Tia McGraff and Tommy Parham at Twickfolk, The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham, UK
As we know to our cost, live music can be an expensive and unrewarding experience; inflated ticket prices, many thousands packed into cavernous venues with the artist a distant speck whose performance sounds as if it’s been filtered through a sock. Having been to see two musicians each equipped with only a guitar and a voice who gave a performance that combined thoughtful songs, storytelling, fun and above all, a lasting rapport with an appreciative audience reminded me why we love live music. Welcome to the world of Canadian singer songwriter, Tia McGraff and her husband, co-writer and performer, Tommy Parham from Colorado. This show was their last of a four week UK tour.
I have to admit I’m rather late to the Tia party and have Bill Frater to thank for the introduction when he played tracks from Tia’s latest album, Crazy Beautiful on his Freight Train Boogie podcast around this time last year. I played it throughout the rest of last year and it was comfortably in my top 10 for 2015 so the prospect of seeing Tia perform virtually on my doorstep was a real treat in store.
Instead of just going through the set list, fired up by such an excellent evening I shall try to set out what went through my mind as I rabbited away to Mrs B on the bus home.
A lot is talked about “real” music as if it was beer but this was natural ingredients only, brewed to the highest standard of purity. The venue was small, the stage barely a platform so not much need for amplification. The sound was excellent so all could enjoy Tia’s immensely expressive voice. While that’s what we’d come to hear, what Bob Harris described on his show recently as Tia’s contact with her audience very soon emerged. Throughout the two sets it was impossible to let the attention wander. Tia’s only accompaniment was Tommy’s support vocals and playing.
And so to the songs themselves and again to “real music”; these go back to one of the original purposes of singing which is storytelling. Particular examples were two songs from Tia’s 2013 album, Break These Chains set around her home in Ontario; the first was Abigail about Abigail Becker known as the Angel of Long Point who saved the lives of many sailors shipwrecked along the coast of Lake Eire in the late 19th century. Another “lake” song was Whiskey Ship, after a ship named City of Dresden running booze from Canada to the US during Prohibition hit a storm and had to jettison much of its cargo onto the home shore much to the joy of the locals. Family and storytelling merged in Conductor for a Day, sparked by Tia’s father’s love of railways and Mesa Gold from Crazy Beautiful, inspired by Tommy’s late mother’s favourite season, autumn. The natural world theme continued with the haunting Two Wolves from Tia’s Diversity album.
The storytelling was by no means restricted to the songs. Both Tia and Tommy gave amusing and interesting intros to many of the songs as well as completely unrelated tales of the road involving herding sheep and Dartmoor ponies, too long to record here.
Nearly all of the material was written by Tia and Tommy but the set did include a rousing Ring of Fire and a particularly sensitive I Shall be Released, The Band version of course. Tia went to the same school as Rick Danko.
Crazy Beautiful was given the exposure it deserves; title track, Nineteen (who’d want to be 19 again, not in Twickers), The Fire, Movin’ the Smoke Away and the final song, very apt for a last night in the UK, Long Ride Home.
Tia and Tommy do this with deep sincerity, this is their life and they are prepared to play many small venues around the country. Both mingle with the audience before and after the show. They may be signing a few CDs but above all they appear to gain pleasure from meeting those who had come to see them. That’s why we must support this type of music and venue. Thanks also to Twickfolk, who put on the show.
And finally, I was reminded of Canada’s great musical heritage; we have already mentioned The Band, but also Gordon Lightfoot to whom Tia has been compared as his female equivalent. There are many others and listing will mean I miss out somebody but Tia deserves a wider following. Go and see them and come back to the UK soon Tia and Tommy.