Fatea - Peter Cowley (Nov 2012)
Venue: Bothy Folk Song Club
Date: 18th November
Back in May of this year, I reviewed the then-new album by Sarah McQuaid, “The Plum Tree and the Rose” for this magazine. I wrote, with uncanny prescience, “It is a truly lovely album from start to finish and one that gets better with every listen”. Six months later and I am still listening to this album on a regular basis and it’s still a lovely album and it does get better with every listen.
I was, therefore, delighted when I looked at the guest list for my local folk club, the renowned Bothy Folk Song Club in Southport, and noticed that Sarah was booked to appear in November.
I was not to be disappointed as Sarah is just as good live as she is on her recordings. Armed with nothing more than her voice, an acoustic guitar and sound engineer Martin Stansbury, Sarah proceed to captivate the large crowd with her beautiful music. She began her set with the unaccompanied Sacred Harp hymn “Wondrous Love”, which she learned from a 1956 record by Jean Ritchie and followed this with the traditional Irish song, the slightly risqué “The Next Market Day”.
These were followed by several songs from the aforementioned “Plum Tree” album, beginning with the excellent “Sun Goes On Rising”, a song about the hope that times of financial adversity will get better.
Sarah then told of how she came to write “Hardwick’s Lofty Towers” and “In Derby Cathedral” about the historical figure Bess of Hardwick who built Hardwick Hall and was buried in Derby Cathedral. The former is a superb song which demonstrates Sarah’s talent for writing songs which sound as though they come from the tradition, in much the same way that Sandy Denny did. “In Derby Cathedral” was originally intended to be a coda to “Hardwick’s Lofty Towers” but it took on a life of its own and tonight Sarah’s performance of it was simply stunning. By using live samples of her voice, Martin created a choir of Sarahs, to great effect.
As well as songs from “Plum Tree”, we also heard several numbers from Sarah’s previous album “I Won’t Go Home ‘Til Morning” which features the Southern Appalachian songs and tunes she grew up with, including “In The Pines” [complete with whoops and hollers], “Uncloudy Day” [written by Josiah Kelley Alwood in 1879] and “West Virginia Boys” [ with audience participation ]. Also from that album Sarah played the instrumentals “Shady Grove/Cluck Old Hen”, which showed what a wonderful guitar player she is [Sarah is the author of The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book, incidentally].
Just to demonstrate her virtuosity on the instrument, Sarah played John Dowland’s fiendishly difficult-to-play “Can She Excuse My Wrongs “, which was written in the sixteenth century for the lute.
Sarah is the mother of two children and she played a couple of songs that she has written for them, “Last Song” and “Lift You Up and Let You Fly “. The latter song, in particular, will strike a chord with every parent.
Towards the end of her set, Sarah played a couple covers, John Martyn’s “Solid Air “ [which was written for/about his friend Nick Drake] and, for a richly deserved encore, Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. It takes a brave singer to sing those two iconic songs but Sarah is a brave singer and she performed them magnificently.
Thus ended a superb performance by Sarah McQuaid. I wholeheartedly recommend seeing her live but if you can’t do that, have a listen to “The Plum Tree and the Rose “ – you will not be disappointed.