There’s something rather awe-inspiring about Cecil Sharp House, particularly for the musicians that play there. Perhaps it’s the history, the collections within it or even the vaguely churchy wood-panelled Kennedy Hall that intimidates.
Olivia Chaney, for example, refers to C# House as a “holy place”, and uses it as a start point to briefly discuss her place in the world of folk music. She talks of being seen as a purist by some and “not pure enough” by others – which, on reflection, seems like a pretty good place to be.
Chaney’s voice is certainly pure, and she accompanies her cut-glass tones with classical-sounding piano, acoustic guitar or harmonium. There’s a highbrow feel to her performance, and her songs are absorbing and calming. A highlight is the beautiful Swimming in the Longest River, which Chaney recorded with Alasdair Roberts. She covers a Fionn Regan number, and while there’s no frowning about it from the audience, her own (or traditional) material is more interesting – for example pretty set closer The King’s Horses.
Cecil Sharp House has made an impression on Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, too. Hamer talks of being “excommunicated” after making a joke about his tuning being “good enough for folk music”. But there is no danger of this, partly because Mitchell charmingly refers to the audience as a sea of “beautiful faces”, but mainly because of the wonderful music they’re playing.
The pair have only recorded one record together, so the set consists of the brilliant Child Ballads album (see my review of it for Bright Young Folk here) in its entirety, along with a few bonuses. An acoustic guitar and mic each is all they need – opener Sir Patrick Spens is stately, Clyde Waters compelling and emotional (the duo’s plaintive “I dreamed my lover was at our gates and nobody let him in” is particularly affecting) and the immaculate Riddles Wisely Expounded more urgent than on record, but still dreamy – Mitchell’s eloquent retorts to Hamer are further proof of their vocal compatibility. Her sweet (but not too-sweet) voice and his Neil Young-esque (thanks Emily) tones glide over one another like they’ve been doing it for a lifetime.
This compatibility extends to guitar playing, too. Both are dextrous pickers, but Hamer tends to take the lead, driving the insistent, dancing melody behind “disapproving mom-witch” story of Willie’s Lady, while Mitchell adds subtle, clever embellishments. Again, it just feels natural.
After the a measured Willie of Winsbury, the duo turn to some “older songs” – Wedding Song from Mitchell’s 2011 album Hadestown goes down well, while Hamer’s evocative song about “the sighing of the wind” is melancholy and moving. “Our songs make the ballads seem cheerful”, he quips.
There’s time for the epic, Springsteen-esque title track to Mitchell’s Young Man in America album and an upbeat version of Woody Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty before the pair return to the ballads, for a fairy-free Tam Lin. “We were interested in it as a psychological metaphor”, reveals Mitchell, underscoring why the resulting arrangement is so compelling. They may have put the song “on the operating table”, but the surgery is deeply considered, precise and successful.
A final, Carthy-inspired version of Geordie finishes the main set, before Mitchell and Hamer return to stand among the crowd for an unplugged encore that comprises an American traditional song and covers of Emmylou Harris & Gram Parsons and Jethro Tull. The crowd is delighted – but frankly by this point Mitchell and Hamer could be singing pretty much anything and Cecil Sharp House would still love them. Perhaps it’s not such an intimidating place after all.