At 80 years of age Topic Records is the world’s oldest Independent Record label – and if it hasn’t been called Topic for the whole of that time there is at least a good continuity all the way back to the first recording by the Workers Music Association. In 1939 they released ‘The man who waters the workers’ beer‘ by Paddy Ryan, and bar the odd World War they haven’t looked back. Well, of course they have looked back – being at the cutting edge of the folk revival meant that Topic recorded a vast amount of old songs, as well as becoming the record release vehicle for the likes of Ewan MacColl. Old and new has ever been the way of folk, and the evening’s musical director – Eliza Carthy – captured that sense with a diverse series of musicians playing individual short sets, and then being the backing band for others, as the evening progressed.
Naturally there was a musical core that drew on Eliza Carthy’s family – with Martin Carthy and Marry Waterson – as well as long term collaborators like Saul Rose. But after current Topic Managing Director David Suff gave a short introduction to the evening and to Topic, it was Lisa Knapp and Gerry Diver who set the music in motion with a elegant rendition of the rather bawdy ‘I Wish My Love was a Cherry‘ which had, suitably enough, been learnt by Knapp from a Topic recording of Bert Lloyd. It’s astonishing how fragile and ethereal Knapp can make lines such as “I wish my love was a grey ewe grazing by yonder riverside / and I myself a bonny black ram, on that ewe how I would….ride“. This, though, is another part of the evening’s purpose – as well as celebrating Topic it’s also, more or less, the release party for the album ‘Vision & Revision‘ which has Topic stalwarts and Topic newcomers like Lisa Knapp re-recording and reshaping songs from the back catalogue.
The first half continued in fine fettle, with Alisdair Roberts glad to “be representing Scotland“, and putting in a mesmerising unaccompanied performance on the long ballad ‘Westlin Winds‘ and then supporting the lovely clear singing of Emily Portman on ‘My Son David‘from the singing of Jeannie Robertson. A somewhat nervous seeming Chris Wood wondered why he was even at the gig, as he isn’t a Topic artist and shared that “Eliza asked me to sing ‘Which Side Are You On?‘” – but he’d declined as “that’s a song I use to show how banal political song can be“. Instead he ripped into a true visionary, William Blake, delivering a stark and menacing ‘Jerusalem‘ which couldn’t be further from the cosy song that’s so beloved by middle-England. For Woods it’s a song of righteous anger. Eliza Carthy and Marry Waterson led us towards the interval but the final punctuation on the first half was provided by Boss Morris, an all women Morris side who play up the Wickerman side of the art form.
The second half opened with the most memorable performance of the night – representing the youth wing of folk, and the forging of a new tradition to carry the music forward into the 21st century. It was Sam Lee, with Bernard Butler adding restrained drifting guitar sounds to accompany a brief version of ‘The Deserter‘ with its perfect chorus “I was once young and foolish like many of you here / I’m fond of my ramblings and I am fond of my beer” and then a spellbinding version of ‘Spencer The Rover‘. The arrangements of both are so novel, and so perfect. Sam Lee, who took the stage in an Afghan coat and walking style shorts, was also the main cause of the evening over-
running somewhat as he spoke at length – engagingly and amusingly – between songs to explain his trouserless appearance, and to share his philosophy about ‘Spencer The Rover‘ – that it’s mostly about depression and the healing power of nature. In a nice synchronicity the instrumental band Spiro who followed him on stage played a medley of Copper family tunes – including the strikingly different and more usual setting of ‘Spencer The Rover‘.
The rest of the second set took quite a nautical turn with Emily Portman leading off to ‘The Bay of Biscay‘ before Marry Waterson’s powerful declaiming of ‘Welcome Sailor‘. Olivia Chaney added a slow and stately ‘Polly Vaughan‘, which explains the dangers of mistaking your true love for a swan when out hunting, with guitar accompaniment added by Martin Carthy. It was back to sea for a duet by Olivia and Eliza on ‘Nancy of Yarmouth‘, a superb combination of the high and clear voice of Olivia Chaney with the unswervingly powerful Eliza Carthy, it would be wonderful to hear more of this pairing. And if Eliza Carthy had been quite emotional when informing the audience that her mother was too ill to sing – clearly quite a blow as Norma Waterson had made it to the rehearsal – she was her more usual wickedly amused self when introducing her dad to sing, at Eliza’s request, ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men‘ a song which fully justifies folksong’s reputation of consisting of endless ballads with a hundred verses. Glorious.
An evening like this was no more than Topic deserved to celebrate 80 years of music, and it underscored the vibrant state of British folk music – so many singers and musicians who could have easily filled an evening on their own and who’s differing reverence to the music shows that its foreseeable future is safe.
All photos credit TOM HOWARD/BARBICAN