Twice winners of best group at the BBC2 Folk Awards, The Young’Uns’ latest offering tells the tale of Johnny Longstaff, a working-class hero who grew up during the Great Depression, marched in the 1934 Hunger March to London and volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The lads, Sean Cooney, Michael Hughes and David Eagle, interweave the recorded voice of Longstaff with witty and touching ballads, bringing his story alive and serving a timely reminder that the evils of poverty and Fascism aren’t that far in our past that we can be complacent.
In 2015, after a gig in Clevedon, Somerset, the Young’Uns were presented with a sheet of paper by Longstaff’s son, describing the main events of his father’s amazing life. Longstaff had also been interviewed and recorded by the Imperial War Museum Archives in 1986 and recordings form the heart of a unique series of songs that paint a moving portrait of a heroic individual who challenged the inequalities he saw and fought for a better tomorrow, both at home and abroad.
The trio sing some fine harmonies, sometimes a cappella , sometimes accompanied by squeezebox and piano. The lyrics are bold, often hilarious and always performed with warmth and humanity. The songs take us on Johnny’s journey from the backstreets of Teeside, down-and-out in London, sleeping on the Embankment, standing against Moseley’s blackshirts in the ‘battle of Cable Street’. Then, as an underage volunteer in September 1937 Longstaff walks across the Pyrenees into Spain to defend the Republic against Franco’s Fascists, fighting in appalling conditions, but never losing his resolve. Throughout his journey, Johnny meets some remarkable characters, fondly brought to life again in the Young’Uns’ songs.
This is the kind of history lesson that engages the heart and the head. The kind that kills Fascism. It’s the kind of history lesson that we should be taking our children to hear. I’m reminded of Orwell’s observation from ‘Looking back on the Spanish Civil War’, “…unfortunately the truth about atrocities is far worse than that they are lied about and made into propaganda. The truth is that they happen.” It’s important that the real witness of men and women who suffered and fought against despotism are heard. Viva the Young’Uns!
A folk tune, like whisky, is fine straight-up. But it can take a good mixer too. The Fergus McCreadie Trio serve a knockout punch of traditionally-infused jazz that slips in your ear like a good malt goes over the thrapple, then sets your heart alight with the exquisite afterglow of places, times and moods. I could rave on about the awards and accolades that have been heaped on this young man and his group, but that’s all been said before. The point it, this guy is seriously good, like a favourite dram.
The Trio’s first number of the evening was perhaps fittingly titled ‘Ardbeg’, after the Islay Distillery. A simple piano melody from McCreadie drifts effortlessly over David Bowden’s understated bass, with Stephen Henderson’s percussion rolling and glinting throughout, like sea-shimmer. McCreadie has a gift for distilling the essence of landscapes into the mood of a composition. Most of the pieces from the Trio’s debut album, ‘Turas’ (Gaelic for ‘journey’ or ‘tour’) are inspired by places in Scotland that McCreadie has visited and drawn inspiration from. In particular, ‘Hillfoot Glen’ is a funk inflected hustle of a Scottish ‘Harlem River Drive’ with some lighting fast piano arpeggios over a driving snare drum rhythm. The trio are so tight on this one it’s thrilling.
’The Set’ goes back to Trad reel rhythms mixed up in cool jazz. The confidence with which the trio dissect the rhythms then throw out fragments for the ear to catch onto was mesmerising to hear. A few as yet unnamed tracks show that there’s much more licks to come from this trio of precociously talented young men.
I found my personal favourite of the night was a track I’d not heard before – ‘An old friend’ – downtempo, meditative and achingly sincere (there’s a performance of ‘An Old Friend’ at BBC Young Jazz Musician 2018 here). The deceptive simplicity of the piece reminds me of Zbigniew Preisner’s ‘Farewell’ from ’Ten Easy Pieces for Piano’. Both pieces make easy that hard task of expressing melancholy without being maudlin: sentiment minus the sentimentalism.
Horsecross Perth’s new Theatre complex was an excellent venue for the trio, with an intimate feel and first class sound engineering. I just hope it’s not too long before the trio return to Perth with what’s sure to be some excellent licks.
It was a nice day when my companion and I arrived at the City Halls for Day Two of the Tectonics Glasgow Festival, annual showcase for all kinds of new and experimental music performance. Stepping in to the Recital Room, we were confronted with a large wooden floor paved with drawings that somehow constituted a kind of path. The four artists performing Lucie Vitkova’s installation, were standing together using their voices for a perpetual sound that varied from whale noises to some kind of prayer incantation. It appeared to have no structure to it and we stayed for a few verses, only to wander off, taking with us the impression that this had been all about the quality of sound.
Festivals always have their own character, and this one, though small, also had its own atmosphere of welcome and anticipation, not to say a slight feeling that we were at some kind of science convention! We stepped out to enjoy a chat between performances and readied ourselves for a performance at the Old Fruitmarket. It turned out to be a free-form improvisation of recorded and live breathing exercises that lasted about 45 min and was performed by Angela Sawyer, Alex South and Nicola Scrutton. With its focus firmly held on the crowd who were sitting together it proceeded into a lot of people making a lot of what I can only call farm noises.
For the next part of our festival journey it fell to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to perform for an hour in the Grand Hall. We were treated to two orchestra pieces by Juliana Hodkinson (All Around) and Mauro Lanza (Experiments in the Revival of Organisms). This was followed by the world premiere of The Gay Goshawk by Martin Arnold which had Martin himself on melodica and Angharad Davies and Sharron Kraus on highly sensual, traditional and beautiful vocals about the trappings of love and life.
By this point we were both very relaxed and in a mood to continue absorbing everything we could. We found ourselves back at the Fruit market, that famous old market hall with a large, high space for the Symphony Orchestra to perform Sarah Davachi’s Oscen, a large scale work all about textures and harmonies. The place was transformed as the music took us along a slow melodic journey telling a story of Consort and Disunion.
My impression was of a day full of the tonality of music, the experience of being human, what is important and what perhaps is not. A day showcasing theory itself, turning it into a solid phenomenon that can take you to marvellous places that are there for all of us if we would but listen. An experience uniquely offered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra over a very enjoyable and successful weekend.