Return Of The Natives
The Central, Poole
For me, music has always been an almost entirely asocial thing – a subject and map of private obsessions. The bedroom was my venue, headphones and stereo speakers the media. Lists of records, books and magazines on music pile up all around. That mysterious one-way relationship – between record and listener, ear against the speaker, lyrics whispered under the breath, door closed against the world – was what music meant to me.
No wonder I find gigs hard. Having to find topics of conversation between bands, fumbling around people and things, looking around for people I know (which is always no-one), having to remind myself that what’s coming out of the speakers is made by the people right in front of your nose. Especially this music, which thrives on intimacy, on the sensation that there’s nothing but you, guitar and voice in a room – generally referred to as ‘folk’, but tonight that term seems pretty fucking nebulous. Perhaps the somewhat dingy lighting in The Central, and the sparse stage – upon which tonight’s compeer and organiser, Paul Hardsparrow sits – will help matters. Hm.
“I’ve only had 5 minutes to prepare, so if I forget some things…” Well, he did warn us. Hardsparrow picks out languid, flowing melodies, punctuated by glorious nonsense, delivered in a deadpan near-monotone, like Daniel Johnston circa 1991, if he hadn’t been insane at the time. He quite frequently stops, lets a single strum float, his face caught in an embarrassed smile, or asks us to bear with him as he starts again. It’s the singular charm wrapped around these ideas pouring from his slightly-balding head that pulls him through: only a handful of people could sing songs about fighting squirrels (“This other squirrel came up and bashed him. He went flying about three feet, horizontal” he tells us) and being spied naked as a young child by a paedophile (“Gordo is a paedo/And I’ll never go back to that lido” runs one variation of the chorus; he has to stop the entire song twice), and still get the audience to laugh with him in the intervals.
Quickly enough, Art Pedro is on stage – a member of Fife’s Fence Collective, probably the most famous DIY label in Britain – and busily chugging away at his guitar. He sings pleasantly, almost breezily, about paranoia and the urge to kill everyone giving you funny looks as soon as you leave the house, about loneliness, adultery, people being twats; I’m actually happy that this is live, as his presence – fumbling with his harmonica, not quite able to sing in time with himself because he has to read the words from a sheet of paper on his knee, scrunched up in a Tamla-Motown tee – is so endearing. When Lou Carpenter comes on and harmonises with him, and chides him for forgetting his lines, it’s the icing on the cake, her soft vocals curling through the songs like cigarette smoke, twisting around his guitar picking.
Just as I’m finished checking out the non-raffle (e.g. “free stuff on a table”), Ceylan Delicanli takes the stage (Animal Magic Tricks having been unable to play). Now this is what I think of, when I think of ‘folk’ – a frighteningly pure voice (she apparently beat Frances AMT in a ‘who can sing the highest’ contest), the most charming of guitar melodies, lyrics burnished with the silence of midnight reveries, the gaps between people and things, the passing of time. Thinking about it, your average ‘proper’ folk song – i.e. a song created by, uh, folk – is about as violent as your average power electronics one, and often a lot scarier (listen to Martyn Bates’ and Mick Harris’ Murder Ballads series if you don’t believe me.) So this – chilling the blood and warming the heart in turn – is just what ‘folk’ is meant to do; the world outside briefly disappears, as if the guitar were some talisman in a magickal ritual; we’re literally spellbound.
George Thomas (minus his usual Owls – unless they really are a one-man band, and we’ve been fooled all this time), takes up position behind his Ace-Tone organ, mutters an introduction, and proceeds to inform us “Don’t mess with me/’Cos I’m the former heavyweight champion of the world” over clip-clop beats, nervously fiddling with his hands. I suspect this sort of thing would come under the ‘antifolk’/’truecore’ banner so provocatively and recently raised by Mr Everett True, but then again I don’t really give two fucks about classification; Thomas glides through bizarre, theatrical (in the Endgame sense) songs and slow-burn ballads, his voice sometimes no more than a whisper, floating on moody organ chords. No, it’s not a recreation of the often brilliant and frightening intimacy of his recorded work, but something as good, if not better, a weird performance of supposed intimacy undermined by comedy, and the sheer physical presence of Thomas, a single isolated figure in the darkness, lumberjack stature towering over his organ. “I heard that Saint Eskimo were going to… uhm… play some soppy ballads… so I wanted to play some ballads… from the 80s,” he tells us. You can only laugh, or else you’d cry.
And then, of course, Saint Eskimo, composed of Golden Ghost – an elfin figure, her hands in pockets, glasses crouched on her tiny and beautiful face – and Viking Moses! – waistcoat-and-cravat-clad maverick, eyes burning and hair wild like he’s just wandered out of Wuthering Heights – who gather round either side of the microphone. An electric guitar picks out lines like the trails of fireflies. Their voices intertwine on songs like ‘Folly Of Man’, alternately lusty and playful, childlike and charged with low-key passion. They trade glances (and, occasionally, the guitar), or play coy; at intervals Golden Ghost hunches her shoulders and stares at the floor, like she’s genuinely hurt, and it’s so endearing it near breaks my heart. The songs are all ballads of the best kind, whether reimagined 80s pop songs or moments like the lambent, aching singalong ‘Baptism Dress’. And just occasionally – as, towards the end, they thank the audience for having them in endearing Midwest accents – they look as if they’re really, really enjoying themselves. Guitars are unplugged. An inflatable crab glowers down from the top of a speaker. Maybe public songs aren’t so bad after all.