False Lights – Lichfield Guild Hall – 14th October 2023
A surprise and welcome reprise of the Jim Moray/Sam Carter folk-rock behemoth.
Somewhat local lad, Stafford’s Jim Moray has always been game for a show on home turf, so when it was announced that this year’s Lichfield Festival of Folk would close with a gig by his presumed dormant band, at first I thought it a mistake. I mean, I know he’s got his reprise album to plug, returning to his back catalogue, giving them an acoustic polish, so the idea that he would be bringing back the full fat electric ensemble seemed too good to be true. But, on a damp Saturday night in October, here he was.
Of course, it isn’t strictly his band, with Sam Carter, his equal opportunities co-skipper, singing at least as much, contributing, as in sourcing, material and playing equivalently blistering guitar. Carter, not to be confused with Sam Kelly, as I often do, is no shrinking diamond, a celebrated guitarist and songsmith, with almost as glittering a solo back catalogue. With the rest of the band always a bit fluid, live and across both studio albums, it was guesswork as to who else would here be present. But we would have to wait for that.
With the raffle tickets sold, and the winner of Lichfield’s 2023 songwriting contest safely fêted, it was Sam Carter who played a first brief opening set. Starting off on finger picking acoustic, it was immediately apparent how gifted a player he is, his style and song construction not dissimilar to erstwhile mentor, Martin Simpson, if with a stronger and more conventional vocal range.
First song, The Forge, showed the slightly slow audience what he was capable of, so much so that, when the audience gave some splendid vocal accompaniment to Dreams Are Made Of Money, the level of response came even as a surprise to the delighted singer. Switching to electric, a few new songs came forth, possibly their debut performances. Back again to acoustic, a particularly poignant song told the tale of a married couple, with a shared joy of walking. Upon the death of his wife, the widower would take an annual pilgrimage to the peak district, with a memorable chorus around her being remembered best “with her boots on.” A terrific short set, and a grand taster for the main event. (Interestingly, the last time I saw the band, actually at the same venue, Moray had played the support slot, confirming the band democratic.)
A gap sufficient to drown my disappointment in failing to win the raffle: first prize, a ticket for next week, second prize, two tickets, boom boom, and on trooped the band. My pleasure was immediately doubled by the reassuring sight of Mssrs. Archie Churchill-Moss and Tom Moore, on box and fiddle duties. This duo, part of the 2nd album line-up, can do no wrong, they being an admirable duo in their own right, as well as Moss having made the solo melodeon album of the year. With Moray and Carter each toting natty guitars, there was no apparent bass player, the quintet rounded out by Moray regular, Stuart Provan, on drums.
With no ado, amps turned up to 11, they started as they meant to go on, opening with Skewball, the same rollicking version as from their 2014 debut, Salvor. Bar the sawing fiddle and squeezy melodeon textures, there was little memory of any the gentler versions in the Irish tradition. The sound was solid, it swiftly apparent that the always tech-savvy Moray had a whole bevy of extra effects under his control, adding bass, and many other textures, from an array of pedals and black box gizmos, with which he repeatedly fiddled. A grand start, leading into the loudest version of Polly On The Shore on the circuit, it even taking a moment to identify the naggingly familiar melody.
And so it continued, as songs drawn from both Salvor and the 2018 follow-up, Harmonograph, songs largely drawn from the annals of trad.arr. Switching to electric piano, Moray took his first vocal for Black Velvet Band, played, as he forewarned, not quite like The Dubliners. It became apparent, not that his voice gave that much evidence, that he was suffering with a sore throat, hence most the vocal heavy lifting was defaulting to Carter.
Next we had a showcase in gizmos, as Moray brought in loops and samples to the compellingly hypnotic Wife Of Ushers Well. which, for balance, held a running thread of claps from Moore and Moss, to which the audience were invited to join. (Reader, I declined, it being too difficult, but many tried.) Moray really has a natural pedigree for the mixing of the tradition with technology, as delineated so majestically in his solo debut, Sweet England, all of, gulp. twenty years ago. Today this all electrickery seemed to stem from a black box smaller than a mobile phone.
Babylon was a midpoint stand out, which, despite its “Babylon is fallen” chorus, rather than being a Rastafarian anthem, is actually a 19th century shapenote hymn. Not that it prevented the band magicking up a dubby bass line that the rest of the instrumentation and choral vocals could weave around. What makes for really good folk rock, as this music undoubtedly is, is a flailing drummer with extra arms and the timing of a metronome. They have this, or certainly seem to, in Provan
Apropos the question marks on the set list, below, Moray had been uncertain whether his voice would last, but last did, with a great Tyne Of Harrow, in one of the more orthodox iterations, with some lovely twangy guitar. A couple more songs followed, with, sadly, no new, all selections coming from the two albums, before their reworking of a familiar favourite: Murder In The Red Barn. It might be better known as the Murder Of Maria Marten, from the No Roses album by Shirley Collins, with the Albion Country Band, (rather than, say, the Tom Waits song of the same name, even if that, loosely, is stemming from the same derivation). This is a showstopper of a broadsheet ballad, even if necessitating an apology that quite so many songs were about death. Those that weren’t tended to be about the sea, a point not lost on the geography of tonight’s show, Lichfield perhaps as far from the sea as anywhere in England
A couple more, and Moray moved back to the keyboard, this time switched to church or chapel mode, swirling chords evoking an atmosphere Lichfield’s Guild Hall might not be unfamiliar with, bedecked, as it is, with crests and wood panelling, a building on this site from around 1387, and it felt most apt. A gigantic finale, this was their rendition of Crossing The Bar, based upon a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Unlike anything else in their repertoire, it is an astonishing way to end a show and was tonight, with the appropriately effusive applause, after a second or so of awestruck helplessness, as it ended, with Provan left alone on stage, gallantly thumping away. OK, yes, there was an encore, an instrumental gallivant in a complicated time frame, but their work was done.
I really hope this might lead to further collaborative work; it seems this was their first show this year, with, likewise, only one last year. Sure, all are busy in their own right, but the sheen they apply to the well chosen songs is way above mere drums and electric guitars. Plus, and it showed, Moray’s throat apart, how much enjoyment it gave them to be performing and for the audience to listen. Album number three, please!
Here’s the studio version of Crossing The Bar: