The Furrow Collective: The Greys, Brighton, March 23 2016

Folk songs are full of death, deception and devastation. Yet a good folk gig is often a heart-warming thing: ideally you’ll leave full of cheer (and perhaps beer), having enjoyed a good laugh and perhaps a singalong or two. The subject matter might be chilling, but your heart is warmed.

furrow collective

The Furrow Collective – Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton, Emily Portman and Alasdair Roberts – exemplify this paradox perfectly. Much of their material is grim stuff indeed: there are tales of ghosts, deception, murder, dangerous pigs and hanging – plus the odd heartbroken lament. But the packed-to-the-gills Greys pub is full of people having a great time, on-stage and off.

The quartet, comprised of talented and singular songwriters, focus for the most part on traditional material. This perhaps makes it more difficult for them (any group that does traditional stuff, in fact) to form an identity – as opposed, to, say, a band who exclusively write their own songs, and whose members don’t routinely collaborate with others. ‘Trad bands’ must express themselves through the songs they choose, the way they arrange them, and finally the way they perform them.

And if gloom is a folk song staple anyway, what makes the Furrows special? One thing is the way they excavate and celebrate a certain weirdness in the canon’s murk.

King Henry, for example, is flat-out bizarre. It’s the story of an ogress who demands that the titular monarch feeds her a barnful of livestock and a horseful of wine, before coaxing him into bed. The tale is already leavened somewhat by Farrell’s suggestion that we picture Fiona from Shrek, but the song’s strangeness is accentuated by the group’s arrangement, which turns the disturbing call for “more meat!” into a chirpy refrain. They pull off the same trick later on Wild Hog in the Woods, in which the cry of “kill him if you can!” becomes a darkly cheerful exclamation.

There’s more to it than the sheepish ‘here’s another song about death, chuckle” intro you hear at a lot of gigs, too. Much of the set – such as the farcical Queen Eleanor’s Confession – is shot through with a perverse humour. It’s even evident on the flyer for the show, which depicts a landscape full of frightening cartoon creatures, one of which is being ‘collected’ by a brave field recordist with a microphone.

Not that the show ever lacks sincerity and gravitas. Skippin’ Barfit Through The Heather, led by Newton, is a seemingly simple tale of a gentleman’s attempt to woo a country lass. Roberts’ highly-strung guitar and Portman’s whistling concertina fill it with tension – the music adding a sinister subtext that might otherwise be absent. Which is both deliciously clever and, well, exactly the point.

Elsewhere, the brilliant Willie’s Fatal Visit is icy cold, and The Unquiet Grave is given a woozy ghostliness by Farrell’s musical saw. The Blantyre Explosion tells soberly of nineteenth-century mining disaster in Lanarkshire. Roberts takes the lead, and his colleagues add heavenly harmonies.

But it would be disingenuous to suggest the entire set is made up of horror stories. On I’d Rather Be Tending My Sheep, a shepherd’s uplifting celebration of the simple life, the whole pub follows Farrell in chorus. Later, she can barely get through Poor Old Horse, which is sung (wildly inappropriately) in celebration of a couple of audience members’ birthdays. Fits of giggles envelop band and audience alike as each incongruous line is sung.

The ‘collective’ element of the Furrows means the set is brilliantly balanced, and full of variety. Not only can you enjoy each member’s lead vocals – and they’re all different, all great – but in terms of pooled resources you also get a wide selection of English, Scottish and Irish songs, and various instrumental talents, as well as the aforementioned beautiful harmonies.

Roberts’ spidery guitar forms the backbone of many of the songs, with subtle augmentation coming from banjo, concertina, harp and fiddle – Farrell’s percussive playing really gives something extra to the already sprightly Hind Horn, for example.

It’s hard to imagine a fan of any of the foursome’s work elsewhere not liking The Furrow Collective. It’s a group that plays to the strengths of its members, allowing them to shine individually, but with a cohesive sound and dynamic: more than the sum of its parts, full of ideas, fun, melancholy, cleverness and weirdness. And all this in a pub that hands out free Easter eggs during the interval. Heart warmed, truly.

I wrote a (shorter) review of this gig for The Argus in Brighton – I’ll put up a link if they upload it, but it might turn out to be a print-only thing…

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