Chris Wood and Dizraeli: Cecil Sharp House, London, 19 May 2012

Chris Wood & Dizraeli
Photo: Caroline Iandoli

I was a bit suspicious about the pairing of folk singer Chris Wood and rapper Dizraeli. It’s almost a cliché to talk about how hip-hop has taken the mantle of ‘the voice of the people’ but, with the exception of Jim Moray and Bubbz’ duet on Lucy Wan, we’ve heard more theory than actual crossover.

My suspicion wasn’t borne of any dislike of hip-hop: more my enthusiasm for Chris Wood. He’s a thoughtful, quiet craftsman with a gift for space and a surgical precision with words and notes. His Folk Award-winning composition Hollow Point, to pick an obvious example, is a masterpiece, putting the putative notion that ‘hip-hop is the folk music of today’ to bed – folk music, when it’s like this, is the folk music of today, and there’s plenty of room for both. So, as a fan, I’m a little apprehensive about any collaborators – I want Wood to keep creating music in his own way.

It seems he is doing so. Wood opened the night himself, introducing the mixed audience – young and old, perhaps a 60:40 split of rap fans and folkies – to his own songs, including Hollow Point and traditionals like Cold Haily Windy Night. Grumpily witty as usual, he explained his reluctant participation in the BBC’s forthcoming (rather naff-sounding) Olympic Radio Ballads series – “you can’t keep turning them down. There’s only so many times the BBC ask you to do things” – before delivering a nuanced, solemn take on the 1972 Munich massacre.

Bar set suitably high, it was time for Cecil Sharp House to meet Dizraeli: a smiley, polite and pleasantly scruffy bloke with an acoustic guitar. The trio (bass player Nathan Feddo also took to the stage) started with a lilting take on Albion, Wood’s poignant tale of finding a suicide victim one Sunday morning. As well as useful harmonies and an acoustic riff, Dizraeli contributed a concise, sensitive piece about a friend who’d apparently died. It was left to the audience to make the link with the song – was the story of its victim being painted in?

It was an impressive start, but Dizraeli’s first lead – his “alternative national anthem” was even better. A thoughtful, bombastic state of the Eng-er-lish nation address, it took in sunbathing, riots and the complications of English pride with confidence and intelligence. It might have been a little out of the comfort zones of the folkies present, but it was clear to see what Wood – beaming throughout – had spotted: another side to a very similar coin.

Wood & Dizraeli live
Photo: Caroline Iandoli

Musically, Wood and Dizraeli complemented each other well. Particularly affecting was a duet in which Wood sung a tender ode to marriage, while Dizraeli chipped in with sorrowful, bittersweet verses about one-night stands; the almost palpable scent of tragedy and sweat-soaked sheets made even more desperate by Wood’s homely tones.

Elsewhere, Dizraeli’s Was A Rapper was a clever, modern ballad – comparable to Benjamin Zephaniah’s retelling of Tam Lyn, but grittier. There was a sense of fun, too – Wood performed an affectionate song about being lectured by young people, while Dizraeli acknowledged his “white, middle-class” background with a funny, incisive piece about finding himself in India. “Sooo real,” he concluded, sagely.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the pairing’s success was their take on Oxford City, updated to tell the true story of an ‘honour killing’. Wood’s update told a grim, timely tale, while adding a further layer of humanity to the ‘original’ ballad. Dizraeli, apparently a talented actor too, added in-the-moment commentary from a variety of perspectives, including the killers. The atmosphere created was overwhelming: chilling, oppressive and starkly tragic.

The presence of the mixed crowd was genuinely exciting, and all seemed to enjoy the performance: Wood managed to keep the younger crowd entertained, while Dizraeli won over the folkies with ease – perhaps the quiet, acoustic nature of the show helped with this. The question of genre didn’t seem to matter in the end: folk, hip-hop, ballad-singing, rap… whatever: this was simply two compelling artists telling stories of their England, and telling them brilliantly.

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