The Howard Rooms are a great place to hear live music. The hall is big enough for a sizeable crowd, but small enough to feel like you’re in a friendly pub, and the wood everywhere, including the amazing wooden ceiling, gives the place a warmth, even in a cool February. Quercus (meaning ‘oak’) are singer June Tabor, Iain Ballamy (playing saxophone) and Huw Warren (piano), and on Saturday they played a repertoire that ranged from traditional folk to experimental jazz, from extraordinarily gentle to wildly exuberant. June Tabor’s voice has a huge range of emotion and colour, and it worked well with the saxophone as a second voice – the human tones and the sax’s metallic hoarseness weaving together, backed by some really versatile piano playing that could be hauntingly delicate or sometimes cacophonous as it created the effect of a whole band behind the voice and solo instrument.
Some of the highlights for me were a Robbie Burns love song (you can hear the studio version of this at http://player.ecmrecords.com/quercus ), a moving lament for first world war fallen from Coope, Boyes and Simpson, and a great, sad, slow version of Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – a song that was so popular and well played in folk clubs of the 70s that it seemed to became a cliché and almost disappeared for many years. This version brought out the ache behind the deceptively simple chords and made you remember why it became so popular in the first place.
I first became aware of June Tabor through the album Silly Sisters that she recorded with Steeleye Span singer Maddy Prior in 1976, and then through albums like Anthology (1999), which has much the same jazz/folk span as Quercus. I’ve always loved the uniqueness of her voice and her defiance of being held within any one tradition. On Saturday I did impromptu interviews with members of the audience to test their reaction to the music:
“She still has a wonderful singing voice and a really easy comfortable rapport with the audience.” (Franz, harpist)
“I particularly like the pianist.” (Jean, jazz aficionado)
“Put it this way, I shan’t be asking for my money back”, (Pete, art critic)
“I just loved them. They’re so good at drawing you in, and although that can be quite intense they’ve got an openness you can really relax into. There’s something sea-shorey about the sound. She’s the rock at the centre that frees the other two ” (Gail, crime writer)
There’s a lot going at the Howard Rooms over the next couple of months, from classical film like Metropolis (2nd April) to more musical feasts like the Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell (17th Feb) and the saxophone playing son of John Coltrane, Ravi Coltraine (11th March), as well as Opera North’s ‘Little Voices’ Saturday morning programme for under 4’s and a lot of other stuff worth checking out at http://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on