Monday, 12 September 2016

Songs of Separation

Songs of Separation
Kings Place, London

Songs of Separation, a collaborative effort featuring 10 of folk's brightest stars, sold out Hall One at Kings Place and mesmerised the audience over the course of 80 spellbinding minutes.

The concert showcased the 12 songs from the album of the same name, which came out earlier this year and was the fruit of an intense week-long series of session on the The Isle of Eigg. The artistes in question are Eliza Carthy, Hannah James, Hannah Read, Hazel Askew, Jenn Butterworth, Jenny Hill, Karine Polwart, Kate Young, Mary Macmaster and Rowan Rheingans.

Available from the ever-impressive Proper Music
In their own words: ''Songs of Separation brought together ten female folk musicians from Scotland and England, to create a recording which reflects on the issue of ‘separation’ in its many forms, through traditional song. Celebrating the similarities and differences in our musical, linguistic and cultural heritage, and set in the context of a post-referendum world, the work aims to prompt new thinking about the issue of separation as it occurs in all our lives.''

Kings Place, just a few short minutes walk away from King's Cross Station, is a multi-purpose venue offering a large range of events based on the arts. I was there once before - to see Patty Griffin, almost exactly one year ago - and found the venue to be very impressive.

The unusually late starting time for Songs of Separation - 9.45 p.m. - worked in my favour, as I was able to head off directly from work to make the journey from Teesside. The schedule was still very tight but everything worked out fine.

The stage was already full - of instruments! - before the artistes emerged.

To assemble ten artistes from any genre cannot be an easy task. To do it with 10 of folk's busiest big-hitters is nothing short of miraculous. It's amazing they can ever be in the same place at the same time long enough to put on a show, which is one reason why one should always leap at the opportunity to see them on one of their all-too rare appearances. Indeed, this was only the fifth (and final) tour date of the year.

To hear the album is one thing; to see and hear it played live takes the experience to a whole new level. The CD comes with a nicely annotated booklet but it is only when hearing the stories behind the songs first hand that they really start to take hold. Each song has a fascinating history, the telling of which keeps the respective stories alive and carries them forward. The very essence of folk music.

Separation takes many forms and the 12 songs leave few avenues unexplored. To demonstrate the diversity, we experience the ''disconnect between human beings and the living world'' on Echo Mocks the Corncrake, which is about the diminishing numbers of the migrant bird; life in exile following the first Jacobite rising (from a Robert Burns poem) on It Was A' For Our Rightful' King; becoming an outcast of perceived shame on London Lights; the boundaries between the supernatural and physical worlds on Sea King and a plethora of other degrees of separation along the way. 

Cleaning the Stones is, on first impression, a simple and light song about a fish puzzling over the inexplicable absence of its partner, but a small scratch to the veneer is sufficient to reveal something much darker about the denial technique some people adopt in order to move on from the most painful of losses. In a little under six minutes it manages to convey so much about the human condition and how we forever balance on the double-sided precipice between strength and frailty.

All of the thought-provoking songs have the power to draw in the listener and demand further visits from which one can make more discoveries regarding the nature of separation, from inauguration to aftermath.

It may appear churlish to single out any of the 10 for a special mention, but nevertheless one has to highlight the role of Jenny Hill who spent two years bringing the project from a idea to reality, overcoming what must, at times, have been a logistical and financial nightmare. Jenny took centre stage, anchoring the songs with her double bass and, incidentally, playing in several different styles to accentuate the peaks and troughs of the musical tales (I'm sure I caught sight of some rockabilly-style playing on the uptempo swings).

This was a hugely inspirational and memorable evening. Hopefully Songs of Separation can reconvene and tour again in 2017.

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