REVIEW: Songs Under Skies, Joshua Burnell and Katie Spencer, NCEM, York 14/6/2021

Joshua Burnell and Katie Spencer at the National Centre for Early Music, York, at Monday’s Songs Under Skies double bill

REVIEW: Songs Under Skies, Joshua Burnell and Katie Spencer, National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York

EAST Yorkshire singer-songwriter Katie Spencer, like so many musicians divorced by lockdown restrictions from their livelihood of live shows, had taken to streaming gigs to the alienating sound of silence.

No wonder she smiled at the welcoming sound of applause, as reviving as hearing birdsong after being stuck indoors. “It’s lovely to be sharing live music for the first time in a long time,” she said at the 7pm outset of week two of Songs Under Skies, the acoustic outdoor festival run by the NCEM, Fulford Arms, The Crescent and Music Venues Alliance.

All those mid-pandemic night streams, and her guitar never misbehaved. First live show back, and a string snapped, whereupon Katie administered a string re-fit at a speed to impress Formula One wheel-changers. Joshua Burnell would later refer to her handiwork as “the fastest in the history of music”.

“It’s wild to be playing music in front of live people instead of my plants and bookcase,” said Katie Spencer

That said, Katie’s primary handiwork is her acoustic guitar-playing, a gentle caress to lyrics that have the scent, sentience and scene-painting of poetry, sung in a voice that lingered in Monday’s NCEM churchyard air.

Raised by the seaside near Hull, she sang of how the water shapes both the land and the people who live there in her best number, Edge Of The Land. Weatherbeaten and Shannon Road were similarly affecting in a re-introductory set best summed up by her sentiment: “It’s wild to be playing music in front of live people instead of my plants and bookcase.”

Katie will be doing so again in support of Martin Simpson at Primrose Woods, Pocklington, on July 1 and at The Magpies Festival at Sutton Park, Sutton-on-the-Forest on August 14. Hopefully, that guitar will be on best behaviour.

Half an hour would pass for an audience as socially distanced as the churchyard graves before prog-folk songwriter Joshua Burnell took to the blue awning stage with keyboard player Oliver Whitehouse.

Not even a sound alarm could put Joshua Burnell off his stride on his return to the concert stage.

Burnell is a multi-instrumentalist on his recordings, but here he focused on acoustic guitar, adapting to the night temperature that demanded constant re-tuning, a routine that afforded him the time to talk between songs, although not to the length that had prompted a BBC Radio York presenter to advise him he should hand out a pamphlet the next time he introduced new single Shelagh’s Song in concert.

No such pamphlet was forthcoming or necessary. Joshua is an engaging storyteller as much as an eloquent songwriter equally capable of evoking Tolkien, folk forefathers, Al Stewart, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and even Marc Bolan’s puckish dictionary.

He name-checked Ian McKellen for the opening Labels, recalling how the thespian knight had pondered “Why do we need to put labels on love?”. “Do you know what, Sir Ian, you’re right,” he said. “So throw your labels away, ‘Cause love has no use for them,” Joshua duly affirmed, almost enough to make any reviewer desist from further labelling on this occasion.

Joshua is as good at excavation as at conjuring new material, typified by an obscure but wonderful cover version, Eli Geva, Norwegian songwriter’s anguished Siege of Beirut ballad from an album of 12 banned songs from around the world.

The artwork for Joshua Burnell’s single Shelagh’s Song

Next came the aforementioned Shelagh’s Song, his account of how early-Seventies Edinburgh folk singer Shelagh McDonald vanished for 30 years after a particularly bad LSD trip. The re-surfaced Shelagh so loved the song she has sent Joshua a parcel with a letter, artwork and some lyrics she never published. Actions can speak so much louder than labels!

Joshua had just adjusted his guitar tuning again in the night cold when a new interruption tapped him on the shoulder: a sound alarm going off in the neighbouring bustle of Walmgate. One look from Joshua, and it was gone, as if ashamed at having held up “a bit of an anthem for positivity and things to come”: Golden Days, written in lockdown as the good weather rolled in and the vaccine programme was rolled out.

Not even the Prime Minister’s 6pm postponement of Freedom Day could deflate Joshua. “I still feel optimistic that we’re in a better place than we were a year ago,” he asserted.

If one lyric encapsulates retro-futurist Burnell in 2021, it would be: “Did I go through the wardrobe door because it’s been winter here for much too long”. Indeed it has, and as Songs Under Skies nudged and hushed it out the back door, he ended with Lucy, his variation on a “Ziggy Stardust character song”. Closer to Bolan than Bowie, if a label must be applied, but Lucy under darkening skies was a diamond finale.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

More Things To Do in York and beyond that Euro football tournament. It’s all kicking off in List No. 36, courtesy of The Press, York

What’s the pecking order here? Twirlywoos Live! at York Theatre Royal

EUROS 2020? What Euro 2020? The sun is out and so is Charles Hutchinson’s diary as he points you in the direction of curious CBeebies favourites, acoustic concerts, a dockyard Romeo & Juliet, a large painting, Clough v Leeds United and more ideas aplenty. 

Children’s show of the week: Twirlywoos Live!, York Theatre Royal, tomorrow at 1.30pm and 4pm; Saturday, Sunday, 10am and 2pm

TOODLOO, Great BigHoo, Chick and Peekaboo set sail for York on board their Big Red Boat for their Theatre Royal theatrical adventure Twirlywoos Live!.

Curious, inquisitive and eager to learn about the world, these small, bird-like characters from the CBeebies television factory will be brought to life with inventive puppetry, mischief, music and plenty of surprises.

Written by Zoe Bourn, the 55-minute show is recommended for ages 1+; babes in arms are welcome too. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Joshua Burnell: York prog-folk musician will perform in a Songs Under Skies double bill on June 14. Picture: Elly Lucas

Outdoor gigs of the week ahead: Songs Under Skies 2, National Centre for Early Music churchyard, York June 14 to 16

SONGS Under Skies returns to the NCEM’s glorious gardens at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York, for acoustic double bills by Katie Spencer and Joshua Burnell on June 14, Zak Ford and Alice Simmons, June 15, and Epilogues and Sunflower Thieves, June 16.

As with last September’s debut series, season two of the open-air, Covid-safe concerts is presented by the NCEM in tandem with The Crescent community venue, the Fulford Arms and the Music Venues Alliance.

Gates open at 6.30pm for each 7pm to 8.30pm concert with a 30-minute interval between sets. Tickets must be bought in advance, either in “pods” for family groups or as individuals at tickets.ncem.co.uk.

Art at large: Subterranea Nostalgia, by Corrina Rothwell

Biggest painting of the week award: Corrina Rothwell’s Subterranea Nostalgia, in The Cacophany Of Ages at Pyramid Gallery, York, until July 1

CORRINA Rothwell’s exhibition of abstract works features the largest canvas painting in the near-30 years that Terry Brett has run Pyramid Gallery in York.

“Subterranea Nostalgia measures 1600mm by 1600mm. That was fun, getting it upstairs!” says Terry, whose gallery is housed in a National Trust-owned 15th century building in Stonegate. “The painting has a real impact. If you know anyone with really big walls, it would be perfect for them!”

Nottingham artist Corrina favours mixed media and acrylic on canvas for the paintings, on show at Pyramid and online at pyramidgallery.com.

Not having a ball: Luke Dickson’s Brian Clough goes to hell and back in his 44 days in charge of Leeds United in Red Ladder Theatre Company’s The Damned United

Football, football, football, not on the box but in a theatre: Red Ladder Theatre Company in The Damned United, York Theatre Royal, June 16

THE choice is yours: Italy versus Switzerland at the Euro 2020 on ITV at 8pm or the inner workings of Brian Clough’s troubled mind at Elland Road in 1974 at York Theatre Royal, kick-off 7.30pm.

Adapted from Yorkshireman David Peace’s biographical novel by Anders Lustgarten, The Damned United is a psychodrama that deconstructs Old Big ‘Ead’s 44 days as manager of Leeds United, whose Don Revie-tutored players he despised as much as they loathed him.

The double act of Luke Dickson’s flawed Clough and David Chafer’s avuncular Peter Taylor are joined by Jamie Smelt as everyone else in a story of sweat and booze, fury and power struggles, demons and defeats.

That’s a good idea…

Festival of the month: York Festival of Ideas 2021, running until June 20

THIS year marks the tenth anniversary of York’s bright idea of a festival dedicated to educating, entertaining and inspiring.

Under the banner of Infinite Horizons to reflect the need to adapt to pandemic, the Festival of Ideas is presenting a diverse programme of more than 150 free online and in-person events.

The best idea, when needing more info on the world-class speakers, performances, family activities and walking trails, is to head to yorkfestivalofideas.com/2021/.

You kiss by the dock: Husband and wife Jordan Metcalfe and Laura Elsworthy as Romeo and Juliet in Hull Truck Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet at Hull’s former dry dock

Outdoor play outside York announcement of the month: Hull Truck Theatre in Romeo & Juliet, Stage@The Dock, Hull, July 15 to August 7

AFTER John Godber Company’s Moby Dick completes its run at the converted Hull dry dockyard this Saturday, next comes Hull Truck Theatre’s al-fresco staging of Shakespeare’s tragic love story.

The title roles in Romeo & Juliet will be played by Hull-born husband and wife Jordan Metcalfe and Laura Elsworthy, who appeared in The Hypocrite and The Last Testament Of Lillian Bilocca in 2017 as part of Hull’s year as UK City of Culture celebrations.

Metcalfe and Elsworthy, who married in the summer of 2018 after bonding when working on The Hypocrite, will play a stage couple for the first time, performing on a traverse stage to emphasise Verona’s divided society. Box office: hulltruck.co.uk.

Hitting the Heights: Lucy McCormick’s wild-haired Cathy in the Wise Children poster for Emma Rice’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights, bound for York Theatre Royal

Looking ahead to the autumn: Wise Children in Emma Rice’s Wuthering Heights, York Theatre Royal, November 8 to 20

EMMA Rice’s Wise Children company is teaming up with the National Theatre, York Theatre Royal and the Bristol Old Vic for her elemental stage adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Yorkshire moorland story of love, vengeance and redemption.

In an intoxicating revenge tragedy for our time shot through with music, dance, passion and hope, Rice’s company of performers and musicians will be led by Lucy McCormick’s Cathy.

“Emboldened and humbled by the enforced break, I feel truly lucky,” says Rice. “I cannot wait to get back to doing what I love most and to share this thrilling and important piece with the world. It’s time.”

An Evening With Julian Norton, vet, author and now show host, is booked in for Pocklington Arts Centre

Veterinary appointment in 2022: An Evening With Julian Norton, Pocklington Arts Centre, January 18

JULIAN Norton, author, veterinary surgeon and star of Channel 5’s The Yorkshire Vet, will share amusing anecdotes from his work with animals in North Yorkshire, bringing to life all the drama and humour in the daily routine of a rural vet.

Following in the footsteps of James Herriot author Alf Wight, Norton has spent most of his working life in Thirsk. His latest book, All Creatures: Heart-warming Tales From A Yorkshire Vet, was published in March. Box office: pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Musicians’ art show Super Cool Drawing Machine heads to The Crescent

The Super Cool Drawing Machine T-shirt on sale in the exhibition gift shop

SUPER Cool Drawing Machine, Yuppies Music’s touring exhibition of musicians’ “other” work, will run at The Crescent community venue, York, from Thursday to Sunday.

This celebration of art created by international touring independent musicians is billed as a “much-needed exploration of FUN stuff”, on show each day from 11am to 9pm with Covid-secure measures in place.

Under social distancing restrictions, attendees will have to book in advance, choosing a specific time slot to view the exhibition. Consequently, only a small number of tickets are available at £5 for each time slot at seetickets.com.

“Over the moon” to be supported by Arts Council England, Yuppies Music and York music promoters Please Please You will present works by renowned musicians from alternative, experimental, jazz, folk, rock, soul, ambient, indie backgrounds.

Among them will be trailblazing saxophonist and figurehead of the British jazz scene Shabaka Hutchings; Mercury-nominated Welsh singer/producer Cate Le Bon; experimental folk musician Richard Dawson; African-American experimentalist Lonnie Holley and drummer/composer Seb Rochford, plus members of This Is The Kit, Mammal Hands, Haiku Salut, Snapped Ankles and more besides.

On display from May 27 to 30 will be paintings, photography, drawings, ceramics, digital instillations, recycled arts, sculpture and furniture, adding up to “colourful and interactive arts for the open-minded and curious”, complemented by a gift shop.

The full listing of artists is: Bex Burch, of Vula Viel; Bryony Jarman-Pinto; night flight: Cate Le Bon; H. Hawkline; Tim Presley; Cloudshoes; Daisuke Tanabe; Ed Dowie; Francois & The Atlas Mountains; Haiku Salut; Holysseus Fly; Ichi; Jeffrey Lewis…

…Leafcutter John; Lonnie Holley; Mammal Hands; Peter Broderick; Poppy Ackroyd; Rachael Dadd; Richard Dawson; Rhodri Davies; Rozi Plain; Seb Rochford; Shabaka Hutchings; Snapped Ankles; Tara Clerkin; This Is The Kit; Yama Warashi and Yumi And The Weather.

NCEM gardens to stage second set of Songs Under Skies acoustic double bills with The Crescent and Fulford Arms

Joshua Burnell: Sharing a Song Under Skies double bill with Katie Spencer on June 14. Picture: Elly Lucas

SONGS Under Skies will return to the glorious gardens of the National Centre for Early Music, at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York, in June.

Five outdoor acoustic double bills will comprise Wounded Bear and Rachel Croft on June 1; Kell Chambers and Nadedja, June 2; Katie Spencer and Joshua Burnell, June 14; Zak Ford and Alice Simmons, June 15, and Epilogues and Sunflower Thieves, June 16.

Wounded Bear and Rachel Croft: First Songs Under Skies double bill on June 1

As with last September’s debut series, season two of the open-air, Covid-safe Songs Under Skies will be presented by the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM), working in association with The Crescent community venue, The Fulford Arms and the Music Venues Alliance.

Gates will open at 6.30pm for the acoustic double bills from 7pm to 8.30pm with a 30-minute interval between sets. Each concert costs £8 and tickets must be bought in advance, either in “pods” for family groups or as individuals at tickets.ncem.co.uk.  

Kell Chambers and Nadedja: Double bill in the NCEM churchyard gardens on June 2

Social distancing will be strictly observed and masks must be worn inside the NCEM but will not be required in the gardens.

NCEM director Delma Tomlin says: “We’re very excited to be bringing you the second Songs Under Skies: a feast of acoustic music taking place in our beautiful gardens, the perfect spot for a June evening in the sunshine.

Katie Spencer: Yorkshire singer-songwriter to play NCEM gardens on June 14, as well as a second Yorkshire open-air gig at Primrose Wood Acoustics, Pocklington, supporting Martin Simpson on July 1 at 7pm

“We’re also glad to be working once again with our partners The Fulford Arms, The Crescent and York Music Venues Network to begin the long-awaited revival of live music in our city. Last year Songs Under Skies was a complete sell-out and we’re looking forward to welcoming back audiences for these summer nights of music by these talented musicians.”

Harkirit Boparai, from The Crescent and the York Music Venues Network and North East regional coordinator for the Music Venues Alliance, says: “We’re delighted to be collaborating with the NCEM for another short run of outdoor concerts to take place in their beautiful gardens, with a stellar line-up of musicians from York and beyond heralding the return of live gigs to York.

Zak Ford and Alice Simmons: Playing acoustic sets at Songs Under Skies on June 15

“One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been that cultural organisations in the city have been able to collaborate in ways that they didn’t before, and after the success of our last series in the autumn, it’s been great to work with the NCEM team once again.”

Among the first arts organisations to stream online concerts, the NCEM has been keeping music alive since the beginning of lockdown, attracting a worldwide audience of more than 70,000. 

Epilogues and Sunflower Thieves: Songs Under Skies’ closing concert coupling on June 16

Over the past year, the NCEM staged socially distant events when possible and streamed concerts and festivals from St Margaret’s Church.

In June, this will continue with the streaming of the very first Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival Online with concerts, walks and talks from the Yorkshire market town where the first festival was staged 35 years ago. This summer’s York Early Music Festival will run from July 12 to 16; a full line-up announcement is expected today (17/5/2021).

Kitty VR: Playing her first gig for seven months at the NCEM churchyard at last September’s first Songs Under Skies concert series. Picture: Neil Chapman/Unholy Racket

Last year’s inaugural Songs Under Skies presented Amy May Ellis and Luke Saxton on September 2; Dan Webster and Bella Gaffney, September 3; Kitty VR and Boss Caine, September 9; Wolf Solent and Rosalind, September 10; Polly Bolton and Henry Parker, September 16, and Elkyn and Fawn, September 17.

Full details of this summer’s Songs Under Skies can be found at: ncem.co.uk/songs-under-skies/.

Michael Chapman’s concert at Merchant Adventurers’ Hall to be streamed on Sunday

Michael Chapman recording Ancient & Modern at the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, York, for streaming on Sunday

VETERAN troubadour Michael Chapman has recorded a special concert during Lockdown 2 at the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, York, to be streamed online on Sunday (29/11/2020) at 7pm.

Filmed on November 12, the Ancient & Modern recording represents a look-back over the long and illustrious career of the 79-year-old Leeds singer, songwriter and guitarist, who combines classics and newer compositions in a concert also featuring a support slot and interview by close friend and mentee Katie Spencer. 

Sunday’s event marks a first venture into streamed concerts by the York community venue The Crescent and promoters Please Please You and Ouroboros, alias Joe Coates and Harkirit Boparai.

“This is new terrain for us, but we are big believers in Michael and his music, and it’s an honour to present him during these times and at this point in his career” says Boparai. “Michael is a unique musician with more than 50 years of experience, floating between Americana, blues and psychedelic folk.”

Boparai was delighted the recording could go ahead despite Lockdown 2 being imposed from November 5. “We were lucky, the lockdown nearly threw everything, but then it emerged under the Government guidance that streaming and rehearsal were permitted as long as everyone involved were ‘professionals’,” he says. 

“They still want us to work! I also think, to be fair, they saw the value in allowing culture to continue in an online form. 

Chapman by candlelight: The poster for Sunday’s streamed concert from the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall by Michael Chapman

“Merchant Adventurers’ Hall had a new clerk starting in the week of lockdown, and I remember anxiously waiting for their decision and interpretation of guidance…”.

Good news was forthcoming, whereupon Chapman could head to the hall. Explaining his choice of concert title, he says: “I wanted to call it Ancient & Modern in reference to the hymn books of days gone by and because it reflects the songs I selected to play for this show.” 

The title also acknowledges Chapman’s approach and sound. While firmly rooted in traditional folk, blues and Americana, his constant pushing of the envelope has inspired a new generation of artists, such as instrumentalist-turned-singer Steve Gunn, who produced his last two albums for the Paradise Of Bachelors label, 50 and True North, featuring pedal-steel guitarist BJ Cole and singer-songwriter and guitarist Bridget St John.

Gunn says: ‘It’s been an honour to share a stage with Michael, or even just to be in the room when he’s playing. I know so many of his stories and songs by heart now. I cherish them.”’

This continuous evolution of style has garnered a cult following for Chapman, also making him virtually impossible to categorise. While this may sometimes infuriate reviewers and concert bookers alike, it is exactly what keeps his fervent supporters on board and has brought a whole raft of younger appreciators to his music over the past decade. 

Chapman’s journey has taken him from the acoustic virtuoso of the early Cornish folk days, typified by his Fully Qualified Survivor album, through to Memphis Soul, courtesy of Stax producer Don Nix, and the album Savage Amusement, dipping into New Age music via Heartbeat, and onwards even to full-on improv for Thurston Moore’s label, Ecstatic Peace.

Moore says: “Michael Chapman, beyond the machinations of the record industry, became the great teacher for all of us guitar playing songwriters coming up in the late-20th century. With an organic mix of passion and remove, he showed that getting lost in the music was a way to find the truth of the heart. No better lesson learned, I’d say.” 

After making the acoustic guitar his own, Chapman has been exploring the electric guitar in these latter, mellower years, while still retaining the intensity of his playing and song-writing.

Chapman may be approaching 80 – that landmark will fall on January 24 2021 – but it will not diminish his need to move the music forward, dip into the past and embrace the present with as much enthusiasm and fervour as a man at his stage in life can muster. 

“Michael’s online concert will be available for ticket holders to watch as many times as they like for up to three days from the time of broadcast, and you can watch on computers, phones or through smart TVs and Chromecasts,” says Boparai.

For more information and tickets, head to: www.thecrescentyork.com. For a downloadable video teaser, go to: https://vimeo.com/481206388

Tickets cost £10 or you can choose to pay £15 to further support Michael Chapman and the freelance production crew during these difficult times.

For the last word on Chapman’s lasting impact, here is Rockford, Illinois guitarist, singer and songwriter Ryley Walker: “One of my greatest influences in life. Taught me to play guitar better, act like a professional, and always demand the cash at the end of the night. 80 years and just getting started. A true honour and privilege to call Michael a friend and mentor. MC shows love and truth in every tune. Guitar king and living legend Michael Chapman!”