Gig 4 Tich Frier. 24th November 2008
Croydon Folk Club,
Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road,
My Location: 3 rows from front
Record Recommendation: Straight to Hell: The Clash.
A punk rock review on a folk blog, I hear people muttering. Remember, all music is connected with only few degrees of separation. It has been said that anyone could meet anyone else, anywhere in the world, and they would both know, or be related to someone if they traced their associates back 7 degrees. So why do we all hate each other? Perhaps we hated the person 7 degrees back.
I reckon that two, or three, associations at the most, separate music genres. Joe Strummer was a Woody Guthrie fan. The more I travel, the more I hear Woody’s influence- don’t be surprised if you hear his name mentioned later in this entry. Straight to Hell is a great track that is done in the reggae style that many Clash songs are famous for. It’s a tune that elevates the Clash above your average punk band of that, or any, time. They’re singing about injustice, cruelty, war and poverty, and its marching beat guarantees that it doesn’t get depressing. The song has a certain hypnotic quality. It draws you into the lyrics based on the plight of children of American servicemen being born to Vietnamese women in Hochi Min City. The line "it ain't Coca-Cola it's rice" is just sublime. If you’re lucky enough to hear the song on The Story of the Clash, the fact that it precedes Armagideon Time (by Willi Williams and J Mittoo) really shows that this band could put out a message in their awesome songs.
Last night I was watching my favourite channel (BBC4) and, much to my delight, The Clash Live: Revolution Rock came on, so I opened a beer. Only a few months earlier, I was watching, on the same channel, the Transatlantic Sessions. It’s strange how certain drinks seem to fit a certain situation; during the Sessions, I couldn’t resist a Talisker. It just seemed right to be supping it to that show. I suppose the fact that the Sessions were filmed at Strathgarry House in the Highlands, had a subliminal effect on my choice of beverage. Or maybe I just fancied a Talisker- that’s not a bad thing is it? What I’m saying is “good on the Beeb”, even though they have dumbed down a lot of their shows recently, i.e. Horizon, for broadcasting this diversity of music. A couple of weeks ago they played Jeff Beck at Ronnie Scott’s. Not my cup of tea really but it’s music, it’s live!
During the Clash Live, Barbara, one of my Polish house- mates, asked who the band was as she didn’t know any of the songs. I was about to tell her when they played London’s Calling and she recognised the track. She had first heard it at a private party when she was a schoolgirl living under Communist rule.
In the grand scheme of things, music is quite trivial I suppose, but I remember hearing London’s Calling for the first time and realising that music can move people. And I had been bombarded with amazing songs my whole life, with no restrictions, except my tender age, on what I listened to. In fact, another time I heard the song is a moment I will never forget. I was sitting on a terrace, a balmy evening in New York, the City’s skyline in front of me, London’s Calling on the juke box, I felt proud; I felt like I had arrived. In Poland at the time we had the Pistols, the Damned, and the Police, amongst others, in record shops and on the radio, they had censored Polish and Russian bands playing on the airwaves, and not much else. The effect London’s Calling had on the gathering Barbara told me, was at was electric. She said it was a link to the outside world. It’s only a song, but it let people know that there was a real world; they weren’t alone- what a song to put out a message of hope! As I imagine what it was like to hear, for the first time, the power and passion of that song, in an act of subversion toward the dictatorship, I get goose- pimples. This happened only 20 odd years ago; for me it’s a tangible link to the past. We acted as dictators to the Scots. It was a while ago now, but I expect that when the village folk heard a lone piper playing a rousing anthem on the banned bagpipes, it made them feel invincible. Just like the Poles and Joe Strummer.
It was a chilly evening a bit closer to home when I saw Tich Frier. He is summed up by the six words “small guy, big voice, sharp wit”. When he arrived, he didn’t disappoint. I say, “when he arrived” because during the floor spot acts, we thought that he wouldn’t. Ross, the MC, who is the first person I have seen drinking out of a tankard on this tour by the way, had a contingency plan though. A blues band was rehearsing in Ruskin House, if Tich didn’t turn up, they agreed to take on the mantle of main act.
Croydon’s Folk club is a stark contrast to the Ironworks in Oswestry where I was at a fortnight ago. It is in a nursery school hall in the grounds of the Labour Club’s HQ- Ruskin House. This was the first time I’d been to a gig where I put my reasonably priced pint (£2.70 including a packet of crisps) next to the candle, on the low half hexagon table that brought back memories of my schooling. It is a place that to many would be the stereotype Folk club, a bit rough around the edges, very informal, and an eclectic mixture of people. There was no pretence there; everyone was really friendly. I spent the first 10 minutes talking to a regular called Joan. She told me how the children, whose hall this would be next morning, had planted pumpkin seeds earlier in the year, to watch them grow, harvest them and turn them into soup. I find it reassuring that in the cynical world we live in, nature still provides wonder for kids.
Joan asked me what had drawn me from my local in Twickenham to Croydon. I told her about my mission, and she agreed that a lot of very talented musicians, many of who played at her club went sadly unnoticed. That night I achieved minor celebrity status- during the interval, one of Joan’s friends said to me “you must be our visitor from Twickenham”- word gets around! In fact I wasn’t the only guest from Twickenham, Wendy Grossman, who took a floor spot at the Brian Willoughby and Cathryn Craig gig that started this quest, was also there. Wendy has a sound folk pedigree; she has released a couple of albums, played numerous festivals, and provided backup for Bill Steele, and Jon Wilcox amongst others. She also has an entry on Wikipedia.
Ross who sang unaccompanied, was the first of a plethora of floor spot acts. I’m sure he won’t be upset when I say he hasn’t got the best voice in the world. But, like bowling in cricket, I’d never have the nerve to do it in front of a crowd, so I fully respect anyone who gets up and sings with no backup; and bowlers! Next up was the multi-talented Jenny- earlier she had been collecting money on the door. Chris Roach also sang unaccompanied- a couple of shanties this time. I’ve heard that the shanty is becoming popular again, and I must admit I do love listening to them. Believe it or not, Johnny Depp has released an album of them featuring artists like Shane McGowan, Bono and Brian Ferry, amongst others.
Joan who I’d been talking to, and her husband Phil, took to the stage and turned out a couple of good tunes. My favourite floor act followed- Les Alvin. He is a great local talent, and to be fair, he did stand out from the acts that preceded him. In particular I enjoyed Old Man of the Sea, he certainly performed it with the confidence of a well-rehearsed musician. Mike and Chris Crowthorne were up next, followed by Hector Gilchrist and Wendy Grossman. Hector, who makes up the Selki duo with Liz Thomson, and is founder of Wildgoose Records, was at the first folk gig I went to in Twickenham. I remember having a friendly chat with him, and my friend Miss Ford always asks about the lad when I go to Twick-Folk. He sings with an incredibly clear voice. I’m not sure where he comes from, but his voice has the lyrical tone similar to Scottish Gaelic speakers. Wendy once again played her now famous auto-harp.
Well, all of those floor spots took some following, and Tich did the admirable job you’d expect a seasoned professional like him to do. He’s been on the scene for forty years, and shared the stage with names such as Robin & Jimmie, Carthy & Swarbrick, Archie Fisher and Willy Russell, and he even has Dick Gaughin guesting on his latest album. At this point, the folk club could have done with turning the lights down a bit. The atmosphere the candles should have produced was lost in the glare!
The performance was one I really enjoyed. In the small venue I felt a closeness to the artist that I haven’t experienced for a while. Tich’s act was simple stuff- very effective though- a song followed by an introduction. He didn’t show off on the six string; but there was no need to. The story behind Northwest Passage, about John Franklin, husband of Lady Jane, was as interesting as the song itself. I liked his story telling, especially when he introduced Bothy Ballads, which originate in the ‘midlands’- Aberdeenshire. What followed was a cracking song called Ballad to Dougherty, and a mention of Moira Anderson. I haven’t heard her name spoken at a gig since I listened to Marillion, where Fish tells her to “eat your heart out” before launching into Margaret on their B Side Themselves album. I reckon it’s a Scottish thing!
Talking about Scottish things, the evening put me in mind of the October Fest Biggs and I went to at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe. Tich is the kind of artist who would go down a storm at that event. I reckon that the Woodcuts, even though they are English, could hold their own at the Clac. too. We do play a couple of songs from North of the Border. Other songs that stood out for me included Parish of Orwell, and Isaac Lewis, both on Shanghaied- Tich’s latest album. Half way through the set, Tich put down his guitar, and told us the story of how he sang Rose of York at his friend’s funeral recently. He then sang that song accapello to us. I don’t know how the people at the funeral would have felt, but it brought a lump to my throat- it is a beautiful song about the frailty of human life during war in the trenches. The seminal moment for me, however, was Tich’s rendition of Steve Earle’s Christmas in Washington. Wow! I sat back in that school hall with its flaking paint, and draughty window frames, and listened in awe- it seemed to sum up everything my mission was about. If you haven’t heard it before- I hadn’t- our old pal Woody is featured heavily in the lyrics. If you can’t make it to a Frier gig, you have to listen to Christmas, or if you like the song and desire to hear it live, get down to a Frier gig!
Thanks to Tich and Croydon for putting on a great show. I am enjoying this tour so much, and it is filling me with enthusiasm to get playing again. The Woodcuts are having a brief reunion for a practise and a beer in a couple of week’s time, and I can’t wait.
On the way out of the venue, I snatched a flyer as I sprinted to the station to catch the 23:16. The good news for the Barnaby in Broadstairs is that I’ll be visiting them on the 8th Dec to see John Pearson and Jem Turpin. Now they sound like a couple of folksters if ever I’ve heard of a couple.
I will see you there, Mark.