Alchemy took place at the Old Queen’s Head in Islington’s Essex Road last night (24 February) when Bonnie Dobson joined Jim Kweskin for a Sam Lee Nest Collective special showcasing Hornbeam Recordings’ burgeoning catalogue. You didn’t need to close your eyes to be transported to Greenwich Village – or perhaps Harvard Square – in the 1960s. Wasn’t that a time!
How fortunate, for those of us who were the wrong age and in the wrong place to experience the rich fruits of the American folk revival first time round that both artists are in such fine form, happy to josh about their long-ago exploits and allude modestly to their own illustrious pasts while sounding so fresh and of the moment. To see two performers so totally at ease with themselves and with their audience and who wear their talents so lightly makes for a very special evening indeed.
Bonnie apologised for any limitations, explaining that she had the flu, which she treated with a cocktail of port and brandy, ‘a north country remedy’ apparently which you feared might send once-remembered lyrics floating off into the ether. Not a bit of it! In the first couple of songs – ‘I Got Stung’ and ‘Southern Bound’, both from her new album – she seemed to be holding back a little vocally but soon her voice unfurled in all its glory. Undiminished by the passage of time, Bonnie’s range embraces both a warm alto and an exhilarating soprano. A thrilling instrument indeed.
Backed by ‘Her Boys’, Ben Paley on fiddle and Ben Phillipson on guitar, she treated the audience to an hour-long set of songs from across continents and across years, interspersing them with vignettes from her life in Canada, in the United States and in Britain, where she’s lived since 1969: ‘V’la L’Bon Vent’, ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ and ‘Dreams’, in which she sings ‘you can always go home again but you can never go back’. There was gentle humour (‘Squadron Leader’, written during the 1970s, when she toured British bases with the likes of Mike Harding and Wally Whyton) and understated wisdom (‘Don’t Look Down’ and ‘Sing Your Song’) and, of course, ‘Morning Dew’, the first song she wrote way back in the early 1960s and which was effectively stolen from her. ‘It hasn’t got any better, has it?’ she observed, before singing this gentlest of songs about the horrors of a nuclear winter.
Coincidentally, it was almost 50 years to the day since Bonnie and Jim Kweskin last shared a stage, at the Ontario College of Art for a recording of the TV show Let’s Sing Out, Canada’s version of Hootenanny. Backed by Ben Paley with Talli Trow on string bass, Jim too was in fine form, though he joked endlessly about the creakiness of older age and observed that the folk revivalists played for ‘old people and their parents’. Now 75 and on his first ever visit to Britain, he offered a set that dug deep into Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, with songs such as ‘Down on Penny’s Farm’, ‘The Coo-Coo Bird’ and ‘The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train’, a song from the 1930s about how bankers and politicians wrecked the economy that remains as topical today as when Uncle Dave Macon recorded it in 1930. In a set laced with irony and humour, Pat Donahue’s reworking of the old Bing Crosby classic caused particular merriment: ‘Do you like to play the guitar/Take your money home in a jar/From a coffeehouse or a bar/Or would you rather get a job?’ Each song was carried aloft by expert fingerpicking on guitar and, occasionally, a banjo borrowed from Tom Paley, who was in the audience. There were moments when Jim’s voice recalled Willie Nelson.
To close, he brought Bonnie back on stage for what he called ‘one of yours’. It turned out to be Donovan’s ‘Colours’, with which the audience – which also included Joe Boyd – seemed entirely familiar. Bonnie’s harmonies floated bell-like above it all.
Forget the Brits, happening across town – this was real music by real musicians. It was a magical evening.
Liz Thomson is co-founder of Square Roots Productions, a charity which promotes and celebrates Anglo-American folk music heritage: www.folktracks.org
This review first appeared at Folk & Honey