The last blog was a rant. A looooooong rant. I started to think of it as the Blogpost That Would Not Die. Every time someone would comment or repost I would feel the urge to add another 2,000 words to it.
So, a change of pace. The tune of the moment, dear Diary, is ‘Yeavering’ by Kathryn Tickell.
(I was sort of hoping to embed a YouTube video here of her playing it live or something, but I can’t find one. Strange how rare that is these days.)
I’ve said for a number of years now that of all of the musicians on the English folk scene, Kathryn Tickell seems to be the one who knows what she’s doing the most.
There are plenty of other fantastically accomplished musicians, but often the quality of their output is pretty variable. Of the younger generation particularly, the big guns tend to be risk-takers, and often try ambitious ‘concept’ projects that are pretty hit and miss. That’s a good thing, of course. Much better to have a scene that’s constantly taking chances. But… maybe it’s the pressure of the English ‘cultural cringe’, or how to reconcile the older trad audience with the younger indie-folk crowd, but these projects often involve blending very different elements. Clog dancing and Gabba. Melodeons and Roland 808s. And often the blend doesn’t quite seem to work.
But our Kath never seems to put a foot wrong. There seems to me to be a quiet confidence, that’s probably based on the fact that everything she does just seems to work. Perhaps part of this trick is that she doesn’t seem to be interested in being ‘cutting edge’, which is usually where it all comes unstuck. Which perhaps suggests she isn’t innovative, which she is. To me, ‘cutting edge’ means that feeling the need to be aware of, comment on and collaborate with the latest cultural trends. She seems to me like someone who really couldn’t give a funky monk whether she’s cool or not. She is what she is, and she does what she does, and people love her for it. Myself included.
Actually, I’m not even sure if it’s really fair to call Kathryn Tickell an ‘English’ folk musician, as her music seems to be so rooted in the Scottish/English border country. And the tunes she plays tend to be named after places in that area, and ‘Yeavering’ is one of them.
Yeavering Bell is a hill in Northumberland that forms part of the Cheviot Hills. (Yeavering Bell is also a nickname I hope to acquire one day, once I’ve discovered what it is to truly ‘yeaver’. If its anything like havering I imagine I’m already something of a pro.)
A lot of modern folkies write music that initially sounds old, but then reveals itself to have very modern cultural and political attitudes. Kathryn Tickell’s music, however, seems to me to be part of a very clear and rather non-folky tradition: that of the Romantics. The way she gets inspired by places reminds me of Constable or Wordsworth. She’s one of the few folkies, I think, who has this spiritual side to her music, and it’s very much the same sense of the transcendence of the beauty of nature that the Romantic movement celebrated.
When she introduces this song at gigs she talks explains how it’s about the mood you feel when high on the hills very early in the morning. The beauty and the silence and the constantly changing light. And listening to it, I think it captures that exactly. First it’s a solo violin part (a departure from perhaps the world’s most famous Northumbrian pipes player), and then another fiddle joins in in harmony. It’s melancholy, strange — the word I would use most (even though it’s a bit of a cliché) is ‘haunting’.
And then suddenly both fiddles leap from a minor to a major key, and it’s just the most spine-tingling moment. Awesome, in the traditional sense: inspiring awe. Exactly like the clouds have momentarily shifted, the mist has lifted and the hills are suddenly lit up by a shaft of brilliant sunlight.
Hannah and I saw her play this tune at Sidmouth this year, with her new band: The Side. It was a fantastic performance, with cello taking the place of the second violin.
But I suppose you never forget your first, and which was seeing her play it at the concert tent at Towersey.
The thing that I remember most was that she was playing with her brother and occasional Nick Drake lookalike, Peter Tickell. Siblings always tend to play very well together (when they’re not kicking each other in the shins or imitating each other sarcastically), but what struck me was the seemingly total concentration that Peter had when playing. He was standing about 2 feet away, and he was watching her with ferocious intensity, as though she was covered in petrol and about to light a ciggy. And they played in synch with each other so tightly that you could turn your back and think that one person was playing a particularly complicated 8-string violin.
It was one of the best examples of musicianship I think I’ve ever seen. And it’s one of the joys of the folk scene, I think. Not just families singing and playing together so well, but also the attitude of musicians that if you’re seriously good then you’re able to play second fiddle to someone else (literally), and make them sound better while giving them the limelight.
Anyway, although I couldn’t find a YouTube clip of this particular tune, I did find this, which I think nicely captures her appeal, as an artist and as a human being I suppose.
You’ll notice that at the end she says that The Side can do pretty much anything. If you want chamber music, they can do it. If you want toe-tapping jigs and reels, they can do that. If you want some stunning cello playing, they can probably do that too.
And although a childish part of me is secretly hoping she’ll say, “And if what you’re really in the mood for is a dirty wall of industrial beats and sub-bass under a Venetian Snares style mix of angular samples and analog keyboard riffs, sit back and let us blow your frontal lobe out of the back of your fucking skull,” I know she won’t, because they probably can’t do that.
But she knows that. And that’s why she’s so bloody good.