“Are you in the party mood? I think I am.” Jim Moray is a touch hesitant as he kicks off his 10th anniversary party at the Union Chapel in Islington. It’s the final phase of a year of celebrations marking a decade since the release of his debut album Sweet England, which began with a joint headline tour with Eliza Carthy & the Wayward Band, continued with a goodie-packed reissue, and concludes tonight with a full run-through of the album.
Perhaps the reticence is because Moray hasn’t played some of the songs on the album for much of that time. As it turns out, this is an advantage for the audience, who revel in treats such as Lord Bateman and The Week Before Easter, which gets its third-ever outing.
The Doret Ensemble, a string quintet featuring two cellists, suit both Moray’s rich arrangements and the venue’s mighty grandeur. They give opener Early One Morning a majestic introduction, before Moray and drummer Dave Burbidge add an earthy punch, filling the cavernous hall. It’s just as fresh and exciting as it was in 2003.
It’s easy to forget Moray was just 21 when he put Sweet England together. Some of the songs are fantastically complex – both The Week Before Easter and The Seeds of Love require clever laptop trickery to even be played live at all; the latter is given added strength by its synth coda and the Dorets’ dramatic strings.
But the simpler moments are just as enjoyable. The joyful title track is resplendent, while Nick Malcolm’s woozy trumpet and Moray’s easy, inventive guitar playing gives the gripping Gypsies an air of unpredictability. Bowed, looped guitar adds a chill to the ghost story of The Suffolk Miracle, before Moray ends the first half on a quiet, sombre note, with the “unfortunately true” tale of Longing for Lucy.
The second set sees Moray in more relaxed mood. “I’m playing songs I know now,” he says, cheerfully. Jackie Oates, who featured on a backing track in the first half, joins her brother on the stage for a run-through of Lord Douglas. Moray has toured his award-winning arrangement for over a year now, and is masterful in his playing of it, adding clever instrumental runs and dropping the volume and tempo where necessary to allow the words more space to make an impact. With Oates’ vocals and the skilful melodeon of Nick Cooke as complements, the song is an absorbing delight. Later, Moray repeats the trick on his own, with a superb acoustic take on Long Lankin.
Oates is the first of a steady stream of guests, and the Union Chapel is treated to her haunting rendition of The Death of Queen Jane, so far unrecorded. Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker are next up. Both unassumingly virtuosic, they run through the superb After Me with Moray on the piano. “Our album owes a lot to Jim Moray,” Clarke tells the audience, though she politely declines to swoon at his feet (as the song suggests) as she accompanies him on Jenny of the Moor, instead opting to dazzle with her stunning voice.
A highlight of April’s Wayward Band tour was that it enabled Moray (and Carthy) to cut loose and play loud. While tonight’s show isn’t quite as flat-out raucous, back-to-back takes of Leaving Australia and William Taylor recall the impressive volume of those shows. William Taylor in particular is joyously noisy, with the Doret Ensemble’s swooping strings ramping up the tension to the evident joy of those on stage.
The guests keep coming. Moray is currently working with Maz O’Connor on her new album, and seems particularly pleased to have her join him on stage. She plays his “favourite song”, London Lights, to his evident delight. Next up is Bella Hardy. She wrote Three Black Feathers (partly during her maths GCSE exam, she tells us), which Moray included on 2008’s Low Culture, and according to him, “it’s time I gave it back”. Hardy combines an emotional delivery with some superb harmonies – no easy task.
Keston Cobblers’ Club are the final party attendees, and their song too is packed with intoxicating harmonies, as well as excited foot-stomping and rumbling tuba. The excitement – and party mood – has truly arrived. The Cobblers remain on stage – and are joined by everyone else – to accompany Moray on the show’s thrilling finale.
It’s not often Moray gets to play the gigantic-sounding Seven Long Years as it should be heard – with bruising drums and a mighty chorus, and he relishes the moment, singing the rousing nightvisiting song with power and spirit. It’s an emotional moment and as the departing musicians raise a glass to the crowd, a standing ovation is immediate and heartfelt.
It’s quieter, but the encore – in which Moray sings the gentle Wishfulness Waltz with his sister – is just as moving. He’s come a long way since the release of Sweet England, but the triumph of this show is that it balances the celebration of his past with the promise of more to come – not just from Moray, but from the superb line-up of his associates. Let’s hope he organises another party soon.