If music is a universal language then folk music is at its roots, heart and soul. Wild Willy Barrett and the French Connection certainly explored the full gamut of folk music and beyond during their gig at the Old Fire Station on Saturday night, where the audience were treated to strains of English, Irish, Gaelic, French and American folk music mixed up with rock 'n' roll, punk and techno influences. This diversity of sources was matched by the diversity of noises through Willy's wild strings, John Devine's doleful Uilleann pipes, drums and whistles, Mary Holland's cello and piano and, of course, the dulcet tones of the group's French connection Gallic chanteuse, Aurora Colson.
This was the launch of the band's latest album A Mange-tout Far which follows their successful third album Avant Garde Mange-Tout. However, in line with the group's eclectic choice of music and instruments, the latest album was eccentrically released on vinyl with the first edition having wooden, hand-carved covers. And this eccentricity was carried on through the dry wit and humour of the performance and particularly Willy's track introductions and the hilarity of choruses such as "Come into my Parlour".
I also enjoyed the nostalgic tones of the track 'Gare du Nord' with its echoes of a historic Paris lost, not only architecturally but culturally and musically, and with overtones of smoky dives and broken hearts in the cellar bars of post-war Paris. As well as the dry humour and knowing smiles shared by the group, this melancholy was offset in other tracks resounding musical reflections of the can-can and the familiar chords, rhythms and exuberance of Wild West saloons. By the end of the gig this joie de vivre had rubbed off on the audience and there was much foot stomping, hand clapping and mistimed singing of choruses.
Underpinning the whole performance was the understated yet prodigious talent of Wild Willy himself: casually switching between guitar, banjo and fiddle and exploring the musical traditions of Spain in the track 'Madrid, Madrid', the hell for leather banjo plucking of America's old South and the manic fiddling of the Gaelic tradition to name but a few. The range of Willy's musical ability, the enthusiasm with which he approaches his performances and the dry wit he brings to each song was never more evident than in his manic and slightly demented fiddling – it seemed impossible that such a frayed, fluffy and festooned bow could have any harmonious musical effect but it was wielded with Willy's enthusiasm and fervour to great musical effect. During the gig, the fervent playing of Irish music strained the instrument to the point of string breaking, an incident which then became part of the remainder of the group's performance as the replacing of the string was woven into their banter and performance.
Ultimately, it was this interplay between the group, the ease and wit with which they approached their performance belied by their instrumental tightness, and the diversity of their material made the evening's performance so foot stompingly enjoyable. I can only imagine the fun, frivolity and ultimately eloquent performances which will develop at the tour goes on as last night's performance was a unique and heart-lifting tour de force of universal musical themes, rhythms and melodies.