Some forty albums into his career – no mean feat, considering the first one appeared in 1998 – singer-songwriter Kenny Anderson, better known as King Creosote, has started to receive just rewards for his efforts. Diamond Mine, his collaboration with Jon Hopkins, was shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Music Prize – and as the duo revealed in a recent newspaper interview, the album came within inches of winning, being pipped at the post by PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. Nevertheless, the critical accolades came pouring in, and healthy sales followed in their wake.
Kenny and Jon began their set with a full run-through of Diamond Mine, in its original track sequence. Conceived as “a thirty-minute piece of continuous music with no singles”, the album is a subdued, melancholy affair, in which Kenny’s plaintive singing and strumming is complemented by Jon’s delicately understated electronics. The songs address the sometimes grim realities of coastal life in Kenny’s native Fife, and this acute sense of place is amplified by an array of field recordings from the same area. The same components were reproduced on stage, in a spell-binding performance; as each song ended, our applause almost felt like an intrusion.
The intensity lifted somewhat during the remainder of the set, lightened by Kenny’s droll asides between numbers, and by the time we got to the concluding covers of Song To The Siren and The Only Living Boy In New York, a collective mood of good cheer prevailed.
Support was provided by the intriguing Dan Wilson, who performed as Withered Hand, charming us all with his obliquely witty songcraft.
Twenty-one years after recording their Freedom and Rain album, June Tabor and Oysterband – both highly regarded English folk acts in their own right – have finally got around to releasing its follow-up, Ragged Kingdom. It’s June Tabor’s second release of the year, following in the wake of Ashore, a superb collection of sea-themed material. But where Ashore is sparse, bleak and haunting, Ragged Kingdom presents Tabor’s vocals in a fuller, comparatively rockier musical context. As such, it forms a neat companion piece, which also emphasises the interpretive range of both acts.
Not having seen her on stage before, I was warned that Tabor has a tendency to be a rather stern, schoolmarm-like performer. If that had ever been true, then perhaps the genial bonhomie of the six Oysters had thawed her. Smiles and laughter might not exactly be her stock in trade, but there were flashes of easy good humour, as well as some deliciously witty anecdotes between the songs; a tale of a Goth-turned-mum from June’s home town drew warm chuckles from the room, for instance.
But where some might merely see sternness, others – and this must have included the vast majority of the supportive crowd at Glee – were afforded a glimpse of one of English folk’s most justly revered figures, channelling every particle of her being into the material, deftly exposing every nuance of every line with expert focus and keen concentration.
Standing beside her, Oysterband’s singer John Jones provided a relaxed counterbalance, the pair’s vocals meshing with seemingly effortless precision on a cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. Other covers from the rock era included the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, PJ Harvey’s That Was My Veil, and a lesser-known Bob Dylan song (Seven Curses), which heightened the sensation that, in certain respects, June Tabor could be seen as England’s answer to the great Joan Baez.
Of the other players, special mention must be made of guitarist Alan Prossser’s heart-stopping solo accompaniment on The Hills of Shiloh, and fiddler Ian Telfer’s shudderingly eerie break on a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic classic, White Rabbit. Opening with the rumbling, almost Nick Cave-like Bonny Bunch of Roses, and closing with the tenderly communal Put Out The Lights, the band’s versatility was a pleasure to behold. Four UK dates into their tour, with fourteen more to follow, this was a collective operating at the very peak of their powers.
Although John Grant is barely known in his home country – a US tour was cancelled earlier this year, due to lack of ticket sales – the critical acclaim that was justly showered upon last year’s Queen of Denmark has helped to build solid British support for his work. The night before his show at Glee, Grant had performed at a sold-out Royal Festival Hall, accompanied by Midlake, the band that collaborated with him on the album. But for the Nottingham performance, he was joined by just one other player: a fellow keyboardist, who traded places with Grant as the duo switched between piano and synthesiser.
Stripped of their lush recorded arrangements, which evoke the melodic soft-rock of Grant’s childhood in the Seventies, the songs were thrown into a merciless new light, forcing the listener to focus on their core themes: heartbreak, loss and alienation, occasionally leavened by twists of wry wit. The set began with two new compositions, which addressed different aspects of failing relationships. On You Don’t Have To, the protagonists can’t stop fighting; on Vietnam, the singer’s beloved freezes him out with lethal silences.
Grant’s imposing stature and broad physique were counterbalanced by a genial stage manner, and by the aching tenderness of his performance. The heartbreak songs which form the core of Queen of Denmark are drawn from the real-life collapse of a love affair, and Grant’s delivery drew deeply from his well of suffering. At the end of the spoken introduction to TC And Honeybear, one of the most heartbreaking songs of all, a sympathetic audience member offered a kindly intervention. (“You don’t have to play it! We don’t need to hear it!”) Declining her advice, Grant launched into a staggering rendition of the song. On record, it tells the story of a break-up without ever explaining which of the two parties represents the singer himself. In performance, this ambiguity was devastatingly resolved.
In less capable hands, the show could have become a gruelling ordeal. But this performer had far more to offer than raw pain, torn from the pages of an old diary. There were smiles, there was laughter, there were self-deprecating asides and engaging anecdotes – and there was the angry, cathartic kiss-off of the album’s concluding title track (“Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?” “You’re just a sucker, but we’ll see who gets the last laugh”), in which the former lover is firmly shown the door. Blessed with a rich, sonorous baritone whose power is only hinted at on record, John Grant proved himself as an artist of rare skill, gifting us with a stunning, exceptional performance.
See also: my interview with John Grant.