One of the most distinctive voices on one of the most significant folk collaborations of 2014, Nancy Kerr’s incredible song-writing and memorable performances on the Elizabethan Session have already made it a folk classic. And she does bring something unique to contemporary folk. No-one loves the pure, crystal clear vocals from the likes of Sandy Denny and Jacqui McShee more than me. They were always an intrinsic and essential feature of the late 60s folk revival in England and their influence rings out to this day. But as beautiful as those voices are, I’ve often wondered how many female vocalists in past centuries really went around delivering folk renditions in Received Pronunciation. Nancy Kerr, on the other hand, has a different vocal style altogether. Earthy and wonderfully expressive, with echoes of an old-time music hall singer thrown in, her voice is no less beautiful and utterly enthralling.
Tonight there is a good turnout for Kerr and her band in the main Kennedy Hall at Cecil Sharp House. The band begin with Never Ever Lay Them Down, the opening track from Kerr’s new album, Sweet Visitor. Described by the vocalist/fiddle-player as a song about city life and love in and age of austerity it is the perfect vehicle, not only for Kerr’s distinctive voice, but also for the rocked-out folk backing from her incredibly talented band. Joining Kerr on fiddle and lead vocals are James Fagan on guitar; Tom Wright on drums, electric and acoustic guitars; Tim Yates on double bass; and Rowan Rheingans on fiddle.
Other highlights tonight include Where Jacaranda’s Grow, Kerr’s reflection on the increasingly hysterical immigration debate in Australia whose lyrics, she noted with sadness, were now also equally relevant to Britain. She also gave us fabulous renditions of a couple of songs she was commissioned to write for the BBC ahead of the 2012 Games. The first, Apollo on the Docks, talks of the coming of the Olympics to the “banks of the Lea” and “Old Silvertown”. With its catchy melody and instantly memorable chorus, even though its subject matter is only a little over two years old, it sounds like it could have been written a hundred years ago and could well become a modern sing-along folk classic.
Kerr reflects warmly on her experiences as part of The Elizabethan Session earlier this year and one of the songs she performs from that tonight is the brilliant Broadside. Those expecting a carbon copy rendition of the original, however, are in for a surprise. This is very much the heavy metal version and Fagan lets rip on guitar. “Why try and compete with Martin Simpson?” he explains.
The band encore with Now Is The Time from the new album, a secular hymn for all those campaigning for a better world, with poignant harmony singing from the whole band. To experience such an illustrious band, talented singer and wonderful songs at Cecil Sharp House, the iconic home of English folk music, is a real delight. The main hall is in need of a bit of TLC these days (there is a restoration appeal) but when the house lights dim it provides a wonderfully atmospheric setting for a very memorable performance from Nancy Kerr and the Sweet Visitor Band.