14 November 2011
It's a long time since I've seen Ralph McTell live, but several of my earliest gig experiences were Ralph McTell concerts. I haven't see him live for more than twenty years, don't know why really, certainly not deliberate avoidance on my part. Of course he's known for "that song" and there's no doubt it'll appear at some point in the evening (he used to dispatch it pretty early on in the first set just to get it out of the way), but he's produced a lot of other stuff over the last 45 years. It's pretty unlikely that there'll be much from "Tickle-on-the-tum" or "Alphabet Zoo" : and as an aside try and imagine being a teenager who is a fan of a thirty something acoustic troubadour when said troubadour (like many of his contemporaries) scores a children's TV series. It says a lot that I never lost faith in him, and his albums mostly continued to reward. His latest – “Somewhere down the road” - sees him deep into story telling mode, with little left of the love songs touched with magical realism or the character sketches tinged with melancholy of his early albums. The instrumental acoustic blues work outs are similarly gone. Yet old themes of memory, loss, change and regret are still there in the quietly dramatic songs of today.
It's a packed out Stables for Ralph McTell and he takes the stage to a wave of rapturous applause. He looks older than the last time I saw him, of course, but he's still the same tall craggy faced and substantial figure he ever was - quite against the stereotype of the sensitive singer-songwriter, he seems more like the club bouncer than the star attraction. The gig follows two paths - there's a strong selection from the latest studio album and a strong element of playing tribute to heroes, inspirations and friends. This latter sometimes takes the form of a song that Ralph McTell has written about the person, and sometimes, like the first song of the evening, it's one of their songs - we start with Woody Guthrie's 'Hard Travellin' '. This simple song of hard times stirs a pool of memories as McTell regales the audience with how as a young player he used to write to Guthrie every time he learnt another one of his songs: "We became sort of pen pals....he never wrote back though". Playing Dylan's 'Girl from the North Country' he notes that Dylan was 70 this year, and that the first wave of singer-songwriters are getting old - McTell was 66 this year.
Other highlights in this opening set are the delta blues of 'The ghost of Robert Johnson' and 'The Ferryman' an intricate spiritual journey culminating in a connectivity with nature’s circular motions. The last song before the interval is "the greatest hit", with the audience enthusiastically joining in on the chorus, and it's a sobering thought that 40 years on 'Streets of London' has the same relevance today - if a measure of the greatness of a nation is how it looks after the most vulnerable then we're still sadly lacking.
And the second set is more of the same - 'Maddy Dances' inspired by Maddy Prior dancing, 'The girl on the Jersey ferry' which dwells on a constant memory of a glimpse of a stranger that lasted only seconds but created undying feelings. And it's no real surprise that the final song of the set is 'A kiss in the rain', Bert Jansch was being played when we all trooped in, his recordings provided the interval music as well, so Ralph's song mythologising Bert and Annie Briggs and the passing on of 'Black Water Side' could hardly have been left out of the evening. That it's probably the best song on the new album doesn't hurt either.
The encore was a perfect pairing of old and new - 'Weather the Storm' and 'Somewhere down the road'. A good gig to go to - I feel the same now as I did all those years ago - Ralph McTell is, for some reason I cannot fathom, an under regarded singer-songwriter, he's an excellent guitar player, he still has a great voice. I'll be seeing him again in the not too distant future, I hope.