What makes a Folk singer these days?
The question crossed my mind as I watched Blue Rose Code - a talented young singer songwriter with the sort of magnificently-bushy beard you would associate with a Hebridean fisherman, or a 1950s beatnik.
Despite looking every inch the folk-singer, he told the crowd at The Glee Club on Friday night that an unamed Midlands folk club had returned one of his demos with the brusque note: “These songs are not appropriate.”
But what disqualified his lovely repertoire of songs from being Folk? I wondered, marvelling at his wonderfully gentle way of reprimanding daft audience members.
A trio of rumpled young men shambled onstage and spent the next hour showcasing razor-sharp musical talents. This was Lau - a three piece of guitar, violin and accordion/keyboards/loops - who all looked like folk musicians, but subverted every expectation newcomers to their sound (like myself) may have harboured.
Traditional-sounding songs featuring pretty guitar figures and swooping strings took sudden and unpredictable swerves into other realms where disquieting drones and bass-heavy electronic noise rumbled. Songs like “Save The Bees” - part of a collaboration with maverick orchestra leader Brian Irvine (who ‘bangs on the floor with his fists’) - demonstrated their technical virtuosity and skillful use of loop-pedals.
I have no way of knowing whether any of this qualifies as Folk music and none of the group’s deadpan explanations sounded trustworthy. The song Torsa is allegedly inspired by the violinist’s relationship with a descendant from an island off the Ayrshire coast ‘entirely inhabited by cows’ , while another - the laconic accordionist informed us - was based on the group’s love for the ‘flatness of Norfolk.’ I asked a high-ranking member of the International Concertina Association, also present at the gig, to define what Lau were doing with music. Instead he gave this judgment: “Whiskey has lots of different notes and there were lots of different notes in this.”
I found the collision of old and new, and the tension Lau created within the songs themselves, totally compelling. Whatever began as a traditional jig, or reel, or shanty was soon transformed into a highly-structured piece of music that revealed a dark, charged, cinematic vision.