Chris Wood at The Elephant and Castle (Lewes, UK. 10/7/11)
Award-winning folk singer Chris Wood appeared in Lewes as part of the four day Folk Festival during which various venues in the town act as hosts to the performers. This particular venue, known affectionately as ‘Elly’ is a 70 person capacity room above a pub and it was a real coup for promoters Union Music Store to attract an artist of Wood’s calibre to perform in such an intimate setting.
As soon as his booking was confirmed, the tickets flew out the door and Wood therefore opened the evening, remarking that with it having sold out back in August he was under ‘no pressure then!’ Two songs in While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks and The Grand Correction he mentioned that he doesn’t have a prepared set list but rather a long list of songs from which he makes his selection as the evening unfolds. The danger of this is that as ‘a grumpy disillusioned old git’ he can sometimes find himself playing a suite of songs which are all despairing in their subject matter and that’s ‘not what you want to hear’. To counter that he then proceeded to sing a song about being happily married – My Darling’s Downsized – his ‘grown up love song’ written only a few years ago about his wife choosing to take semi-retirement; he acknowledged however that semi-retirement is now an alien concept to many given the current economic climate.
What I like about Wood is that whilst he is steeped in the tradition of folk, in his own writing he gives it a modern twist and makes it accessible to people who would not normally consider themselves a fan of the genre. His song Hollow Point about the London shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes is an excellent representation of what I mean as too is No Honey Tongued Sonnet a biting indictment about the 11 Plus examinations. Wood, regarded as one of the finest and uncompromising writers of his generation personifies perfectly a seething anger at social and political injustice and very, very eloquently makes his point in songs that just demand the listener’s ear. His understated delivery coupled with his virtuosity on guitar, makes his messages all the more compelling.
That is not to say the evening was full of angst and sorrow, on the contrary he often had the audience laughing with him especially at the stories he told between songs. He related how he’d learned A Cornish Young Man from Martin Carthy who taught it to him in a motorway service area on the M25. He was comfortable enough to try out a new, uncompleted song The Sweetness Game as well as responding to a request for ‘the fish and chip shop’ song – One In A Million. Allegedly based on a true story with lyrics by his friend and storyteller Hugh Lupton, it is a heartfelt narrative of Billy’s love being spurned by Peggy who eventually realises that he is after all the one for her. As he sang you could have heard a pin drop, the audience hung on every word and one woman was heard to exclaim ‘yes!’ in a very loud whisper as Billy finally got his girl.
The evening ended with John Ball Sydney Carter’s well-loved folk song. Wood has been invited to visit the Carter archive (by Carter’s son) and may be putting to music some of Sydney Carter’s lyrics – he seems very excited about the prospect and I’ve no doubt he will do justice to a writer he much admires. In the meantime there is of course very much to admire in Wood’s own canon of work and the awards he has received, including BBC2 Folk Singer of the Year, are so very well deserved. Jela Webb