Thursday, June 11, 2015

Peggy Seeger at The Stables, Milton Keynes

It was actually a heartfelt review in the Guardian that made me decide to go to this gig. Sometimes The Guardian, probably pressurised by hectoring press officers, writes downbeat reviews yet still gives the artists three stars, and I'm not always trusting of their opinions.
In this particular review, however, the writer was clearly affected by Seeger's show. Maybe because it's almost a year since McMum died, maybe because I was affected by Sheila's departure, maybe just because I wanted to be absorbed in someone's musical life, I took the plunge and swished up the M1 in the crapsocar to the Stables at MK.
Straight away I liked the slow time there. Old fashioned volunteers (not the poor souls forced by the Government into 'work experience') were lined up in the approach road in hi-vis jackets waving us gently into parking spaces.
I hovered in the foyer noting the high incidence of grey hair (many grey beards), sandals and affluence. But that's par for the course at this venue, I think, and music does after all belong to everyone. I also noted that even at the highest level the CD stall is there, with its bypass of a music industry that's not interested in anything that deviates from the mainstream, with Peggy set to stand there after the show signing CDs.
In the auditorium, Peggy was in the stalls chatting to audience members and breaking down the artist/audience barrier right from the start. This became almost a full house as people drifted in, until finally her two sons took to their seats and the show began.
She picked up the autoharp and nestling into it, encouraged us to sing along from the first note. I'm not sure of song titles but I think this was Sing About the Hard Times which had an unresolved melody in the chorus that set the tone for the evening. To start off with, her sometimes frail voice was supported in a touching manner by harmonies from the lads; later, as her voice warmed up, strength flowed into it and their three part harmonies were a joy to listen to.
Peggy is a fantastic guitar player- her fingers are nimble and the guitar parts to the songs are beautifully worked out; her touch is feather-light and so rapid that at times her fingers are a blur. This skill was shown off to perfection on The Progress Train, a cynical song that tells it like it is and it ever was. Always we were included: 'If you can't sing it, hum it- we'll hear you', she told us.
Next she picked up an oblong guitar/banjo which was probably a gigantic cigar box guitar.
They had one of many conversations between them on stage, about there being more chickens that humans on the planet, or was it rats?
'Conservatives', said one of the sons.
The audience wasn't sure they found that funny.
Cluck Old Hen, played on (what I thought was) the  cigar box guitar was amazing, very bluesy and swampy and of a sound that I infinitely preferred to the instrumentals that they played next, which were Elizabethan and based, I think, on a book of songs by John Playford. These were lovely, but I preferred the scratchy timbre of the hen song, which came from a series of recordings called Animal Songs for Children.
Between songs, Peggy read from her book Fact and Fantasy, which is collection of newspaper cuttings, jokes and so on that she has collected over the past 20 years. Her comments were wry and hilarious: 'This is the problem that I want to have.... I need to find the right wrong person'.
There were calls and challenges to the grim reaper. She spoke a touching poem dedicated to her mum,  Ruth Porter Crawford, who died at the age of 53 and who therefore missed a whole chunk of her lifetime, and then sang a song that brought me to tears: 'Mama, it's late, please call me home...'.
One of the sons then sang a song, Black Dog and Sheep Crook, that continued the dark thread of the evening; while he sang Peggy mouthed the words along with him, deep in thought.
There were, of course, many jolly songs that made us laugh, but even these had a pepper twist to them that refused to let the listener settle into complacency.
I just sat and experienced the second half, which included the mesmerising Wasteland Lullaby and a song written by Ewan McColl when he was approaching the end of his life, sung again by one of the sons, that described the beauty of life and the simple joy of breathing fresh air. The highlight, though, was the First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which is a perfect love song and which was written for Peggy by Ewan. Clearly and confidently, she stood at the microphone and took us all back to the time when her lover was still alive and singing to her. By this time her voice had completely warmed up and she sang as clearly as a bell; the audience was spellbound and held in the moment with her. This was another big lump in the throat moment.
Throughout the show, Peggy's feisty, elfin presence drew the audience in to her family, her songs, her life and her willingness to share a positive approach to left-wing politics with audiences through music and song. Peggy might perhaps say that the importance of her performance is as a storyteller, which is undoubtedly true, but it's the subtlety of lyric writing not only of her own songs but those she chooses to cover, that gave this evening a really special feeling. Not only that, but as an instrumentalist she has an extraordinary talent. Chrissie Hynde needs to go to see her play; never again would she be able to say that in terms of skill there is no female equivalent of Jimi Hendrix. Inside Peggy's head is a store of chords and technique that is so well-crafted and apparently effortless that it's practically invisible unless you look for it.
Finally and after a standing ovation, we all joined together to sing Happy Birthday to her. She stood at the front of the stage with a delighted smile before heading off to sign CDs after a two-hour show that would put many a younger artist to shame.
'I'm always the last person to leave the building', she told us.
I was inspired: completely inspired.

1 comment:

Wilky of St Albans said...

The 'record shop' at the Stables is the most wonderful place to browse. There seems to be no logic at all in what is stocked, and it's very easy to lust after things you'd like to buy, but know you'd never play. Very random