Last night I schlepped through the scorching streets of Oxford hoping for some respite from the sweltering heat in the cool confines of the chapel at Jesus College and for some cool tunes to while away a steaming summer’s night. Unfortunately, there was no relief from the ubiquitous heat in the beauty of this seventeenth-century chapel but the evening’s gig more than delivered a musical chill factor.
For starters the evening began with a brief interlude from the Mad Marston Hares (including Chris Mills and Dom Wilkinson) who opened with 'Here comes Sally with her big boots' on immediately inspiring squelchy sandal stomping in the audience. Once they had musically warmed the audience up with further folk tunes from the Appalachians, we moved to the more mellow and moving tune composed by Ireland’s Jimmy McCarthy through a Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem, a Bono composition about the disappeared in South America, and the more subtly nuanced political message of 'Isle of Love, Isle of Tears' about immigration to America through Ellis Island. This was a little taster of what I am sure will be the delights of their full set at the Isis Farmhouse next weekend.
And so after a short stroll around the lengthening evening shadows in the Jesus’ front quadrangle, we came to the main event, the Moonrakers’ set. In this instance this band of musical smugglers built upon the Mad Hatter’s fine opening with a wide range of references and influences as well as self-composed ditties such as the fine whistle, harp and violin combo in the song 'Shotover'. With evident musical accomplishment and the ease of group familiarity the Moonrakers' songs provoked foot stomping/squelching but also a sense of sadness in 'The Unquiet Grave'. Some of the songs were traditional tunes ('Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies'), some were more humourous (in 'Glenlivet' - the place, not the whisky as violinist Liz van Santen informed us), and there was some audience participation in choruses and catch lines.
In spite of the trying conditions – the heat untuned instruments and sliding sweaty fingers – this was an evening of harmonious accomplishment, wit and wisdom with traditional songs and instrumental combinations tweaked and twerked to joyous effect, culminating in a moving acapella rendition of 'Sorrows Away', and my particular favourite (as Jon Bennett played the tabor) 'Glenlivet'. I, like singer Sarah Fell, also have a particular interest in Orkney’s archaeology and mythology and so enjoyed learning of the Orcadian reference to the Northern Lights as The Merry Dancers and the folk song interpretation of this concept. From these examples, I would certainly recommend a dip in the Moonrakers' CD catalogue if only to hear more of Eleanor Dunsdon’s delicate harp playing.
So not only did the evening include a refreshing range of traditional folk songs with fresh interpretations, but as is appropriate for a living, growing medium, also included new and fresh melodies, tunes, thought-provoking ideas and emotive harmonies from sorrow to lust and licentiousness. Musical accomplishment and virtuosity whilst ever present played second fiddle to the heart and soul of the folk tradition – inclusion. And so we all went together singing and stomping into the night.