Shower of praise for folk artistes

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The rain came down heavily and persistently during the evening of last Friday. The question was, would it dampen the audience’s enthusiasm at the monthly Chesterfield folk club concert?

I’m not sure why, but I’ve never managed to catch up with Nancy Kerr and James Fagan before. Nancy was brought up in Northumbria with the family’s folk music running in her veins. James is Australian, from New South Wales, and came over to this country about 16 years ago as a medical student. They met and soon afterwards started playing as a duo. It was not long before they became noticed by the folk world and quickly established a large following of fans and a well-deserved reputation as fine singers and instrumentalists. They are now based just down the road in Sheffield.

To start the evening, however, singer-songwriter Bob Ballard had come over from Mansfield. He soon gained a comfortable rapport with the audience who warmed to his easy going approach. He had, to my ears, a very American sounding style which put me in mind of Tom Paxton and I think this was reflected in his approach to song writing as well. Bob sang a selection of self-penned material as well as some songs written by other people. His repertoire was varied, having something for everyone, ranging from Jimmy Nail’s ‘Big River’ through to a rocking, wry (some would say cynical!) take on life from birth to death, the name of which, unfortunately, I did not catch. He was just what we needed to take our minds off the weather before the main act.

Nancy Kerr and James Fagan started their first set off in fine style with a clutch of Northumbrian dance tunes. Nancy plays the fiddle and her mastery of the instrument is obvious from the moment the bow touches the strings. James, meanwhile, provides a solid, driving rhythm on an unusual guitar-bouzouki.

From Northumbria James then took us to New South Wales with ‘The Diamantina Drover’, a song written Hugh McDonald. James’ rich vocals were beautifully complemented with Nancy’s graceful harmonies. The duo maintained the ‘down under’ theme with ‘Farewell to the Gold’, a song written by Paul Metsers and made famous by Nic Jones. It has been revived by Nancy and James to great effect. This song is from their ‘Strands of Gold’ album and was justifiably chosen by the National Trust to be included on a compilation C.D. ‘English Folk Music’.

Nancy is not only a fine fiddle player and singer, she is also a very accomplished songwriter. Her songs are taken from personal experiences and shine like finely polished gemstones. Her songs are all clearly steeped in the English tradition, and this is emphasised by her wonderfully light vocal style which was haunting in its simplicity. I particularly liked her songs ‘Queen of Waters’ and ‘Dolerite Skies’.

James too has a fine voice which, like Nancy’s, is perfectly suited to traditional material. The singing talents of both of them were very apparent during the unaccompanied ‘The Death of Nelson’ with James taking the main part and Nancy adding glorious harmonies. What I found best about the evening was the variety. The songs were delivered with such style that I would have been quite happy to listen to them all night but Nancy and James know how to please an audience better than that! In both halves of their set, just as I was settling in to song-listening mode, they would shift up the gears and inject some high octane jigs or Northumbrian dance tunes into the mix for good measure.

Nancy and James seem to have absorbed elements from many sources of the British folk revival but they have managed to weave them into something unique and original. Oh, and yes, they are energetic, exciting and entertaining as well!! It was great to see this duo make their first appearance in Chesterfield and I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that it is not too long before we see them here again. Neither of them appeared to have been put off by the weather, and perhaps the next time they come there will be a drought instead!

The folk club takes a break over the summer but will return on Friday, September 14, with the unique talent that is Vin Garbutt.

MARTIN SUMPTON