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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
MICHAEL MARRA
Ye Olde Rose and Crowne, Walthamstow, October 30th 2005
Who in their right mind would want to go to Walthamstow on a Sunday night, particularly if they feel as rough as I do? It’s a drive from one end of London to the other, with all the second-home owners making their way back to the City after a weekend in the country, via the King’s Cross Euro-terminal bottle-neck and through Clapton’s famous ‘shooting alley’. And what is there in Walthamstow?
Well, pioneer socialist, typographer and wallpaper designer William Morris (you know, the one they named the car after) lived there, and his home is now a fine museum. The town hall is a testimony to all those design principles cherished dearly by Mussolini. And there’s a dog track, which Serge, is a track where they race dogs, and you bet lots of pounds to see which dog can chase a bunch of rags (known as a rabbit) fastest. But none of that matters, because we’re going on a pilgrimage, to Walthamstow’s worlde famous Ye Olde Rose and Crowne pub.
Not that I go into pubyes too often, and at seven o’clock on a dark autumn night this one comes as a bit of a shock.
We’re sitting in the medieval section, all reproduction shields and swords on the wall, suits of armour, faux paintings of flat fat faced monarchs and their cod pieces, and seven TV sets, plus a huge video screen, all showing football matches that none of the dozen or so solitary drinkers in the place wants to watch. On the other side of the bar is the heritage section, which boasts a pool table, and seems to house much of the kit that Scott must have taken with him on The Discovery, or that Shackleton must have loaded onto the Endurance for his ill-fated Trans-Antarctic Expedition. You know, sledges, tennis racquets for walking in the snow on, old suitcases, fishing rods (very useful in the Antarctic I’m sure).
Funny how so much of this junk seems to have found its way back to British pubs. Fortunately for us there’s also a charming young Thai guy renting space in the kitchen (as there also seems to be in so many London pubs these days) and cooking decent cheap food, so at least we manage to get some dinner. Then, after a brief visit to the alarmingly industrial-sized urinals (fit only for the disposal of vast quantities of spent ale) it’s through the side door, and up the stairs, to the The Folk Club.
I’d forgotten about folk clubs. Do you have them in France Serge? The last time I was in one must have been fourteen years ago or so in Edinburgh (strangely, to see Michael Marra), and before that, well modesty prevents me from going into detail. But let’s just say, they ain’t changed. De-rigueur, as you say, is: shabby ‘function’ room above or behind pub bar; filthy carpet; lonely ‘Happy 40th Birthday” balloon trapped for eternity on the ceiling; ripped curtains hanging from falling curtain rails; a variety of broken wedding reception chairs; a few tables; improvised stage and sound system with more safety hazards than the Titanic. Oh yes – and the people, trapped, like the balloon, in a time warp. They could have come from Cyril Tawney’s folk club in Lancaster in the 1970s, waistcoats, beards, sandals and all.
Having said that, if it weren’t for these die-hard finger-in-their-ear folkies, then a great many quality musicians would struggle to find anywhere to play. At least that’s the thought I tried to console myself with as I downed a fistful of aspirin, grimaced at the mindlessly smiling faces (about twenty of them at most) of welcome (“Gosh Nigel, he’s new, do you think he’s going to sing us a song?”), took a swig of water and aggressively sat at the back of the room, notebook and pen in hand. Oh yes, and while we were here to see MM, I should give an honourable mention to support act Adrian May, a large bearded lugubrious type in baggy corduroys, who had some nice self-penned tunes and made us all laugh with his ukulele interpretation of ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’. Michael Marra cut a different dash entirely.
Michael Marra) Small, wiry, strong eyes, fierce stare – if you met him in a bar in his native Dundee you’d probably carefully move across to the other side and quietly keep yourself to yourself. He’s a Scottish rock veteran, suffers from being too often described as a ‘national treasure’ (just how patronising is that), but is, cutting to the quick, probably one of the best living songwriters in the country. His songs are closely observed pieces, many based on an intriguing mixture of the past and the present, and mostly all firmly rooted in Scotland, and of course in particular the bonnie town of Dundee. I should probably add that I’ve always suspected that Marra is a bit of a fucked-up Roman Catholic, as religion pumps through the veins of many of his creations. Lest you’re getting worried I should assure you that for all this there is nothing parochial about his work (how could there be with song titles like ‘Frida Kahlo’s visit to the Taybridge bar’).
I remember when I worked with Scottish historians that we would always claim (mostly when trying to figure out why we didn’t work in Oxford, or Chicago or somewhere like that) that Scotland was a great laboratory for global historical studies, where you could test hypotheses and methodologies. Well so it is for Marra and song writing. Not only can he bring New Orleans to the most unlikely places (‘Dr John’s visit to Blairgowrie’), but in the turn of a phrase he can transform the most closely focussed piece into something gloriously universal (“Hamish stokes young men’s dreams into a burning flame” from Hamish, a tribute to Dundee United’s great goalie of their 80’s European campaigns). Oh yes – and did I mention that Marra has a voice like sandpaper rubbing on gravel?
Well you can’t hide in a room with a few dozen people in it, and in fact, with his guitar leaning on a chair and his keyboard propped up on an old ironing board, it’s a bit like having him play in your living room. And talk – he’s not spare of a few humorous words to explain where his songs come from (though we rarely get the whole story, so there’s a bit of a joke going on here too), or to share his views on matters topical, such as Scottish History. Michael Marra)
Some of you may not know that for many years Scottish History wasn’t taught in schools in Scotland, so as Marra explained his history came from the likes of pot-boiling author John Prebble (arrgh – not really the best starting point). But it hasn’t done him any harm, as a searing and often cynical sense of history runs through many of his songs like ‘Mincing wi’ Chairlhi’, or the gentle ‘General Grant’s visit to Dundee’, He’s also not bad at nationalism either – tackling the subject head on in a tune written for Martin Carthy, ‘If I was an Englishman’ and in his finale, and nomination for Scotland’s National Anthem, ‘Hermless’, a parody of Scottish meekness in the face of authority which caused some controversy when it was released (letters in the Scotsman as I recall) due to its references to then Liberal Democrats’ (or whatever they were called at the time) leader Robert Maclennan. Actually – let’s just cut the crap – the songs, ‘Bob Dylan’s visit to Edinburgh’, ‘The Guernsey kitchen porter’, ‘Beefheart and bones’, ‘She said, he said’, ‘Neil Gow’s apprentice’, ‘Like a rolling stone’, ‘Reynard in paradise’ and ‘The lonesome death of Francis Clarke’ are simply wonderful. Full stop.
Michael Marra) So, for all you Whiskyfun Scotophiles out there, here’s the Michael Marra challenge. Think you know about Scotland from those rubbish whisky books you’ve read? Think you understand this most complex of little countries? Well how many Michael Marra albums have you got? None? Then just bloody think again! Go out and get some, and if you can’t buy them all then join Michael in cyberspace and do that downloading thing instead. It’s well worth the price of a bottle or two of your favourite, and it’ll last a lot longer too! - Nick Morgan (concert photos by Kate)



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