3rd August 2015
It is well over a decade since Nancy Kerr (lead vocals and fiddle) and musical partner James Fagan (bouzouki, guitars and vocals) were Best Newcomers at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Perennial collaborations, her work with the Melrose Quartet and The Full English (to name but two), had exposed her to the cream of English folk artists, from Eliza Carthy to Martin Simpson. However, it was not until well into her second decade as a performer that she emerged as a writer of some ability with 2010’s Twice Reflected Sun.
All of that experience fed into the writing of the acclaimed Sweet Visitor album, incredibly the first under her own name fronting the eponymous Sweet Visitor Band. Tim Yates (bass, melodeon, vocals) and Tom Wright (drums, guitars,vocals) joined from the latest reboot of The Albion Band to form a tight rhythm section with Fagan. Their well-received, if somewhat restrained, album was recorded with a variety of celebrity guests in 2014. Rowan Rheingans (violin, viola, vocals) was then recruited and the quintet have been touring the UK solidly for the last year, appearing at many of this summer’s folk festivals. The buzz has been growing, reports came from Ely Festival of a band not to miss and they played a storming set at Warwick Folk Festival; a hum of anticipation surrounded their performance at Sidmouth Folk Week.
It was evident from the opening Never Ever Lay them Down that the band have grown closer, tighter and more powerful, the relentless live work honing in the material. With Sarah Matthews proving an able deputy for Rheingans the band launched into their set with verve and finesse, the five piece adding cascading vocal harmonies reminiscent of Steeleye Span, the twin fiddle attack of Matthews and Kerr buzzing over the rock solid Yates/Wright backing and Fagan’s electric guitar. Kerr’s glorious voice soars effortlessly over all, playful and humorous and, at times, melancholic and menacing underpinned by Matthew’s close harmonies. But it is Kerr dominates; standing centre stage, long black ball gown and crown of flowers, her singing full of love and life’s experiences.
Literate and sophisticated, her songs often operate on several levels. She challenges and taunts, connecting contemporary and traditional themes, revealing subtle metaphors and innuendos. Lie Low is based on a true story of a soldier giving birth in a war zone. The gentle Hard Songs, dedicated to the 2013 Rama Plaza Collapse, provides a more worthy commentary on the exploitation of the third word than many strident commentators, a sharp suited Wright switching to acoustic guitar. Apollo on the Docks imagines Greek gods lost in London’s east end; Kerr and Matthew’s fiddles leading a lively instrumental break, joyous and uplifting with an indie pop sense of melody. Twice Reflected Sun, where Fagan takes lead vocals, features a meaty riff reminiscent of Jethro Tull. Two new numbers, It was Red and Ginger Bread, bode well for the next record and show an increasing self-confidence as a songwriter.
Her wry parables arrive at an English pop destination, reminiscent of Andy Partridge or Jarvis Cocker, albeit from a completed unexpected direction. She can and should succeed on her own terms in the wider market and is best compared out of genre with other strong, independent women such as Natalie Merchant.
Along the way she has reinvented folk-rock, because this band really motors. No more so than on the encore, a muscular reworking of Broadside from last year’s Elizabethan Sessions, co-written by Simpson and John Smith. Wright, Yates and Fagan lay down a blues boogie riff before Matthews and Kerr return to sing the glorious finale of the show.
‘Queen of the Spheres, queen of the tide’,
‘Haul away sister, haul away.’
After decades of patient service to the tradition Nancy Kerr has emerged as a major artist in her own right. Catch her with the band at Shrewsbury or Whitby and look out for the new album and tour. And she would hate the ‘star’ word, so don’t mention it if you see her, whisper it loudly. Nancy Kerr is a star.
Artist: Nancy Kerr
After decades of patient service to the tradition Nancy Kerr has emerged as a major artist in her own right. Nancy Kerr and the Sweet Visitors Band created a hum of anticipation, followed by a stunning performance at Sidmouth Folk Week.