Fabulous festival finale Kathryn Tickell and The Side wow the crowd
13 Aug 2013
A debut performance by Kathryn Tickell’s new quartet wowed an audience packed into the immense ancient vaulted barn of Childerley Hall with swinging folkloric harmony, deafening clog dancing and prancing in the aisles, concluding two weeks of Cambridge Summer Music Festival with a flourish.
Acclaimed performer Tickell captivated the barn with her mysterious Northumbrian pipes, evoking the rugged hills and beautiful moorlands of her hometown while her all women ensemble complemented her intriguing smallpipes, playing piano accordion, harp and cello, creating the most fabulously original concert of the entire season.
Kathryn Tickell and The Side said they were nervous, even though Tickell has played to the Albert Hall Promenade concert-goers, and her youthful off-sider Amy Thatcher is a veteran of Ceilidh bands from Borneo to Russia. It didn’t show and the evening was a confident hit from the start, mostly because of the warm and friendly personality of Tickell herself, a fluent communicator, with her low North East tones and a relaxed effortless stage presence. She never tried too hard to entertain, nor left a gap.
The band began with a swinging piece of folkloric harmony which introduced the intriguing smallpipes to an appreciative audience. Quite unlike the Scottish bagpipes, these are worked by a blacksmith’s bellows movement made with one arm, not blown from the lungs, the air stored in a bag under the player’s other arm and the instrument played in the same way as a flute or clarinet. There are two parts, the drone (self-explanatory) and the cantor which sings out the melody. Simple – once you’ve mastered the triple controls and the subtle art of tuning the chord for every song. Tickell learned the instrument from shepherd musicians in outlying hill farms near her much-loved Northumbrian home and her music is a clear evocation of its rugged hills and empty beautiful sweeping moorlands. One might even call them ‘desolate’,’ she said in a reference to the recent suggestion from Lord Howell’s injudicious statement that fracking was the ideal activity for the landscape she clearly adores.
The band’s line up is intriguing. First of all it is undeniably fun to see an all women ensemble with such a variety of instruments, Thatcher on piano accordion, Ruth Wall playing the harp, Louisa Tuck on cello, and they certainly threw themselves heart and soul into the spirited reels and traditional dance music to begin the set. Yet the ensemble is much more than a super-duper folk group, tremendous though that can be. Tickell is a composer of note – she has 14 albums of her work out there- and she’s appeared at the Royal Albert Hall. Thatcher is similarly gifted and celebrated and Wall has played with Sting – and is mistress of her art, the small harp whilst Tuck leads the Northern Sinfonia string section and is acclaimed for her skills countrywide. The combination of these gifted musicians was truly thrilling.
After the rollicking rumbustious start, Tickell explained the intriguing genesis of her next set. It was an air based on a Beethoven sonata, transposed for brass and then set for strings ‘to remove all mention of Beethoven from the piece’ she announced cheekily. She challenged the audience to identify the piece but after an enjoyable 10 minutes of distinctly non-Germanic 19th century aplomb, there were no takers in the discriminating audience.
Tickell is bold with musical forms. She is clearly no respecter of boundaries and boldly incorporates airs from Percy Granger, tunes from Henry Purcell and riffs from modern composers and serves them up original, warm and new. And her solo compositions were amazing. She described lyrically the beautiful hills of Northumbria and took us on a tour of the imagination where curlews call from one mountain top to the next and the haunting wind whispers of the past generations of proud Northumbrians who have inhabited those now empty realms. Rendered on the pipes, this was magical, one could almost see the birds of prey wheeling above the purple heather where the ruined royal castle no longer visible once stood. Someone leaving the barn after the first half sighed: ‘I should love that music at my funeral,’ and in its sadness and contemplative calm, it was easy to see why.
But the concert was never gloomy and least of all when, unexpectedly, Tickell announced that Thatcher, the accordion player, would perform a clog dance. Few among the audience would know what to expect, but it was a bravura surprising and very loud interlude. Certainly clog dancing, derided and parodied in recent times, has a brilliant and deserved history – and Thatcher is the girl to show it off. With her percussive hammering feet, she became part of the musical piece in the most original display.
The concert changed gear upwards in the second half. Some of the audience began prancing down the aisle, the sets were greeted with whoops and cheers and everyone felt as if they were entering a new realm of musical experience. Another deafening clog dance from Thatcher reverberated around the room over the bold beat of the musicians’ harmonic playing. The evening took off. For an encore Tickell and Thatcher sang – for the very first time that evening – a totally delightful and affecting song about a farmer woman whose little boy is missing. His fate wasn’t revealed but these women drew out the earthy femininity of those crofting people and their hard-lived lives and, just for a couple of hours, the audience felt a part of it