I have seen June Tabor live numerous times in recent years and I thought I knew what to expect at her concerts. I own just about every recording she ever made, the first review I wrote forGMR, when it was still Folk Tales, was of a Tabor CD and I do not expect many surprises from her performances.
One usually gets an evening of what she calls “songs of love gone wrong,” either traditional or from the pens of the best contemporary songwriters. I can list a dozen songs that recur concert after concert. One or two will be sung unaccompanied in that increasingly deep and resonant voice. Most will be performed to the accompaniment of Huw Warren’s piano (or occasionally accordion) and Mark Emerson’s violin, possibly with one or two other musicians involved too.
The March 18 concert took place on a wet Sunday night in a small theater in the historic Flemish city of Ghent, packed to the rafters (particularly so because the event was moved at short notice to a smaller auditorium), where June and her musicians installed themselves engagingly amid the stage-set for George Büchner’s play “Leonce und Lena”, currently playing there. As an Englishman living in Belgium, I am always astonished by the enthusiastic turnout of local people to hear artists who are not even hyped in their own country, let alone in foreign parts, and June Tabor plainly has a big following in this university city. Indeed, my party was lucky to get tickets at all (we spent some anxious time on a waiting list).
I had heard through the grapevine, that Tabor was planning to bring out a CD called Rosa Mundi (“rose of the world” if your Latin is rusty) featuring songs about roses, but I was unprepared for this surprising evening, the prelude to a tour of Britain that started a few days later. June Tabor has done something extremely courageous that few performers would dare: she has junked her familiar play list in favor of an almost wholly new repertoire. In the course of this concert I heard one song that she has recorded and one that I have heard her sing before and they crept in only because they mentioned roses. Everything else was new for her, even if lots of the material is thoroughly familiar. What is more, the range of sources is even broader than the eclectic mixture of traditional and contemporary pieces that one already expects from June. Regrettably, the CD is not yet ready, so none were on sale on the night. When it is launched, I shall eagerly compare it with my memories of this evening.
The concert began with “Roses Of Picardy”, a song associated with the First World War, and ended with an encore (obviously programmed, since it was the occasion to introduce the band) in the form of the well known poem by Robert Burns, “My Luve Is Like A Red, Red Rose,” sung, disconcertingly for some, to a traditional Scottish tune other than the one usually associated with it. Both these songs, as Tabor explained, celebrate the deepest and truest love, in contrast to her favorite genre of “love gone wrong”, which is relieved by occasional lapses into “love gone very wrong”, love gone disastrously wrong” and “love gone totally wrong.”
Reassuringly, despite the new repertoire, a number of the songs still fit this familiar Tabor formula of unsuccessful love. “Belle Rose,” a traditional song from Jersey in the Channel Islands, sung in pretty good French, is a jolly, bouncing tale of a young girl’s rejection of an eager suitor, while the mournful “Banks Of Red Roses,” sung in a Scottish version but found all over Britain, is the familiar story of a man leaving his beloved with extreme prejudice — by stabbing her dead. Tabor recorded this song on her album “Aqaba.” We also heard a version of the classic American version of a Child ballad – a tale of two lovers with an ultimately fatal communication problem, “Barbry Ellen.” In this case, the lovers finally entwine after death, in ballad manner, as a rose and a briar growing out of their respective graves.
Later in the concert, Tabor sang the antidote to this, Les Barker’s “Maybe Then I’ll Be A Rose” (with music by Savourna Stevenson), in which the singer pleads for amorous action here and now rather than waiting for the romantic but unsatisfactory togetherness of the grave. This song is in the same “carpe diem” (sorry, more Latin) vein as another classic poem, Robert Herrick’s “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May,” which was sung near the beginning of the evening.
Les Barker has long provided June Tabor with material and his work appeared twice more at this concert, in the words to “Who Wants The Evening Rose?” sung to a Middle-Eastern melody and in a moving song about Josephine De Beauharnais (ex-wife of Napoleon) and her rose-garden at Malmaison, entitled “Paint Me, Redouté.” Another contemporary, Jessica Ruby Simpson, wife of Martin, June’s erstwhile guitar accompanist, wrote “Red Roses,” the last song before the encore. For once, there was nothing from the pen of Richard Thompson, but then I cannot think of anything by him about roses. I can also think, with relief, of a number of songs that I was pleased not to hear: “Yellow Rose Of Texas,” “Rambling Rose,” “Red Roses For A Blue Lady,” “Mighty Like A Rose,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses… This may have the makings of a new party game: who can think of the least suitable “rose song” for June Tabor to perform?
Two other traditional English songs were included, “Deep In Love” and “Rose In June,” with which Tabor opened the second half after pointing out that “rose” and “June” are found together so often in popular song that she had better get it out of the way sooner rather than later. So far, so predictable, but perhaps the most surprising things about the concert were the absence of any jazz standards (June would usually include at least one – but can you think of a good one about roses?) and the presence of items from the world of classical music. The fifteenth century German carol “Es Ist Ein Ros’ Entsprungen”, with music by Michael Praetorius, appeared in the opening set in a (for me) slightly jerky version, while the second set included Tchaikovsy’s “Crown Of Roses” and Schubert’s celebrated Lied “Heidenröslein”, with words by Goethe (sung, like the Praetorius, in German with a passable accent), both performed straight, although in a voice of a kind not often heard in the recital hall. The inclusion of three songs with music by major composers is a startling innovation for Tabor.
Another prominent characteristic of this show was the singer’s pronounced sense of history. She has often reminded audiences that when it comes to the unsmooth path of true love, not much has changed over the centuries. At this concert she introduced many of the songs (and the instrumental pieces, of which more anon) by placing them in a historical context: World War I, the English Wars of the Roses, the Napoleonic era, and so on. No doubt these historical expositions and the other explanations (including the inevitable gardening information) will find a place in the booklet when the CD finally appears.
Unavoidably, one must ask whether this thematic repertoire, obviously much more constraining than one based on “love gone wrong”, really works for June Tabor’s audience. My answer has to be equivocal. As a dedicated lover of her music I would probably be ready to listen to her version of the telephone directory set to a 17th century air arranged by Huw Warren. The voice remains remarkable, but I had some misgivings about the choice of songs. “Roses Of Picardy” is nostalgic and carries interesting connotations but its sentimental tone is not a vehicle for the real strengths of Tabor’s delivery: drama, occasional humour, timing, phrasing, dark menace. She created a kind of precedent on her last CD with “I’ll Be Seeing You” (from the following World War) and I found that an interesting excursion, but I hope that this is not a field that she will explore too much (fortunately there are no more World Wars to provide further musical reminiscences).
I am also uneasy about the classical pieces, which to my ears do not provide Tabor with the opportunity to display the strengths that I described above. Given, moreover, her special way with words, songs sung in French and German, while interesting as occasional experiments, will not enable her to deploy her dramatic qualities fully unless both she and her audience are sufficiently good at the language to emit and receive the nuances that she projects so well in English. In a Flemish audience you can count on a high percentage of multilingual listeners, but probably not among Tabor’s regular, certainly predominantly English-speaking fan base.
I am always ready to understand any artist’s wish to branch out in new directions, as it must be soul-destroying to perform the same old stuff in the same old way, day in, day out, year after year. June Tabor has certainly reinvented herself with Rosa Mundi, even if it picks up some tendencies that were already apparent in her recent work, especially A Quiet Eye, the last CD. That recording was characterized by unusually elaborate musical settings, arranged by Huw Warren and played by the Creative Jazz Orchestra. At the time I began to get the feeling that the accompaniment, while at times an obvious enhancement, sometimes got in the way of the singer and her songs.
At this concert the feeling was strongly reinforced. There was no orchestra, only Warren on piano and occasional cello, Emerson on violin and Richard Bolton on cello and sometimes guitar. Nonetheless, playing the swirling Warren arrangements that will be familiar to anyone who knows June Tabor’s work of recent years, the musicians have come to play an increasingly dominant part. Some of the songs led into instrumental add-ons, the classical items naturally involved elaborate orchestration and there were four purely instrumental pieces. It has reached the point where I believe that it would be more accurate to bill the concerts and recordings as the joint work of June Tabor and the Huw Warren band. If this is the way that June Tabor has chosen to go, she has a perfect right to do so. Perhaps I am a conservative fuddy-duddy. There is a theory that one’s favorite music from any artist’s catalogue is likely to be the stuff that he or she was performing at the time when one first heard them, and I probably hanker excessively for the days when the voice and the song and the way it was sung were all that really counted. Maybe there is a public out there for what she is doing now. And yet…I wonder.
Of course I shall buy the CD when it comes out. There were some heart-stopping moments at the concert and there are signs that all is not lost for nostalgics like me. As has frequently been pointed out, all Tabor’s “mainstream” solo albums have titles beginning, cryptically, with the letter “A”; those that don’t mark diversions from that mainstream. Well, Rosa Mundi starts with R! June Tabor has taken surprising turnings before, for example in her album with Oysterband, without this becoming her new thing. (Actually, I would not mind a new collaboration with the Oysters, come to think of it!) There are also mitigating circumstances regarding the instrumentals: Mark Emerson was involved in the recent CD of tunes from John Playford’s “Complete Dancing Master” by a band calling itself 1651, the year that Playford published his collection, several pieces from which were played at the concert. Am I reading too much into June Tabor’s latest exploits? Am I wrong about her public? Time will tell. And I have to admit that I admire her courage, her determination not to stand still, her sense of discovery and invention. I look forward to the reactions that the new CD will provoke and advise anyone who has the possibility to attend the current concerts and judge for themselves.
Special thanks to Sara Redstone of the June Tabor web site, who so helpfully answered a request for information about some of the music performed at the concert. I hope that my comments don’t offend her or June or Huw, as I really am a fan – honest!
(Ghent, Belgium, March 18, 2001)