Haywards Heath on a drizzly Sunday evening. We are seated in a very functional-looking municipal building in the heart of suburban south-east England. But when the trio come on stage the songs are most definitely very, very northern with a run of songs from the north-east and Cumbria. Brisk Young Window is a good opener, sung in harmony by the trio. For those familiar only with Prior’s folk rock workouts with Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, Hannah James and Giles Lewin performing as a trio are very much at the trad end of the folk continuum. We get unaccompanied singing, as well as songs accompanied by James, a rising star of modern folk, on accordion and Lewin, who has long collaborated with Prior on the Carnival Band Christmas tours, on fiddle and assorted wind instruments. We even get James donning her clogs for some energetic and brilliantly rhythmic clog dancing.
The second half of tonight’s show begins with a beautifully sung version of The Blackleg Miner, something Steeleye followers will be well familiar with. This is followed by a lovely song from Hannah James, Serving Girl’s Holiday, which outlines a seemingly never-ending succession of tasks the domestic worker has to undertake on her so called “holiday”. As James points out, there was probably a lot of wry ironic humour in many traditional lyrics which perhaps gets lost as the years pass by. We then hear a succession of traditional songs from different parts of the world including America and Austria. A long brooding version of The Fabled Hare follows, with Hannah James’ accordion providing the perfect moody accompaniment for this epic tale of man versus hare “he is running for my dinner, I am running for my life…”
Before they return for an encore the trio finish their main set with a stunning version of Nick Harper’s The Field of the Cloth of Gold which, Prior explains, reflects on both 16th century royal diplomacy and a 21st Century Levellers festival appearance. Beautifully sung, this was one of the highlights of a very enjoyable evening for me. Before tonight I had only ever witnessed Prior either with Steeleye Span or singing Christmas carols with the Carnival Band, but it was great to see her in a different setting altogether and this is a folk trio that definitely work well together.
Kings Place is a plush new contemporary arts venue near Kings Cross. Situated underneath the Guardian/Observer HQ, my gig partner for the evening described those present as a “classic Hampstead dinner party Guardianista audience”. That meant they were possibly a little bit restrained from when I last caught Fay Hield & the Hurricane Party, at a Great British Folk Festival appearance at Butlins. But she and the band went down well and they were called back for an encore at the end.
Fay Hield was the main mover and shaker behind The Full English, the folk “supergroup” that was put together to delve into the new online archive of early 20th century folk collections and which recently scooped prizes at the BBC folk awards. Two of the songs from the Full English CD, sing-along The Man in the Moon as well as the lovely Awake Awake were performed tonight, some of the highlights from both the album and tonight’s performance. This wasn’t a Full English performance, though, so Hield delved elsewhere into her wide traditional repertoire. Naughty Baby is a traditional lullaby which goes into great detail about threats of beating, dismembering then eating the subject of the song if it won’t stop crying. (With lyrics like that this could only be either a traditional English folk gig or a Norwegian death metal gig). For some unfathomable reason this song fell into obscurity compared to other popular lullabies which we still hear sung to young children today. But Hield delivers a memorable version of the song’s gruesome lyrics. Other songs tonight include Grey Goose and Gander, King Henry, both from her first album.
Hield has a strong, characterful and distinctive voice, perfect for traditional material of this type. Her blunt Yorkshiresque banter between songs goes down well with the audience and she also has a fine band of supporting musicians. This includes the hugely talented Sam Sweeney on fiddle. One niggle about tonight’s performance is that the band, although they got to perform a number of instrumentals, never got the benefit of a proper introduction. I hope that’s put right next time.
During the show, however, Hield did announce she will be returning with the Full English line-up for a tour in the Autumn – and that will certainly be something I’ll look out for.