Wednesday 15 August 2012

Edinburgh Festivals: Music

The cast of This Land giving an encore on the steps of the venue.

At my almost annual urban interlude at the Edinburgh Festivals ('almost' because other activities, such as the Pacific Northwest Trail, do sometimes intrude) I've been to several musical shows, my attendance at one of which surprised even me. All of them are worth seeing though only one is still on in Edinburgh. My review starts with this.

This Land: The Story of Woody Guthrie

Described as a musical rollercoaster this is an exuberant, enjoyable and inspirational celebration of the life of Woody Guthrie, undoubtedly one of the most significant figures in American popular music of the last century, from Interplay of Leeds. The versatile cast play a variety of characters and swap instruments regularly. All seven male cast play Woody at different stages of his life with the lone woman member playing everyone from his mother to both his wives to a BBC presenter. Using a basic but effective set the cast conjure up freight trains, hobo life, houses and hospitals. The music is great of course and much of it familiar -  I knew most of the songs despite not owning any Woody Guthrie music (a defect I have now remedied). The singing and playing are both excellent and really capture the feeling of a time when folk music really was popular music of the masses. Whilst mostly energetic and upbeat there are poignant moments - deaths, divorce, illness - but Guthrie is always shown as being strong and positive right up to the time when near his death after years in hospital he is shown handing on the spirit of his music, not this time to the next stage in his own life but to a successor - Bob Dylan.

The Makropulos Case

I am not an opera lover. In fact it's fair to say that I've spent most of my life with a strong dislike of opera. So  my ever attending a full opera seemed unlikely. However a friend in Opera North was playing violin in a production of Janacek's The Makropolos Case at the Edinburgh International Festival so I surprised my partner, who does like opera, by saying I would go along, even though an opera about a legal case didn't  sound too promising. What I found was that actually going to an opera both confirmed and confounded my prejudices. The music was dramatic and thrilling with great dynamics. It surged and rolled and faded and really powered the production along. The singing was, well, okay. I didn't dislike it but it's not a style of singing I warm to - it sounds rather emotionless to my ear. The acting and melodrama conveyed the feelings well however. The sets were surprisingly interesting, given they consist of a lawyers office and a hotel. The story, which I didn't know, was strong enough to hold my interest. I appreciated having the words displayed as I couldn't always follow the singing and anyway sometimes I concentrated more on the music and let the words run as background. The audience and my companions were all enthusiastic so for those who like and understand opera it's obviously good. I guess I was pleasantly surprised but not so much that I'll be dashing off to more opera anytime soon.

Richard Thompson

If there was one performance I'd have been very surprised and disappointed if I hadn't found enthralling it was this solo show by one of Britain's greatest songwriters and guitarists of the last forty plus years. Somehow I'd managed not to see Richard Thompson since the early 1970s, on his farewell tour with Fairport Convention, so I was very pleased to finally manage to attend a concert and even more pleased that it was even better than I expected. Over the years Thompson's voice has grown in depth, range and emotional intensity and he is now a very good singer indeed, which was shown especially on the slower, sadder songs. As to his guitar playing, well, it's always been good but on this occasion it was really stunning, especially when he let rip on the uptempo numbers. At times I could swear I could hear bass, rhythm and lead at the same time, all from one acoustic guitar. The songs were a mix of old favourites from his now vast back catalogue and four good-sounding new ones from an album coming out next year. It was a good range of songs too - everything from the pathos of Beeswing through the rock'n roll of Valerie to the humour of Don't Sit On My Jimmy Shands. A brilliant hour and half's music.

1 comment:

  1. I envy you. The Woody Guthrie sounds great. As for Richard Thompson, like you the last time I saw him was in the early 70s. I remember chatting to him and Linda at the bar in St John's College, Durham, half-way through a small and intimate concert. Ah, happy days! His guitar playing is sublime, and as for "Beeswing", well, is that not one of the best songs ever written?