The Elizabethan Session

Cecil Sharp House, London

22 March 2014

The idea was simple: take eight random folk musicians (Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Jim Moray, Bella Hardy, John Smith, Hannah James, Rachel Newton, Emily Askew) and lock them away together in a country retreat for a week with instructions to write a set of songs based on Elizabethan themes. To help them get inspiration give them tours round Hatfield House, talks by historian Ian Mortimer, and plenty of Blackadder. At the end of the week, put on a concert at Cecil Sharp House in London, which is where I came in.

I've sometimes used the expression "I didn't know what to expect" about a gig, but it's never been more true than it has here. Literally, there was no band and no songs written a week before the gig was due. Would they have been able to write two hours of music? Would they be able to rehearse it before the gig? Would they be able to get on well enough to get through the week without killing one another?

Well the answer is yes, yes, and yes. Though the short rehearsal time was evident from the music stands they were reading lyrics off, the music showed no sign that it had been thrown together in only a week. Between them they played two hours of highly-polished, varied, and beautifully played music.

All of the eight musicians on stage sang, as well as playing a variety of instruments, and each of the eight had written at least one song over the week (though they acknowledged that Nancy Kerr had done the lion's share). Not all eight were involved in every song—each song was played on the instruments it needed—but when they did come together as a band, eight instruments and eight voices, such as on opening track Shores of Hispaniola (written by Nancy before breakfast on the first day!) the result was a breathtaking wall of sound. Who says folk musicians don't rock?

It's no secret that the big selling points for me were Rachel Newton and Martin Simpson, both of whom I have seen live numerous times, and so I felt I'd got my money's worth when the third song in featured a harp/guitar duet from the two of them. It was simply perfect. But it wouldn't be fair to say that was the highlight of the gig, because it featured so many excellent tunes and performances that I can't pick any one high point. The whole gig was superb from the first song to the last, and I'm happy to declare it the best concert I’ve ever seen.

My only regret is that I probably won't ever see this show again. If it was an actual band doing a tour, I'd probably be following them around the country.