tue 23/07/2024

Thea Gilmore, Cecil Sharpe House | reviews, news & interviews

Thea Gilmore, Cecil Sharpe House

Thea Gilmore, Cecil Sharpe House

English folk singer takes on Sandy Denny's legacy

Thea Gilmore: Shades of Sandy Denny

Who knows where the time goes? Even semi-detached folk fans like me know that immortal Sandy Denny song with that title. The passage of time and passing of the seasons were great subjects for her. As some French dude put it: Ou sont les neiges d’antan? 

This year’s snow was coming down in Siberian clumps but that didn’t stop an enthusiastic crowd turning up for a special event – a live version of a remarkable project; singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore’s setting to music of an album’s worth of Sandy Denny lyrics, found in her notebooks after she died. 

It’s 30 odd years since Denny's death, after bashing her head, falling down the stairs, and battling cocaine and alcohol problems, with a husband who had left and taken their baby daughter with him. She died aged 32, more or less the same age as Thea Gilmore is now, who was born a year after she died.

Several people in the audience had seen Denny perform and some even knew her. The venue, Cecil Sharpe House, had a resonance for Denny (pictured left in pastoral mode) fans as it was where she did a breakthrough concert early in her career for the BBC. Before she came on, the sound system played some Nick Drake, a fellow Island artist and fellow tragedy, two of the greatest British songwriters of the Seventies. (Who else? Bowie? Ferry? Bee Gees? Glen Matlock? Gary Glitter? Did any of them have the craft and poetry of those two?)

Gilmore set the scene by playing a few of her own songs. I preferred the simpler, affecting ballads like “Old Soul”, written to her unborn child when heavily pregnant, and “How the Love Gets in”. Her voice can be as pure as the snow, but with just the right amount of dirt as well. Her rockier numbers like “Mainstream”, with Costello-ish clever or political lyrics, either didn’t work with an acoustic band or perhaps just didn’t work in the atmosphere of what was a tribute to a much-missed artist.

Perhaps they didn’t want to be too dragged down into the ethos of folk-central at Cecil Sharpe House (there were adverts for the likes of Mr Gubbins’ Bicycle and Steamchicken!, doubtless top notch performers). The new/old Denny songs were arranged with great panache (kudos to co-arrangers, Gilmore’s husband, guitarist Nigel Stonier and cellist Liz Hanks, who put a hired string section impressively through their paces).

The title song, “Don’t Stop Singing”, was a stand-out. Like many of the best songs, the undertow of melancholy in the verse was undercut by the positivity of the chorus, and vice versa - a perfect recessionary song that could become a modern anthem. As the title track of the album and one they played twice, the band clearly realised the power of the song.

The last three songs had been difficult to write, and seemed to be powerful reflections of Denny’s state of mind in the months before she died

Why they or their record company have decided to release a much weaker song on the album, “London”, as a single is mystifying, even if it is “catchy”. It’s a thin lyric about missing home with a backing track that sounds like it’s trying too hard. Maybe it will grow on me.

Nearly all the other songs worked very well, though, the music enhancing the spirit of Denny's lyrics, and ending up an alchemical mix of both artists, notably on the wistful “Glistening Bay”.

The last three songs Gilmore admitted had been difficult to write the music for, and seemed to be powerful reflections of Denny’s state of mind in the months before she died. I found myself thinking of the last journal of Sylvia Plath, destroyed by Ted Hughes to protect the children. “Long Time Gone” had Denny writing “I’m in such a terrible state, and my city’s just like me/ I can’t afford to live in this place and I can’t afford to leave.” "Song No 4" had “If I don’t make it before I die, I just ain’t gonna die.” The final track “Georgia” was to her “precious child”, hoping that she sleeps soundly. At the time she wrote this, it's likely Georgia was half way round the world.

“You’re quiet,” said Gilmore. Not surprising, as it was beyond poignant, even harrowing at times, to listen to this stuff. What Georgia herself, now in Australia with her own children, makes of this, a lullaby from a mother she will never know, God knows.

Gilmore tried, not entirely successfully, to lighten the mood with the encores, including a Denny classic “Old-Fashioned Waltz”. The audience might have preferred “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" but that perhaps would have been too obvious and, as the likes of Kate Rusby and Judy Collins have shown, you mess with the original at your peril. Then we went off into the winter wonderland of North London. Sandy Denny would have loved the evening, you hope. It was hard not to imagine her hovering above, probably cackling with laughter and swearing like a trouper as she usually was, until the demons got to her.

Watch Thea Gilmore on The Andrew Marr Show



Her voice can be as pure as the snow, but with just the right amount of dirt as well


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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