Monday, December 21, 2009

The Owl Service in Rochester

The Good Intent, Rochester 20th December 2009

Solstice eve, and a "Folk 'n' Ale" festival at one of the most pleasantly odd little pubs I've ever been in. It looks pretty shabby from the outside, in a nondescript residential part of Rochester (I pretty much slid there all the way from the station, the pavements were so icy). A great name, though - best pub name ever.

The Good Intent

I saw the Owl Service support Martin Carthy at Orange Street in Canterbury a few weeks ago, was deeply moved by their music, and spoke to one of them afterwards to find out the name of a traditional song she'd sung (it was "The Bold Poachers"). She mentioned this gig in passing, so I had to go, whatever the weather. I entered the pub to find a tiny room, a few men standing around by a small bar, some barrels of ale, not much else. "Er, isn't there a band playing here tonight?", I asked, somewhat confused. The barman then made room for me to squeeze around behind the bar and through a door into a much bigger room, wherein a bunch of local folkie characters were having a cheerful sing-a-round (Richard Thompson's "Time to Ring Some Changes", "High Germany", some bawdy music-hall-type singalongs, all good fun). I notice people seemingly going out the back door (to the toilet?), but then coming back in with full tankards, so I went out to see the set-up. There was a fire (old planks, pretty rough) and a little plastic gazebo, wherein a small chap in a black Santa hat was serving from numerous barrels of obscure beers with silly names. Excellent.

Members of the Owl Service gradually started arriving, and were soon set up. They sang some traditional midwinter songs like "The First Tree in the Greenwood", as well as songs I heard them do last time, like "Willie o' Winsboro". The highlight was Nancy Wallace singing (with concertina) a breathtaking "See Amid the Winter's Snow (Christ is Born in Bethlehem)". I honestly don't recall ever hearing a voice so beautiful (it's in the Anne Briggs dimension, but it's her own voice). She and Jason Steel (who's part of her own group) did a few songs together at the end of the set.

Nancy Wallace, some time earlier
Nancy Wallace, elsewhere

It's all a bit of a blur now (I left this entry too long, so I can't remember who sung what), but we got "Go 'Way From My Window", something by Alan Sparhawk, and a stunning "The Oak and the Ash (A North Country Lass)". Steven Collins (the guitarist who put the band together, and handles all the production, promotion, etc.) let rip on his electric a couple of times, but briefly, and appropriately (it turns out that he's solely responsible for all the doom metal, black metal and Noise in the "Owl Service Top 30 Records of 2009" as blogged on their Myspace profile!).

I hear there's a double Owl Service album on the way soon. Jason from Canterbury Wholefoods who puts on the Twilight Folk nights is quite close to the band, so I get all the latest on this kind of thing when I'm down there.

Phil the hurdy-gurdy player from Canterbury was about to play a set, but I had to leave for my train, so shuffled back around the bar and through the door. The landlady teasingly chastised me for not asking permission to leave and bid me a safe journey along the icy pavements of Rochester. Such a cosy atmosphere in the back room of The Good Intent - another one of those gigs that leaves you feeling glad to be alive and deeply grateful to be in the right place at the right time.


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