New email went out to subscribers today: Read it here.
We’re very excited to be taking The Transports out on the road again in January. You can see why from this five minute highlights video of our show in Shrewsbury last August. It captures the energy and joy in the room. If you’d like to catch the show, you’d better get your tickets soon – we’ve nearly sold out at some venues.
(To be more precise about my excitement for touring again in January – performing the show HIGH, hanging out with a lovely bunch of people HIGH, sleeping on a tour bus with them around Britain NOT SO HIGH)
Well, it’s now my old band. I was only in it for one day. Actually, one ten minute performance, but what a thing that was. For some people, it’s exciting enough to say this was a secret return appearance of the KLF/Justified Ancients of Mu Mu on 23rd November in East London. But most need more explanation. Suffice to say, it was a ‘happening’, held in secret, for 99 selected people to walk the streets of Dalston with smokebombs and flyposts, engage with theatrical ‘interventions’ in places like McDonalds, then gather late evening for the re-emergence of the famed band Badger Kull – who had transmogrified into a shanty crew singing South Australia with its words rewritten around the theme of Burn The Shard. A night, it is fair to say, like no other.
Here’s something I wrote about the experience.
A few weeks ago I was watching a film called Detroit, about the 1967 explosion of anger which set that city alight. The film is so violent, so real, it feels like the Saving Private Ryan of civic protest. It strips riot of any cool, or humour.
On the bus home I found a piece of paper in my pocket. This held the lyric for a song called Burn The Shard, which I was learning for a gig a few days later. I’d put together a scratch shanty crew to provide entertainment for an evening event I knew little about. We were to sing only one song – a version of the classic halyard shanty South Australia, but with new words. Instead of ‘We’re Bound for South Australia’, we’d sing ‘We’re bound to burn the Sha-ard down’.
Don’t get me wrong. I despise that temple of mammon as much as anyone. Looking like Barad-Dur – Sauron’s duplex – the Shard is a sort of Dubai in the Sky, and if any edifice demands contempt, it does. But having witnessed the sober reality of civic inflammation, fuelled in Detroit by righteous resistance to oppression, I now felt uneasy to be party to what whiffed somewhat of art school onan. I didn’t want to play with fire.
We crew gathered in a hipster bar by a canal in Dalston, East London. This was base for the evening. 99 vetted volunteers were the night’s audience/congregation, the process of their inclusion carefully managed to maximise excitement. When we arrived, the volunteers were already out doing their stuff, leaving a couple of hours for us to rehearse. It was our first time singing together, though we knew shanties well. The only place to practise, away from music or punters, was a thin passageway leading to the bar’s store cupboards. There was just enough room to stand in a line, except when staff appeared to get stock or have a fag. Which they did every few minutes.
We sang through the shanty about eight times, working out a routine, settling into our parts and getting tighter. We went back down to the bar, with 90 minutes to spare before our due time of appearance. Suddenly the bar filled up, first with people, then the stench of spent smokebombs. These were the volunteers and they carried the smell in their hair and their clothes. They’d been out across local neighbourhoods all evening, flyposting, letting off smokebombs, I wasn’t sure exactly what. There was a Ronald McDonald among them. Now back at base, they looked excited and tired. Those in charge seemed desperate to appear disinterested in what was happening. We were told we would perform earlier than planned. Apparently a poorly-briefed security guard at the Arcola Theatre had not allowed 99 strangers to waltz through the property, so the evening was taken short.
No matter. We returned to our passageway and dressed up. Once in costume, I was delighted we looked like something out of a Wes Anderson film, particularly my favourite The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I proposed we maintain that classic male gaze of Pointless Grandeur. Apparently we were a band called Badger Kull – the words were woven across our white fishermen’s rollnecks – but for only one night.
I had a panic trying to put on my wellington boots. I’d had an operation to rebuild my ankle five weeks beforehand and, while I was fine for standing and singing, I’d not realised my ankle could not bend itself into the shape required by a long boot. That hurt.
The brief was to sing the shanty and get the room to join in. No problem. As folk singers, that’s what we do. I was to say a few words. Again, something I’m perfectly used to. But I wasn’t sure how to calibrate the tone for this gathering. It was tempting to surrender to the Too Cool For School vibe. But fuckit, I thought, that’s stupid. Just do whatever you need to get the room singing. If you’re booked as a shanty group, that’s what you do.
We hid out of view, upstairs. We heard ourselves announced, then a mighty cheer. We processed halfway down the stairs at the end of the room, fully visible to all – an excellent stage, it must be declared – and sang our first two verses. These went down well. Then I spoke, announcing we were Badger Kull for just one night and inviting people to prepare themselves for shanty in the best way possible – to find the smell of the sea, and to sniff their neighbour, closely, to source that stench of herring, salt and sweat. This people did. Then, after a brief guide to what they must sing, we started the shanty proper. The volunteers sang along. Cameras appeared. When we finished, there was more cheering. We departed upstairs with rehearsed sneers. Five minutes later we were back at the bar, beaming, beer in hands.
Truth be told, the volunteers’ joy for the performance seemed disproportionate to our effort. Clearly Badger Kull meant more to them than us. The mood was happy, the organisers pulling careful strings behind their studied nonchalance. Here’s a description of the evening by one of the volunteers.
Was it all a wank? No – there was plenty of wit, effort and good humour. Did it insult real civic protest like Detroit? Not really, because it was so low-key. Was it art – I’ve no idea.
We came, put on some jumpers, sang a song, drank a beer and went home. Safely.
Photos courtesy of D. Hopkinson, K. Woods, L-13 Light Industrial Workshop and H. Jupiter.
All that’s missing from this lovely recent article on my book Human Cargo by RnR Magazine – thanks Ian Croft – is the headline STOCKING FILLER. Yes folks, this Christmas give them the gift of human suffering. Well, why not? Human Cargo makes an excellent present for the folkie/politico in your life. Plus, it’s a cunning device for infiltrating those of a Brexit/anti-immigration persuasion – for it’s about history, and everyone’s partial to an old story. It’s £9.99 and best to buy via Amazon (sorry, it’s hard for small publishers to supply bookshops) or message me direct if you’d like signed copies. And you can read lots more about it at humancargo.co.uk
Rejoice. The great Robb Johnson has written another song cycle, this time about his father and uncle. It’s called Ordinary Giants and covers the 30s, WW2 and the Welfare State. As with Gentle Men, his show about his grandfathers and WW1, it’s poignant, passionate and hilarious. And his songs, as always, are glorious. So imagine my delight at being asked to sing some of them, playing his Uncle Ern. One song’s a duet with Phil (Swell) Odgers – yes, him from The Men They Couldn’t Hang – who plays Robb’s dad Ron. We were down in Sussex recently, recording with Ali at the fine Brighton Road Recording Studios. What a treat.
Here’s a short video of me telling stories of Parallel Lives to the huge crowd who came to see The Transports at Shrewsbury Folk Festival. (And a glimpse of the great song Dark Water by The Young’uns).The Parallel Lives project gathers true stories, town by town across Britain, of people who’ve been forced to leave that place in past centuries and people who’ve come to live there in recent decades. People go, people come – migration is part of life. That’s the message. Parallel Lives always goes down well at performances of The Transports, for audiences love local tales – and it’s a fresh, human way to talk about the centrality of migration to human life. Plus, in each town we link with a local refugee or migrant support group. I’m now starting to gather stories for our next tour of The Transports in January, where we’ll be reaching places like Cheltenham, Yeovil, Manchester, Preston, Bromsgrove, Bury St Edmunds, Southampton, Guildford, Chesterfield, Leeds, Durham, Berwick and Norwich. Then I’ll share more stories when I tour Human Cargo next Spring with the great Jeff Warner We’ll soon be giving Parallel Lives a smart, new website. But, for now, you can read the tales I’ve gathered at http://www.thetransportsproduction.co.uk/ Do get in touch if you’ve got any stories or ideas. And thanks as ever to the wonderful Refugee Council for their help.
Good news. Next year I’ll be touring a new production of Human Cargo with the great Jeff Warner. It’s such an honour to share a stage with one of my heroes. He’s the real deal when it comes to traditional songs and he has this effortless way of a) taking you straight back to the 18th and 19th centuries and b) creating a lovely atmosphere at gigs. Thanks too to Alan Bearman Music for representing us. Maybe you know an arts centre, theatre or folk venue that would like Human Cargo? Do point them in our direction. I’ll be rewriting the show and including local stories for each venue in the form of Parallel Lives. So this should follow on well from the The Transports tour in January.
Thank you Shrewsbury Folk Festival. My first visit, and I can see why people rave about it. Must admit, I was rather scared, appearing in The Transports before such a massive crowd, and I’m new to the acoustics of huge tents. But it helps to share a stage with people so skilled as The Young’uns, Faustus, Nancy Kerr, Rachael McShane and Greg Russell. Plus the genius of Andy Bell on sound and Emma Thompson on lighting. And thanks to Keith Bache for the show pics. Now to learn some fresh Parallel Lives scripting for the BBC tomorrow…
First off, a remarkable video of the instant standing ovation from 4,000 people.
This year I’ve been busy with a show called The Transports – a words-and-music look at exile and migration. We’re really proud of the production, which won 5* from the Guardian in January. If you’d fancy seeing the show – or catching it again – here are four opportunities for you.
- Watch free the live stream of our performance at Shrewsbury Folk Festival, 2.45pm this Saturday afternoon
- Listen free to our performance on BBC Radio 3 this autumn
- Sign up for news of our CD coming out in December
- Book tickets for our national tour in January 2018
Peter Bellamy wrote a cycle of folk songs about the true story of a poor couple from East Anglia being transported as convicts to Australia on the First Fleet of 1788. Written in the 1970s, but sounding like traditional songs, his work The Transports became legendary, mainly thanks to an album featuring the folk music aristocracy of the day. Our production includes leading musicians of another generation: The Young’uns, Faustus, Nancy Kerr, Rachael McShane and Greg Russell. Plus me. I cut down and reshaped the original song cycle, and wrote a narration to set the scenes and link the songs. I’ve connected the story with exile and migration today. And through the Parallel Lives project, we partner with local refugee and migrant support groups in every town we play. Here’s a preview of our production and me talking about it on BBC Radio 4 Front Row.
Watch us at Shrewsbury
Head to Shrewsbury Folk Festival. By the weekend, this should explain how you can watch a live stream of our performance in the main Bellstone Marquee at 14.45 on Saturday 25th August. It will be our largest gig to date – up to 5,000 in the audience I understand, along with a mosh pit and TV screens – so I’m getting suitably excited.
Hear us on BBC Radio 3
On Wednesday we go into the BBC Radio Theatre in London to record The Transports in front of a live audience. If you’ve secured a ticket for this, I’m afraid the BBC has a habit of giving out more tickets than there are seats. So it’s first come, first served, and many are likely to be turned away. Apologies but we have no control over this, and I don’t know what time would be wise to start queuing. But the good news is that you won’t need to queue to listen to it. Just pour yourself a drink, put up your feet and consult your i-player. Transmission will be sometime this Autumn. I’ll let you know.
Listen to the CD
The album’s being prepared for release around December. We had a great time recording it in Sheffield and the early mixes sound terrific. If you’d like to sign up for exclusive info about advance sales, please head to Hudson Records.
Book tickets for January 2018
We’re heading out on the road again this January. We have the same fine cast and we’re travelling widely around the country. I can’t wait to perform at City Varieties in Leeds – home to The Good Old Days – and we’re delighted to have two East Anglian venues in Bury St Edmunds and Norwich, close to where the story is set.
If you know people in these towns who may be interested, do pass the word on. Last year our tour sold out in advance in every venue (except one huge one), so people are advised to book early.
Cheltenham Town Hall 10 Jan
London Union Chapel 11 Jan
Yeovil Octagon 12 Jan
Manchester Dancehouse 13 Jan
Preston Guild Hall 14 Jan
Bury St Edmunds Apex 16 Jan
Bromsgrove Artrix 17 Jan
Guildford G Live 18 Jan
Southampton Turner Sims 19 Jan
Chesterfield Winding Wheel 20 Jan
Leeds City Varieties 21 Jan
Durham Gala 22 Jan
Berwick Maltings 23 Jan
Norwich Maddermarket 24 January
I’ve spent the summer performing dodgy music hall shows – often including the removal of trousers – so it will be good to return to the seriousness of The Transports. (Though I must remember not to break into Knock Knock jokes and filthy limericks between songs).
Oh, and I can hardly finish an email without re-mentioning that Five Star review in the Guardian….
Go well. Best wishes,
Your Monday morning treat. Here’s video evidence of a wardrobe malfunction during last week’s Muddling Through – music hall & singalong with David Eagle and myself. This mishap occurred during The Man on The Flying Trapeze and I had to be aided by Graeme Knights. Must admit, it’s the first time I’ve had anything pulled off on stage by a burly shantyman. Happy Birthday Graeme. PS the attending mob had not been deterred by warnings from Nancy Elliott, Paul Sartin, Michael Hughes, Sean Cooney and others (see below). Thanks Paul Davies for evidence.
Never mind the critics, these are our friends’ warnings about Muddling Through:
“Dear God, tell me this isn’t happening” Michael Hughes.
“Every so often, an act comes along which enthrals audiences and changes the face of music. This is not such an act.” Nancy Kerr.
“Check your diary. Be anywhere but there.” Paul Sartin.