West Hill Hall, Brighton
14 September 2012
It's great when you go to see an old hero and know all the songs. It's also great to hear fine, new, unfamiliar music - particularly in an intimate setting.
So, 48 hours after Patti Smith wowed a couple of thousand of us at the Brighton Dome, I was one of maybe 50 up the road at the West Hill Community Hall - where my kids went to a toddlers' playgroup, where the stage lighting is provided by two old standard lamps, and where Michael Chapman played an amazing show earlier this year.
And Michael it was who led me to Meg Baird. She has a lovely version of his 'No Song To Sing' on the Oh Michael, Look What You've Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman compilation, which is shaping up to feature strongly in my favourite records of 2012.
And that was all I knew when I bought the tickets, other than that she had played in Espers, an American folk band who have never really grabbed my attention.
What a voice: clear and pure with effortless power, influenced - as I see the critics note and she herself acknowledges - by the sound of the English folk revival (Celia Humphris of Trees, Jacqui McShee, Shirley Collins are in the mix), but with a tone and style which is very much her own. Her largely fingerpicking guitar style is also distinctive and provides a solid and reliable platform for the songs.
She seems very shy. Singing always with her eyes closed, barely moving, taking several numbers before starting to say anything to the audience. But she warms into it and communicates a real charm: flashing delighted smiles at the end of the songs, which she seems surprised to find are greeted with rapturous applause. (I came away clutching a copy of her Seasons On Earth album, the sleeve of which has four photos of her, three of which hide her face entirely and the last has an eyes-closed semi-profile as she smiles at her dog... We like you too, Meg!)
She was supported by Jason Steel, a remarkable guitar and banjo player from Yorkshire, who also writes a mean song and sings with a light, true voice. He is remarkable for the way that he will leave space in his arrangements and allow the pace to drop, trusting the music to proceed according to its own internal logic. It works: spellbindingly.
He tells some funny and affecting stories, and quotes John Fahey - who is one definite reference point for the music, along with old, weird folk (from both sides of the Atlantic) and blues. But I also caught some flashes of early Paul Simon and (as my partner pointed out) Jeff Buckley in his songs. Fahey's advice was always to finish with a hymn and Jason gave us two, including a great reading of 'Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down'.
I came away with a handsome piece of vinyl from him, too - his very nicely packaged The Weight of Care album (numbered 242 of 250 - phew, just made it...). I'm going to enjoy getting to know both of my acquisitions.
A lovely, mellow evening: and the stars seemed particularly bright, walking home.