A Lighter Side of Life – Ralph McTell – Town Hall, Portsoy, Moray – 1st June, 2019
Portsoy continues to punch above its weight in terms of drawing top-notch talent to its venues. Tonight, at the Town Hall, it is sold out for the visit of English singer-songwriter legend, Ralph McTell to the 10thHaal, and he does not disappoint – even playing a new song, Close Shave, which pertinently, he has not played live before anywhere else. Portsoy gets the undoubted honour of a darkly humorous McTell song about a barber who raises the delicate matter of his wife’s infidelity with a friend of his while he is giving his friend a shave with a straight razor (or knife to you and I). The song is as sharply observed as its title suggests.
Ralph McTell’s best songs are finely crafted, and his thoughtful delivery and guitar playing add an extra layer of personality to them, honed over half a century of performing. This is, after all, a man who played at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 just above Kris Kristofferson and below Free on the bill and on the same day as Jimi Hendrix headlined.
In a varied choice of songs and subject matter, he begins with songs about his childhood memories. Walk into the Morning is the opening song inspired by his love of Woody Guthrie, He quips that he was a pen pal of Guthrie as a young man except that Guthrie never wrote back! Barges is next and describes the gentler speed of life around the canals in Banbury, Oxfordshire (“the far north” as he then considered it to be) during family holidays. Following that, the more lively Around the Wild Cape Horn is a song whose theme is that some danger or risk is vital to a well-lived life. First Song from the early 1970’s is a touching love song to the first song he wrote although he teases the audience with the delivery of that message until the final chorus.
He talks about his life busking in the mid ‘60’s in Paris. He met a number of his biggest influences there and they fired his ensuing passions for blues and ragtime. One of those is the inspiration for the song Hands of Joseph where he first encountered a guitar style which sounded like a piano. In the coda to the song, he ably demonstrates this technique by way of a jaunty instrumental which gets the audience’s toes tapping. He then plays his achingly poignant Great War song, Maginot Waltz, with its ghostly dissonant tone complementing the story of a visit to Brighton of a group of young men having their final day in Blighty in 1914 before heading over to France, still full of fun and the last moments of innocence and optimism. The first half of the set closes with crowd pleaser, From Clare to Here, which has the audience singing along.
The second half starts with the song Mr Connaughton before he speaks at length about another influence, Rev Gary Davies, the Harlem blues guitarist who was blind. One particular anecdote about Davies is greeted with much laughter. After being robbed of his busking money on a few occasions, the NYPD gave dispensation for Davies to carry a gun despite the fact that he could not see where to point it! With Peppers and Tomatoes, no matter how many times you hear the song of an ethnically mixed community’s breakdown on seemingly trivial differences to start off with, it never ceases to be anything less than chilling, and the abrupt ending a masterstroke which lifts the hairs on the back of the neck. After Close Shave’s premiere, he plays the only cover in his set, Big Bill Broonzy’s When Did You Leave Heaven which he says he played to his first girlfriend, a sentiment that proved irresistible to her. He closes his set with the trio of After Rain, the perennial favourite Streets of London and The Hiring Fair.
The encore is West 4thStreet and Jones, a paean to the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover which has Dylan and Suze Rotolo arm in arm walking down a snowy street in Manhattan in 1963. It is a song about a point frozen in time, of love and hope where thoughts are “eternally tomorrow”. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, there were dark shadows just around the corner, the most notorious being the bloody end to the era of Camelot. But, that photographic image is there, still full of light after all these years. It is a suitably moving note to end on.
The entire performance is beautifully paced and played with McTell’s wonderful storytelling both in song and introduction shining through. It is a charming and tender exploration of the human spirit in its many forms, and McTell’s lustre is polished further to anyone lucky enough to be there.