Sooner? Later? Oh, what’s a little timeslip among friends? I approach each post with high hopes and low... self-esteem? expectations? moral standards? Or maybe the hint should be... "Lowlands away, my son.”
Meanwhile--per spatial definition, if not exacting temporal terminology--in another part of the city, somewhere between the rocky valley of downtown commerce, and higher education climes where colleges rule... between the high culture of historic Edinburgh, and low comedy of the anarchic Fringe... between high hopes of an upper-crust caste tucked safe high in the Castle, and low
expectations of commoner folk, lost in the city’s unmapped underground of alley and tunnel and dead-end close... yes, between the high C’s of a coloratura soprano adrift in the storms of Britten's Peter Grimes
, and the lowering, unearthly tumult of Tibetan tuva
voices, or the up-from-the-earth, Jamaican Reggae thud, plucked by Robbie the Shakespeare of bass...
For in the end, but before it all, you surely are between a rock and a hard place--between the high seat of learning, looking, and listening, the top-of-the-rock, plein-air parkland called “Arthur’s Seat”--and the stony-eyed, hard-hearted, less-than-Festive ticket-mongers, before whom you can spend many a futile hour trying to upgrade your seats!
But I jest. Yes, folks, I’m just riffing--“thriving on a riff,” is how Charlie Parker put it--and I promise you that without wearing uniforms the Festival folk are uniformly cheerful and helpful... insofar as they can be... and often do go farther, regardless.
“It seems hopeless, but let’s try this anyway,” the young woman said to me. Then, while I read brochures and walked around whistling tunelessly, she spent a solid half hour calling ‘round, talking to other ticket folk, and finally tracking down the single unclaimed will-call ticket--which got me a seat at the concert that now occupies the fifth spot on my list of
unforgettable Festival events...
5) If you think of the spectrum of Scots folk music as a balance scale registering opposing weights, rugged Dick Gaughan would hold down the fiery, straining-for-independence, always political tray, while jaunty Jean Redpath--beloved, exalted, equally serious--would rise higher and higher on-board the gleaming silver tray inscribed with her name. Dick would make do with his guitar and commanding voice, while Jean’s pure vocals, mellow, often acapella, always musical, would skip lightly and blithely about, dance playfully around each mesmer’ed listener, and then be wafted
aloft by some airy combination of flute and Scottish harp, cello and Classical guitar, to drift among the sparkling chandeliers and high-ceiling’ed elegance of the Festival’s music rooms. He’d sing the ballads and old Border songs and mix-in some modern-day equivalents; she’d carefully work through a cannily concertized program mixing Haydn’s semi-Scottish songs; Robbie Burns numbers ranging from “Scots Wha Hae” to some erotically charged love-lyric; the English-translation words to a pair
of lighthearted Gaelic tunes (but no jigging about, please!); and simply lovely “guid auld ones” like “The Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie.” It was a grand concert and I admired the presentation, but a single visit to that Empire Salon scene has sufficed.
6) I was going through changes then--nearing 40 with divorce pending, learning la vida bachelor while maintaining the house and maturing kids, restless in a waning ad-producer job, traveling for fun at first but then as prelude to a planned two-year, ‘round-the-world escape. I’d also decided that a solo adult needed to know
some Classical Music, and I’d fallen hard for Gustav Mahler’s all-or-nothing approach: “the World as Symphony, Symphony as the World.” Picking tickets pre-Festival 1980, I knew only that a Mahler concert by the London Philharmonic should be worth attending, even if I’d never heard his Symphony #7, or heard of the conductor... And so: the elegant musicians ambled on stage and slowly settled into place, and then, tall and angular, moving herky-jerk, all elbows and knees like a grasshopper (a “grace-hoper” saysFinnegan’s Wake
) or a puppet with strings dangling, came this Ichabod Crane-ish fellow... yes, the conductor... Klaus Tennstedt. We hushed, he eyed the lot of them... and launched. Suddenly, right before our ears and eyes, the wounded-insect mantle was shed--and awkward grace-hoper became winged cicada, hieing and pitting his swarming sections, expending his Full-Harmonic minions against the maleficent Mahlerian BeHeMoth... “Not always smoothly paced, but always emotively wrought and emotionally right”: such was the judgment that emerged from the happy bedlam later that night and became the critical take on Tennstedt, with that Edinburgh revelation entering the history books as a wondrous moment and inarguable peak performance in the lives of conductor, orchestra, and festival.
(About six years ago, the BBC discovered archived tapes of that legendary Seventh; some engineers had been testing new gear on location and serendipitously had captured the entire performance... but promptly filed it away with other "test
results.” Three decades on, the impeccably recorded tapes delivered an astonishing sound picture of the Philharmonic’s bracing performance for the ages. Hear for yourself what we experienced that August night--Tennstedt and the LPO taming Mahler’s unruly Seventh, available for the present on BBC Legends 2CD set BBCL 4224-2... and in a roundabout fashion that brings us to the seventh Festival event, the one that has meant the most to me over the years.)
7) English folk-rock, from trad. sources at least, began about 1966 with the advent of Fairport Convention and then Steeleye Span. The premier guitarist and songwriter to emerge from that scene was Richard Thompson--four decades later
quite clearly still in his prime, still crafting songs to match his serio-comic reputation as the “Master of Doom and Gloom.” The foremost interpreter of his songs, her versions often more immediately compelling than Richard's, is folksinger June Tabor--who was first praised for her Silly Sisters
duets with Maddie Prior of Steeleye. June's husky, haunting voice and steely spirit immediately made her the perfect vocalist for British Isles traditional music, yet her repertoire in fact ranges from Border balladry to modern ballads, from sea chanteys to French chansons, from klezmer
music to moody Jazz --a depth and breadth as complex as her deep alto sound.
RT has shown up as guest guitar on several of June’s sessions over the years, but her primary picker accompanist for the Eighties and early Nineties was Martin Simpson. And when Martin eventually, inevitably, went out on his own, even moving to America for a decade or more, their mutual magic was attenuated but not lost; he has remained on-call-available, playing a special concert, or the two guesting on each other’s solo albums, or doing a few tour dates where he opens, she takes over for a set backed by her long-faithful crew (more brilliant players!), and then Martin joins in for a couple of closing numbers--a fairly standard stage-sharing, of course, but never better than when in the hands and voices of Tabor and Simpson.
When I saw them for the first time in Edinburgh (a Festival around 1980), it was a slightly chilly night, an outdoor concert set up inside a huge tent. June warmed us right up with a perfect mix of beautifully sung/played versions of British Isles traditional songs (replete with mysterious images and soul-deep emotions); an occasional modern-folk tune by Thompson or John Tams or the Watersons; and an unexpected comical stage presence as she got us laughing uproariously, her pauses becoming ribald anecdotes, song-source stories, even self-mockery regarding the whole “Doom and Gloom” thing.
New albums by both June and Martin have appeared in the past few weeks, which got me thinking about the old days and Edinburgh. Hers sounds as rich and strange as ever, a stripped-down but gorgeous, and Jazzish, trio experiment (voice, piano and saxes only) called Quercus
and available on ECM 2276. (Oddly, it was recorded in 2006; held back, picked up from another source, silently reissued? They aren’t saying.) Martin’s latest, Vagrant Stanzas
on English Topic TXCD589, is a kind of career summation, offering Simpson’s usual bright and brisk, or sleek and slow, or generous and gingerly reinterpretive arrangements of songs
from a host of traditions: Scottish, English, and Appalachian; cowboys, steel workers, and banjo entertainers; Old Timey string bands and African percussion, New Orleans r&b and British rock; church hymn-tunes and the American Civil War, Bobby Zimmerman in his guises and disguises and, leave us not forget, most excellent originals courtesy of M. Simpson himself!
So enough with the Leim-blather. It’s ta’en us an intolerable unconscionable length of time and pace to get here where the song at last will be sung. No more adjectival jivin’ from me; on with the concert instead. I’ve
assembled a selection of video-taped, maybe digi-talented (oops) performances by Martin and June--lovely or lively, lived-in and loved long--each of them without... not her (his) better half exactly, but his (her) completing other... plus sum of the two as one. As once.
Please just follow the links one at a time, in the order suggested. (You can shape your own hits-list later.)
Here is the first
. (Strum that Martin!)
Here the second
. (Sound the Tabor!)
Now the third
. (Bless Edinburgh’s Festive best.}
Here is the last
. (Doom and Gloom and Beauty still.)
(As encores let me suggest Martin's astonishing reinvention of newly minted classic "Killing the Blues," then June with England's Oyster Band, adrift off "Finisterre," dreaming of an ending.)