The first night of a mini-series of London gigs curated by Eliza Carthy “celebrating the power and expressiveness of the human voice”, was devoted to those who cannot sing for themselves. The Songs for the Voiceless project has already produced an album of songs inspired by the First World War (see the video below for a behind-the-scenes look), and the visit to Kings Place was the second night of a tour not only recreating it, but with a broader remit of songs and tunes related more generally to war.
Carthy wasn’t performing, but she introduced Jackie Oates, Bella Hardy, The Young’uns, Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts, Tom Oakes, Matt Downer and Michael J Tinker. The group frequently accompanied one another – with Oakes, Downer and Tinker proving capably versatile on a mixture of flute, guitar, bass and harmonium – but each had their own solo moments, too.
As you’d expect, the tone was predominately sober: Trenches, written by Ian Stephenson, glumly explored reality and culpability, with lines like “it took his face clean off”, while Tinker’s Charles Ball told of a dying man whose prayers were with others. Oakes played a breathy, bassy and melancholy flute piece, and Hardy led the line on a heartfelt version of Bonny Light Horseman.
But there were, perhaps surprisingly, some more upbeat moments. Gilmore’s Trojan Tree alluded to the stranger-than-fiction tale of a fake steel tree stump constructed to allow allied soldiers to spy on the enemy, while The Young’uns somehow managed to conjure an uproarious thigh-slapping music hall number based on three tales from the trenches. “We’ve unwisely decided to do it in cockney accents”, they mused, throwing in clipped officer-class tones, cartoonish German voices – and the odd theatrical “blimey” – for good measure.
In John Hill, from their Never Forget album (which they talked to Folk Witness about here), The Young’uns already have a profoundly affecting song about World War I, but such is Sean Cooney’s work rate (“ridiculous – just stop it”, joked Bella Hardy) that they produced another one – between the recording of the album and the gig. Private Hughes movingly told the tale of a simple note put inside a bottle in 1915, not to be discovered for nearly 100 years.
The best was saved for last. Jackie Oates isn’t on the album, and is taking the place of Josienne Clarke for part of the tour. This made her performance of Clarke’s stunning As The Dust Settles In – inspired by Clarke’s great-grandfather’s terrible experiences in the trenches – all the more impressive. Both are excellent singers, of course, but to take on such a personal, melancholy song is no mean feat. Oates did it with perfectly judged sensitivity, bringing it a different vulnerability.
And Hardy provided the pre-encore finale, with a typically smart song. Jolly Good Luck to the Girl That Loves a Soldier – also the name of the music hall piece it is a response to – attempted to resolve her feelings at seeing a poster that read ‘Women of Britain say Go!’, and considering everyone from “the sweethearts of the Tommies” to Russian soldier “Maria Bochkareva and her Death Battalion”. Performed with nothing but Hardy’s strummed fiddle and jaw-dropping voice, it ended the show on a thoughtful, open note – it (and the short and bittersweet encore) left the audience wondering at the incredible scale of war’s impact.
Songs for the Voiceless is at the Brook Theatre in Chatham tonight (November 8) and the Salisbury Arts Centre tomorrow (November 9). To see more of Simon Rogers’ photos of the show, check out the Folk Witness Facebook page. Give us a like while you’re there, and don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter, too