Folk and classical intertwine as Mr. Anon takes Ms. Trad for a spin on the musical dance floor.
Great Hall, Sydney University
March 25, 2014
You might have been forgiven for thinking that Winsome Evans and her happy, hippy band had over-quaffed of the scrumpy before going for an unsupervised romp in the dress-up box judging from their arrival down the aisle to the organ strains of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance. The mix of medieval meets Woodstock meets Jane Austen was a riot of colour but suggested the potential for a right old muddle of an evening. However, not a bit of it, for someone had a cunning plan and for those fond of a bit of musical jiggery-pokery coupled with excellent playing of a vast array of instruments, ancient and modern, plus a generous dollop of heart, there was much here to enjoy.
The theme of Britain, it’s flora and fauna and it’s bards (mostly of the beat-poet variety) was a diverse celebration of the motherland ranging from Henry VIII to William Blake via Jethro Tull (the 1970s version), and with lively contributions from Mr Anon and Ms Trad. The Renaissance Players have been doing this now since 1970-something and know a thing or two about the way the repertoire works. “We believe in yesterday,” they crooned and proceeded to demonstrate that they do indeed.
The evening, in essence, was a demonstration of the power of a good tune to make its way from the mouth of a medieval troubadour, get spun through the prism of an Elizabethan consort, be danced to as an 18th-century country jig and wind up in the arms of a modern folk band. Whether you know it as Stingo, or Cold and Raw, or even as If Any Wench Venus’ Girdle Wear, the Renaissance Players were going to take it and refract it through an array of engaging, imaginative and often moving arrangements, performed with dash and spirit.
Along the way they teased us with songs set on top of other songs (ground basses and divisions expertly placed and handled, care of some fine fiddle playing), and some cheeky contemporary stuff thrown in for fun. Whipped Greens seemed to be based on both La Folia and Greensleeves, Sting’s Fields of Barley slipped into John Barleycorn and I was sure I heard “Blue, blue, my world is blue” float by at one point.
Highlights included the multi-instrumental Evans (is their anything she can't play?) wielding a rare gemshorn and dueting with the versatile Mitchell Riley in a 13th-century ballad, a lovely arrangement of the mournful Barbara Allen sung by Jessica O’Donoghue, a foot-tapping Brisk Young Widow (one of my favourite folk tales) and O’Donoghue and Susie Bishop in a particularly haunting rendition of The Three Ravens complete with a gorgeous flute and recorder duet.
The whole shebang was knitted together by a Jack Pointish Geoff Sirmai whose timing was generally excellent and whose poems and witty tales involved a considerable range of accents. Not everything came off – the poetic variations on Old King Cole felt a bit too much like a donnish concert party turn – but there were some absolute gems, like Frederick May’s saucy tale using only words beginning with the letters A, B and C (Adam’s Brief Chronicles).
Instrumentally there was a great deal of variety, from Evans herself on whistle, crumhorn and rackett, Jane Duncan on a modern flute, James Wannan on rebec and vielle, Llew Kiek on guitar plus mandora and gittern, Kirsty Vickers on a gut strung cello and Andrew Lambkin on a host of percussion instruments ranging from tapan, bombo and daireh to a good old set of nakkers.
My favourite? Probably the medieval English dance that ended the first half. Pretty near authentic and rollicking good fun. Oh, and the country-dance medley that managed to sneak in Brigg Fair…