Review: Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies, Friday 10th August, Frazer Theatre
Jez is a miner’s son from County Durham and the songs’ solid setting in the north east forcefully conveys their universality, connecting equally with audiences in Australia and Canada, as well as places in the south of England (like Harrogate, he joked). After two traditional songs, the rest were Jez’s own, some – such as ‘Glad Rags’ and ‘Black Diamonds’ – now part of the modern folk canon. Moods ranged from the light-hearted ‘Latchkey Lover,’ to the wistful ‘Dreams’ (they let you down but never leave you) – to the moving ‘Black Trade.’ Commissioned for Radio 2 ballads, it remembers the myriad ship builders who would work years in the dark, airless depths of the hull.
Fantastical wit and exuberance featured in a song of how men digging a hole in a Newcastle road bemusedly watch a live Roman soldier climb out to briefly survey today’s world, then hastily jump back in. The audience roared as each verse ended with his ‘latin’ comment.
Strong vocals from Jez were joined by outstanding back-up from the long-standing members of the Bad Pennies. Kate Bramley on fiddle and vocals, Andy May this time on small pipes and keyboard and David de la Haye on fretless bass. Just as Jez is currently appearing at festivals with fellow award-winning singer-songwriter Steve Tilston, all bad pennies tour independently with their own bands. Kate is also founder of Badapple Theatre. A new comedy-drama written by her, music by Jez, will play at Green Hammerton on 16th October.
Review: Sam Illingworth, Friday 10th August, Henshaw’s
Before this reading, I’d only ever seen Harrogate-born Sam Illingworth on YouTube, where he appears as a tall, dapper, besuited and bow-tied university Senior Lecturer in Science Communication, reminiscent of a less frenetic version of David Byrne’s Talking Heads persona in the ‘Once in a Lifetime’ video. The audience at Henshaw’s met a much more informal performer in a red-checked, open-necked shirt. But there was still an energy and intensity about his strong, rhythmic, un-microphoned delivery, supported by precise, dramatic hand and arm gestures, which was authoritative if not a little mesmerising. He was able to prowl the stage and maintain eye contact with the audience because much of his ‘reading’ relied on memorised renditions of poems rather than mechanical reading from a hand-held book.
It wasn’t an entirely self-focused performance, either. Whllst he did read many of his own poems, he also, generously, read work by other scientists, including ‘We Astronomers’ by Rebecca Elson and ‘The Black Stars’ by Primo Levi. Much of the narrative of the night focused on the responsibilities of the scientist, one of which is to inspire awe in the reader.
He also made it clear in the free-flowing lecture that introduced and commented on the work read that he is fascinated and excited by the role of the scientist as communicator and the scientist’s responsibility to talk to the rest of society and establish a two-way dialogue with us on important issues. This led to him reading some powerful pieces on global warming by scientists included in the anthology ‘A Change of Climate’ which he has co-edited with a colleague, Dan Simpson and which is available on Amazon with all proceeds going to the Environmental Justice Foundation, who investigate and expose environmental and human rights abuses through film and photography. The audience was never allowed to forget the ethical and political aspect of Sam’s work and those members who do not like their ideas and attitudes to be challenged may have felt uncomfortable with certain aspects of the night.
We even got two snippets of poems from people suffering from mental illness and social deprivation, contributors to workshops Sam has run in Gorton, Manchester, where he works at Manchester Metropolitan University, to illustrate his keenness to break down the so-called ‘hierarchies of intellect’ which bedevil the two-way conversation between the scientist and society.
Despite the seriousness of much of the evening, it was also relieved by humour. For this audience member, one of the highlights of the reading was ‘Peer Review’, a personal comic poem about the experience of academic rejection via the peer review system employed by academic publications to ensure the rigour and originality of contributions. Another was the poem ‘Curiosity did not kill Schrodinger’s cat’, another poem which combined erudition and wit with the poet’s own life and personal development.
I’m aware in writing this review that by breaking down the content in order to give a flavour, much of the character of the evening has been muted. This was a highly energetic and committed performance which had the audience gripped and thinking from start to finish.