Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry UK
Quercus, the three-rooted oak of pianist Huw Warren, singer June Tabor and saxophonist Iain Ballamy, were ranged in that order across the stage. Musically they are equals and have created a small body of work in which each of their contributions is in perfect balance. Experienced in a theatre, though, it is hard for one’s attention to stray from centre stage.
Tabor has a power of presence that determines the mood in the room, even when that room is an 800-seat theatre. Her singing is relatively undecorated, relying on depth and richness of tone, a precision with diction and the most minimal decoration. It channels the sorrows and joys of the ages, making them more powerful with its emotional restraint. It looks like she clenches her left fist throughout.
Of course, with that voice – and the wise artistry that lies behind it – she can sing nearly anything – even a Broadway show tune or an Antonio Carlos Jobim tune (she did How Insensitive last night) – but it is in the songs of this country, and the events they relate, that she sounds most at home, and which provide this band’s finest moments.
So there was the a cappella Brigg Fair with which she opened this concert, and which Warren and Ballamy reworked in their own way in Warren’s Old Song New Song, Feste’s song from Twelfth Night, Come Away Death (which Tabor said she first sang aged 15 in the school play), the traditional As I Roved Out, Robert Burns’ gloriously lilting Lassie Lie Near Me, and Near But Far Away, with Tabor’s choice of “floating verses” from traditional songs set to Ballamy’s tune.
And there was the essential centrepiece of this collaborative band: Ballamy’s arrangement of George Butterworth’s setting of A E Housman’s The Lads In Their Hundreds, which contained all the vital elements of a true Tabor song: the country fair, the farm workers, the drinking and jollity all overshadowed by war and loss, “The lads that will die in their glory and never be old”. And, Tabor reminded us, they included George Butterworth.
It was not the only war song – there was the powerful Rufford Park Poachers which is not on the band’s recently released ECM album, but is a rich element of their live set.
Warren is the perfect Tabor accompanist, drawing jazz harmonies and folk ones together in balance, and a fine composer and improviser too. His Dowland-inspired Tears and Dahl-inspired Pig were superb.
Ballamy contributed strong tunes, too, not only to the traditional songs but also his bright and witty instrumental Strawberries. His way of shadowing Tabor’s voice with his tenor is the work not only of a wonderfully sensitive musician but of a great technician too.
You may still have a chance to hear them this time around at LSO St Luke’s in London this evening and at the Playhouse in Salisbury on 31 May. We can only hope that it is not another seven years till we get to her Quercus in concert again.
Quercus, the album, is reviewed here.
Categories: Live review