Blood & Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

25th Jan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall


This tribute centenary concert – on what would have been singer/songwriter Ewan MacColl’s 100th birthday – was a family affair in many respects. Not only was it curated by MacColl’s two sons, Calum and Neill, and featured four grandsons (Jamie, Harry, Alex and Tom) – but other family members too, like Kate St John and, by ‘adoption’, the philosophical and talented Chaim Tannenbaum. Among the guests were another close kin group in Martin and Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson. Also featuring strongly were Dick Gaughan, Karine Polwart, the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker – so no shortage of interest, and genuine accomplishment. Plus a really good house band.
So what happened? Well the night started with a solo from the man himself: a powerful, and in the circumstances even more so, recording of Ewan MacColl singing ‘A Man’s a Man’ – a perfect choice, given MacColl’s personal politics and the fact he shared a brthday wth Burns. Then there was a relayed message from Peggy Seeger, setting the tone of fond, though not over the top, remembrance and affection, with the keynotes: ‘humour, harmony, love and productivity.’And quality. Every one of those family members rose to the occasion, and a high standard in delivery and musicianship was maintained whether there were two on stage or ten, or the whole shebang for the conclusion.

There was also variety.At one point in the second half I thought: ‘There’s really a great range of songs here – to suit just about any taste’. Everything from ‘Ballad of Accounting’ (a fine opener from Gaughan and Polwart) and ‘Ballad of Tim Evans’ (the first but not last excellent contribution by Tannenbaum) to Jarvis Cocker, with his ‘rock-hard physique’, and a radio ballad from ‘The Fight Game’, then Paul Buchanan bringing fragility with poignancy to perhaps the most famous piece: ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’

The Carthy-Waterson complex gave us, in strength and profusion: ‘Champion at Keeping Them Rollin’, ‘Space Girl’, ‘Alone’, ‘Moving On Song’ (in a great set as a tribute to Travelling Folk, with a dedication to Sheila Stewart and Ray Fisher).There was also a skilful, rambunctious set of shanties (with crackers like ‘General Taylor’ and ‘Paddy Doyle’s Boots’) from most of the males on board. Dick Gaughan’s ‘Jamie Foyer’ was as good as it gets; Karine Polwart’s ‘The Terror Time’ ditto. There were, too, some directly affecting personal connections: ‘Nobody Knew She Was There’ – MacColl’s late tribute to his mother – and also to his father in ‘My Old Man’. The most affecting of these though was both sons caught up in singing ‘The Joy of Living’. We also had – my notes in the dark were written over three times at some points – ‘Shoals of Herring’, ‘Sweet Thames Flow Softly’ and maybe more.

‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘The Manchester Rambler’ gave us a finale of different moods and tempi, and got the slightly douce but willing audience chiming happily along. Ewan MacColl never dodged controversy in his lifetime, but he sure stuck at it; and I doubt if the man himself, who was capable of laying down guidelines for this, that and t’other, would have found much to fault in this cheering and well-rounded concert offered in his name.

Reviewer : Mr Scales

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