The Ham Marquee’s first roar of approval on Sunday 5 isn’t for a musician – it’s for a sailor. The Olympic triumph of Ben Ainslie is greeted with loud cheers from an understandably jolly seaside crowd.
Musically speaking, Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell aren’t the most cheerful duo in the world, and it seems as if their fragile, ever-so-quiet songs might be lost in the tent. But opener Hares on the Mountain (“we have to do this first or it might all go wrong”, warns Farrell, intriguingly) becalms the audience. A hush descends as Farrell sings sweetly over Kearney’s impossibly fast yet gentle arpeggios.
The duo maintain a balance of good cheer and melancholy, the former coming from their easy rapport and tragicomic song introductions. Letters to Lenore, for example, apparently details a heartbreaking episode in Kearney’s life, while the sheepish announcement of a song called There’s a Disease is enough to draw laughter from the crowd. Both songs are serious and sad, but with a lightness of touch that keeps them from being overly earnest.
Farrell accompanies the songs with quiet, sparing and appropriate fiddle, and shines in particular on the beautiful Down in Adairsville, adapted from the singing of Hedy West. The mournful rather than truly angry Call Yourself a Friend of Mine (“as in a rhetorical question”, deadpans Kearney) and a sweet, funny ode to a drunk girl round off the set. It’s rather a lengthy support set, and it’s a credit to Kearney and Farrell that they still leave the audience wanting more.
Shortly after the announcement of another GB gold (Andy Murray this time), Chris Wood takes the stage. He has, he explains, spent the past four days recording and is somewhat bemused by playing in front of “real people”.
Not that he really shows it. Confident enough to play a set heavy with new material (“you don’t mind, do you?” he asks, rhetorically), Wood puts in his customary classy performance, punctuated by thoughtful interjections – as if he is still discovering elements of his songs every time he plays them.
Wood says he is finding himself singing more and more about love and marriage these days, and The Sweetness Game exemplifies his talent for “writing about what I know”, while a song partially inspired by his recent collaboration with rapper Dizraeli wittily explores themes of parental pride and self-reflection. Wood’s gruff romanticism is rather charming, and his talent for such ‘personal’ songs adds weight to his ‘political’ compositions (though drawing a distinction between them is problematic – as Wood is fond of saying, “they’re all love songs, and they’re all true stories”).
He plays both his Radio 2 ‘Ballads of the Games’ songs, which neatly illustrate his ability to write in different modes. The first, about the “sparrow of Minsk” gymnast Olga Korbut, is a tender, beautiful tribute to “the world’s most charming little vandal”, who danced her way into the world’s hearts in Munich in 1972. “She’s heard it and she wants a copy,” reveals Wood, beaming with pride. Somehow, its joyous innocence makes the following song, about the terrorist massacre at the same Games, even more devastating. I’ve written about the song, Masterpiece, here, but it grips the crowd with its even-handed, chilling study of the atrocity, as pin-sharp as Wood’s award-winning Hollow Point. Its plaintive outro, the repeated question: “Are you playing?” is deeply discomfiting. “I don’t know much about the conflict,” he says. “But I do know that in forty years, nothing has changed.”
The new songs continue, punctuated by a swinging morris tune, but the lack of familiar material doesn’t faze the audience, who seem aware they are getting a sneak preview of what should turn out to be another excellent album. Former set staples like The Cottager’s Reply and even Hollow Point are omitted, but it still feels like a complete, engrossing set.
Wood plays A Cornish Young Man as his finale, shuffling gradually off stage as he rings out its final, rapturous ‘church bells’ on his guitar. It’s an appropriately uplifting end to a quiet, thoughtful, celebratory afternoon.