Photography: Glyn Akroyd / @glynakroyd

SHIRLEY COLLINS

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  • Alasdair Roberts
  • Olivia Chaney
Philharmonic Hall 6/5/17

A true icon of British music, SHIRLEY COLLINS’ impact on folk music and the folk revival of the 50s and 60s was crucial. She devoted her life to collecting traditional folk music primarily from England, but also delved in to field recording in the American deep South along with Alan Lomax, before developing dysphonia and disappearing into what she calls “the wilderness” later in life. But, after decades away from the limelight, Collins was persuaded to perform once again and last year released Lodestar, her first album in almost 40 years, to great reception. So, it’s with great excitement we are gathered here tonight to celebrate it.

In a flourish of colour and bells, we are greeted by a troupe of Morris dancers upon entering the Philharmonic’s foyer: it’s the first sign that this isn’t going to be any ordinary gig. Reminding us of the values by which Collins stands, they epitomise a strain of English traditionalism kept alive within a modern world. It doesn’t stop there either, as we are met by an onslaught of musicians offering their own take on traditional folk. From the nightingale-like voice of OLIVIA CHANEY, who blows us away with interpretations of Collins’ work and Italian baroque alike, right through to the thick Scottish brogue of Secretly Canadian’s ALASDAIR ROBERTS, whose emotion-filled ballads really do hit hard. Before the star herself has even taken the stage, we’ve been taken on a journey through a variety of folk art forms, and have been versed in social history – from both Britain and beyond – spanning over 300 years.

 

 

With the requisite context fresh in our minds, Collins and her band enter to huge, warm applause, and the spectacle is just something else. To call it a band seems to undersell the sights before our eyes – it’s closer to a small orchestra. With a humble “hello”, the folk icon introduces her first song: “Though this song may be more than 300 years old, its lyrics are more relevant than ever…” As the song starts, the fog fades with the poignant “So repent, repent sweet England, for dreadful days draw near.” In light of the current political situation, these words hit hard, while images often bastardised and stolen from May Day parades roll out on screen. The song itself reaches its end before its haunting instrumental sings out, as flames burn bright on the screen behind, offering up symbolism of both destruction and the lasting flames of hope.

Far from the perceptions of tweeness and simpler times, the songs offer up a blend of cruel humour and, sometimes, deep sadness. From the harsh realities of a woman giving birth at sea, through to murderous intent, no punches are pulled. But these are quickly balanced out by the absurdist nonsense of Old Johnny Buckle, and the brimming optimism of Pretty Polly. Like a collage of Collins’ own experiences, she and her band take us from the leafy pastures of rural England where she grew up, through to the Cajun swamps of the deep South where she eventually recorded some of her songs.

Much like Collins’ long and rich life, tonight is an experience very difficult to fit into 500 words. A combination of mid-set Morris dancing, the alien noises of forgotten folk instruments and the films which accompany them, this show offers something that we’ve never experienced at a concert before – and probably never will again.

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