Emily Portman (and others)

Town Hall, Birmingham

13 May 2016

Let's start with the elephant in the room. Or lack of elephants. By which I mean lack of people. (Ok, that sounds stupid. Let's try again.)

The audience at this concert was absolutely tiny. The Town Hall is a big venue, and no more that the front third of the stalls were occupied, and there were big gaps even in those rows. Bad choice of night? Badly publicised? Or, maybe the venue was just too ambitious for Emily Portman. I've seen her struggle to fill smaller venues in Newcastle, and despite being an award-winning artist with several albums out she's not a "star" name, and maybe the folk audience is just too small to support somebody like that in a venue like the Town Hall? God knows, I've seen enough ridiculously talented rock bands spend years struggling to find an audience to lift them out of the club circuit, and maybe it's just the same in folk.

But while I feel sorry for the artists performing to an almost empty hall, I feel more sorry for the people who weren't at tonight's concert, because it was a fantastic night of music, and every act on stage tonight (five of them crammed into the three-hour concert) deserves to be playing to packed houses. Sometimes you want to bang the country's X-Factor-watching heads against the wall and say, "Listen! This is what good music actually sounds like."

Ok, enough with the ranting, let me tell you how good the music was.

The opening act was Katherine Priddy, who was completely unknown to me. She sings her own compositions and plays the guitar beautifully, and while I wasn't convinced by the first song I was completely enthralled by the second, and by the end of her 20-minute set I wished she wasn't finishing so soon. She's very young, and I think will be somebody to watch out for in the future.

Next was Alasdair Roberts, who I know from the Furrow Collective but hadn't heard singing his own songs before. He's a fine singer, but what stands out for me is his guitar playing. You know how some players just have a certain tone that other players, no matter how technically proficient, can't match? Martin Simpson has it, Ritchie Blackmore has it (I genuinely don't know how to give anyone higher praise than putting them in that company), and Alasdair Roberts has it. I don't know what does it, but every note he plays just sounds beautiful. Not flashy, just beautiful.

Alasdair played 20 minutes also, and then introduced Rachel Newton to do her set. Rachel began by apologising that we're "stuck with her" for the rest of the night, as she's in all the bands from now on. Well, here's a secret: that's why I'm here. I've seen Rachel in three different bands so far this year, and tonight I'm seeing her in three more. How could I resist? (It's not that I'm stalking her or anything, it's just that she's in a lot of good bands.)

Again, Rachel only got 20 minutes. She played her electric harp, but on songs that I'm used to hearing her play on harp (I hate to say "acoustic harp", it sounds wrong; it's just "harp"), and there's a definite difference in sound. Only four songs, one from each solo album and ending with her brilliant cover of Jolene, and (surprisingly) none of the bogglingly-fast instrumentals that she does better than anybody else.

Also surprisingly, the harp was moved to the back of the stage when she was joined by Alasdair Roberts, Lucy Farrell and Emily Portman, (also known as The Furrow Collective) for the next set. Maybe her fingers needed a break, but they chose songs from their repertoire that only needed three instruments so all was good. The Furrow Collective play strictly traditional songs and their big selling point is their four distinctive and very different voices. Each of them takes a turn at a lead vocal and their four-part harmonies are amazing. There are songs I wish they'd included in their set, but again they were constrained by a short playing time (I think they got 40 minutes, but it might have been less), and I was happy with everything they did.

And finally, the headline act, Emily Portman and the Coracle Band. I'm used to seeing Emily play with a trio but this concert saw a rare assembly of the musicians who played on her last album (Coracle), adding drums (Toby Kearney), electic guitar (M G Boulter) and an extra fiddle player (Sam Sweeney) to the normal trio of Lucy (fiddle, viola and saw), Rachel (harp and fiddle) and Emily (concertina, banjo, ukelele), and three extra male voices for the vocal harmonies.

Putting Emily Portman and The Furrow Collective on the same bill highlights a really important point: the Emily Portman Trio isn't simply The Furrow Collective minus Alasdair Roberts. There's a vital difference in repertoire. While The Furrow Collective plays entirely traditional material, Emily Portman writes all her own songs. And this is important because Emily Portman is simply the best songwriter, ever.

There is magic in every one of Emily's songs. It's in the beautiful melodies, it's in the idiosyncratic instrumental and vocal arrangements, and most of all it's in the lyrics. Her songs arise from fairy tales and dreams, dark subject matter a lot of the time, and full of poetic imagery that just leaves you marvelling at how clever it all is. "We two shall part, and meet for the first time," she sings to her overdue baby in Brink of June, and you just wish you were clever enough to encapsulate an idea in such perfect words. The Hatchlings has Leda explaining to her babies that, ok, Zeus may be a god but he's a terrible father. It's all so clever. But it's not all about clever word play, there's so much feeling in everything she writes. Coracle is filled with such pain and yearning wrapped up in the images that it breaks my heart even though there is no way I could have a comparable experience.

And it's all so beautiful. Every note, every harmony, every turn of phrase. Her songs are just... magical.

And that's why every time I come out of an Emily Portman concert I feel that I haven't just seen the best concert I have ever seen, I've heard the best set of songs I will ever hear.