Thursday, January 12, 2012

Vin Garbutt / Jess Morgan @ The Red Lion, Wednesday 11th January

First gig of the year (for me at least) and, incredibly, the first time I’ve been to the legendary (amongst folkies anyway) Red Lion Pub just on the outskirts of Kings Heath (that’s in Birmingham for all you non Brummies out there). On top of winning the Radio 2 Folk Club of the Year Award in 2006 The Red Lion Folk Club’s been going for an incredible 39 years, almost as long as tonight’s headliner in fact. Yes this evening’s show was something of a contrast with opener Jess Morgan being a relative newcomer and Vin Garbutt being...well...40 odd years into his career. They’ve both got something in common though. Within moments of coming out to perform you can kick back with a smile and a pint of real ale (oh come on now, it’s a folk gig, what do you expect) safe in the knowledge that you’re in for a great show.

When you’re a solo artist, especially a solo folk artist, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s just your voice, your lyrics and your playing. I imagine performing to a hardcore folk crowd like this one could be a little intimidating but opener Jess Morgan showed no signs of nerves. Quite the opposite in fact, performance wise there’s a curl to the lip and stomp of the foot that gives her a little more oomph than the average folkie coupled with a vocal warmth (hints of a slight bluesy edge in there too) and ease of delivery that normally only comes with years and years of gigs.

Perhaps this isn’t a surprise. Jess ain’t taking any shortcuts, instead choosing the traditional route of putting in the hours (and miles) playing oodles of self booked tours here and overseas. Her tales of life on the road in the US and its accompanying theme song, Connecticut (so wonderfully descriptive you could almost smell those stale sheets) banished forever the myth that it’s a glamorous lifestyle, but that’s what makes the difference between a good folk artist and a great one. She’s a fine lyricist too, able to refresh old themes like love and lust in tracks like The Most Of All (who knew that spectacle wearing librarians were sexy eh?) and Eels (no, not the Mighty Boosh version) as well as tackling more personal subjects, such as discovering an ancestor was forced to give up her child in one of the many highlights of her set, Workhouse. Simply one of the most promising new folk voices around...proof that Jess is more.

I’m ashamed to say that I’m a bit of a Vin Garbutt virgin. I’d heard the name (which, according to Vin, pretty unusual) and filed it in my ‘people to check out one day’ pile but that’s a pretty long list by now. I knew enough about him to know that he’s held in high regard by his fans but that’s not always a guarantee of quality. It is in this case though. Part stand up (or sit down in Vin’s case), part one man chat show, part masterclass in folk a Vin Garbutt show is like a night out with your best mate. I’ve never laughed so much at a gig in my life. That includes every comedy gig I’ve been too as well. Like one of the Hairy Bikers' dads Vin’s an instantly loveable character and it’s not difficult to see hows he’s managed to sustain a 40 year career despite little or no major media support.

Okay, so he’s loveable, funny and great company but this is all about the music right? Given the light hearted start to the show I was half expecting that this was what people had come for and that the music element would be some sort of a bonus. How wrong can a poor boy be? Vin’s got unique singing style, he almost seems to chew the words like someone tasting a fine wine (oh alright then...a real ale...) which, given the quality of the lyrics, is a pretty apt analogy. Eyes wide shut and lost in song he’s got an incredibly rich, warm, powerful voice (the equal of Phil Ochs I’d say), the sort of vocal that wraps you up from head to toe in a cosy blanket like an audio onesie. The songs are just so catchy too. Pop has The Beatles, folk has Vin Garbutt. It’s that simple. And he’s that good. Just have a listen to The Kilburn Horse or The Land Of Three Rivers for instance (a brace of love letters to his beloved Teeside), both of which he played during his first set. After just one listen I defy you not to sing along. In the grand old spirit of folk Vin’s not afraid to tackle injustice too though. From Darwin To Dili is a blistering attack on the atrocities committed in East Timor by the Indonesians, resulting in the genocide of nearly 200,000 men, women and children. Blimey. Hardly a subject for a jolly folk singalong eh? Somehow Vin manages to even make this stuff catchy, without losing the emotion or trivialising it in any way. It’s hard to think of another artist that could do that. Extraordinary.

Why isn’t he better known? Search me. I’ve long since given up trying to work out why some people make it with little or no talent whilst others, like Vin, operate under the radar for decades. Someone else felt the same way so they made a film about him (Teeside Troubadour), confident that the suits in charge of TV would snap it up. He approached BBC 4, surely the perfect home for such a film, and their response? “Vin who?” Good grief (bearing in mind that he won Best Live Act at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2001 this is even more surprising). Vin genuinely doesn’t seem to mind though. He plays all over the world to a modest but devoted fan base and clearly still enjoys playing to them every bit as much as they love watching him. You can add another member to that fan base now Vin...

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