Review - Mick Ryan & Paul Downes

It was a real treat to welcome the superb singer, Mick Ryan (Wiltshire), back to the Everyman Folk Club at Benhall near Saxmundham.  When last here in 2005, Mick was performing with Pete Harris and together they worked with local school children as part of the Everyman & Suffolk Folk education programme.  Mick is now gigging with respected musician and singer, Paul Downes (Devon), and an evening of singing, music and entertainment of the highest quality was anticipated – we were not disappointed!

It is never easy to be the first performers in an evening, but Wendy & Arnie Rainbow had the audience joining in straight way with two well-sung choruses: ‘He Done Her Wrong’ led by Wendy, then ‘Rocking The Cradle’ led by Arnie with his guitar.  New singers at the Club, Jenny & Mike Tabecki followed with ‘In A Land Where We’ll Never Grow Old’, and their gentle duet singing and clarity added to the gorgeousness of this American spiritual.  They then gave one of the most contemplative and thoughtful renditions of ‘Hard Times’, enhanced by the mellow harmonies added by the Everyman crowd.   Sheila Darling & Bill Johnston perform a variety of acoustic and folk roots music, and a broad selection was offered this evening.  First was ‘Sail Away’; an American folk song (I believe) sung by Sheila and expertly accompanied by Bill on guitar.  Next came the swing song, ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, and great fun was had by all.   Sheila & Bill finished the floor spots in the first half with ‘John Ball’.  The audience gave their all joining in with this very well-known song, and Bill did himself proud with his first concertina-playing at the Everyman.

Mick & Paul began their first set enthusiastically with a brisk paced and great chorus, ‘Here Comes Mick’, from his new show, ‘The Navvy’s Wife’.  Straight away it was evident that, not only is Paul an exemplary musician but also a singer to be listened to.  Next was the title track of their new (and first) CD, the ‘Grand Conversation’ broadsheet ballad, in which Paul’s percussive and rhythmic guitar contrasted brilliantly with Mick’s beautiful legato phrasing.  A song from Mick’s ‘The Voyage’ show followed – ‘Reprisals’ describes events of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 that led to 19th Century emigration to America.  Mick’s breath control during this song was exceptional, and Paul’s subtlety of guitar tones and changing volumes augmented the piece impeccably.  Paul introduced his banjo for their gorgeous arrangement of the traditional ‘Northlew Bell Ringing’– one of those songs most people know even if they don’t know from where – and Paul’s harmony singing was outstanding.

‘The Lazy Man’ was offered as a witty tribute to those who turn up, do their best, then go home and forget about work – a skilfully written song for those with no desire for a Mission Statement!  This humour was balanced by ‘The Lark Above the Downs’ from Mick’s ‘A Day’s Work’ show.  With Armistice Day fast approaching, this poignant piece is the farewell of a conscientious objector on the front line who is charged with cowardice and is facing the firing squad.  Paul’s inconspicuous discordant spread chords created the first sense of unease; the fear and horror were added to by the rhythmic marching guitar accompanying the lyrical chorus; and the use of the bass string like a bell tolling increased the power of this astonishing song.  Mick’s stunning breath control added to the tension – exceptional.  A spooky end to the first half came with Mick’s ‘King Kaley’ and more excellent banjo playing.  Based on an old tale of love conquering sin, this mystical ballad was ideal for Halloween night!

After the interval the raffle was held, and the first ticket drawn was Mick’s.  The prize?  His own CD!  That was quickly swapped for the wine; good for the vocal chords, of course.  Many thanks to Rodger & Jill Hill for donating this month’s sheep prize.  The second half was opened by Tony Simpson with a lovely version of ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain’.  This unrequited love song preceded ‘They Don’t Write Them Like That Anymore’ and, as always, the Everyman audience joined in the chorus energetically.  We were next entertained by Liza Thomas accompanying herself on guitar.  Liza was new to the Everyman, and this was her first time in front of a folk club audience.  Liza began with the lovely ‘I Courted A Soldier’, which benefited from Liza’s unfussy use of decoration and her mellow tone.  Her second song was her own composition, inspired by a gentleman whose increasing dementia Liza witnessed, with the refrain, ‘Old Soldier’s Don’t Die, They Just Slowly Fade Away’ – very moving, and beautifully performed.

June Thaine & Dave Roberston were the last floor singers for the evening.  Their first song was verses from Kipling’s ‘The Gipsy Trail’ to a tune by Sylvia Watts, telling of the Patteran trails and signs used by Romany-Gypsies.  On this Halloween evening, we then had a fine rendition of ‘The Old Churchyard’ (via Waterson Carthy).  Their final song was the charming lullaby, ‘Little Man, You’ve Had A Busy Day’.  With references to the bugle softly calling you to dream-time and putting away your gun, this was an inspired end to a well-planned set. 

Mick & Paul opened their second set with another wonderful song from the ‘A Day’s Work’ show, ‘The Foe’.  This tense and threatening chant was prefaced by an ingenious guitar introduction, and Paul’s repeating bass pulsating beneath ever-rising chords enhanced the song.  Returning to the tradition, Mick learned the next song from a ‘Traveller’ on a council estate, in which parts of three songs (‘Young Men All’, ‘The Cypress Brigg’ and ‘Rufford Park Poachers’) are combined energetically to tell a tale of transportation to Australia, breaking out of prison, and the hijacking of a ship to make an escape.  Another of Mick’s songs followed accompanied by Paul’s banjo.  Referring to a ‘gustatory utopia’ and a mythical land of plenty, the disturbing ‘Land of Cockayne’ tells how having it all isn’t necessarily paradise after all. 

From the new ‘The Navvy’s Wife’ show we then heard a Wife’s lament for her deceased Husband, with lyrics such as “I’ll live what’s left of life for you love, Until the day we never part” – another example of Mick’s talent at writing songs that are sad, sweet and beautiful without being spoiled by over-sentimentality.  Emotions were heightened by Paul’s precise and sensitive accompaniment.  This led into ‘The Sleep Of Death’, based on an Eastern European folk tale remembered from the telling on Jackanory, and the performance was another example of Paul’s understated percussive guitar being the ideal addition to Mick’s intricate tune.

‘The Light’ written by Mick and, inadvertently, set to the tune of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Song To A Seagull’ took us back to the West Country.  The daunting darkness of Cornwall’s Geevor mine is contrasted with the brightness of the light on the cliffs above, and the vocal line ascending further than before at the end of each verse reflects the emergence from the deep’s darkness to the light’s brightness.  The last song of the set was another from ‘The Navvy’s Wife’ show, telling the story of ‘Thomas Brassey’ of Chester; an engineer in the 19th Century and an astounding railway contractor, building more than 6,500 miles of railway around the world.  This song finished dramatically with Paul holding the main chorus joined by the Everyman folk, overlapped by a vigorous mantra from Mick – a brilliant end to their set.

For their encore Mick & Paul chose ‘Green Island’, from ‘The Voyage’.  Written as an affectionate pastiche of ‘Oirish’ exile songs this is, in fact, a very moving song rather than a parody.  The expressive tune made the most of Mick’s extensive vocal register and gave everyone a last chance to appreciate Paul’s compassionate accompaniment.    

Mick’s stunning voice, Paul’s apt harmonies, and the virtuosity of guitar and banjo playing – together with fantastic contributions from the floor singers and support from the audience - resulted in another tremendous evening at the Everyman. 

Mary Dickinson 05.11.08

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