In our programmes we were warned that “the only conceivable way you’ll harm [folk music] is by sticking it away in a drawer and forgetting about it” (Colin Irwin on Martin Carthy). This comment offers a deconstruction of a concert less focussed on chronology and more on the integral odds and ends pulled from the drawer during it, connecting to form mechanisms of the contemporary folk scene.

ALAW © Paul Michael Hughes
ALAW
© Paul Michael Hughes

The overall balance of the BBC Concert Orchestra and smaller ensembles was excellent. Given the modern instrumentation typical of The Unthanks’ work, it was no surprise that the balance between them in particular came across well. There were striking moments of surround-sound waves, building in the percussion and caught by the piano at the side of the stage.

The cinematic quality to the evening was palpable, with the majority of artists having been involved in film and television soundtracks. We were treated to Henderson’s guitar-driven, orchestral rendition of Courting is a pleasure from his 2016 album – a unique and exciting application of electronics and nifty mixing, creating a seamless soundscape for the melody.

The breezy tones of Becky Unthank paired with Rachel’s no-vibrato, pressed vocal assertions form the bedrock of their ensemble. References to air span their recent album, Mount the Air, and trumpeter Lizzie Jones danced masterfully upon it. Other collective references were to the sea, in ALAW’s stirring shanty Santiana and dead man’s dance Dawns Soïg/Dawns y Gwr Marw, and in the finale piece, The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry. Julie Fowlis led in extraordinary voice with traditional song reminiscent of those chants of Scottish shipbuilders, apt for the shapeshifting Silkie legend.

Motifs were prevalent, namely that of Molly and spring – Molly is the lass in Courting is a pleasure and also Sam Lee’s Jacobite revival of Lovely Molly. There was a heady sense of nostalgia throughout the concert mixed with the imagery of springtime, for example in ALAW’s Pan O’wn y Gwanwyn, and then nature “returning again in Spring” in Lovely Molly. Lee in particular is renowned for his personal musical connection to birds, the symbolic song of which was beautifully represented by the woodwind in this concert.

In terms of instrumental augmentation, the percussion section of the BBC Concert Orchestra was arranged to perfection, with moments when the drum kit could have been mistaken for a bodhrán. Arranger Iain Farrington with harpist Deian Rowlands added the heart pangs of the narrator in My Ausheen whilst Lee’s whimsical movement alluded to the tipsy character.  

A strong element of the concert was to foster awareness of the development of contemporary folk music. This is a practice that each of the soloists and ensembles are passionate about, as was clear from their engagement with the audience throughout the evening and the choices in programming. We were offered outlets of hope and relief in dark times, with drums and voices rallying us. Though the televising of the concert impacted on the live performance in terms of its scripted structure, it was a worthy cause, with hosts Sam Lee and Julie Fowlis proving their educational and performative versatility. This solidified the evening as a theatrical work, strengthening the messages and narratives inherited and built anew.

Sam Lee has travelled the UK with an interest in learning and documenting songs that still only exist aurally. My Ausheen comes from the Scots tradition, imparted to him in the teachings of traveller singer Stanley Robinson, taking the simple concept of the comfortable fit of old shoes as a mould for a tale of unrequited love. Ironically Lee prefers to go barefoot.

The audience were encouraged to create drones to back Fowlis and Lee, but when Fowlis sang you could already hear and feel the centuries of voices that came before her. Another welcome bit of participation was in ALAW’s Santiana, which generated the folk club feel. Oli Wilson-Dickson’s tone on the violin felt material, like textile rather than sound.

Fowlis also introduced us to the Gaelic mouth music tradition, designed to get you up and dancing. Puirt-à-Beul Set: Fodar dha na Gamhna Beaga began with an unexpected aura, building from a quiet, technical, rhythmic opening. It was also rousing, starting as a clapped rhythm that quickened in a ceilidh dance. Fowlis and Henderson were virtuosic presences. However the final steps of the first half of the concert belonged to The Unthanks in jubilant clog dancing fashion. The connection between the traditions is captured on a slight tangent by the Irish meaning of clog – referring to time-keeping. 

The contemporary folk community was well represented with ancient myths, longing lament and brilliant contemporary arrangements. It is apt to acknowledge the social phenomenon that is folk: “Ever evolving, ever growing”, as Sam Lee put it. It won’t be the last we hear of these Proms debut artists.

*****