This week I’ve been out twice – I know, steady on – to two events that were in a way very different to each other but also kinda similar. The first was an outing with the friend best known as Auntie Savage to see her little brother performing stand up in Holloway. The second was my nephew performing “chamber folk” in Camden. We were terribly proud at both gigs.
So first off was “Paul Savage Finds All the Jokes in the Bible”. I knew it had played at Edinburgh so I was assuming it wasn’t written with a Christian audience in mind but then until the day before, when I found out the gig was at a church, I’d assumed it wasn’t being performed for a Christian audience this time either. How wrong I was.
The church was St Luke’s, near Caledonian Road and it was a fundraiser so most of the people in the room were from the congregation. Paul said he’d made some edits, which we thought meant he’d cut the ruder bits out. Oh, another assumption down the drain. When I tell you that there was a sex doll joke before we’d even got through the first chapter of Genesis, you’ll get what I mean.
Now, I’m pretty hard to offend but I never know how to read my fellow Christians en masse. We were sitting right at the back so it was hard to gauge how the crowd were taking it. There was a lot of laughter and no one walked out so I think we call that a win. I expect to see that quoted on the posters for the next run, along with the “infinite stars for dead Jesus”.
So what kind of jokes are there in the Bible? Plenty, as it turned out. Soldiers having wet dreams, Samson cracking one-liners as he destroyed an army with a donkey bone and, of course, a hefty amount of circumcision. Come here Ishmael, you little b’stard, Daddy’s got something to tell you.
God was reimagined as some kind of Mafioso, spitting out curses on anyone who insulted his family and Jesus apparently spent three years setting up his “on this rock” pun by deliberately misnaming Simon Peter and just waiting for that perfect set up line. Hey, who isn’t guilty of that?
There was some audience participation too – a husband got up to dramatically recite “Song of Solomon” to his wife and the whole audience got to rain down blessings and curses on Paul. Being a Christian audience, the curses were very tame, unlike one he recieved form a sweet old Scottish Granny. Want to know what she said? You’ll have to buy a ticket to the show. And you should cause it was very entertaining as long as you don’t take your Christianity too seriously. Maybe not one for the Westboro Baptist Christmas social.
And on to that chamber folk which I know you’re curious about. Well, it’s folk songs performed with a chamber orchestra and it’s a genre that Owen Ralph, that aforementioned nephew, may or may not have made up himself.
I’m fighting the urge to fill this post with hilarious anecdotes about Owen’s childhood peformances so bear with me if sometimes that urge wins. He was a cute little boy. And now he’s like an accomplished musician who arranged all his own music and played a plethora of instruments as well as leading all the songs. Like I said, I’m terribly proud.
I was also terribly late. Just like that trip to the Science Museum, the Victoria Line was against me and my alternative route – alighting at Hackney Downs and jumping on the Overground from Hackney Central – also fell over. So I was already late by the time I got to Camden Road and Cecil Sharp House is the other side of Camden and up a hill. Still, Nathan had got there early so was protecting our frail family reputation.
By the time I arrived, sweaty and befuddled, Owen was halfway through a solo although the orchestra were ready waiting for the next song – two violinists, a cellist, bassist, drummer, keyboardist, oboist, bassoonist, flautist and a conductor. All the musicians seemed very skilled but my favourite was the cellist, who just seemed incredibly smiley throughout and played with both joy and passion. Orchestra musicians look so serious so often, which why I liked her so much.
Looking back at the set list, I missed quite a lot of the first half but I was there in time for one of the “hits” – the second single from Chamber Folk, “The False Young Man”. You can hear it on YouTube here but live the sound was much bigger. The track really showcases the wind instruments with the flute playing an instrumental that leaps off from an unexpected key change…unexpected to my untrained ear at least. He followed it up with a sweet song about a shepherd and his bride that seemed unusually cheerful for a folk song.
Next up was a Welsh tune – was that allowed in the English Folk Dance and Song Society? – that you’d expect to be quite slight given that Owen introduces it as something he first learnt on the recorder. But the way it was orchestrated made it lush and complex. I can’t judge his pronunciation of the lyrics but he assured us it wasn’t about cheese. This was followed by another Welsh tune – “Môn” – that was a lively village dance number that showed off some seriously impressive violining* and rounded off the first half nicely
(*yes it’s a word. I know because I just made it up. What, you wanted me to say “fiddling”?)
Obviously, my nieces and I then went and embarrassed Owen at the merchandise table with much in the way of high-pitched adoration because that’s what aunties/sisters do. I’m not even sorry.
And especially not sorry because he was rude about his family in the second half. Apparently the 1-minute album-opener “This Might Be” was written at Christmas when he was bored of our company. I mean, really. You can go off people you know.
Luckily there was someone new on stage to stand between Owen and his enraged female relatives. This was Rosie Hood, a folk singer who happens to be a friend of one of my imaginary friends. I have imaginary spies everywhere. Together they sang “Isabel”, one of the few songs that was a total original, albeit inspired by a much older folk song about a lady and a knight who turns out to be something of a scoundrel. Owen, with his mother’s love of a happy ending, had rewritten it to make it much jollier. It was nice to hear a bit of vocal contrast with Owen and Rosie has a lovely tone to her voice. It’s a pity they mainly alternated rather than harmonising but I guess I’m just something of a harmony junkie.
Then they did a song of Rosie’s, newly arranged to accommodate the orchestra. “A Furlong of Flight” was all about a monk who made his own wings and tried to fly. It worked really well with the orchestration even though it wasn’t originally written with them in mind. It also marked the first attempt to make the audience sing along with a chorus that has way too many words to remember in it. I would have been up for singing – I always am – but I probably need the words written down.
At some point , Owen donned sunglasses and started playing a banjo. Neither Nathan or I can remember exactly when that was – possible”Katy Morey” – but it was very entertaining. Then a song accompanied only by concertina which I think was “Poverty Knocks” (sing along if you know it!) and that segued into “Erin’s Lovely Home”.
We were nearing the end of the gig but there was still time for the other hit – first single “The Sign of the Bonny Blue Bell”, which has been stuck in my head ever since. Will he be married on a Tuesday morning? This interfering auntie doubts it. But it’s a great tune and it’s the kind of thing that makes folk accessible to people like me who aren’t necessarily high on folk-tolerance.
The last song of the set was “The Eighteenth Day of June” but there was the most token attempt at going off stage before returning for an encore of “Roll On Silver Moon”. This was the one where we finally managed to get the hang of the chorus and sang along, albeit quietly so not to make more of a scene than we already had. It was a great note to end on even if the actual ending of the song left us hanging on for a musical resolution. Or that might have been the song before, I’m not sure…there were a few bits of musical trickery that caught the audience out and added a bit of intrigue. I love a false ending so much that a musician friend at church nicknamed me “Interrupted Cadance Milner”, which I think sounds really cool. So I did appreciate the bits which were occasionally discordant or not resolved like you’d expect. It keeps things interesting.
So my overall verdict? Well, of course I’m going to be gushingly positive. I thought it wonderful. But then I thought the same about his performance of “Yellow Submarine” in Fuengirola in 2005 and that was in an octave Ringo Starr could only dream about. I’m hardly an objective reviewer. But it was musically rich, the songs were uplifting and melodic and the supporting musicians all fantastic.
I’m ever so proud.
“Chamber Folk” is available to buy now through http://www.owenralph.co.uk/
Paul Savage is not currently touring “Paul Savage Finds All the Jokes in the Bible” as far as I know but see what he’s doing next at http://www.paulsavagecomedy.com/