Concertinas at Bradfield

PICA Volume 2, 2005

Concertinas at Bradfield. Various artists. Video/DVD. Garland Films (2004).

Reviewed by Roger Digby

Essay: Part 1 of 4Next >

The English Country Music Weekend is flourishing again after its reincarnation a few years ago. The very first such gathering took place in Cricklade in 1975 when Rod Stradling and Neil Wayne (of whom more later) organised a weekend of specifically English traditional music as a focus for the growing enthusiasm for this previously neglected area. Highlights were the presence of Oscar Woods, Jim Small, Ray Andrews, Bob Cann, all now deceased, and a live performance by the line-up of Plain Capers, all still gloriously alive (and of which more later)!

This peripatetic weekend is shaped by its annual host, and in 2003 found itself on the farm of Mark Davies at Bradfield in Yorkshire. Mark featured a number of local Yorkshire artists and, being a concertina enthusiast, he also invited a number of concertina players and brought them together in a (very early) Sunday morning concert. The ECM Weekenders are rightly musically broadminded; many of the older generation of musicians had already established the fact that their repertoires were flexible and drew from all areas. If any eyebrows were raised at the presence of such a specialist concert spilling itself all over the ECM boundaries, their owners were quickly won over by the quality of the performances. Barry Callaghan was there with his video camera, and this edited eighty minutes not only records a remarkable concert, but can stand alone as a testimony to the glorious capability of the concertina and the many hugely talented players who are currently taking it from strength to strength.

Pride of place belongs to Michael Hebbert and his Jeffries Duet. A Jeffries Duet is seldom seen, and, sadly, so is Mike. Just one commercial LP virtually three decades ago (The Ramping Cat, FRR 009, 1977, of which more later) is the only recording of this virtuoso player. Here he plays traditional tunes, Schubert, and his renowned interpretation of the ‘Dambusters’ March’. The Jeffries Duet system is the most limited of the Duets, but Mike has achieved a style of playing which is both lyrical and rhythmic, with a way of ‘pencilling in’ the chords so that they are suggested as much as heard. All of this is here in his two short contributions. In addition, uniquely on this video, there is a real bonus in the visual element: the pleasure of watching Mike perform! Mike’s former musical partner, Andrew Frank, once likened Mike to Archie Andrews, the schoolboy puppet of ventriloquist Peter Brough, and the boyish face and impish grin are still there, betraying the clear pleasure he gets from playing. Yet the better comparison would be to a marionette rather than a hand puppet, as Mike virtually marches along to his own rhythm with the occasional swing and flourish of the concertina. The grin, the posture, the delight … there’s an echo of Loveless here as well. Ten minutes of sheer joy!

The more familiar MacCann Duet system appears in the hands of three excellent players. Harry Litherington, by far the senior member of this concert party, has the typical repertoire of his generation, and immediately recalls Tommy Williamson (of whom much more later). Here he plays Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ (having no problem with the key change that has caused me many a stumble on the Anglo) and similar standards. This is precise, practised playing, finely controlled and vibrant with interest. Much more relaxed is the performance of Iris Bishop, a hugely and rightly respected player from the musical hotbed of South Sussex (of which more later). Iris has the traditional tunes, but opts instead on this occasion for ‘Blue Moon’ with the familiar chord sequence getting a full Duet treatment, and then a blistering adaptation from the jazz pianist Thelonius Monk.

Iris could have played Tommy Williams’s ‘Spring Time in Battersea’ (still more later), but leaves that for Anahata, who shows convincingly that the 38-key Anglo can go comfortably into the repertoire of the Duet, a point which is also convincingly demonstrated by Harry Scurfield, who enjoys a reputation for taking on unlikely songs and tunes, influenced, as he states here, by the late Fred Kilroy, who would have a crack at anything. Harry also has a jazz pianist as one of his sources: in this case the Boogie-playing Jimmy Yancey.

Will Duke is a wonderful player. Owning Scan Tester’s concertina and living now in Scan’s geographical area (of which more later), he is widely associated with the playing of that particular Anglo icon and plays a set of Scan’s tunes here. Yet there is much, much more to Will than just this facet. On first meeting, Will appears a very unexceptional person, quiet, unassuming, even retiring. On closer acquaintance he reveals himself as a man of sharp intelligence, vast knowledge, sparkling humour, and infinite charm. His playing is just the same: there is nothing flashy or ostentatious; no concession to being on a stage, and the tunes, seeming at first deceptively straightforward, are underpinned with subtleties and whimsies and little flights of fancy without ever compromising the respect with which they are approached.

It was interesting to hear Geoff Crabb say at last year’s ICA /Chiltinas event that the English concertina system was never intended to be a solo instrument, and that it was hard to do much more than play a simple melody and occasional extra note. Talking to me a few days later, he explained that the various ranges of the English system were intended to represent the instruments of a string quartet. Dave Ball and Graham Pratt go some way towards this, playing arranged duets, and this discipline is in clear contrast to the style of the players on the other systems; as such they enhance this recording with a totally different style and approach. Chantal Noppen, the other player of the English system, reminds us that there are younger players and composers.

The English system is overshadowed at this concert, though not because of musical competence—the performances are highly proficient. The difference lies in the attitude. The Duet and Anglo players are out on the edge, and whatever the origin of their musical ideas, their approach is to think, ‘I like this. I play the concertina. Let’s bring it together, and take it all the way that the instrument allows’. You know that when you meet them in a few years’ time they’ll have tried something new. This sense of adventure and challenge fires their performance. This was a fine concert, and it makes a fine video.

1. I must declare a slight interest, having played a small part in the first two items reviewed. Far from influencing my opinions, however, the presence of my own mistakes is a valid reminder of our human weaknesses.