The album Bright Phoebus is a modern folk classic, a game-changer in the way of Dylan going electric. The contemporaneous nature of the songs, far from The Watersons’ own roots in traditional folk music, earned them much criticism. Mike Waterson’s sunnier, pop-tinged songs earned comparisons with The Beatles, while his sister, Lal, wrote intriguingly dark, earthy, mystical songs, at once fragile and primal.
The Barbican Hall fills up with a diverse cross-section of people, all eager to hear this rare gem of an album given its first ever live rendition by a top-flight ensemble of family and guest musicians. As the house lights dim, the musicians climb the steps to the stage, Eliza Carthy’s arm gently guiding her mother, Norma Waterson, whose cheery red walking stick sadly only serves to counterpoint her evident difficulty in walking.
A lively opener in the form of ensemble piece, Rubber Band, immediately sets the tone for the warm, complex harmonious music of the evening ahead. Marry Waterson, in the beautiful and haunting Fine Horseman, is able to sound quite uncannily like her mother, Lal. Her uncle, Martin Carthy gives an almost recitative delivery of Winnifer Odd, a cautionary tale about missing real opportunities whilst waiting for ones that never arrive.
These first songs are performed immaculately but, somehow, there’s a stiffness in communicating with the audience. Then, on strides the magnificent Richard Hawley, well and truly breaking the ice by admitting how daunting the whole thing is – for performers and audience alike. It’s true, there’s a huge weight of expectation here: not only is this the first time this legendary album has been performed live (and this is the opening show of a brief tour), but there’s the emotional weight for the family members singing in memoriam of their relatives, so it’s completely understandable if there’s some tension in the air tonight.
Richard’s superb rockabilly interpretation of Danny Rose (“Mike Waterson was a rockabilly” he asserts, with perhaps more confidence than accuracy) and his mellow personality really helps warm things up. In the second half of the show, he reappears to perform an acoustic version of Piper’s Path, a demo that didn’t make the final album cut. He comments on Lal’s surreal lyrics and says he’d asked Norma if Lal was on drugs, “because the songs sound as if she’s high – and I should know” he adds, sagely. Norma’s response was, apparently, that Lal liked lots of pickled onions. (Full disclosure: as a child, I was known to save my pocket money to buy little jars of silverskin onions, so I felt a jolt of connection at this revelation).
Eliza is quite simply a force of nature on stage, constantly beating time with her feet or dancing, arms aloft, when not playing the fiddle. Her renditions of Jack Frost and Child Among The Weeds are breathtaking. The latter also features special guest Bob Davenport’s acapella middle section (as on the original recording). Watching this elderly man, with his cloud of fluffy white hair, stepping up to sing is a heart-stopping moment. Hearing his pure clear tones singing of “the joy of wheeling and turning” is extraordinarily moving. Not for the first or last time this evening there are tears in my eyes and the hairs are standing up on the back of my neck.
Jarvis Cocker opens The Scarecrow at a whisper. For a minute, I’m doubting the wisdom of this, but his rendition quickly gains voice and reinforces the sheer eeriness of the song – a kind of Wicker Man meets John Barleycorn. Jarvis also leads on the first-half closer, Magical Man, flourishing a bunch of flowers from his sleeve which he presents to Marry. Later, Jarvis performs another demo, The Beast, which he introduces saying “No-one will know if I get this wrong” to which Norma pithily retorts, “I will”.
Norma may need to sit down for her songs these days, but her voice is undimmed. She introduces her first song by saying that the Bright Phoebus recording was when she & Martin first got together. He’s standing beside her, tuning his guitar as she reaches out and gives his leg a gentle squeeze. Later, as Eliza prepares to accompany Norma, she says, conversationally, “Hello mother. Are you ready for a cup of tea yet?”. Such touching moments bring real warmth and intimacy to the evening.
Norma delivers a fine, robust Red Wine Promises, possibly the most honest, yet poetic song about being falling-down drunk ever written. Later, she sings Song for Thirza, about a family-friend who was heavily involved in bringing up the young Waterson children when their own parents died. Lal wrote the song as a commemoration when Thirza herself died. At the end of the song, Norma’s emotion is palpable as she says “Well, I got through that”, with evident relief.
First-class support is also provided by the clear, ringing tones of Kami Thompson and the softly smoky-voiced John Smith who provide a country-tinged duet on Evon Our Darling. Kami also takes on Marvellous Companion, and John delivers a delicious One of Those Days.
A very well-deserved standing ovation follows the closing ensemble song, Bright Phoebus. For the encore, Marry, accompanied by brother Oliver Knight on guitar, sings the melancholy Revoiced, a song in memory of her mother, then the whole ensemble joins in again to sing us out with a rousing Shady Lady.
It’s been, in spite of the venue size, an intimate and emotional performance by this group of hugely talented musicians, helping to bring new and flourishing life to a work of art and commemorating much-missed family members.
Set list (to the best of my recollection, at least):-
Child Among The Weeds
One of Those Days
Evon our Darling
Red Wine & Promises
The Magical Man
To Make You Stay
Never the Same
Song for Thirza