Bright Phoebus Revisited, Barbican, London – review

In 1972, with their family singing group on hiatus, Lal Waterson and her brother Mike recorded an album, Bright Phoebus. The project was ill-fated. Mike was docked an hour’s wages for bunking off his job as a painter and decorator to jot down the title track. Two thousand copies of the record were pressed, but half had the hole in the wrong place and were unplayable. The folk commissars of the time, notably Ewan MacColl, pronounced anathema on the record for its stylistic miscegenation. And then it vanished into rights limbo: astonishingly, in the age of the long tail of infinite digital shelf space, there is neither a legitimate CD nor a digital version.

Nonetheless, Bright Phoebus acquired a reputation. The Barbican Hall holds twice as many people as there are playable copies of the record, and it was full. Lal Waterson died in 1998 and her brother in 2011, but Lal’s daughter Marry corralled her relatives and friends – notably her aunt Norma, uncle-by-marriage Martin Carthy and cousin Eliza Carthy – into a joyous recreation of the songs on the album and others by Lal and Mike.

One of the reasons for the album’s mixed reception was its departures from traditional folk, and these versions amplified that. Kami Thompson (whose father Richard’s guitar propelled the original album) remade “Marvellous Companion” as lacquered Los Angeles rock; Martin Carthy cast “Winifer Odd” as an Ivor Cutler reading of “Eleanor Rigby”. Bob Davenport recreated his unaccompanied middle section on “Child Among the Weeds”, still spine-chilling.

Mainstream firepower was provided by Richard Hawley, wearing a leather jacket and the world’s smallest quiff for a rockabilly version of “Danny Rose”. “Richard Hawley’s got a mate . . . ”, teased Marry, and there was Jarvis Cocker, an impossibly tall thin bag of bones, to sing “The Scarecrow”, a rural-but-anti-pastoral psychedelic horror story. A slight archness to the way he stressed “field” in the opening line harked back to the “field in Hampshire” where the narrator of “Sorted for E’s & Wizz” left half his brain, but Cocker’s basso profundo whisper, intimate as a murmur in the ear, inhabited the song. When the whole ensemble united for “Magical Man”, Cocker took the character’s monologue, as unsettlingly seductive as Lennon’s Mr Kite, finishing by producing a bouquet of flowers from his sleeve to present to a curtseying Marry.

Hawley and Cocker also brought to life a couple of unrecorded songs by Lal. Hawley’s reading of “Piper’s Path”, in particular, was a gem: to an acoustic guitar accompaniment, he crooned entranced, dissociated verses – composed, Norma suggested, under the influence of pickled onions.

The closing singalongs of “Bright Phoebus” and “Shady Lady” brought everyone out on stage: the sharp harmonies of two generations of Watersons and their friends. And, also, of Neill MacColl, as if belatedly atoning for his father’s failure to hear the delight of the original album.

Tour continues,

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