Stick in the Wheel singer Nicola Keary’s on-stage chat is the deadest deadpan you’ve ever heard. She elliptically mutters about being “challenged” as one audience member struggles to see her, dedicates Red Carnation “about death and that” to the late Barry Chuckle via a half-joke (which falls flat), and labours over the introduction to Witch Bottle to the point that her band-mates start teasing her. At one point she just audibly sighs into the mic. For a festival audience used to good-humoured banter it’s something of a shock, but once she starts singing, it’s clear Keary’s ‘indifference’ is limited to the between-songs bit of the show.
The Folk Week blurb for Stick in the Wheel describes the East London group as ‘fierce’ and ‘authentic’. This is true. The band are taut and their arrangements spare, with melodies primarily coming from Ellie Wilson’s fiddle and Ian Carter’s dobro. This allows plenty of space for a fresh, percussive sound to come through, led by Simon Foote’s cajón, but crisply augmented by handclaps. It’s simple and it works!
The first two tracks, Champion and White Copper Alley, go by in a staccato, thrilling matter of minutes, Keary’s delivery as precise as it is steeped in her cockney accent. Common Ground tackles the subject of enclosures in a similarly punchy manner, with Fran Foote’s harmonies nicely balancing out the sound.
There’s a more epic side to the band, too, exemplified by the stately, measured Witch Bottle (which lives up to its introduction) and the downright malevolent Captain’s Apprentice. When Keary spits the line “with my tarry rope I killed him / because I could not bear his cries” it’s never sounded so plausible.
Bows of London (straight-facedly introduced as “The Twa Sisters, which is Scotch for two sisters”) is a full-throttle riot, while Seven Gypsies is delicately played, with a sensitive ear for volume and pace. The group’s sole instrumental number, the engaging Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, features recorder (or is it a whistle?) and a sprightly beat – the perfect soundtrack to a rowdy Elizabethan night out. Me N Becky, meanwhile, is a brilliant original piece: a two-and-a-half-minute twisty-turny soap opera of looting, guilt and consequence set among the 2011 London riots.
Inevitably, Keary seems wearied by the pantomime of the encore, but the band’s beautiful performance of Bert Jansch’s Wishing Well ends the afternoon on a note that’s warm and sincere.
A word on support act Naomi Bedford & Paul Simmonds, who whizz through a hearty mixture of Appalachian ballads and original material. Their Donald Trump-inspired song begins with this couplet: “Here comes the man who’s gonna build the wall / How’s he gonna build it when his hands are small?”. Its childishness is somehow profound – it has us chuckling through the rest of the song, anyway.
Main photo credit: Toby Amies