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Music Review: Bright Phoebus


The parade of musicians onto the Barbican stage has Norma Waterson at its centre, and there's a chair centre-stage for her, set between daughter Eliza and niece Marry, and spread either side stand musical friends and family – Martin Carthy, Olly Knight and Neill MacColl on guitars, multi-instrumentalist Kate St John, brilliant husky-voiced young singer John Smith duetting with an assured Kami Thompson, and committed turns from Richard Hawley and Jarvis Cocker, stick-thin enough to really do "The Scarecrow", one of many strange and wonderful works to trip from the mind of Lal Waterson.

She, with her brother Mike, wrote and recorded Bright Phoebus 41 years ago. It was released on Bill Leader's Trailer label, which later went bust, and it has never been properly re-released. What has happened is that its songs – "Fine Horseman", "Piper's Path", "Song for Thirza", "Bright Phoebus" itself – have entered into the groundwater of contemporary folk, and are known far beyond the few thousand sheets of vinyl that were originally pressed. This first concert of a UK tour was a celebratory and emotional resurrection of a deeply original, mythic, mystic work of English art. A new book of Lal Waterson's lyrics and drawings, containing a CD of demos, was also on sale.

After a rousing opener of "Rubber Band", Marry Waterson's stark, strong voice took the lead on "Fine Horseman", then Martin Carthy gave an angular, gritty shake to "Winifer Odd". Hawley played "Danny Rose" as a rockabilly rouser, while Eliza Carthy was joined by white-haired Bob Davenport for a rousing "Child Among the Weeds". For "The Magical Man", Cocker even swept a bunch of flowers from his sleeve, but the night's most powerful performances came after the interval, on John Smith and Kami Thompson's Evona Darling, and "Song for Thirza", introduced by Norma Waterson chronicling the family's orphaned childhood with their part-Romany grandmother in Hull, and the woman who cared for them, Thirza, a small, stone-death woman who herself had been rescued from the work house. "I managed to get through it," she chuckled-choked after the song was sung. It was one of the evening's most emotionally powerful performances, deserving of its standing ovation. Even after a serious illness, Norma Waterson remains a glorious singer. Equally moving was the sight of her, all through the concert, mouthing and moving to the words and tunes that her late sister and brother once composed. It's been a long time coming, and it’ll soon be gone; if it's in your area, don’t miss it.