On a dismal Monday night I was one of the few who had ventured out to catch the Bonfire Radicals, a 6 piece folk outfit, playing in the bar of the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham. The quality of the hour and half set they played in this small venue, which is a bit like stage 2 of The Stables if you’re more familiar with that venue was high and it was really sad not more people had come out to hear it.
The stage was perhaps a little too small for this group who upon first sight look like they may have been formed in a school staff room. There was very little room for them to move about which was a pity as I think at times the jam feel that the two wind players had going on could have been developed further through the band if space had not dictated they effectively stood in two lines with the women at the front and men at the back with the drum kit somewhat dominating. Another problem was that the central mic at the front was necessarily high obscuring the somewhat vertically challenged lead singer.Their opening tune Albino Peacock had a bit of a “Kentish country garden” feel to it but I was glad to see that even with the small audience the band appeared to be really happy to be playing together.
Throughout the set it became clear that the band were playing a lot of their own material and they all contributed to the artistic process although Trevor the bass player and the fiddle player (whose name I didn’t catch) had written most. One of the running themes during the first half of the set was that Trevor had written a number of tunes inspired by place names in the vicinity of Stratford Upon Avon. The first one of these they played was Snitterfield. This had a beautiful wind section where the clarinet and recorder players were making some beautiful harmonies. Listening it felt you were almost drifting down the river on a summers day listening to it.
In this early part of the set the sound levels weren’t great and the bass and drums obscured Michelle’s vocals when she set aside her recorders to sing. As she began to sing the song moved into having a slightly melodramatic 80’s goth feel which was not unappreciated. The 3 women at the front all had angelic voices but again these were overpowered by the back line’s prog rock.
Lucy Hampton’s Wedding Day showed what a fresh, clear and glacial voice Michelle had & the sheer quality of great fiddle playing on display from the relatively young player.
Winter and Bonfire were perhaps my favourite tunes which turned into more hard-core dancey jigs where the players were bouncing off each other. There was unfortunately not enough of this faster stuff in what was a quality first half set which continued with a French set with a twist and a Left Hand Reel before moving on to the brilliantly named “Another Cup of Tea” and “Garlic and Brandy” – jigs which will be available on their new album due to be launched early next year.
The shorter second half had a couple of memorable moments including when Michelle played both descant and treble recorder together and Andy, the guitarist, played his instrument with a screwdriver in order to get some really atmospheric sounds. This was in the style of late 60’s, early ‘70’s trad folk where the emphasis was on strong, haunting vocals.
One of the recurring things I really liked about this band was the way they built up a layered sound on a few numbers. This produced a really strong and quite distinctive sound particularly when Michelle and Katie the wind players changed instruments within this to further enhance the layers.
Towards the second end of the set the Bulgarian influence which is within the band came through, partly in an unpronounceable number which in Bulgarian means little girl and also through Katie’s use of the Bulgarian kaval which is an instrument similar to a flute.
The drum seemed largely incidental apart from in Captain Frogbeard where the drum came to the fore.
I was somewhat dismayed at the end of the set when they played Coffee Countdown, written by Katie, and the Balkan Divorce Dance that they had not played more of this type of slightly anarchic Eastern European folk more. They were really good at it and I believe that it has much more to offer an audience than some of the more prog rock blandness which crept in at times and was only saved by the quality of the musicianship.
So was it a good night? Yes. Will I seek out this band, who I only discovered through typing in Google “music in Birmingham 5th October” again? Definitely. Will I go to more stuff at The Crescent, a venue I only found via the same entry on my internet search? Oh yes, this arts centre style venue has a studio theatre which puts on a range of things and if last night was anything to go by whilst the bar prices are a little on the high side the ticket prices are very reasonable.