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FOLK MUSIC

Posted: April 30th, 2005, by Simon Proffitt

On Wednesday night I visited the legendary Fillmore East Muni Arts Centre in Pontypridd. It’s a nice enough place, housed in an old deconsecrated Welsh Methodist chapel, and there’s a vending machine in the foyer selling baked corn snacks for 10p a packet. I was in two minds whether to go for Tangy Toms or pickled onion Space Raiders, but the sun had been out all day and I was happy, so I had a packet of each.

I was there to see two friends of mine supporting some guy I’d never heard of. I don’t think they’d heard of him either. We didn’t really know what to expect. There was a stack of promotional postcards next to the ticket office, and they were intriguing – a moodily lit close-up of an androgynous person in tragic-cabaret style with glitter paint lazily seeping from one eye, all done in tastefully deep purples. Very camp, very classy. The reverse was similarly intriguing: ‘a techno-traditionalist’ we were told. Great! ’21st century folk music’. Awesome! ‘Radio 2 airplay’. Fantast- wait, that didn’t sound too promising! But, you know, I’ve got an open mind. And I’m a big fan of Desmond Carrington.

Halflight (the friends of mine) were on first, and they were great. They always are. But I’m not here to talk about Halflight. I’m here to talk about Jim Moray, the 21st century techno-traditionist folk musician.

Jim shuffles onstage dressed in Strokes-lite. Slim-fitting black trousers, black shirt (sleeves rolled half up), 80’s new wave red tie. The geeky offspring of Dennis Pennis and Elvis Costello. His first song is an acapella ‘folk tune’, and is probably about some Merrie Maiden or Olde England’s Forests Green or whatever. It’s nice enough, but he doesn’t have the strongest voice I’ve ever heard. It’s Tesco Value Glenn Tilbrook. Kwik Save Elvis Costello. But the brilliant thing about it is – get this – he’s got a gadget. It’s a small silver box! With a cable coming out of the back! And it makes bits of his voice repeat over and over again! So that he’s doing backing! Vocals! With! Himself! The small audience (mostly 40-somethings sitting comfortably at tressle tables) love it. Couples look excitedly at each other, and squeeze each others hands. Look, it’s that lovely young lad! The one off of Radio 2! He’s singing a nice song! And he’s got a gadget!

Jim’s band enter the stage. They’re geeky new wave lite, too. And things suddenly get very bad. Now, I appreciate folk music as much as the next man. I have two Robbie Basho albums. I think Woody Guthrie was a genius. I have an Anne Briggs CD. I’ve seen the Albion Band live. My mum knows Ashley Hutchings. I’m a big fan of the new wave of world folk sweeping across the land: Avarus, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Hala Strana, Islaja, Lau Nau, Six Organs of Admittance. Ah, you say, then it’s Jim Moray’s technology you don’t like. He’s got a sample-and-hold box, see. And an Apple Powerbook. But no – as that legend of electronica Adamski once said, I love technology. What I object to, and in the strongest possible terms, are beautiful, traditional English folk tales repackaged in slick, bland, melodramatic, sub-Coldplay soft rock and cynically marketed to boring, meat-and-two-veg slackjawed morons for them to play in the Vectra while they’re driving to Carpet World, on the apparent premise that it’s an exciting and unprecedented marriage of tradition and technology, and on the actual premise that it’s mildly pleasant, easy-to-listen-to background music for tasteless idiots. I hate Jim Moray for the same reason I hate Kenny G. Jim Moray is not a folk musician in the same way that MacDonalds do not sell hog roasts.

For what seems like the next three hours, Jim and his band plod through Runrig-esque rock-pop tune after Runrig-esque rock-pop tune, all devoid of any passion, soul, or respect. Respect for the source material, or respect for modern music. The guitarist shuffles around self-consciously with his shiny new stratocaster and looks like he’d probably be able to instantly tell you the square root of any 7-figure number. He does smooth, American RockFM-friendly solos with a tasteful amount of reverb and overdrive. The bassist has an expensive bodiless upright, and he plays it smoothly and proficiently. The drummer, well, he’s no Elvin Jones. But he doesn’t have to be. As Owen, my companion for the night noted, it’s the first time in a long time he’s been to a gig where he could have played any of the parts. And we’ve been to lots of gigs recently. And of course, because this is a folk gig, the songs are all about Cuckoo’s Nests, Bonnie Black Hares, Raggle Taggle Gypsies, Rose-cheeked Milkmaids and the like. There’s a constant stream of urine flowing from each of the band members, and it falls collectively upon the corpses of everyone that’s ever written, performed and enjoyed listening to these songs in the days before recording, in the days when songs were sung and handed down through generations purely to entertain or to educate, with no marketing bullshit and no desire to get rich at the public’s expense. In the days before Pro Tools could sequence clinical, reverbed glockenspiel to add colour to a live track.

And in some ways, it was the glockenspiel and synthesized string quartet that made me the angriest. Here are four guys on tour, playing live. Presumably they have glockenspiel on some songs from their album. Presumably they also have a string quartet, playing sweeping, but slightly lame string sounds. Great. They have every right to those things. But if they want to have a glockenspiel in their live set, I’d prefer them to have a glockenspiel player. Not an Apple Powerbook trotting out a few simple notes of accompaniment. Why does this make me angry? Because it smacks of the fear by the marketers of the live sound deviating too much from the songs that people have heard on the radio, at all costs. As if the audience will walk out of the gig and demand their money back if they don’t get a perfect reproduction of the song they heard on the Ken Bruce show. You don’t need me to tell you that this is NOT what live music should be about.

It turns out that Jim Moray is only 21. We all have different ideas of success, but I would not be happy to think that I was being mildly championed by Ken Bruce to a nation of musically apathetic 50 year olds at any age, let alone when I’ve only just got the key to the door. Is this any worse than a bunch of 21 year olds starting a Green Day tribute band? I’m inclined to say that yes, it is.

But then – am I being reactionary here? Were the same things said in the 60s when Fairport Convention and their contemporaries started melding English folk and rock into one significant new sound? They were simply taking traditional song forms, and melodic ideas, and bringing them up to date by incorporating them into a modern rock framework. Isn’t that what Jim Moray is doing? Is Jim Moray, in actual fact, a visionary genius bringing people’s folk heritages bang up to date? Reminding them of things that would otherwise be forgotten? And if Jim is seemingly only popular with ordinary, common people, isn’t that what folk music was all about in the first place? Giving the common people a voice?

I get so confused. Now, where did I put that tankard of mead?



Simon Proffitt

Simon was born near Clowne, Derbyshire and is now an honorary Welshman. In former guises he has created fake diamonds, developed ultra-high-capacity storage devices and been one half of slow-moving, ├╝ber-pretentious record label Fourier Transform. He now spends his evenings recording silence and banging kitchen utensils.

http://www.simonproffittalloneworddotcom.co.uk

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