This evening at the Union Chapel kicked-off in a low key way with Jon Boden wandering on stage and explaining that there wasn’t really a planned support, but that multi-instrumentalist Rob Harbron would do twenty minutes or so on English concertina. And this he duly did with a series of meandering tunes taken from his new album appropriately entitled ‘Meanders’ which illustrate how inspiration can come from many sources – could be a Travelodge stay, could be the song of a blackbird. Or it could be a deliberate attempt to reconnect with his birthplace by learning Lake District folk tunes that had impinged not one note onto his consciousness in his youth. It made for a nice little extra as a warm up to the gig.
Boden led the full Remnant Kings out to a fine greeting. This is a big band in the Bellowhead tradition, with eleven players in total covering a healthy sized string section, a couple of horns, Rob Harbron, Sam Sweeney on drums, Paul Sartin on oboe and cor anglais, Ben Nicholls on bass and Richard Warren on electric guitar. The group have a new album out – ‘Rose in June‘ – which gathers together some traditional songs, some reworked covers of more recent music, and big band versions of songs from ‘Afterglow’ and ‘Songs from the Floodplain’, two of Boden’s solo albums. Boden is a singer with two careers – the reinvigorater of traditional folk songs and the creator of concept albums which sit towards the proggier end of folk-rock in their depictions of post-apocalyptic stories in the post-oil world. It’s the kind of thing one might expect would cause him to pitch different tours to serve different audience expectations – except how could one ensure that the audience knew which Jon Boden they were getting on a particular night ? The solution is to weave the two strands together, to take the dystopian futures and make them link into a consistent tale whilst peppering that story with more or less suitable traditional interludes. And then throw in a few crowd pleasers on the top. If that sounds like a plan it is because it is a plan, and a plan that works.
What Boden brings to this music is theatrical display – the stage is adorned to resemble a sailing ship, with canvas sails and netting strewn about and against this stage dressing Boden strikes dramatic poses as he sings. He also works through his instruments with some rapidity – opener Ewan MacColl’s ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’ has Boden on concertina, the big band version of ‘We do what we can’ from ‘Songs from the Floodplain’ has him switch to acoustic guitar and the percussive ‘Rigs of the Time’ is a chance to unleash his fiddle on a song about untrustworthy traders with the chorus refrain “Honesty’s all out of fashion”, which is jokingly dedicated to Boris Johnson. It brings the strings to the fore with an eerie accompaniment that plays up the 19th century imagery of blatant liars and scam artists with no shame: “Here’s to the butcher I must bring him in / charges four pence a pound and he’ll think it no sin / slaps his hand on the scale weight to make it go down / he’ll swear its good weight when it wants half a pound.”
The set continued with more glimpses of the apocalypse, with a softly rocking ‘Moths in the Gaslight’ portraying a protagonist’s journey amongst gathering crowds towards a ruined city where they gather for an annual carnival as described in ‘Afterglow’ with the “Rabble riptide turning” as an excited mob forms until Boden imagines that somewhere, “Post-apocalypse morris dancing” is taking place. This is conjured up with a fine set of dance tunes that moves from just a melodeon and fiddle to become strong of strings, with additional fiddles appearing through the band, including Sam Sweeney who also maintains the beat on the kick-drum. It’s impressive. And it’s all aided by the venue – if Boden sings of shadows then the side aisles seem just a little darker, as the Union Chapel spreads its cloak of umbrage. The first half of the gig closed out with the long ballad ‘Rose in June’, retelling the drowning of sailors in a fishing vessel who clung to their overturned boat (hence the stage design) and sang their praises to heaven. It starts small and builds and builds in intensity – alongside the growing swells and the battering winds that the song portrays. It’s no small feat to keep an audience enthralled for ten minutes with a song of quiet sacrifice and stoic endurance against cruel fates – but the power of this band make for a mesmerising delivery. What a way to go into a Union Chapel’s swilling with tea interval.
The second half picked up with a pulsing ‘Going Down to the Wasteland’, which plays with themes of escaping from the constraints of a desolate new world to the woodlands, the night, and a ruined town where free-thinkers dwell. It’s a theme that carries into the traditional ‘Seven Bonnie Gypsy’ – a variant on the well know ‘Gypsy Davey’ story – which Boden sees as encapsulating the romantic freedom of camping under stars but also aspects of forced marriage and the losses that must be endured to grasp that freedom. It’s taken at a slow and stately pace with massed strings – four violins, viola, cello and double bass – as the dominant accompaniment. By complete contrast is the return to the apocalypse on the harder edged ‘Dancing in the Ruin’ which has the “glorious rabble – running wild”, with Richard Warren lighting up the scene as he lets rip on lead guitar. The Copper family songbook is raided for a song of jolly sailors and virgins sung unaccompanied by just Boden, Rob Harbron, Sam Sweeney and Paul Sartin and this virtuosity is followed up by Boden’s haunting arrangement of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ – just voice and five squeezeboxes. It swirls majestically, truly making something new of the well known song – Jon Boden’s voice as emotional in it’s own way as the original.
After an imagining of the triumph of love over the apocalypse – with the gentle guitar led ballad ‘The Pilgrims Way’ leading into the joyful giving of a heart in ‘April Queen’ – there’s the old order trying to impose a new apocalyptic world order – all subverted by the mockery of youth on the raucous release of ‘Beating the Bounds’. A fine ceilidh full of dance tunes – which fail to get the Union Chapel audience out of their pews – closed out the night although the exuberant encore ‘All Hang Down’ did achieve its aim of communal singing – very loud communal singing. As it should be. And once again Jon Boden and his cohort of fellow travellers had proven that there’s more than one way to sing a folk song: nothing could have been further from the crude hey-nonny-noy finger in the ear folk image than this superb band of accomplished music makers.