Reviews 2005

Woodman Folk Club - Reviews

Malcolm Jeffrey 15 July 2005
A late tea, Bob arrives, a quick call to Mr Taxi Man and we're off to The Woodman to see Quicksilver, a duo comprised of Artisan's Hilary Spencer and Grant Baynham, Birmingham's finest. In case you're wondering, they're called 'Quicksilver' because quicksilver is another name for mercury, the chemical symbol for mercury is 'Hg', and the 'H' and 'g' stand for Hilary and Grant : apposite or what ? The Woodman is pretty full already, I get the beers in, and Medium Paul entertains me with his Anarchist and Zen Buddhist jokes while Ian Monro tunes up on stage. It's a warm summer night and with the added heat of a roomful of Quicksilver fans, it's already pretty warm on stage, and the fire door at the back of the stage has been opened for ventilation. Ian takes the graveyard spot himself and is very warmly received, especially for a fine rendition of a Jez Lowe song : he's followed by Bryn Phillips who whips the audience into participation frenzy with "The Throckmorton Coat". Barry Priest follows, with his fine voice lending great sensitivity to a couple of more sombre numbers, while it's left to yours truly to find the level with the arguably more risible "The Lodger" and "Our Hamlet".

Then Quicksilver are called to the stage, to a keen and anticipatory round of applause. Grant sits stage left, plugged into a small practice amp, while Hilary stands to his right in a flowing gown : both of them are wearing head mikes, call-centre style, which will prove a great enhancement over the evening, producing a great vocal sound while allowing both singers freedom to wander the stage. Grant chooses one of the guitars he's brought, checks the tuning, and despite the heat, it's still in - so the two of them glance and nod at each other and they're off. The opening number starts "We're Baynham & Spencer..." and is a very tongue-in-cheek introduction to themselves : Mr Baynham is out of the blocks with some jazzy, seemingly effortless playing, and we're treated to some of the nicely counterpointed harmony vocalising Quicksilver are famed for. We also get an early hint of an almost sibling-like relationship between the two : right at the start, Grant fluffs the opening words, Hilary teases "What're you doing ?" and Grant grins sheepishly in reply !

Following our applause, Grant explains the choice of the name Quicksilver, the 'Hg' part of which he reveals was taught him by one Roger Conibear, one-time physics teacher at King Edward's Grammar School. I'm delighted to learn that he and I are fellow Grammar Grubs and can't resist a little heckle about sadistic games masters past. Burt Miles, anyone ?

Meanwhile, Quicksilver are already feeling the heat onstage : Grant reaches for a beige towel conveniently placed atop his guitar stand, only to dislodge the guitar he's only just hung there and it falls to the stage with a clunk. "It wasn't me !" claims Hilary, while Mr Baynham checks the stricken instrument. It proves OK though, so Grant offers the pesky towel to Ms Spencer. "D'ye want a towel down, lass ?" he says : Hilary eyes it in distaste, remarking "this was white when we started out...". "...3 years ago", comments a dry voice from the Naughty Corner... Next up is Quicksilver's anthem to the glories of Folk Festival mornings, "Sing In The Day", whose infectious chorus brings enthusiastic harmonies from the Woodman punters : this is followed by a Tolkienesque "The Halls Of Maroniel", an almost Childe-ballad with an intricate minor middle section which Grant almost loses himself in. My notes read simply "top playing" - Grant's playing is just beautiful, and the crowd are quick to show their appreciation.

"Distraction" is next, originally a rare instrumental by Django Reinhardt and Ivan de Bie ("Don't get me started on Django Reinhardt" says Grant respectfully) and we're treated to an all too brief sample of Hot Club magic, with a jaunty lyric sung charmingly by Hilary and tastefully harmonised by Grant. Watching the intricacies of Grant's playing, I'm reminded for the nth time how much skill is always needed to play Django's material, while he himself managed it playing left-handed with only two-and-a-bit functional fingers...

Following a substantial round of our appreciation, we get a colourful introduction to the next number, "Seal Song", which centres on a sea bay in the wilds of Scotland where Grant would play his guitar and seals there were plentiful enough to pop up their heads and listen. "It was the best audience he'd had in months", Hilary teases mischievously... ''Seal Song" is very sweetly delivered, a slightly different, evolved arrangement, and somehow more melancholy, than the 'Grant Baynham's Shed' version. Talking to Grant after the gig, I'm reminded of the lyric and notes booklet which came with his 'Shed' tape, where Grant expressed a hope that a 'proper' singer would someday perform ''Seal Song". Looks like he got his wish. :)

Back to the lighter side of the set now with Flanders and Swann's "Misalliance", tale of those tragic, incompatibly twining plants. Grant is using the open-tuned guitar which fell over earlier, and he tightens the tuning before turning his amp back up : the amp duly spits out a crackle. Almost synaptically, Hilary declaims "Who did that ? Wasn't me !" and Grant grins in reply : the two of them clearly share a mutual fondness and a healthy lack of pomposity. "Misalliance" is, once again, sung with sensitivity and a prominent sense of humour, and when the two doomed honeysuckle uproot themselves at the end, the Woodman crowd can't resist a genuine, sympathetic "aaah..." and our applause is just as genuine.

As an introduction to the next song, Grant tells us of Lou & Peter Berryman, two unusual comic songwriters whom Quicksilver met when in the US/Canada, Grant simply describing them as 'bonkers', but also mentions them in the same breath as Thackray, Lehrer, and Flanders and Swann, which is high praise indeed. In Hilary's opinion, Peter looks like "a teddy bear in a cowboy hat", to which Grant adds that it's more like "a man who's swallowed a real bear and left its arse hanging out" ! After mental portraits such as these, is it any surprise that the subsequent song, "Double Yodel", is an ode to two frontier types joined in a mutual love of Alpine noises ? Splendid.

A third guitar, a battered little black number, is now brandished by Mr Baynham. "This," he declares solemnly, "is a 1936 Gibson Kalamazoo. And it's a bag of shite !''. When repaired by 
Russ Wooton, however, it proved capable of a nice western swing sound... until Grant fitted a neodymium pickup to it ! "When I heard this, I laughed for 3 days !" Mr B says, turning the amp up to eleven and blasting out a riff worthy of Angus Young with the air of a little boy with a new chemistry set. Glancing meaningfully to his left, he adds "At last, I can be louder than the biggest gob in English folk music !" The resultant 'dirty blues' song sends organiser Ian scurrying swiftly off to shut the fire door from the outside in deference to the neighbours, while Hilary sings forth like some Northern Janis Joplin and Grant's right leg jerks unconsciously back and forth during a remarkably hi-octane solo. Rock on, Quicksilver ! The song proves a crowd-pleaser and also the well-received end of their first set.

Interval beer is secured, and there's time for quick chats and for passing quotes and heckles to Pete - there have been two belters in the first half alone ! - and then it's the raffle, surprisingly not won by Bob tonight. Then, presumably in a fit of desperation, Ian calls me up to do a quick middle spot. As Grant hasn't included any Jake songs in the set yet, but has already namechecked Tom Lehrer, I plump for "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park" and a rare and unfeasibly accurate outing for "The Elements". Could have gone a lot worse...

Then it's back to the talent with the return of Quicksilver to the stage for what Mr Baynham tells us will be a "ruder" second half : "There's a 'bastard' and a 'bugger' in this one !" Hilary adds with relish. The song is called "Middleton Hiring Fair", kicking off with an unbelievably twiddly intro and proves a truly intricate and splendid affair, in which I also noted a 'tosspot' and a 'slime' in the lyrics too ! Barely has the applause died out before Grant catches Hilary's eye and says "Shall I get the little chap out ?" and everyone hears it, courtesy of his ever-present head-mike, and giggles. But it's the 1936 Gibson Kalamazoo who's the little chap concerned, and it's used with fluid and tasteful effect on the next number, "No-one Writes A Blues Song Anymore" : Hilary is in her element on this one, conducting herself like Joe Cocker, her almost sleazy blues vocals sitting nicely with Grant's frankly super playing. 

"Promise" is the next number, sung with relish by Ms Spencer, a rather cheeky little number about impending relationship naughtiness which extols the myriad uses of Angel Delight ! Following this, Grant gives us a rundown of all the keys the next song, "All The Things You Are", modulates through, and it's a daunting list : but Mr Baynham seems more than up to the task and Hilary's vocals add a nice, wistful quality to the romantic lyric. Next up is "The Kiss", Jake Thackray's juicy tale of impromptu passion and paternal butchery : Hilary and Grant share the vocals and, unusually, each respective part is in a different key, seamlessly alternated by Grant as the two singers swap verses. As if it wasn't hard enough to play to start with...

After the considerable applause for "The Kiss" has subsided, Hilary tells us an anecdote about recording the next number, "Spring", where Grant's last-minute arrangements of the song were so very last-minute that she found him still working on it while she was engaged in a midnight 'comfort break', with the recording session the following day... Clearly, however, the extra arrangement time was well spent : Mr Baynham's chord-work is nothing short of glorious and Hilary's engaging vocals are synchronised beautifully.

It's sadly drawing the end of the evening now, but not before we all get a chance to let rip with some Woodman harmonising on the chorus-friendly "England Green" : Grant seems delighted with our effect and tells us how he's glad to be back in "God's Own Acre" (the Midlands, of course). Then the night is wrapped up with a cultural, cosmopolitan touch as Quicksilver deliver a sweetly arranged "La Vie En Rose", sung in Piaf's French, as Grant says, because no translation does it justice : Hilary's passionate rendition, all pathos and sensitivity, is very much a contralto Piaf, and it's an eclectic finale to a night of the highest standard of musicianship.

But Ian's not going to let Quicksilver get away with it that easily : after all, it's only ten past eleven... so our applause brings them back on for a final number. Grant introduces it with a lengthy but entertaining story about having to perform this song at a gig in Batley, where innocent requests for directions lead via, er, creative map-drawing to a pub punch-up ! You had to be there... All too soon we arrive at the encore, "Ain't Misbehavin'", featuring a super bluesy vocal by Hilary and a very fast solo by Grant, and with the Woodman crowd applauding fit to bust, this evening of high quality is over.

The verdict ? Quicksilver are certainly one exceptional act. David Love reviewed them a year ago and as far as I can see, they've just got better : more relaxed with each other and with their audience, while that tight twin-harmony delivery gels beautifully and, individually, Hilary and Grant can be by turns witty, touching, poetical and on the mischievous side of smutty. And that's before you get me started on Mr Baynham's fluid, jazzy, elegant and skilful guitar work. If you miss them next time, more fool you...