Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Gig 13 Geoff Higginbottom. 2nd April 2009
Anchor Folk Club
Blue Anchor Public House
High Road
KT14 7RL

Attendance: 60
Price: £5
My Location: 4th row

Record Recommendation: Shattered Cross: Stuart Adamson.

Watching The Raphaels’ video is almost putting a tear of sadness in my eye. It’s a collage of photos taken from Guthrie’s 1930s Great Depression, black and white video footage, and most poignantly of all, stills of a young Adamson, full of life with his friends and band-mates from Big Country; played to the sound track of Shattered Cross. I know that most of you readers watch the Transatlantic Sessions, and it was on series 3 that I first heard Shattered Cross. Darrell Scott explains how his friend, Stuart Adamson, had penned the song in the last years of his short life while living in Nashville Tennessee. Accompanied by Paul Brady and the Sessions’ House Band, Scott proceeds to do exactly what he said he wanted to, “bring the song to life”.

Before his death, brought on by an alcohol overdose, Adamson had suffered mentally from break up of his marriage. Scott explains that the song describes the state Stuart was in when he wrote the song; it’s about redemption, loss; the loss of trust. As the song progresses, it draws you into the world of Adamson’s darkest thoughts. It leaves you, like the Cross; shattered. The effort taken to put those words on paper sums up Stuart Adamson, when I saw him on stage, he always let you know you what you were seeing: The Man. There was no faking it; he had energy, an unmistakable guitar riff, song-writing talent, a natural ability to get a 10 thousand strong crowd roaring and clapping to his songs. Most of all he had passion for what he was doing.

Stuart Adamson playing it the only way he knew. Photo courtesy corbis.com

Back in ’01 when I heard of the death of an icon, I felt a part of my youth slipping away. I’d spent so many hours listening to Big Country, not to mention Sweet Suburbia by the Skids, and it was all over. But it’s not, the memories are still there, the albums still get played, the Restless Natives DVD is still available. The writer has gone, and taken his earthly burdens with him, his songs are still alive, and non-more so when Darrell Scott breathes fire into Stuart Adamson’s Shattered Cross.

Well, believe it or not, good followers of this blog, and those of you who were looking for the Folk Roots Forum that I’m told has a “comprehensive list of folk tours and festivals”, I’m half way through my year long venture to discover where real musicians are playing, who’s seeing them, where they are performing, and what the quality is like. I know many of the gigs I’ve been to have cost a fiver or less, but if you’re going to make the effort to get down to your local club, and pay to see an act, I don’t think it’s wrong to expect a reasonable standard of entertainment.

It’s hardly surprising that the quality of the acts has varied, Phil Beer, for example has played the Royal Albert Hall, and Bob Fox and Stu Luckley’s album Nowt So Good’ll Pass, won Folk Album of the Year back in ’78, so you’d expect those artists to put on a decent show! Most of the musicians I’ve seen are part-timers- only the privileged few can earn a full time wage from their music. Mick Ryan, who played at the sold out Ram Club with Paul Downes, has been involved in composing numerous albums and written folk operettas; he still tops up his musician’s wage by working as a teacher. However, for the night they are on stage, these people aren’t teachers, or delivery drivers or librarians; they are musicians, and I haven’t felt short-changed yet!

The Folk Clubs I’ve visited are institutions of hard working volunteers who organise events for the love of the music, and the desire to keep a tradition alive. Indeed, many of them offer a sense of nostalgia and a welcome escape from the hectic environment that pervades society. Some even offer really cheap beer! There is more than one reason to visit and support these homegrown musical associations.

So, let’s turn to the latest “association” to be visited, The Blue Anchor Folk Club in Byfleet, to see how they compare to the rest……

I have visited the club a few times before, and done a couple of Woodcut Process songs with Biggs as a floor spot act, so was recognised by club host Mike Peach when I arrived. We were both surprised that it was over a year since my last visit though- where’s all the time going? Mike had read exerts from this blog, was keen to let his club members know about it, and asked if I’d like to let them know what I was up to. It was a very generous offer, and one I couldn’t refuse.

The venue started to fill up quickly, chairs had to be shifted, and spares brought in to accommodate the audience. Apparently the annual visit from Geoff Higginbottom is a club highlight, drawing a larger than usual crowd. The said crowd were very lively, friendly, and anticipating a great night, which started with Mike and guitar being greeted with cheers as he sang Dylan’s If Not For You. A banjo playing Jim joined Mike for the Adventures of Tim Finnegan’s Wake. The two made way for Mike Davis who played Three Drunken Maidens. It was an enjoyable tune, played well and sung with a good voice.

Mike made way for Geoff, who started off his set with an unaccompanied shanty called Hullabaloo, which was about the agonies of a seasick fisherman. The lady next to me had been telling me earlier that Geoff had a powerful voice. Higginbottom lived up to his reputation as he sang the song with one of the loudest set of vocal chords I had heard, he had no problem projecting his un-amplified range to the whole crowd. With 12 string guitar in hand, Geoff proceeded to sing Alesia Byabrew. The song is about a lady who is pleasing to the eye, leading astray the song’s protagonist, a common theme in folk songs. I think there’s many a writer out there living in hope! I was really enjoying the music, and that voice was one you really wanted to sing along with.

Robin Dransfield’s Fair Maids of February, which Higginbottom described as “nice”, was next. To call it “nice” is an understatement, it started with lovely guitar, and had the audience captured. Paddy’s Not at Work was next, followed by my favourite of the evening, Joseph Baker. The song about the eponymous Cheshire long distance runner is a Pete Coe creation that strikes a chord with me, as I indulge in a bit of running, and I used to live in Chester. The words make me picture the athlete running gracefully across the downs, effortlessly beating countrywide challengers ranging from the ranks of soldiers to butchers. I find it a touching tune that ends with the sad death of Joseph Baker, and his ghost that can be seen running on up the hills of his county.

Higginbottom showed off his guitar skills for Harvest Home, before picking up the mandolin for Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore. With a title like that, I expected to hear an “amusing” song. However, the song followed another popular theme- the one of leaving your home and promising to return to your love when the fortune was made. As Geoff said, ‘it’s promised by many, done by few’. I particularly enjoyed the light tones of the mando during the song.

As much a part of Higginbottom’s act as his singing and playing, is his between-songs entertaining. He interspersed introductions, with stories from his allotment, and a couple of half decent jokes- my favourite being the one about the ham-bush. You’ll have to see him for the full version; I can’t tell jokes- it probably wouldn’t even be funny if I wrote it down. He certainly pricked the interest of the audience whilst telling them of the true story of Bouncing Billy Barker, the hero of Tony Hill’s song that he played. In 1992 The Manchester Evening News reported Barker, who died aged 84 in 1965, could jump and ‘skim’, like a stone, across canals using hand weights that gave him momentum. I’m sure people of the time believe they saw him doing these leaps, but I’m also sure that one of Newton’s Laws mentions the equal and opposite reactions that would render his skimming impossible! Anyways, everyone enjoyed the song, and some read the extract from the News that Geoff brought along. Thus ended the first set.

After the break, Chris Harris continued the good humour with his ukulele-strummed tribute to the Blue Anchor’s special guest. I tell you what, it was a well written song, with some classic comic rhyming that fitted the theme. Higginbottom genuinely appreciated it! He hit the stage with Lloyd George, a moving song about a grateful farm labourer, just turn pensioner who was one of the first to benefit from the PM’s new pension scheme. This was followed by All the Good Times are Past and Gone. With the 60 strong audience joining in, the atmosphere was more Gospel Church than Surrey Folk, it was great sing-along stuff.

Almost as good as Joseph Baker, Higginbottom played Richard Thompson’s Vincent Black Lightning next. The first time I’d heard the song was on an old Dick Gaughan tape, and I loved it then. The song’s about rebellion, freedom, and young love; too good to last it ends in the tragic death of Vincent’s rider (there's a lot of dying in this blog!). It really is a solid tune; the fact that it mentions Box Hill makes it even more special. Mind you, Where the Conkers Grow, which followed, like Vincent Black Lightening had soul. Geoff’s traditional sounding voice made this a cracking song too. In a great evening those three songs were, for me, the greats.

After all the soul searching, further tales lightened the atmosphere. This time for the song Monkey Hangers: this one I believe to be a true story. It’s about the people of Hartlepool hanging a monkey they believed to be a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars. Because it couldn’t speak English, and looked “a bit foreign”, the people who found it assumed it to be on an intelligence gathering mission, for the French Emperor, about that strategic keystone, Hartlepool! The best part of the story, Geoff told us, is that 200 years later, the man who dressed up as Hangus the Monkey, the town’s football team’s mascot, was elected as Lord Mayor. I know this is true because it was on Radio 5 Live!

The penultimate song of the evening was Geoff’s third verse of Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry, which is entitled No Rum and No Pies. I enjoyed the song; it would have been good if Geoff had sung a cover of No Woman though, I reckon he could do a fine job of it. For the encore, we were treated to Richard Thompson’s Meet on the Ledge, which has recently been voted number 17 in Radio 2’s top 100 listeners’ songs, which, with audience participation, brought back that ole Gospel feel.

Mike thanked Higginbottom for his excellent entertainment after the song. As I was about to leave, thinking that in the performance, he’d forgotten about my folk tour, Mike asked me to tell the crowd about my mission. I did so, and when I told them why I was doing what I was, I received a round of applause. Thank you all very much for that, and for a great night out. I look forward to returning in the near future.

As the second half of the Tour starts, I feel that it is really starting to gain momentum. This I hope to carry on at Islington Folk Club on 16th April when I watch Robin Gillan. See you there, Mark.


  1. Great stuff Mark. I'm getting an eerie feeling of familiarity reading some of your recent entries. Iron Maiden, Marillion and now Big Country - we seem to have had the same musical up bringing. I saw Big Country a fair few times before Stuart A departed this world and they were always good value. A sad loss to the world but as you say there's always the music.

  2. Thanks for that Chopper, the thing is, are you being tempted to attend a 'folk gig'? The Woodcut Process will be playing at one soon if that is an incentive at all!