Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, 28 March 2007
We first knew Chris Wood in these parts as the fiddle-playing half of a musically rich and good-humoured partnership with the accordion player, Andy Cutting. In more recent times, we have known him for his robust campaign on behalf of the English folk tradition, if not the English folk scene per se. So, as we waited for him to take the stage at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork, we wondered who would turn up – the entertainer or the campaigner?
In the event, we got both, all wrapped up in a warm, witty and intelligent performance that ran for well over two hours. The music was certainly there, but so was the message. And the message was made all the stronger by the fact that it was delivered without resort to either sermon or harangue. Wood played without a safety net – no support act, no backing musicians, just his fine textured voice and an extraordinary guitar that incorporates parts from an old English post office (long story…).
Opening with ‘The Silver Dagger’ (‘Shakespeare in an Appalachian accent’), Wood was soon into the centre of his musical territory with ‘John Ball’, a Sydney Carter song, and ‘The Cottager’s Reply’, a wail against the ruin of ancient Cotswold villages by ‘the kind of sham that only the arriviste can create’. We also got good value from his solo album, The Lark Descending. ‘Hard’, an affectionate picture of his six-year-old daughter, was somehow more tender than the recorded version. ‘One in a Million’, a highly improbable tale of chip-shop romance, brought audible sobs from sections of the audience.
The Morris dance tradition came in for mention – both honourable and dishonourable. ‘When it’s bad, it’s really bad,’ he tells us. ‘Six overweight members of the computer industry, sometimes with an Arts Council grant attached.’ But when it’s good? Wood played ‘Haste to the Wedding’ to invoke the real spirit of Morris.
We got self-explanation in ‘Summerfield Avenue’, and a brilliant ‘atheist’s spiritual’ in ‘Come Down Jehovah’. But at the heart of Wood’s performance lie the great defining English songs such as ‘John Barleycorn’ and ‘Lord Bateman’. In the latter – and in his one-man mummer’s play England in Ribbons – he mixes the medieval world and the modern and, in the process, blurs the edges of history. He leaves the question hanging: is he singing about the original Crusades or the twenty-first century edition?
Yes, the venue was much too warm and, yes, the English bells relayed over the PA at the close of business teetered along the borders of tweedom, but Chris Wood brought us a type of magic that is all too rare. In creating this suspended atmosphere, he was helped to a great extent by the natural acoustic instincts of his sound man, Rob Harbron.
Chris Wood represents the English tradition in a proud and honest fashion, and he adds to it with every note and every word.
Published on 1 May 2007
Pat Ahern is a musician and producer. He lectures in mathematics at Cork Institute of Technology.