With The Rob Heron himself selling the tickets on the door you could be forgiven for thinking him and his teapad orchestra had fall on hard times. Hokum! Christmas Hokum, in fact! Rob & Co are ingrained within the very walls of The Cumberland Arms, like family welcoming you through their wreath clad front door for Christmas cheer!
After a bit of milling around; the nucleus of local folky folk, swing dancers and Cumberland’s extended family hailing eachother with glad tidings, the music kicked off. ‘Boxcar’ Joe Strouzer set the bar high. Recently back from the Bayou, he had learned a painstaking trick or two from the masters of delta blues. Deftly reloading harmonicas (from a selection in his suitcase) into his home-made mouthcradle, we watched him stomp his way through a smorgasbord of folk that meds North East and Deep South.
I particularly appreciated how Strouzer’s setlist celebrates the whimsical, the lost simplicity of rustic life – exploring many themes – such as fishing and chickens and dragonflies – not just boring old heartbreak….again! Yeah, it may be a bit rose-tinted, but Strouzer was clearly born in the wrong era and he is simply educating us in essentials of Edwardian life – steam locomotion, fishing and economic depression. Of course you can’t avoid heartbreak for long in the blues genre –it rears its head allegorically in the poetic ‘Dragonflies’ –offbeat folk perhaps missing a drone or squeezebox.
‘Fishing blues’ evokes an idyllic riverscape –plucked straight from ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. Similarly ‘George Stevenson Blues’ imperceptibly recreates the playful trundle of a steam train rolling down the tracks – Strouzer barely takes breath during this astounding vintage beatbox.
For all his visual feast and an overridngly impressive performance, his style is quite strum-heavy and his voice can err into a grate when overwrought and in the moment.
A victim of their predecessor’s idiosyncratic success, the Holcombe Family String band contend with a sound-system gone haywire and crowd spoilt by Strouzer. They put up a good fight – playing faithful ragtime rhythms bounced out on the violin, with occasional kazoo or trumpet blasted over the top. They would be would look more at home on a sandblasted prairie porch. Frontman CD Wallum, dressed like a Brooklyn construction worker, guides his motley crew though a jaunty but unpolished performance. ‘The Great Fire of Armley’ stands out most notably – relaxed ragtimes steeped in Yorkshire folklore.
Doing Nottingham most proud, up next is ‘The Most Ugly Child’. But what a voice?! Tremulous and purposeful with a heartmelting southern drawl, Stevie Leigh Goodison is sumptuous on so many levels. The chemistry on stage between Guitarist, vocalist and songsmith Daniel Wright and Goodison is palpable – their duets leave you feeling like a voyeur…a bit wrong but so right.
‘These Tears’ is a sweeping country ode to ‘Five Little Speckled frogs’ (can’t escape that there maybe a case for copyright infringement here) just as ‘Golden Gate’ is undeniably inspired by ‘You are my sunshine’. They duet to ‘Lover o mine’ with Stevie-Leigh’s lipstick smirched on Wright’s face – they are a luxurious and symbiotic couple– a Jonny & June necromancy.
‘Dreaming of you’ recounts a torrid argument the couple have chosen to enshrine in song. Snarling at the microphone, it feels as though Stevie is still seething, and Wright is still brooding at this unending altercation. As the couple thrash it out, the band plays on, the electric guitar catches the country undercurrent as it peaks and troughs.
Smooth harmonies, faithfully executed, ease around the folkabilly backing. It feels a bit naughty to watch but we just cant get enough.
Speaking of insatiatble lust, immaculately dressed, Rob Heron et al take to the stage, relaxing into their natural habitat.
Amongst friends and allies, the bard’s tory bashing and labour loving lyrics are lapped up by the hungry crowd. Their anthems expound the plight of struggling bohemians, whilst distracting us from reality with the whimsy of their retro sound.
‘One step forward, two steps back’ has the more proficient dancers in the crowd Charlestonning or Shagging (yes, it’s the name for that specific type of dance) joyfully to the beat. Jaunty Parisienne accordion sends us drifting back to a world of more simple pleasures.
Deserving particular praise, the drummer, Paul Archibald, is sharp as a tack. Hammering at the kit with a natural frequency, his face contorts, entranced with concentration and exertion. In concert with the distinctive Ted Harbot on bass (a doppelgänger for Paul Dano), these pacemamkers keep merry band in check. Oiled with occasional drams of liquor, Heron is at the top of his game.
The some lucky members of the symbiotic crowd are welcomed on stage for a surreal vaudevillian interlude. Ribald and bizarre frolics ensue involving the illumination of erogenous zones and an anthropomrphoic chicken handbag. In jokes are bandied around as the usual suspects get upto some rather unusual antics.
The music takes precedence once again – they jazz it up with ‘Hot Bath’ and simmer down with ‘Hangover Blues’.
It’s a night of retrospective celebration –extolling the vinyl days and analogue gigs of yesteryear. This was probably the closest I’ll ever get to a night out at ‘Fezziwigs’’ in A Christmas Carol –buzzing with vintage merriment. Roll on 2017!