This continues my writeup of WOMAD USA.
Yesterday I went late, having first stopped in at a company picnic that was a bust (gray and rainy, lots of kid’s activities but few for adults, cold food). I got there in time for Kathryn Tickell’s performance, and it’s a damn good thing as it was the second best thing (after the Blind Boys of Alabama) about the festival so far.
Kathryn is a master of the Northumbrian pipes, which are (as her introducer said a bit clumsily) “less scary” than traditional Scottish pipes. They’re smaller and quieter, and are fed by a bellows rather than by the performer’s breath. She is also a master fiddler and treated us to alternating sets on both instruments. She’s been playing with rock musicians, including Sting and Peter Gabriel, as well as doing her own music. I can’t really describe her performance musically without feeling a bit New Age (the whole “talking about music is like dancing about architecture” problem), so I tried to write down some things she said about the tunes instead:
I was commissioned to write about Otterburn, a battle that happened six hundred years ago between the English and the Scottish. In Northumbria everyone is a little of both, so I didn’t know which side I was supposed to be on. I didn’t know whether to make it a slow sad song or a happy little victory jig, so I compromised. After six hundred years it seemed the right time.
I wrote this reel for my brother – he’s fifteen and a great fiddler, but at present he’s more interested in beer.
I play these songs [fiddle tunes] in the village pub with my uncles. They have the same haircut, the same clothes, the same red accordions… Being farmers or shepherds they don’t get into town much to buy clothes, that’s not important to them. But they do get the Farmers Weekly, and you can buy everything from there. So they all have the same Farmers Weekly checked shirt… If there’s a wedding or funeral you see them all wearing the Farmers Weekly suit. There are only four choices after all.
This song [I wish I had written down the name. Sting had Kathryn play the beginning of it for his song “Island of Souls” on The Soul Cages] – do you know what’s happening to coal mining and shipbuilding in Northumbria? It’s all shutting down. The coal pit shut down. With the closing went 60% of the town’s jobs, and really the heart of the town. My grandfather worked in another pit but knew about this one. He said the mine tunnels extend for miles under the ocean. I asked how they would close it off, and he said the entrances to the tunnels would be sealed off and the sea would slowly seep in. So I wrote this song picturing the sea slowly seeping in from the top and bottom of the coal tunnels, reclaiming its own.
The rest of the day? Well, the Neville Brothers started off strong and went directly to hell as soon as Aaron Neville took the lead vocals. His version of “What’s Going On” only showed how inferior his vocal technique was to Marvin Gaye’s and started me wondering why I had paid a lot of money to hear the band do covers. Then he started in on “Don’t Know Much,” his crapulent song that was made famous when Linda Ronstadt did the duet with him. Between his singing both parts, the unbelievably low-rent keyboard accompaniment, and his air guitar during the solo, my respect for him went straight down the tubes. I stuck around to hear the group do a little more New Orleans style stuff, but split soon thereafter.
There was supposed to have been a performance by Iarla Ó Lionáird, an Irish solo vocalist, but there was an unscheduled switch and an awful bazouki band was on that stage. I watched DJ Peretz (aka Perry Farrell) playing records for a while. If I had been in more of a dancing mood it would have been a lot of fun, but I was pooped and went home instead.