Live Review: Kathryn Tickell and the Darkening, Cecil Sharp House, London – 26th October 2023

Photo: Georgia Claire

Kathryn Tickell has, down the decades of a 30-year career – her first album released at just 16 years old – been given cultural thumbs up by all the heavyweight Fleet Street broadsheets (younger readers, ask someone older to explain).  Her source inspirations go far wider than her oft-referenced Northumbrian roots and even within her home county (where she is engaged in community music projects beyond her own output) she takes a deep dive into history and topography and environmental issues with a left-field insight.

Tonight she is at Cecil Sharp House which is about as quintessential a venue as ‘folk’ music can claim, named after the eponymous Sharp and his studies of the genre in both UK and USA, around Appalachia in particular. And we’ll use that last region to fully justify the Americana link here. It’s a fine venue, one of the oldest Camden Town stalwarts, eschewing various modernist updates so that the bar area could date from the 1980s and pragmatically trusting punters with glass beer bottles in the auditorium – and all the better for it. The main hall is filled with around 300 folk which at a stretch spans three generations

Tickell’s latest album with The Darkening, ‘Cloud Horizons’, the entirety of which is peppered across the set, has her adding some rootsy oomph to the more traditional folk leanings. She weaves lively background narratives into the preambles to songs and the band’s contribution, when shown as a simple list, doesn’t do justice to the range of instruments and permutations that they bring to the set, nor does it convey the great enthusiasm that pervades their playing and singing. Supporting Tickell on her trademark Northumbrian smallpipes and occasional violin, there are Amy Thatcher – accordion, synths, voice, clog dancing; Stef Conner – voice, lyres; Josie Duncan – voice, harp; Kieran Szifris – octave mandolin; and Joe Truswell – drums, percussion.

Kicking off the set are two almost-instrumentals, bar some ethereal chanting, and the heavy folk rock beat brings to mind early 70s Jethro Tull. ‘Highway to Hermitage’ has an upbeat vaguely calypso rhythm that belies the borderland castle’s dark history and the episode being narrated of Mary Queen of Scots’ journey after her capture. ‘One Night In Moana’ is inspired by the Galician Celtic tradition after a particularly lively festival visit there. Some of the new material has an almost world music aura to it, melding the strings, keyboards and drums hauntingly – Celtic folkrock meets Tinariwen. Perhaps the showstopping example of the current muse to these ears (and as Folk Show listeners will note, to those of Mark Radcliffe too) is ‘Long for Light’. It is quite the compelling barnstormer with tinges of Led Zep’s Kashmir and Battle of Evermore. To this greedy reviewer it has the potential to be spun out – in true ’70s style- to 10 glorious thudding minutes.

Caelestis’, the first song after the break is set around Hadrian’s Wall; the particular slant is the diversity of outposts of the Roman empire from where the wall’s workforce is drawn including modern-day Spain, Syria and South Sudan. The song itself has been literally dug up and historically analysed as to its actual sound 2000 years ago With Amy Thatcher and KT trading almost hymn-like vocals with a percussive backbeat it is another powerful track. This is followed by ‘Just Stop And Eat The Roses’, set more prosaically in a Primark with the more elevated theme of moving from emotional despondency to positivity with the mid-song pace change reflecting this. ‘New Rig’ has Tickell on a rare violin role for a traditional Shetland dancing jig and ‘Freebird’ has as its intro a poem by her father written as part of his MA portfolio at age 80 and which observes the effects of climate change and heavy industry in the rural environment in his Hexham catchment. Built around the harp, the four women sing in unison. There follow 2 clog dances – ‘Clogstravaganza’ – where the shoes and the dancer, Amy Thatcher take much of the focus but the music to both gives a damned good buzz too.

‘Bone Music’ is another standout, all four women sharing the vocals and it’s maybe the song that most closely fits into the roots rock genre. With the band on a roll towards the close the audience seem set to do their own dancing to another folksy trio of tunes, rattled off barn dance style with strings and accordion to the fore. In all the band are on stage for just shy of two hours across their two tremendously energising, polished and thought-provoking sets.

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