Ending the year with a concert to celebrate his 75th birthday, it was Ralph McTell plus a lot of friends at the prestigious Royal Festival Hall for an event that was definitely not your usual Ralph McTell gig. In fact this was a triple celebration – McTell has recently released ‘Hill of Beans’, his first studio album for 9 years and which had also seen him reunite with Tony Visconti as producer and string section arranger. That last would be quite significant on this evening. The new album meant new songs, albeit that some had been knocking around for years before getting their full studio recording, and the set list was peppered with what might be regarded as “deep cuts” from the McTell catalogue – songs that are unlikely to be on the average “best of” collection. On the whole these songs tended to emphasize McTell’s more nostalgic and romantic side.
The evening started, though, very much like a Ralph McTell gig – with just one man on a very big stage, albeit one that held enough musical clutter to suggest that it would later on be more densely populated. Appropriately enough, the opening song was ‘First Song’ – a love song written in his twenties which has, as it predicted, added nuances with age, “Old songs lose young meaning / but new ones they gain”, although there’s a hint that some things stay the same, “Sure I still get the feeling to get back on the road” still resonates in what is a sixth decade of gigging. There was another solo song, this time the jocular ragtime guitar showcase ‘Close Shave’ from the new album before the first of the evening’s guests appeared. Danny Thompson may have had some trouble walking on and off and he may, as he claimed, have been unrehearsed – but his playing was magical on ‘River Rising’ – another early seventies love song by McTell which drifted along slowly and romantically.
With the ball now rolling, the guests came thick and fast, with a house band formed from Gerry Conway, Dave Pegg, Neill MacColl, and Graham Preskett adding a fluid line-up of musical backing and brief appearances from the likes of Jess Lee Morgan (the daughter of Mary Hopkins) who contributed vocals to ‘After Rain’. ‘Oxbow Lakes’ – again from the new album – saw the appearance of backing recorders but the song that took us into the interval deployed a full choir for, appropriately enough, the wistful atheist gospel of ‘Sometimes I Wish I Could Pray’.
How do you top that? Well, the answer had been sitting on the stage all along and the second half of the evening saw the emergence of a string section to add an elegant touch to a song from McTell’s Dylan Thomas album project, ‘The Boy With the Note’ – the adolescent dreamings of lust disguised as love that is ‘Summer Girls’ followed up by the rather more truly romantic McTell song ‘Naomi’, sung from the piano and reflecting on the pleasures of growing older with the same companion in life. And to finish off what had become something of a “girls” trilogy, John Sheahan from the Dubliners joined the ranks to add suitably lively fiddle on ‘The Irish Girl’. Which led, naturally enough, into the melancholic diaspora lament ‘From Clare to Here‘, recast as a full cinematic epic with Feargal Keane and Adrian Dunbar giving a layer of spoken word accompaniment as the song cut between orchestral purity and a wilder Irish folk arrangement – a real highpoint of the evening.
And how do you then top that ? Well, you could wheel out a large marsupial and lead the audience through the uplifting and optimistic tale of ‘Kenny the Kangaroo’. The TV show ‘Alphabet Zoo’ may once have paid a lot of bills, but even Ralph McTell seemed to be surprised that he was actually taking us through this one, although it did allow a resetting of the evening following the emotional high of ‘From Clare to Here’, allowing room for more new songs and a Big Bill Broonzy instrumental to demonstrate McTell’s often underestimated guitar prowess. Any lingering doubts that may have remained about whether this was a night unlikely to be repeated in the near future were removed during ‘Cajun Moon’ which saw the return of the choir meaning that here were now about fifty musicians on stage.
With the gig moving towards its conclusion it was, of course, time for the big hitter – and on this cold December night, with the rain lashing The Embankment, it’s a chance to reflect that, quite shamefully, ‘Streets of London’ is as relevant today as it was back in 1974. In fact, with a decade of austerity fuelling a crisis of homelessness and with the previous night seeing the re-election of those responsible for choosing harsh austerity for the poorest over taxing the wealthy as the best means to resolve the impact of the world wide banking crisis, perhaps ‘Streets of London’ has never been more relevant. And yet…somehow the communal singing seemed a shade self-indulgent – judging from pre-gig and interval chatting, hadn’t a good proportion of this crowd gleefully just voted “to get brexit done?” And thereby, at the same time, to reward the purveyors of austerity and make life just a bit tougher for those in greatest need? It’s no fault of the song, that goes without saying, but on this particular night there was no escaping a really jarring feeling.
The finale encore was another song from the new album, one which nodded towards the first great singer-songwriter and a famous album cover which entangles Bob and Suze with Ralph and an early love that drifted apart without him realising it was happening. ‘West 4th Street And Jones’ is another song that’s been knocking around for a while with a sadness to it as McTell explained that he never managed to send a copy to Suze Rotolo. He did however get a copy to Dylan and the message came back “Tell Ralph you made an old man cry.” This rather served to cap the evening – forget Animal Zoo and the bloke who gives Fairport Convention the odd song now and then – forget even the fame of a one-hit wonder. For Ralph McTell being told that Dylan thought you did good was worth something, and working with Bowie’s producer was worth something. And, you know what? He may just have a point.
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