsewhere, piano, dobro and finger-picked mandolin add colour to tracks such as ‘Dear Landlord’, ‘I Am A Lonesome Hobo’ and ‘Down Along The Cove’ while Gilmore’s jaunty take on ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is pitched midway between Dylan’s and the Hendrix classic, more relaxed than the latter (who could compte with that one!) with delicate guitar fills.

It’s a great Gilmore album and a superb birthday tribute to his Bobness. JWH is Thea’s favourite Dylan album, and on these versions she perfectly inhabits, as she expresses it herself,  ‘the myths, the dramatis personae of these songs, the hovering whispers of Old Testament morals, the howls of despair and elation from outcast souls so affecting’.

Back in 1967, Dylan’s original album could not have been a greater shock: the contrast between Blonde on Blonde’s noisesome richness and the taut asceticism of John Wesley Harding was mind-boggling at the time. As Michael Gray has observed:

This album is no cheap thrill. It is, though, a most serious, darkly visionary exploration of the myths and extinct strengths of America; its Calvinist spirit gives it an eerie power in mixing the severely biblical with a surreal 19th century, American-pioneer ethos. Dylan comes across like a man who has arisen from Armageddon unscathed but sobered, to walk across an allegorical American landscape of small, poor communities working a dusty, fierce terrain.

The album has been interpreted as Dylan’s stark rebuke to the ‘summer of love’.  For sure, nothing could be further from a hippy-dippy daze than the apocalyptic vision of ‘All Along The Watchtower’, ending with the approaching finality of  ‘the wind began to howl’. But it was the sparseness of the arrangements and the cryptic nature of the lyrics, with their hints of Dylan’s growing interest in things Biblical and his coming conversion to born-again Christianity, that came out of left-field.  Dylan himself called JWH the ‘first biblical rock album’, and by all accounts at his home in Woodstock he had a huge Bible opened on raised wooden lectern.  In ‘All Along The Watchtower’, Dylan draws on Isaiah 21:5-9:

Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield. For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.  …  And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.

The album’s most haunting song, ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’ is baffling.  It sounds both compassionate and filled with hatred for the man who ‘uses all his power to do evil’ and ‘with his fingers cheats…and lies with ev’ry breath’, yet who also ‘tramples through the mud’, ‘fills his mouth with laughing and … builds his town with blood’, whose ‘visions in the final end must shatter like the glass’.

So what are to make of this odd song cycle?  Maybe:

The moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbour carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road

Hmm.

Links

Midwinter Toast

Well I don’t believe in many things
But here’s my hymn to you all:
O Hallelujah!
O Hallelujah!
– Thea Gilmore, Midwinter Toast

This was sunrise over Sefton Park on Christmas morning: the first time I can remember snow lying at Christmas (though my memory may be faulty – it often is, these days).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Snow’s frolic architecture

Winter tells its truth to anyone who will listen
It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low…

There are some things broken and some things to hold tight
To the few brave birds of the season who are sky-writing
Shine your light…
Thea Gilmore, ‘Drunken Angel’

There was a magical sunset this afternoon as I walked the dog in Sefton Park.  Above a landscape transformed by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘frolic architecture of the snow’ a huge blood-red sun sank in a western sky streaked from pink to turquoise.

It’s remarkably cold for Liverpool – on Sunday a record low for Merseyside of -17C was recorded up the coast at Crosby, and this morning the reading in the car was -18C and the waterfalls in the park were frozen icicles.

This was Crosby beach a couple of weeks ago – with the unusual sight of frozen surf at the high-tide line.  That was at the time of the last snowfall and severely cold spell.  I really can’t remember snow like this before Christmas; my childhood memories are of wanting it to snow at Christmas – but always being disappointed.

Here’s a slideshow of snow scenes from Sefton Park two mornings ago and Crosby beach a couple of weeks back:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Snow-Storm by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
The steed and traveler stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structure, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Thea Gilmore at Pacific Road

Here’s to tonic, here’s to gin, here’s to sparks and here’s to gasoline…

Last night I went to Birkenhead’s Pacific Road to see Thea Gilmore on the opening date of the tour to promote her latest album, Murphy’s Heart.  It was a brilliant show that ranged from the Springsteen-like power rock of the opening numbers to the delicacy and introspection of acoustic numbers performed solo.

Once again, I pondered the mystery of why this superb singer-songwriter hasn’t broken into the mainstream.  Sure, many of her albums are uneven, and she does, at times, have a weakness for songs built around lists.  But she has written some of the outstanding songs of the past decade – songs like Old Soul, The Lower Road, Drunken Angel and Come Up With Me, to name just a few.  Two of her albums are perfect – last year’s winter solstice collection, Strange Communion, which The Times said was so good it proved that Gilmore is, ‘unarguably one of the finest singer-songwriters of her generation’ – and the live set, Recorded Delivery.  And it is true that Gilmore is so much better live than on disc – the live recordings of Old Soul and The Lower Road on Recorded Delivery were far superior to the studio versions, despite the latter having star guest performances. It’s not that the albums are over-produced, as some critics have argued, but that that often the production doesn’t serve the song or Thea’s vocals as well it should.

Certainly the performance last night by Gilmore and her superb band was faultless.  The band is outstanding band, consisting of partner Nigel Stonier on acoustic guitar, Roy Martin on drums, Vickie Edwards on bass, Jim Kirkpatrick on lead guitar providing the Springsteen riffs, and multi-instrumentalist Fluff on fiddle and Q-chord.

Pacific Road had seated the concert cabaret-style, with tables seating six persons, so you could sit and drink while watching the performance.  I was rather mystified looking round the audience – there didn’t seem to be anyone there under 30, and most I’d say were my side of 50.  Yet Thea has just turned 30: strange.  Thea and the band came on soon after nine, following a support set from Louis Eliot, a young folk singer from Cornwall.

Thea and the band opened with a storming rendition of the anthemic ‘Come Up With Me’, a reminder of how she has produced so many of these numbers with strong and catchy choruses, as well as those that make your heart catch, your skin prickle and your eyes fill with tears.

‘Automatic Blue’, off the new album, is certainly one of the latter kind. Thea introduced the song by explaining she wrote it for a friend who, after 20 or more years married and with kids, met an old love again, but ‘was very dignified…he backed off and watching someone so in love with the person they couldn’t have made me feel very sad.

Love is either wild frontiers or automatic blue…

The only time you can see her is when you close your eyes
You put your phone back in the drawer
And straighten your disguise
Think of the colours of your children
The songs you give wings to
The spring’s arrived and there’s a sky
It’s automatic blue

Thea has said that are some songs that its very hard for her to leave out of a set. ‘ I think I’ve only ever played two shows without ‘This Girl Is Taking Bets’ for example. Yeah.. I guess that would be the biggie.. its a very old friend and a real statement. I feel like something is wrong if its not there. It was there, along with one of my absolute favourites, ‘Old Soul’:

Well, I’m looking for an old soul
Where am I gonna go?
I’m looking for an old soul
Does anybody know?
I don’t want the worldly wise
I don’t want a good disguise
Just looking for an old soul

‘Cause when the days grow old
And the night gets cold
I’ll need a young heart
But an old soul

The constant thread throughout the evening was Thea’s impeccable vocal delivery, while the encores again demonstrated the breadth of her capabilities. During ‘Holding Your Hand’, alone with her acoustic guitar, you could hear a pin drop as she held the audience spellbound, while ‘Are You Ready’ closed the night with rousing, full-on apocalyptic rock.

I’m gonna haunt you
I’m gonna haunt you
Through the playgrounds
Through the fires
You’ll be saluting at the stars
And I’ll be holding your hand

I’m gonna haunt you
I’m gonna haunt you
Out on the other side of luck
Where every business deal is struck
I’ll be holding your hand

I’m gonna haunt you
I’m gonna haunt you
On every knife edge
Every trip
And on every needle tip
I’ll be holding your hand

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Set List

Come Up With Me
Call Me Your Darling
Coffee and Roses
Automatic Blue
Have You Heard?
You Belong To Me
Old Soul
Not Alone
Down To Nowhere
Teach Me To Be Bad
This Girl Is Taking Bets
You’re The Radio
Mainstream
Love’s The Greatest Instrument of Rage
That’s How The Love Gets In

Encore:
Holding Your Hand
Are You Ready?

Strange Communion

Strange Communion cover

‘Sing, sing for old December…’

It seems to be a rich year for Christmas albums (and I am not referring to the Dylan one).  For jazz, Carla Bley has produced the excellent Carla’s Christmas Carols, while the greatly-underrated Thea Gilmore has produced what may be, for me, the best non-jazz album of 2009: Strange Communion.

Actually, Christmas album is a bit misleading: this collection of songs  is redolent of all things wintry, the sense of short December days, cold outside and warmth within.  So Christmas is here, but more in its pre-Christian pagan form.

The album contains 8 originals and 2 unusual covers: Yoko Ono’s incandescent ‘Listen The Snow Is Falling’, which in Gilmore’s arrangment really does conjure up that sense of muffled silence as snow falls, and ‘The St Stephens Day Murders’, a little known Elvis Costello song, that sonically comes from the same place as the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ but which has lyrics that illuminate the mad hilarity and agony of an English suburban family Christmas.

Sefton Park 70

On the stunning opening track Thea, singing acapella,  is joined by the Sense Of Sound Choir on ”Sol Invictus’, that invokes the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus (‘Unconquered Sun’), whom the third century emperor Aurelian elevated to one of the premier divinities of the Roman empire, inaugurating the tradition of  celebrating Sol on December 25.

Come the dark

Come the cold

Come the beating air

Chill the night

Sol delight

Will be dancing there

And rise up, rise up

Days stretching weary wings

Come the day

Come the dawn

Somewhere in the rain

Low my heart

Low my life

Forget everything

Come the day

Thief of the night

Lift his voice to sing

Now rise up, rise up

Ever victorious

Low the tide

Low the light

Comes the sun again

Now rise up, rise up

Ever victorious

Low the tide

Low the light

Comes the sun again

Elsewhere, Thea Gilmore’s lyrics invoke the old Yule or Yule-tide pagan winter festival, later absorbed into the Christian festival of Christmas. In pre-historic times, winter was a very difficult time for people in the northern latitudes: the growing season had ended and food stocks would br running low. As the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon, people feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and cold. After the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. Although many months of cold weather remained before spring, they could take heart that warmth and growth would return, so the concept of birth and rebirth became associated with the winter solstice. A slight elevation of the sun’s path would be noticeable just a few days after the solstice – perhaps by December 25, the date on which celebrations were often timed to occur. In AD 730, the English historian Bede gave December 25 as the first day of the pagan year and wrote that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated all night:

They began the year with December 25, the day some now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen term Mōdraniht, that is, the mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through

So this is far from being a sugary, American-style Christmas album in the Christian tradition. Thea Gilmore has blended many different traditions and cultural commentaries on winter darkness and rebirth.  In ‘Midwinter Toast’ she sings:

I don’t believe in many things

But here’s my hymn to you all

‘Cold Coming’, inspired by TS Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’, the story that began with ‘a heart upon the straw’ is pursued to our ‘streets paved with light’, its meaning ‘the old reunion of the rebel with the fight’.

It was a cold coming

With stars upon the ground

And the sky was burning

And all the world was sound

It was a love beginning

A heart upon the straw

And the children were singing

Our Lord, our lord, our lord

Do you sing that song?

It was a cold coming

The streets were paved with light

You could hear the engines running

You could hear them all night long

It was a strange communion

His name raised up in lights

The old reunion

Of the rebel with the fight

Strange Communion does have a potential top ten Christmas single – ‘That’ll Be Christmas. The traditional Christmas staples – mulled wine, mistletoe – are here, but Gilmore cleverly crafts her words to take a swipe at Christmas while simultaneously celebrating it, which is probably how a lot of us feel about the whole thing.

This approach is captured, too, in Elvis Costello’s only Christmas song , The St Stephen’s Day Murders, about the day after after Christmas.  Elvis wrote and recorded the song for a Chieftains album in 1991. The lyric is a perfect portrayal of family life in the aftermath of Christmas. He is remembering , perhaps , extended family gatherings in his Anglo-Irish Liverpool-London childhood:

The good will that lasts till the Feast of St. Stephen

For that is the time to eat, drink and be merry

Till the beer is all spilled and the whiskey has flowed

And the whole family tree you neglected to bury

Are feeding their faces until they explode

There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias

Mixed up with that drink made from girders

Cause it’s all we’ve got left as they draw their last breath

Ah, it’s nice for the kids as you finally get rid of them

In the St. Stephen’s Day Murders

Aside from ‘Sol Invictus’, the most beautiful song on the album is ‘Drunken Angel’, which could have appeared on any Gilmore album and could be listened to in July, even though it is drenched in mid-winter imagery.  It is a song of affirmation and faith in beauty, feelings and renewal:

Winter tells its truth to anyone who will listen

It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low…

There are some things broken and some things to hold tight

To the few brave birds of the season who are sky-writing

Shine your light…

Now is the time that I will raise my eyes and be honest

And look out across the plain of another tired and reckless year

Give thanks for the love and wonder that was hurled upon us…

A drunken angel danced into my heart

Singing lonely days and a brand-new start

You can hear the howl of wings

You can feel it when the wine is flowing

The tired and the lonely lay down their weary heads

And, baby, sometimes the beauty in this world

Comes from just not knowing

Feeling instead

Sefton Park 64

The album has been picking up glowing reviews everywhere.  The Independent carried an insightful review this week, which included these comments:

Gilmore opens the album with ‘Sol Invictus’, a pagan hymn to winter solstice, sung a cappella with the Sense of Sound Choir, before offering ‘Thea Gilmore’s Midwinter Toast’ in agnostic manner. “I don’t believe in many things, but here’s my hymn to you all”, she admits, facing the uneasy prospect of the new year with hope but no illusions. T S Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ provides the opening image to ‘Cold Coming’, Gilmore’s folk-rock rallying-cry celebrating Jesus as outlaw revolutionary, “the old reunion of the rebel with the fight”, and finding an even colder coming in “the ringing of the till” […]

Lest her Christmas slip too far towards the cautionary and sober-sided, Gilmore offers her own unabashed attempt at a Christmas single with ‘That’ll be Christmas’ – and makes a better fist of it than most, mingling sharp coinages like “faith, hope and gluttony” with unusually fresh, evocative images over a rolling pop groove streaked with slide guitar. This album’s “Fairytale of New York”, meanwhile, is not so much her melancholy separation song ‘December in New York’, as the celtic-flavoured duet ‘St. Stephen’s Day Murders’, an obscure Elvis Costello oddity on which DJ Mark Radcliffe plays the Shane MacGowan part, brusquely sharing anticipation of “laughter and tears over Tia Marias”. But it’s another obscure cover, of Yoko Ono’s ‘Listen, the Snow is Falling’, which provides the album’s most magical moment, Gilmore’s delivery a hushed murmur over a shimmering synth-pad sparsely illuminated by the occasional chime.

Elsewhere, ‘Old December’ is another non-denominational celebration of the season – “whoever you praise, raise a glass to these days” – while acoustic guitar and an intimate shiver of strings lends an Astral Weeks ambience to the lovely ‘Drunken Angel’, which carries much the same message in more evocative language, promising that

Winter tells its truth to anyone who’ll listen

It will whisper to you slowly when the light is low.

Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times when we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wineskins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.