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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
The Cellar Upstairs, Exmouth Arms, Euston, London, September 26th 2009
Michael Marra
We’ve come out to see Michael Marra, which means yet another trip back in time into folk-club land. We’re just to the rear of Euston Station, well fed in one of Drummond Steet’s better eateries, and heading for the florid Exmouth Arms in Starcross Street, home to the Cellar Upstairs folk club. The pub is something of a curiosity; the flowers that swathe the outside walls, gently brushing the heads of the banished smokers (Michael Marra among them) are hiding a distinctly post-war structure.
Yet inside, you are met by a curious assembly of half-timbered ceilings, hanging olde-world pub paraphernalia and I think at least four huge gaming machines, plus the obligatory larger-than-life TV that’s playing football matches that no-one is ever going to want to watch. There are about half a dozen blokes, locals not short of an opinion or two on most things, scattered around the bar. Upstairs the function room (“recently refurbished to a high standard …suitable for all occasions from a darts evening to a wedding celebration”) is packed. We’re charged a derisory six quids each entrance, and find a couple of chairs uncomfortably close to the front, where the committee and resident singers are holding court. There’s no stage. Marra’s ironing board is there supporting his battered keyboard, which along with a couple of microphones is plugged into a sound system with an antediluvian amplifier and mixing desk, that has the techie know-it-alls on the committee scratching their heads and slyly twisting a few knobs when no one’s looking.
The floor singing is frankly pretty desultory, and not a little tuneless, with nowhere to run for cover where the bodhran comes out. The song that most excites the crowd is a jolly tale of a poacher pulling a fast one on a gamekeeper, a flimsy allegory for the timeless struggle of the common man over authority, albeit a little misplaced in twenty-first century Euston Town. How many of these people, I wonder, have ever met a gamekeeper? The best song of the bunch comes from two performers from a rival club, greeted with the sort of hospitality normally reserved for death-ray wielding six-headed monsters from outer space: theirs is a modern murder ballad recounting the recent string of serial killings (prostitute murders) in Ipswich. Do you wonder why we don’t go to more folk clubs?
I’m sure there’s little to be said about the gravel-voiced Michael Marra that you don’t already know, beyond the fact that my admiration for anyone who can work the often stultifying folk-club circuit and still perform so well knows no bounds. One of Scotland’s greatest living troubadours performed two perfect cameo sets of “songs from Dundee and its surrounding planet”, featuring a cast of the most unlikely characters. Dr John visited Blairgowrie, Bob Dylan went to Edinburgh, and General U S Grant famously visited Dundee. Marra’s amorous cat Pius purred like as chainsaw shortly before being neutered, and in ‘He said, she said’, two misfits “hunted for each other in a spirit of ruthless melancholy” in the personal column of the Dundee Courier. His songs are painfully and closely observed, Dundee a microcosm of the outside world, flaws conceits and frailties cruelly exposed, no stones unturned. Michael Marra
“Dinnae tell him” shouted one of Marra’s Aunts at a wedding reception when he enquired about someone called Maggie Shaw, “Dinnae tell him, he’ll only write a song aboot it”. Which he did. But in and about this almost abrasive honesty is a warm sense of surreal, and a celebration of the human spirit, warts and all, probably best summed up in the wonderfully unlikely ‘Frida Khalo’s visit to the Taybridge Bar’.
If you love Scotland then you should also adore Marra’s wry take on a city’s, and nation’s, foibles. And if you can’t, understandably, face the thought of a trip to a ghastly folk club to see him, then at least you could go out and buy a couple of his albums. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)
Watch Michael Marra doing Posted Sober live in 2006:

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