To think of Ralph McTell live @ Words & Music Festival
The Words & Music Festival team have done it again. Via their newly-formed Nantwich Roots Festival, they have brought in another legend, filled in the seats against the variants tide and programmed a delicious set at the Nantwich Civic Hall. Ralph McTell is the headliner, supported by Liverpool-based musician Anna Corcoran.
I am lucky enough to have been invited. Ralph McTell is a treat for me. The grounded and humble artist serves unpretentious Folk for the most heart-warming feel. My soul had been starving for food unspoiled by artificial sweeteners and my belief I’d find it on the musician’s set was vindicated. The artist took us on a trip of soul food, great friendship, musicianship and insight into the origin of his songs.
Producer and festival co-organiser Nigel Stonier introduces the evening and announces what was indeed going to be a great night.
I’m sitting next to a little girl and her father. Later I find out that her name is Abigail. She was at one point Ralph McTell’s youngest fan, at 4 years old. She was certainly the youngest at the concert on this day. She has met our act before. In fact, she was in a related BBC programme testifying of that. And she will later go and say hi again, backstage. She will come back having realised that my name was on the Words & Music Festival shirt she was wearing. I think she blushed, how lovely. That made me smile. I love her name, Abigail. I will then take a photo with her, but not as a performing artist giving her that gift. She is the music sensitive artist who wants to learn the guitar and is already appreciating the art. This photo is for me when she becomes a star as I know she will. And I will show it to her to remind her we once had this wonderful experience. Of course, I am not going to post it here! She’s underaged! But for the moment, we are going to watch Ralph McTell live!
Supporting act Anna Corcoran starts off the night with a collection of well-received originals and covers. Her versatile piano playing accompanied her lovely vocals to support a varied set including 2016 album’s pieces Adelphi and All That’s Pretty. The Americana Music Awards UK 2021 instrumentalist of the year has played with the likes of Laura Marling and showcases her talent during her opening set. You can find more of what she does at her Facebook page, Anna Corcoran on Facebook.
After the break, the hearts are served a mix of song explanation in the form of inspirational narration (clearly never meant as much more than contextualisation) and nourishing songs that they had been yearning for.
First love – The first song is that of the boy who invented himself a persona to attract the opposite sex. It is a story seldom told but so often experience by all genders. At this point, this is my favourite song of the set (and my known favourite songs has not even made it yet).
The story of Harlem’s Reverend Bill unveils one of McTell’s musical heroes, inspirational blues and a sweet example of literal blind faith. The Black Blues artists who have fed McTell’s musical muse would be proud that he has developed a style of his own, that his audience relates to.
Capehorn – A 1928 film subtext inspires the next, strumming song. McTell continues to delight with his blend of simple pleasures and uncomplicated waves underpinned by lessons of a life well-observed and simply lived. The lyrical punchline asserts that to love your life, you have to flirt with death.
The next song requires a change of guitar. The artist entertains us with his humble and funny (in the simplest way) narration. “Nigel,” (the organiser) he tells us, “has trouble playing this song.” So maybe the trick is to sit like Ralph to avoid the guitar constantly escaping your grasp. Nigel later tells me that the song is called Nettle Wine. As McTell plays, I’m reminded of the typical Folk arrangements that the likes of Georges Brassens also add to their arrangements. This time, I hesitate to say this is my favourite song so far because I have already been proven wrong three times during the same set.
Talking about guitars had McTell start reminiscing about the late Scottish Folk musician Herbert Jansch (Bert) who changed the way British acoustic guitar players played. Thalis led him to transition to a song Bert Jansch arranged, Blackwaterside (I’ve also seen it written as Blackwater Side and Black Waterside hmm…) which he then covered for us.
Another change of guitar leads the songwriter back to the one he’s had since he was 19. He tells us of his friendship with Bert, a man with whom he’s had lots of adventures all over Netherlands, USA, Spain, etc. He cannot but think of his friend every time he plays the guitar for the time they shared and the tips and tricks they exchanged for best playing their favourite instrument. The nostalgia particularly hit as he changes his strings every night.
I really, really don’t want to say that Gammel Dansk is my favourite so far. The lyricism is on point, cinematographic and all at once lifting and grounding. The chord progression is beautiful. All that seems to invade my head are the last words “And the rain turned back to snow”.
I was right not to say that Gammel Dansk was my favourite even as only the first few chords of the next song had resounded. One of the musicians who changed his life, this is the 2nd time he plays this, rolling guitar player with a wonderful voice and a beautiful smile – Ralph wrote this just the other day – a little Americana “Mississippi John”
Mr McTell then serves a beautiful, beautiful lullaby “When they were young“. The song was repetitively requested and its air reminds us why. For a moment, I am taken to the most peaceful place within myself. There is love, nostalgia and melancholy. I know for sure there is no point trying to pick a favourite now.
The next song is The Girl On The Jersey Ferry. Ralph Mctell blends melancholy and passion in the piece. The idea germinated from a scene in the movie Citizen Kane. This boy saw this girl on the Jersey Ferry and knew instantly that he was going to spend the rest of his life with her. But she left never and never came back.
Ralph McTell now gets up again to play the rest of his set. I’m thinking how appropriate it is that Abigail was falling asleep (it is late after all) as the guitarist starts performing The Girl From the Hiring Fair. I find the lyrics a little sensual, nothing scandalous (especially considering what pop has been serving us) but still. I loved the lyrics though, gosh, what penmanship!
There is no Ralph McTell live set complete without the song. The Streets of London is dedicated to Jeff (Jeff Pownell, I later find out). I am entranced. The public is one. The main man sings and asks us to join and no voice is louder than another. We sing as one, as a rehearsed choir and it sounds like magic. Nantwich has a beautiful unanimous voice with a beautiful rendition that all at once thanks and celebrate the man.
We get to another one of his heroes. This time it is for American Blues influencer, composer, masterful guitar player and singer Robert Johnson for whom he wrote a song. He reminds us here again of the debt he feels he owes these Black Blues icons. The song’s title is simply The Ghost Of Robert Johnson.
When McTell says “thank you”, my heart sinks. Where has the time gone? Why is it already finished. But the singer-songwriter keeps on giving and before we know it, there is another song. It is the song From Clare To Here. I feel better already. But I know the end is near and at least now I can prepare myself mentally. And the ballad is calming so I am more than grateful.
For his encore, Ralph McTell goes to another kind of hero. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is the 1963 second album by the Folk musician. The album, McTell tells us, changed the way people made songs, bringing a new wind in music (I wonder if the pun was intended). Suze Rotolo shares the album cover with the legend and later writes a book A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties about her time with Bob Dylan and other artists. What they create on the cover (shot on West 4th Street And Jones) though sums up the feeling that goes throughout the album, two people free to make music. The song West 4th Street And Jones is an homage to the inspiration the cover, the Folk legend that is Bob Dylan and the book inspired. It is probably why he picks up the harmonica (to complement the guitar), an instrument that has a tendency to feature on Dylan’s songs.
The audience is sated. The smile have not left their faces as they realise the set has reached its most natural end. It is hard to deny what a great evening we have just spent.