Colston Hall, Saturday 11 February
By 1979 Shirley Collins position as grand dame of the English folk revival was unquestioned. Nearly two decades of transatlantic tune gathering and performing with her sister Dolly had produced several classic albums, with Shirley’s clear and unforced voice the perfect vehicle for dark tales of death and revenge or lyrical celebrations of young love alike. But by 1980 she had withdrawn from performing as a singer, her voice silenced by personal heartbreak, and she wasn’t heard again until 2016’s almost miraculous reappearance with the instantly acclaimed album Lodestar. And now, it seemed, we would get the chance to hear her sing live, too. 38 years is a long time, and if the audience was mainly greying of hair that wasn’t too surprising, nor, perhaps, the empty seats at the back of the Colston Hall.
The enthusiasm of those that attended was enormous, however, and the anticipation high, helped by a starry first half triptych of solo sets from the newer generation of folk stars that followed fellow 60s veteran Dave Arthur’s introductory brace of tunes. Bounding onstage to perform two unaccompanied songs Sam Lee was as spellbinding as ever, the simplicity of his approach a contrast to Olivia Chaney’s elaborately arranged performance which, though impressive, made an over-complication of The Blacksmith – a song most associated with Shirley Collins herself back in the 60s. The set closed with Blur guitarist Graham Coxon fearlessly launching into the Gothic behemoth of Cruel Mother followed by an impassioned performance of his own Sorrow’s Army.
The first half ended with our first glimpse of the star when Shirley Collins was invited up to receive the fRoots magazine ‘record of the year’ award for Lodestar from editor Ian Anderson, who recalled seeing her on the same stage over 50 years previously.
After the break she was back in earnest, sitting at the centre of an arc of players beneath the Hall’s big projection screen and ready to sing her way through the album in a presentation steered by actor Pip Barnes. From the first notes of The Banks of Green Willow it was apparent that this was the real deal, the combination of her soft Sussex accent, crisply clear diction and precise timing at once recognisable. Yes, there was a hint of quaver in there, too, and maybe a lowering of the vocal range, but this just added an authenticity that recalled the field recordings of older singers she herself once made, and the sparkle of her enjoyment in the music remained as bright as ever.
Flanked by the hurdy-gurdy of Cyclobe’s Ossian Brown and Oysterband’s Ian Kearney (playing the enigmatically named ‘THE Instrument’) she treated us to the sombre tragedy of Death and the Lady, the Gothic brutality of Cruel Lincoln and the wistful sadness of Washed Ashore. She sang the mystifyingly unfinished Cajun number Sur Le Borde de L’Eau in ‘my best Sussex French’, the song tailing off into an ethereal ambience of hurdy-gurdy and fiddle. Where used the visuals were often stunning, notably a collage from the annual Lewes fire festival (burning crosses and all) and a sequence of contemporary Jack-in-the-Green images. The jaunty Pretty Polly came with an excellent antique puppet-theatre rendition of a classic tale of female pluck and revenge that reeled away with Pete Cooper’s fiddle at the end.
Throughout the evening there was something almost regal about Shirley Collins, sitting with such composure and smiling approvingly at the instrumentalists and, especially, the dancers – including the vigorous Boss Morris from Stroud, complete with towering beast figures. It was a kind of reassurance that, after such a long absence, she had returned and all was well – though the darkly portentous The Silver Swan that ends the album hints at a sense of finding a voice being a sign of imminent ending. It’s to be sincerely hoped that this is merely another of those gloom-ridden English traditional themes and that Shirley Collins’ voice will continue to be heard well beyond this, her 81st year.