Review: Allan Wilkinson, Northern Sky Magazine
I often wonder what visiting musicians from overseas might think of our idiosyncrasies or local customs whilst they sound-check up there onstage. How do they cope with our local dialects for a start? I imagine a few of them who visit the Ukrainian Centre stare into the void as they tune their instruments, wondering what on earth those creepy dolls are all about in that glass case up on the wall? What are all these strange pictures of people dancing? I’ve spent moments at this venue thinking precisely the same. But there again, it’s rather wonderful to have a little bit of the Ukraine right here in Doncaster. Bearing in mind that these particular musicians have been negotiating roundabouts since arriving in the country back in the middle of January, queueing in unbearable motorway traffic and sampling our ‘terrible’ British coffee, they do seem pretty relaxed about things. Perhaps they are. Perhaps seven years of touring together has ironed out any earlier wide-eyed fascination with the UK and this Michigan-based duo, Laurel Premo and Michael Beauchamp, otherwise known as Red Tail Ring, might literally have already seen it all.
For the uninitiated, The Ukrainian Centre in Doncaster is a little bit like a working men’s club, but instead of two turns and a raffle in between, we have, well, two turns and a raffle in between, although it has to be said, much better turns and I dare say much better raffles. The prizes themselves range from the latest CD donated by the headline act, maybe a bottle of wine or maybe a ticket to next week’s show, which is perhaps better than a tray of meat and a box of Celebrations. The best nights at the Roots Music Club are the full nights, which are often rich in atmosphere, rowdy in between numbers and imbued with a fair bit of community spirit. Tonight wasn’t packed and therefore the atmosphere wasn’t quite as it should be. It was restrained, the applause was gentle and there was no encore. A little bit flat. But, I hasten to add, this had absolutely nothing to do with the efforts of those who run the club nor the artists onstage, who were absolutely wonderful. Perhaps it had something to do with a nearby old time music festival where all the local banjo enthusiasts were headed.
Standing pretty much close together throughout their set, almost facing one another, Laurel and Michael delivered their songs and tunes on cue, appreciating the thirty-odd people present in the audience and engaging them with some of the stories surrounding the songs. The duo’s appearance has changed recently as Michael pointed out between songs, with the duo’s hirsute reversal in plain view; a clean shaven Michael sitting aside a curly-bobbed Laurel on the cover of the duo’s 2013 album The Heart’s Swift Foot, dramatically transformed to a bearded and platted guitar player and a Ripley-cropped banjo player we see before us tonight. The duo’s set alternated between old traditional songs and tunes, songs from the repertoire of others, such as the Carter Family’s A Distant Land to Roam and the old Jimmie Rodgers’ Blue Yodel #1 also known as T For Texas, with a fair deal of their own original material to boot. Laurel’s flair on both the fiddle and the banjo was complemented by Michael’s guitar playing, whilst both harmonised throughout the set. One of the aspects I hadn’t previously picked up on until I heard the duo live, was the timbre of Michael’s voice, which is injected with a rich tremolo, which perfectly complements Laurel’s singing style.
The first set gently drew the audience in with such songs as the title song from the duo’s current album release Fall Away Blues, the traditional Yarrow and a couple of instrumental tunes, culminating in a breathtakingly authentic take on Skip James’ I’d Rather Be the Devil, Laurel’s fiddle weeping along throughout. If the first set brought us some of the most accessible songs such as Fall Away Blues and Love of the City, the second set saw the duo tackling the more difficult arrangement of The New Homeplace, a curious melody which seems to stay with you long after hearing it, as well as the sprightly Wild Bill Jones, showcasing some of Laurel’s deft banjo picking.
Opening for Red Tail Ring tonight were two young musicians busy making a name for themselves on the current folk and acoustic music scene. Benammi Swift and James Haigh opened with a short set of instrumental tunes varying between Québécois stompers, Morris dance tunes and other traditional tunes learned from the likes of Saul Rose and Andy Cutting, each performed on melodeon and guitar.