Visiting Richmond to see the Kew Christmas lights I decided to take in a concert. Ralph McTell famous for the Streets of London playing central London had to be a good omen. On Thursday 7th December I viewed the Kew Christmas lights. It was a magical almost shamanic experience as we celebrated the seasons wandering around the gardens accompanied by lights and sounds, I have included a few images to offer a flavour of the evening. There was a poetic resonance with the celebration of changing seasons on Thursday and the marking of the passage of time on Friday.
I have never seen Ralph McTell live and have none of his records (as we used to say in days gone by). However, through the joys of the internet I was able to watch some concert footage and was so impressed with the timbre of his voice, which appeared to have improved with the passage of time. In what I sampled on the internet I enjoyed his balladeering and his social commentary. So on Friday the 8th December I found myself going on a small adventure to the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. I am a fan of the Royal Festival Hall, but I had never met the smaller sister. Brutalist concrete yet a warmth that is hard to convey and wonderful acoustics, yet wasted on my weary ears. Leather seats which were ideal for a concert, this might have been a folk evening, but it was a middle class folk evening.
Always fascinated by the audience an artist attracts, as a fifty something I felt quite youthful. Many couples evident whom I sensed had such rich biographies, it felt like an evening of remembering or more accurately reconnecting with our earlier selves. I noticed parents with middle age children, doing a concert together and enjoying each others company. Ralph McTell (RM) shared that his son was managing the tour and his granddaughters were running the merchandise stall. This was an evening of family an evening of friendships, an evening of connections. RM would dedicate songs to people in the audience without the aid of notes, I pondered this and guessed that there must be an ear piece at work.
The concert appeared to be a virtual sell-out, but two seats were free either side of me. I hadn’t been stood up and my people do not buy extra seats because of my proximity issues, so weird symbolism at work here. No support act had been billed, so it was a surprise to be watching Smith and Brewer. Initially slightly resentful, I quickly warmed to their close harmony singing, fascinated by the dynamics of two guys with guitars sharing the same microphone. Remember, I am more rock than folk orientated, but the first track conjured up Simon and Garfunkel for me. They channelled their emotions around a wet vehicle breakdown in Rhyl. My younger self, holidaying in North Wales was back with them in the existentialist despair of North Wales in the rain. But this would misconvey what they were about, they were a warm up act in the true sense of the phrase. They packed a lot into 30 minutes, most importantly they energised the audience who warmed to them and their observational commentary.
When they finished their set, there was then an odd pause in the concert for 20 minutes for refreshments and shopping. I experienced another mild resentment, you can see why I always have to sit on my own. And then I spotted a guy a few rows down clutching his signed Smith and Brewer CD, he looked proud and happy. I remembered how music used to be more like this before the arrival of multinational owned sharing platforms.
As RM came on to the stage there was a wave of warm applause, I was probably in the minority hearing him live for the first time, there was a lot of love and a lot of memories in the Queen Elizabeth Hall this evening. I am going to struggle to remember all the tracks, but the guy directly in front of me had a notebook and a pencil. He would write down each track, so as to remember and relive the evening. Again in a digital age so nice to see somebody going back to old technology, so much more real. He was with his daughter, they appeared to be sharing the joy. Brexit and other troubles outside the venue had been put on hold for a few hours. RM commented on war, conflict, poverty at times, but in a non adversarial way, seeking out the peace and companionship which filled the venue.
So without paper and pencil I cannot list all tracks, but here are a few; The Ferryman, Naomi, The Pretty Brighton Belle and From Clare to Here. Wonderful lyrics with wonderful guitar playing, this really was a master class. My favourite track was the Maginot Waltz, a track about two soldiers going on a charabanc trip to Brighton just before they went off to war. RM humbly explained how he had performed it at Ypres on the 11th November 2018. The importance of connection rippled through the evening, connections with place and people and I have tried here to highlight some of those connections. He talked about his uncle, his upbringing and riding on the Brighton Belle on the boiler plate. He talked about us being part of fifty year cycle traced back to Bob Dylan in the 1960s. He acknowledged that the first time he had played this venue was 1972 when his life was very different, I would have been 10 and he mentioned his son was now in his fifties, so many connections. Isn’t it odd that we are told we live in the most ‘connected’ world of all time, yet I wonder if we haven’t lost many human connections.
I was curious to know how he would deal with what he referred to as his only ‘hit’. Well he dealt with it with humour and humility in keeping with the rest of the evening. He encouraged audience participation as he sung the Streets of London and many of the audience joined in. He explained how this way, each time he played the song it was interpreted differently for him.
The audience sounded wonderful to me, almost choral as they simultaneously forgot and remembered themselves. I felt RM had given a lot of himself during the evening and an encore was not required by this audience member. But there was an appetite for more and he delivered a wonderful encore joining up with Smith and Brewer, connections abound. As I walked out into the cold December evening there was an accidental mingling of the young clubbing generation and the older folk generation, just for a moment everything was connected and everything made sense.