Sunday, March 29, 2009

Folk Clubs: Star & Partick

Entry for 27 March 2009:

This year, we’ve been going to the Star Folk Club a fair amount, attending the Thursday evening concerts at St. Andrews-in-the-Square (a 1750 grand Baroque era church modelled after St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields in London). Last night was a highly enjoyable evening, featuring a talented Scottish singer-guitarist duo named Doghouse Roses, whose repertoire features a lot of American or American-style music, as well as Pentangle-influenced songs. By this time, we’ve begun to treated as regulars, and Diane has been going up to and talking with the performers during the break.

This past Thursday, the host plugged a concert by a local Scottish group called Cruachan, in Partick on the following night. This intrigued us, so when we got home, I googled them.

What I got instead was an Irish celtic metal (i.e., a fusion of heavy metal and folk) group of the same name, with lots of fancy albums with complicated artwork, arthurian mysticism, website, Facebook page etc. Hmm… that didn’t sound right. After digging further, I finally found our Scottish Cruachan, consisting of a trio of older guys, looking somewhat white and a bit grizzled. The Irish Cruachan apparently takes its name from the capital of the ancient Irish kingdom of Connacht; the Scottish version claims to have selected its name by sticking a pin randomly into a map of Scotland.

Further efforts turned up the fact that they were playing at the Partick Folk Club, in its new venue in St. Peter’s Church Hall, just around the corner from a Catholic church of the same name at the head of Partick common, about 15 minutes walk from our flat. Partick Folk Club is hosted by Mick West, a fine traditional singer whom we’ve heard several times at the Star and have seen on Scottish television. This club only meets once a month and we’d obviously managed to missed it consistently for 2 years, so this seemed like a good opportunity to explore a new folk club. (It turned out that we’d been to a couple of previous events put on by them, but never a regular club event.)

We arrived about 8, found our way somewhat circuitously through a back way, and came into a classic church hall, although the mirror ball in the ceiling above the dance floor did seem a bit different. The place was already fairly full. Norel, a recent acquaintance from the Star Folk Club and a fellow expat (from Australia), waved to us and we squeezed in at her table.

It’s interesting to observe similarities and differences in folk club culture: The Star is well organized, tables and chairs arranged in orderly rows, audience attentive and well-behaved. The opening act gets half an hour, followed by main act doing 45 – 60 minutes; then there is an interval, during which raffle tickets are sold, often but not always followed by one or two brief “floor acts”, i.e., club members who get up and sing one or two numbers. Then there is a drawing for prizes, a few announcements, and the main act comes back for another 45 – 60 minutes.

The Partick Folk Club has a slightly different order of march, but feels much looser and slightly chaotic and funky. Instead of an opening act, Mick West opened things up by singing a song or two himself, then introduced a couple of club regulars, including a little old lady who sang a rather risque’ song about losing her “thingamajig”.

After about 20 minutes of “floor acts”, Mick introduced the main act. Cruachan turned out to be three retired guys, Nigel Munro, a mandolin player, John Malcolm, a singer and guitarist, and Jim Shearer on vocals, harmonica whistles and bodhran. Jim reminded us strongly of Dave Mearns, so much so that at one point I expected him to produce toy badgers (but these turned out to be egg-shaker percussion things). He told terrible jokes (sample: “I recently went to the marriage of a telly and a satellite dish: The wedding was lousy, but reception was incredible!”) They played a wide range of material, from different parts of Scotland as well as a lot of Irish and American material.

During the first half, we’d noticed that Mick West kept disappearing. Once the interval came, we had some clue about why, as he and his partner brought out a large pot of soup (vegetarian minestrone, he announced), followed by bread, coffee cups and spoons. Mick’s soup is apparently a long-standing tradition at the Partick Folk Club, and was very tasty.

There followed raffle tickets sales, two more brief floor acts, a rowdy and somewhat disorganized drawing for prizes, and then Cruachan for another 45 minutes. As the evening went on it seemed to tilt increasingly toward American roots music (for example, one of the floor acts, another older lady, after singing another risque’ song, did “Summertime” from Gerschwin’s Porgy and Bess). And Cruachan also dipped increasingly into the American catalog, especially bluegrass and country music.

As we walked home, we reflected on the evening: the popularity of American roots music here, the funky church hall space, the community of regulars who packed the place and knew so many of the songs, Mick West’s pleasure in welcoming people and hosting the evening, the soup, and the fellow who played the lowland pipes for us (a mellow, oboe-like instrument powered by a bellows). Here’s another little world within Glasgow, very local and grounded in some way I don't understand yet to its deeper history. This was glimpse of the past but connected to the present, unique but somehow universal.

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