Norma Waterson & Eliza Carthy, Union Chapel, London

 

Gigs rarely start out with such emotive charge, but that is precisely what this mother-and-daughter combo achieve on their opening number "Dreaming". The elder Norma Waterson imbues the wistful, strikingly simple lyric with her resonant, worldly-wise delivery, though there is an added poignancy to lines such as “living is just too hard to do.”

This matriarch of the Watersons clan is performing sat down, having hobbled on stage aided by a stick and husband Martin Carthy, two years after her last London appearance on this stage. Then, the family were on the road to promote Gift, a collaboration with mercurial daughter Eliza Carthy, the latest permutation of the clan’s ever-engaging output. A couple of days later, Norma was struck by a knee infection mid-tour that saw her in intensive care for several weeks and convalescing for much longer. Only now has she felt capable of playing consecutive dates.

Her voice may be lack stamina, yet still retains much authority, necessary tonight as Norma sits at the heart of an evening that ranges throughout her long-running career, from a seasonal "Fare Thee Well Cold Winter" to the set opener, written for her by another musical dynast, Loudon Wainwright III. The Watersons may be the first family of English folk, but their interests range much further, tonight taking in country via a stripped-back take on Jimmie Rodgers’s much-reprised ‘Prairie Lullaby’. Norma is lusty and vivacious as she brings new life to trad staple ‘Bunch Of Thyme’ and brings out the quiet, noble hope in American spiritual ‘Wayfaring Stranger’.

Eliza acts as mistress of ceremonies, telling many of the anecdotes and back stories that pad out the two sets, most effectively by pointedly describing the events in murder ballad "The Rose And The Lily" as an honour killing. She also sets the musical tone for several numbers with her supple fiddle, at the head of a compact yet highly flexible ensemble that variously combines piano, mandolin and double bass, deftly combining chanson accordion with jazz inflections on a medley of "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime" and Richard Thompson’s "Al Bowlly’s In Heaven". Eliza also takes the vocal lead on two songs, expressively mournful on two numbers drenched in loss, "The Rose" and "The Nightingale".

Most thrilling, though, is when she entwines her voice around ma’s with instinctive ease, as on "Wayfaring Stranger", her husky warmth seamlessly melding with Norma’s own rich timbres. Once again, the Watersons are the gift that keeps on giving.

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