Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar’s opening tune set, Warwick Road, showcases a rare instrumental chemistry. Earthy guitar and silky fiddle combine sweetly before the pair up the pace – and the volume – with the simple addition of a stomp box (for fiddler Algar) and a pedal that amps up the bass in Russell’s guitar. As the tune comes to an end, for a second or two it seems strange that only two people are on stage – a temporary dissonance familiar to anyone who ever saw Spiers & Boden kick up a racket.
Like those two, Russell and Algar also sing traditional songs – but they’re more obviously political. A broadside ballad titled 1908 is a good example of this, with Russell’s heartfelt delivery lending the piece – about liberal reforms, he says – an anthemic feel some 110 years later. Russell’s voice is quite the thing. You can listen to him sing Stan Rogers’ Lock Keeper via the video, below. He seems to be able to animate both sides of the conversation in the song with a mix of youth and wisdom.
The pair’s original songs are where the passion really kicks in, though. There’s something about trains and folk music (they play the John Henry-referencing The New Railroad later): Russell’s Line Two, inspired by the HS2 development – and the remarkable fact that 16 houses to be knocked down in Mexborough, Yorkshire to make way for it were built as recently as 2014 – is a great example of a modern protest song, spreading word of this and other startling statistics. “If your train must come through here / When can it disappear?” he asks. With such not-very joined-up thinking behind the railway, it seems like a fair question. A piece about nearly forgotten footballer and WWI hero Walter Tull is equally eloquent.
The pair’s between-song chat is refreshingly not-slick, and occasionally amusingly caustic. Russell tells the audience more than once “not to make a bollocks of it” if they choose to sing choruses, and variously reprimands and encourages jokes from the front row.
Tune sets appear at regular intervals, seemingly growing in energy as the set progresses. George’s is lovely and lyrical, but my favourite is Algar’s (Tinder-referencing) Swipe Right, which races to a pulsing, almost trance-y conclusion.
But it’s the straightforward double-punch of two songs towards the end of the set that resonates most. The Silent Majority addresses global despotism and injustice head-on, using uncomfortably recent atrocities as examples of moral failure, and all but demanding the audience stand up and do something about it. Now! Russell’s driving guitar is complemented perfectly by Algar’s queasy, tense introductory fiddle lines, which turn more urgent as the song builds.
Algar suckers the audience with his introduction to We Are Leaving, initially hinting it’s going to be a break-up song. In fact it addresses the Grenfell Tower fire, and the wider shabby treatment of some of its residents. Algar’s singing is direct and true, and the words unflinching and powerful. Like much of what the audience hears tonight, it’s what modern folk music should be about.
(Main picture credit: Simon Rogers. See more pics of the gig at our Facebook page)
Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar’s tour is almost at an end, alas. But keep an eye on their gigs page here – they said they’d be touring again this autumn!