RALPH, ALBERT & SYDNEY
Fans' Concert Reviews 2004 - 2008
If you would like to add your thoughts on any of Ralph's performances over the years, Email them to me and I will add them to the Reviews page.
Ralph McTell, Memorial Hall, Sheffield, 26th October 2008
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A review by Karen Wood
If I had to choose one quality that sums up all Ralph McTell’s work, it would be compassion. The subjects are wide ranging from drug addicts, the homeless, mentally ill, unemployed, victims of war, society's rejects, all kinds of sad individuals, through to fulfilled and happy ones whose happiness is universal - parents and children, lovers, friends. But always our heart is touched, moved, enlarged, always we are more loving people by the end of a Ralph McTell song. The playwright Willy Russell is indeed right when he calls him "big, big hearted" - and it is fitting too as he notes, that Ralph is physically a "big, big man".
A concert is a more light-hearted affair in many ways than listening to his albums, or a dip into his - naturally - "big" book of song lyrics (he's written about four hundred, he told us at this gig), which are so finely written that most stand up as poems in their own right. And because Ralph is, as we'd expect, a friendly warm-hearted man, he often talks to his audience as friends (indeed many are - those attending concerts for over thirty years include a couple who book holidays to follow his tour itinerary, taking their children before their schooldays and another who turned down a Mediterranean holiday when it clashed with his tour dates). His talk is not "patter" but warm anecdotes - over the years I've learnt about his parents, brother, wife, children, uncles, teachers, animals, as well as direct details about his songs and guitars - famously his beloved "Miss Gibson" (reminding me of The Commitments' Joey The Lips Fagan's advice on how to blow a saxophone). And as you'd expect there's self-deprecating humour, "You can now get my old numbers on those cheap CDs you see in petrol stations - I know because I saw them" and how an interviewer once criticised him for mauling "that great Roger Whitaker song Streets of London" - which we regulars have always known, but BBC’s known recently, was really about the streets of Paris.
A delight too is his superlative guitar playing, a gift as surprisingly well developed as his songwriting. But even the predominantly instrumentals in all their fast technical dexterity are shot through with compassion, they are sad stories of the downtrodden and dispossessed. His heroes were Woody Guthrie with his tales of the exploited dustbowlers, and to whom he dedicates his lyrics book "Time’s Poems", or black guitar pickers whose ragtime and blues pieces he played a couple of including Blind Willie McTell - "a relative of a while back", he joked.
So get to a McTell concert for your emotional health's sake! On my night - and he plans this tour to dip into "more than his usual hundred" songs he tends to play - there were narrative songs dense as short stories and chock-a-block with atmosphere, about a mentally disabled child whose reality was partly more sane and beautiful than ours, a more than normally melancholic circus clown, lovers whose relationship had been truly deep even when they were young, a lad about to go to the first world war, an "eco warrior" long before the term had been coined, a perceptive insight about the young Dylan Thomas, and a song inspired by a remark by Kenneth Williams - oh, as well as of course the unhappy characters who still roam the streets of London. If you are feeling sorry for yourself before a gig you won't be afterwards, and if you were cheerful you'll be even more so. But also grateful. Mellow. Thank you, Ralph. "Life's rich tapestry" as the saying goes, is made even more rich by you. If a song like "Jesus Wept" with Christ doubting his divinity, or "Mrs Adlam's Angels" with a now disbelieving adult, didn't show me your agnosticism, I'd say "God bless you". And to quote from one of your tender songs "I'll say it anyway", yes, "God bless you, Ralph". Hugely.
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McTell at Pirton Village Hall
Saturday 16 September 2006
Well, Pirton Village Hall wasn’t the easiest venue to find but well worth it. Down long country roads to a small village in the middle of Bedfordshire seemed like an appropriate journey to be making to see Ralph singing the Country Blues. The gig was sold out and 150 people were expected.
An early arrival reaped the reward of a front row seat and a chance to catch up with some friends.
Ralph strolled onto the stage at 8pm, looking very smart in pin-stripe suit and brown leather boots, and started the set with Woody Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty followed by a thunderous interpretation of Vigilante Man with the Zemaitis.
He worked his way through most of the new album, Gates of Eden, with the Gibson 6-string, Zemaitis 12-string and the National. Extra to the album were Dry Bone Shuffle played at a suitably impressive break-neck pace and Hesitation Blues. Missing from the set was Dylan’s One Too Many Mornings, which was a shame. The epic title track half way through the evening pulled all the threads together.
The introductions to the songs and the stories were all there, eloquently told (being Woody’s pen-pal and Reverend Gary Davis letting him play his guitar in 1972 in London) and appreciated by most of the audience. There were several references to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Woody’s interpretations of hardship and injustice and the ultimate humanity of the working man.
Ralph says on his CD sleeve notes that “the music……is the beginning of my own journey and these songs are almost sacred to me.” This passion was obvious and was conveyed with utter conviction and musical dexterity. Ralph is certainly a very accomplished interpreter of these songs and their ethos making them live on.
I didn’t think he was as relaxed as he has been of late, however, and I felt a certain remoteness present. In between the occasional lighter moment, for example in Georgia Bound - “possum on the stove, umm, possum” when Ralph couldn’t stop himself laughing, he appeared to be in very serious mood, reflecting the subjects of some of the songs, in particular the chilling Ludlow Massacre. However to hear Ralph performing these inspirational songs at this stage in his career, 40 or so years on from first hearing them himself, was pure magic and very satisfying.
When Ralph reappeared for an encore he immediately said “any requests?” Martin Kaszak and I wanted Weeping Willow, which we got. There was a shout for Streets of London which was very inappropriate and which Ralph suitably ignored. He ended with Song For Woody.
I came away from the evening with mixed feelings. My friend who accompanied me had never seen Ralph before and summed it up when she said that it had made her feel very “mellow”, but to paraphrase Peppers and Tomatoes I feel “reflective but uncertain”. Where are we in Ralph’s own journey? Are we at full-circle or is this a middle 8 to a new section? I hope the latter.
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from The Anvil, Basingstoke
Wednesday 12 April 2006
“Grabbed my guitar and my coat and walked into the morning”
After a few hushed moments after the lights went down, and only about a minute late, Ralph walked on stage, in his Walk Into The Morning tour gear. A grey suit. He did look smart – gone were the usual jeans and other casual attire. But as he took his seat he dropped the guitar pick-up and said, “another unceremonious entrance!” Once again I was glad to see that the Gibson would be the instrument of the evening. A 1958 J45, now one of six that Ralph has recently bought and he quoted Tom Paxton, “If a man knows how many guitars he has he hasn’t got enough.”
He began straight away with Nanna’s Song. This is a timeless piece. 40 years old and it still could have been written yesterday, it sounded so fresh. Then a gentle A Feather Fell about Derroll Adams followed by Around The Wild Cape Horn. Now this song just gets better and better. Ralph reminded us that for his 60th birthday concert at the RFH he had only just finished it and “if you look closely on the DVD you can see I’m looking down reading the words”. The pace and colours of this song were accented more than in previous performances so that you could almost have been on The Peking reliving it.
The next three songs apparently comprised “The Love Section” – Now This Has Started, Conundrum of Time and First Song. Conundrum rolled along smoothly with these two lines just summing up the whole evening:
you be dancing, shouldn't I make rhymes
There's music all around us in this conundrum of time”
conundrum of time for us being the performances of Ralph’s very early songs
and his latest in the same evening. First
Song was just magical.
Two songs about poppies followed – Red and Gold and then Lost Boys. Ralph explained how he had come to write Red and Gold, having wandered into the church at Cropredy and seen all the memorabilia and then asked Dave Pegg what it was all about. “Oh, there was a civil war fought here”. “A civil war? You’re Fairport, you should write a song about it.” “I don’t write songs, you do it.” “So I did.” Two very different songs. Two very powerful ‘stories’.
In The Jailhouse Now followed with no introduction and Ralph amazed us with his fingerpicking dexterity. Thoughts of the autumn tour of Rags and Blues only came into my mind and I smiled. I can’t wait.
After Still In Dreams came Anji, “notice the classical position I’ve got myself into, I don’t know if it will make me play it any better…” I love this tune, even if Ralph’s version is not strictly Davey Graham, embellished as it was with several other melodies and “hit the road jack”.
The Girl From The Hiring Fair (now a classic concert piece) preceded Streets of London, which Ralph said someone had actually requested! Why does this one get a round of applause? Historical or hysterical…?
The set closed with Walk Into The Morning, originally written as Ralph’s new opening song but, as he told me afterwards, would now be his closing song!
He returned to the stage and picked up the Yamaha for a very powerful and moving rendition of Bentley and Craig for the encore. It was chilling, all the more so, I felt, by the change of instrument. Its tone was dramatically different to the Gibson we had heard all evening and was dark and heavy but right for this song at this time. It made you go cold.
There had been one or two technical gremlins at the start of the set which Donard sorted out quickly and efficiently, after which Ralph settled down and seemed to enjoy himself. The anecdotes between numbers may have been the same but they still make me laugh and whilst I waited in the queue to talk to him afterwards I smiled. What a thoroughly nice man Ralph is.
I was greeted warmly by him and after a couple of signings and photos I left the very long queue and came home happy.
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Ralph at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead.
16 November 2005
Marianne with Ralph and Allan Poyner
I wondered how the evening was going to progress when the announcer said "please welcome to the stage, Mr. Ralph McTell".................. (long pause with nothing happening)..............................
Eventually Ralph came out and before playing his first song said "That took me by surprise, I wasn't quite ready to come on out!" *
Anyway this was the set list:
Walk Into Morning
I'm In The Jailhouse Now
Still In Dreams
Around The Wild Cape Horn
You Well-Meaning (on piano)
Sylvia (on piano)
Pity The Boy (the only number played on the Yamaha)
Streets of London
Peppers and Tomatoes
He was on form both musically and with his anecdotes. I especially like the one about him finding a copy of YWMBMH at a car boot sale and trying to get one of his kids to go up and buy it for him. "Aww Dad! You go and get it!" was their response. So he did and when he asked how much the man said "40p". Ralph gave him £1, got 60p change which he handed back and said "it's worth £1". The man said, "Blimey! Is it?"
The theme for the evening was very much beginnings. And even at the end of the evening he went back to the beginnings by playing Terminus. One poignant comment after Nanna's Song was that "there's certainly more of my career behind me than there is to come". I thought the set was a really good mix of old and new and I really do hope he keeps using the Gibson. The sound was so different to the Yamaha - warmer, fuller, richer. It did lack the edge that the Yamaha has for numbers like Peppers or Lost Boys though....... (I did ask after the grand old lady and apparently she is frail but still keeping very well...!)
The synthesised string section effects on Sylvia worked. It was almost eerie. To hear You Well-Meaning live was magical. The song that has been in my head since, though, is FIN. That worked really well live and I hope I hear it again in future sets. You were definitely right there in a 50s French film, you could almost hear an accordion playing…
As said in another thread somewhere sometime ago, when Ralph makes mistakes we seem to love him all the more. He goofed the end of Peppers well by starting to sing completely the wrong verse. The ever-true professional though he finished the verse and then sang the right one. Nice one!
Anji was intricately and superbly played and the picking on Jailhouse was electrifying.
Al and I met up again after the show and waited for our "2 minutes". In the event it turned out to be nearly 10 minutes. So nice that one of the pics taken was of Al and I together with Ralph. My few minutes were exceptionally special this time round. Can't wait for the next opportunity to see him again.
And blow me, found another unexpected Ralphite at work this morning. I'll be dragging her along as well to the next gig.
your review reminded me that from where I was sat what confused me about the
start was that when the announcer asked us all to welcome Ralph, the door to the
right of the stage opened and a bloke walked in to take his seat just as Ralph
emerged from behind the right side of the stage. Quite a few people by me
giggled cos I think a few of us had all simultaneously thought what an odd thing
it was for Ralph to have to open a door to get on stage when in fact it wasn't
actually him we were watching but somebody else entirely just arriving late.
Ralph McTell: The Lowry in Salford
Saturday 5th November 2005
Ralph walked on stage to the usual great welcome, thanked the sell-out audience for turning out on Guy Fawkes night and started with his new song 'On This Road' telling us that as it had been pointed out to him that most of his songs were good set or concert finishing songs he thought it was time he wrote a starter. I got the immediate impression that the 'up close' tour had done Ralph a lot of good. He seemed to relax a lot quicker than in the past. The next song was a beautifully played 'Nanna's Song', followed by 'England 1914'. Ralph linked this with the next song, 'Maginot Waltz', with references to his grandfather and 'uncle' Charlie. 'Still in Dreams' the new 'Cape Horn' and 'I'm Not Really Blue' followed, then it was over to the piano for a slightly nervous 'You Well Meaning Brought Me Here' and 'Sylvia'. Back to the great new Gibson with Ralph inviting requests. He did 'Nettle Wine' faultlessly, "I know this sounds easy, but it's really difficult..." He then played my request,'FIN'. Thanks, Ralph.
A story of Uncle Reg's allotment was followed by 'Peppers and Tomatoes' and 'Streets of London'. An intro to 'Streets' I hadn't heard before involving a photo of Ralph in the Hemel Hempstead evening paper with the caption, "Have you seen the old man". A nice version of Davy Graham's 'Anji'led to 'Easter Lilies'. Then it was time for 'Lost Boys' and Ralph exited the stage to return inevitably a few moments later as a result of enthusiastic applause to return to the piano and leave us with a beautiful rendition of 'Naomi'.
A great evening made special by Ralph's warmth and usual accomplished performance. The new guitar made a huge difference to the sound; I for one am glad he's found an old Gibson to his liking. I look forward to seeing Ralph further down the road.
McTell Barnfield Theatre Exeter 29th September 2005
“If you want to feel alive then you have to flirt with death”
This concert was one of a series Ralph was performing in his “Up Close” tour. The idea being to have more of an informal presentation with some audience participation. As a result Ralph constructed a proportion of his set from audience requests. It worked really well although sadly none of us had any questions to ask Ralph even though he was keen to provide answers! It was a delight to see Ralph back in partnership with a recently acquired 1959 Gibson J45, the sound of which does his playing the justice it deserves.
The evening kicked off with a new song “Into the Morning”. This is a beautiful autobiographical composition which puts into context the man and his musical journey.
Ralph brought along his banjo and sang “You Make Me Feel Good” and “Tammy the Tortoise.” The lightness and humour of the latter song was really well received by audience. We were also entertained by a Jesse Fuller- like short set with Ralph on his Zematis 12 string accompanied also by harmonica, kazoo, and hi hat as he played “Working on the Railroad” and his wonderful composition “Somewhere Down the Road” which I hope he will record soon
Ralph concluded a varied and really enjoyable set with his wonderful “Wild Cape Horn.” Anyone who wants to gain further insight into the McTell craft of song writing would be well advised to try to see a copy of the original film which is now available on DVD. (Mystic Seaport Film&Video Archives. Mystic, CT 06355)
A really good evening concluded with Ralph in the bar of the theatre chatting with his fans and looking relaxed and happy.
Music performed: -
Into the Morning, Heron Song, In the Jailhouse Now, First and Last Man, You Make Me Feel Good, Tammy the Tortoise, Dry Bone Rag Now This Has Started, I’m Not Really Blue, Streets Of London, Lost Boys, A Feather Fell, Working On The Railroad, Somewhere Down The Road., Anji, Around The Wild Cape Horn.
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on the Pier Festival, Pavilion Theatre, Cromer
Sunday 8th May 2005
“I’m sure to return, after me do not yearn
And we will waltz together all our lives through.”
Driving through verdant green Norfolk countryside listening to Vaughan Williams’ Thomas Tallis on the radio and on the way to see Ralph McTell, it couldn’t have been more perfect. Cromer was very cold and very windy. There was lots of fishing going on from the pier and even half a dozen surfers in the murky water. Me? – I headed for the bar, passing Ashley Hutchings on the way as he headed off the pier (“…well it’s folk rock really” was all I heard him say to the man asking him questions!).
I met Rory McGrath and his partner Nicola and whilst they went in to see Red Oktober I stayed and listened to a bit of Hot Rats. They were very good, (Celtic Rock) especially the fiddle player, Ian Cutler (Feast of Fiddles) but the bassist was way too loud. After an hour I went into the theatre and saw the last 20 minutes of the Miranda Sykes Band, which included the multi-talented Maart Allcock.
After a brief interval to re-set the stage, Ralph came on at 9:40pm.
The set was, in no special order (as I had forgotten pen and paper!): Maginôt Waltz, Summer Girls, Arthur Blake, From Clare To Here, Girl From The North Country, That’ll Do Babe, Grande Affaire, Mr Connaughton, Lost Boys, Round the Wild Cape Horn, Streets of London, Easter Lilies, Still In Dreams, Peppers and Tomatoes. Encore: Glory of Love.
As it was VE day he said that, in choosing his set, he wanted to capture the spirit of the day with the spirit of being in a seaside town. Being literally at the end of a pier over the water was a first for him. He combined his two themes brilliantly with his opening “Maginôt Waltz” (“All off to Cromer in a charabanc…"). Which he followed with another song with a seaside feel, “Summer Girls”. Then came the first of the two “really difficult” pieces, “Arthur Blake” –"come on Ralph, get on with it!" After “That’ll Do Babe”, he said, over the riotous applause, that he thought it best to keep it short and get it over with! I’m not sure the audience would agree as we love to see the dexterity displayed as the tune gets faster and faster.
“I'm going to join the Army when I'm older” from “Mr Connaughton” was poignant and through “Grande Affaire”, “Still In Dreams” and “Easter Lilies” you could have heard a pin drop. The last word of “Easter Lilies” – “hope” – almost spoken, instilled the promise of a future, quenching the ethos of war.
In contrast, “Round The Wild Cape Horn” gets more rousing each time I hear it and, as with “Easter Lilies”, the messages of courage and determination came over very strongly.
Ralph was very confident and relaxed and the chat between songs was funny and informative as usual. He told us that he had recently bought yet two more guitars – “I can’t seem to help myself". The Radio Shropshire/Roger Whittaker tale preceded “Streets of London” (“didn’t you used to have a beard? You’re not Roger Whittaker at all are you?”) and in contrast to the previous evening at East Grinstead, where I gather, no one sang, it was lovely to hear the theatre in song. I don’t know how Ralph feels about it, but it always makes me tingle to hear everyone singing with him.
In keeping with the ‘war’ theme “Lost Boys” was particularly powerful and moving as was “Peppers and Tomatoes” which finished the set. Ralph came back on stage for one encore – “Glory of Love” - which ended the evening, and indeed the festival, on a very warm and positive note.
After the rest of the audience had left and a brief wait, I was very pleased to be greeted warmly by Ralph and to have my photo taken with him and Rory.
At nearly midnight as we walked off the pier back to our cars we reflected on a superb evening. Ralph just gets better…
All parts of this review © Marianne James 2005
Ralph McTell Review - Buxton 7th April 2005
While I can’t precisely remember my first encounter with the music of
It was on this McTell road that I first caught the serious guitar bug where I was no longer content to strum chords. Ralph’s music introduced me to the world of finger style guitar and I was very proud that I could pick my way through the chords to ‘Streets Of London’. In order to reach this heady height, I borrowed 20p from John Ellison and took an afternoon off school to go into
From the start, I loved the melodies, the solo acoustic guitar accompaniment and the introduction to what seemed like a more serious level of songwriting, where social issues would be tackled as a matter of course. There was absolutely nothing wrong with something as magnificent as ‘Hey Jude’ but it seemed like an enormous leap to get to the anthropological stuff being explored on ‘First and Last Man’. It felt as though I’d moved up an intellectual notch and had entered a much more attractive, worthy world. Derek tried to use the fact that ‘The Ferryman’ had been based on the novel ‘Siddharta’ as an attempt to try to get me to read the Hermann Hesse book. I also loved the fact that with only an acoustic guitar, his voice and songs, Ralph could provide food for thought and entertain us just as well as, if not better than Pink Floyd and their sixteen trucks worth of gear.
As you might have gathered, I took this bait hook, line and sinker and entered into what was, in those days, a pretty cool world. I was so taken by this McTell thing that I was prepared to put all embarrassment to one side and rip from a central
This was also the start of collecting recordings made from the radio and TV. This I did most notably on the November night before I re-sat my ‘O’ level Metalwork theory examination. I was determined to tape this Radio One ‘In Concert’ performance, even though it went on until 11.30 - way past my bedtime. I knew that my Mum and Dad would have been less than happy but I got away with it. When I found out that I’d passed my Metalwork, I did wonder whether or not there was a lesson to be learned! It became the first of my many illegally recorded
After vinyl records and John Peel, Derek and I moved onto gigs. It’s quite possible that I’ve seen
I leave our house at 6.15, drive over the Cat and Fiddle road to arrive in Buxton by 6.45 and take my seat in the Opera House by 7.05. Ralph calmly and slowly ambles on stage with his customary Yamaha L11E guitar at 7.30 and goes straight into a song I don’t recognise. He has a sound problem where he can’t hear his monitor, but this seems to be solved in no time at all without any harm being done to the performance we receive. By way of an introduction to ‘Barges’, the second song of the evening, he talks about the summer holidays he and his brother used to have staying with his Aunt and Uncle in the far North of England in a town called Banbury(!). After he’s told us how much he loves his life on the road he plays ‘Now This Has Started’.
Early in the gig, he explains that against his better judgement, he’s recently been persuaded to publish a book of his song lyrics called, “Time’s Poems: The Song Lyrics of
Next he’s telling us that while he doesn’t really understand Dylan Thomas’ poetry, he feels that after a friend had lent him Dylan’s biography, he does understand his life. He was so taken with his story that he set a himself project to write an albums worth of related material (‘The Boy With A Note’) from which the next song, ‘Summer Girls’ came. He talks with affection on how in order to impress prospective girlfriends, Dylan would fake an American accent and name. McTell confesses that he’s done the same sort of thing and once upon a time when on tour, he used to develop a limp that he thought might look exotic to members of the opposite sex. He bashfully adds that even now, that limp sometimes returns if he’s been on the road for long enough!
In the introduction to the next song, he talks about his days on a building site and tells us that the title came from a comment a fellow builder made while they were digging a trench. What stuck Ralph was that the man had said, ‘from Clare to here’, not ‘from here to Clare’ which might have been more expected. He tells us how proud he was when recently he performed the song at a McPeake family concert in Belfast and some people said they has always thought it a traditional Irish song.
Throughout the show, I took a lot of photos with my fantastically discrete digital camera. While I’m shooting without flash, I am aware that for a second, the camera sends out a green beam of light to gauge distances and light levels. It is because of the potentially intrusive nature of this that I try to be as careful as possible. I take 6 or 7 shots every third or fourth song and while I hope that I have disturbed neither Ralph nor the members of the audience sitting around me, when I get home, I feel pleased that I have a couple of pictures I’m happy with.
Next he’s doing ‘Arthur Blake’ and telling us that for somebody to qualify as one of his guitar teachers they had to be blind, black and dead! This is followed by his own tip of the hat to his guitar heroes with ‘Fingerbuster’. Although McTell’s guitar style can seem deceptively simple and straightforward, it’s anything but that when you try to play his songs. ‘Fingerbuster’ however, is an uptempo ragtime tune that even to the uninitiated is clearly a difficult piece. It brings him a large, well deserved round of applause. For much of the evening, he tends to play his guitar with little or no sound decoration, although in some of the instrumental passages, he uses his onstage footpedals to obtain what I consider to be unnecessary reverb.
By way of an introduction to ‘Still In Dreams’ he says that his approach to songwriting isn’t to sit down and say, ‘Today I’m going to write about lost love.’ His method is more about sitting playing both orthodox and invented chord shapes (“I don’t care that I don’t know what they’re called”), and when they suggest something, to take it from there. He’s obviously fairly in tune with nature and the changing of the seasons, and tells us how, as he tours, he likes to observe the slight differences of timing of when Spring arrives in each part of the country. Having said that, he admits that the line about ‘the green mist in the trees’ in this song came from his sister in law when they were talking about Spring. He loved it so much he stole it from her.
Prior to writing his autobiography, he says he sometimes found the more extreme antics of his teenage sons hard to fathom, often asking why they wanted to behave as wildly as they did. Once he’d written his own life up in ‘Angel Laughter’ and ‘Summer Lightning’, he realised that not only had he done all of the same silly, adolescent, rite-of-passage things centred around drinking and fighting, but so had everybody else. He says that all 19 year boys all have this mad, carefree energy which makes them feel invincible. Sometimes governments utilise it by channeling it into the fighting wars – only 19 year old men would be mad enough to fight somebody else’s fight by jumping out of a trench or climbing into a spitfire. He then sings ‘The Lost Boys’.
He struck a chord with me (sorry!) when he said that in the late 1980’s, as the father of a teenage daughter, he found it hard to accept that he had become invisible to her. One day when he was recording the ‘Blue Skies, Black Heroes’ album, he was absolutely stunned when she walked into the room where he was practising a guitar piece and said, “That’s nice Dad.” He was flabbergasted for three reasons: because she had acknowledged him; she knew his name; and she complemented him on what he was doing. To mark this momentous occasion, he called the piece ‘Leah’s Favourite’.
He’s very talkative and entertaining in his between song introductions and comes over as a charismatic, wise, philosopher who has a lot of sensible, intelligent things to say about the world. He really has an excellent way of pointing out life’s truisms in a way that is natural and often humourous. He described how after he had split up from an early girlfriend, Bob Dylan got to know and wrote him a song. How he got to know he’s not sure. Give or take one or two details, ‘Girl From The North Country’ fitted his situation so perfectly, that when his friends suggested that he record it, he did, sent her a copy and they got back together again. (At this point, the audience all went, “Awwww”!!) When however, with perfect timing, he tells us that soon after that, they split up forever, he gets the biggest laugh of the night. He extends this introduction to tell us that for a while, although he and Woody Guthrie were pen pals, Woody never happened to write back!! Woody was the first person he’d heard using a guitar/harmonica combination so effectively; and in discussing harmonica holders, indicates that he thinks they’re just devices invented by dentists to generate more work. He explains the disasters he’s had with them, not least after he had made one from a coathanger. He went on to play beautiful harmonica as the perfect partner for his guitar. I was desperate for him to utilise this combination further and hear him play ‘Zimmerman Blues’ or ‘When I Was a Cowboy’ but it wasn’t to be.
Although I’ve said that for most of the evening, he was very forthcoming in his introductions, when he gets to ‘Streets Of London’, it’s with a shrug and a smile that he simply says, “What can I say about this one?” before playing it unannounced. It’s followed by ‘Summer Lightning’ which he describes as the ‘B’ side to his hit!
During ‘Streets…’, we start to hear a low buzzing noise as it becomes apparent that there’s another problem with the sound. My guess is that Ralph, as a self confessed perfectionist, is quietly very cross about this. If he is however, he manages to conceal it with good humour and professionalism as Donard jumps up on stage to change some guitar leads, which helps but not enough to completely eradicate the problem. I felt that this glitch, or ‘ghost’ as Ralph called it, brings the gig to a slightly premature end and means that we only get one encore instead of the customary two or three.
So, to finish, he plays ‘The Glory Of Love’, ‘The Girl From The Hiring Fair’, ‘Peppers and Tomatoes’ – his song about ‘ethnic cleansing’ - and because he ‘doesn’t want to go out shouting’ finishes with a song about neighbours called ‘Mr Connaughton’.
He strolls off in the same leisurely way that he came on, before returning for an encore and an early finish to what had been a great 100 minute concert. Time had flown by - it had actually seemed more like half an hour. True, there were none of my favourites like ‘Another Rain Has Fallen’, ‘First Song’, ‘Genesis 1 Verse 20’, or ‘Nettle Wine’ but it didn’t matter at all – it had been another great gig.
At the start of the show, he said that he would be coming out to meet us at the end and maybe sign some CD’s and books – just as long as they were his CD’s and books! Somewhere in the region of 50 people took him up on this offer and formed an orderly reverential queue in the foyer. Doing this kind of healthy business at the end of every gig must be hard, but I bet it seriously boosts his income. I wasn’t untypical in buying £44 worth of stuff in the form of two CD’s - ‘Slide Away the Screen’ and ‘Water of Dreams’ - and ‘Summer Lightning’ - the second volume of his autobiography. I had intended to ask him to sign them all but thought better of it. I felt that I’d be pushing my luck to ask for that and photographs. I came away happy with the photos and having just the book signed.
It must take an enormous effort to find the energy for these ‘meet and greets’ but he keeps on doing it. Early in the gig he described his journey to Buxton as ‘glorious’, where they’d experienced every type of weather from rain, sleet and snow through to fog and sunshine. He may have been playing down the exhausting nature of what he was doing because later, I overheard somebody say that he’d had an horrendous journey, only arriving in Buxton at 6.00. Perhaps it was because of this that he seemed tired. Even so, he still managed to have the same time, patience and a very comfortable, easy manner with all who wanted to shake his hand. He seemed to recognise me when at 9.41pm I asked if he’d sign the book. I apologetically explained that although I’d had my photo taken with him before, I still didn’t feel that I’d got the definitive ‘me and Ralph’ picture. He was more than happy to oblige for both of the pictures I was cheeky enough to request, laughing, saying that I needed “one for luck”.
I think I have at last got the definitive ‘me and Ralph’ shot. I love the fact that I have a pictorial record of me with one of my longtime heroes – a man who played at the Isle of Wight Festival, and worked with the likes of Rick Wakeman and Richard Thomson. We go back a long way! Pathetic I know but one day I just might grow up! I leave him with a look in the eye, a firm shake of the hand and a ‘thankyou’. At the end of yet another great gig, I don’t care that he hasn’t played each and everyone of my favourites. What he did was stunning. I happily make my way to the car and back home to work with Adobe photoshop on the night’s precious photos.
If you're travellin' in the north country fair...
Ralph at the Ingleton Folk Weekend, Yorkshire Dales, UK
Saturday 2 October 2004
What a fabulous weekend! Two great concerts - Show of Hands on Friday, Ralph on Saturday. There were singarounds, playalongs and listenathons in the pubs and clubs, morris dancing and jugglers in the square. We met lots of folk, including some old friends and some new, especially Paul Jenkins who had come over from Cincinnati (to see Ralph for the first time), and Scottish John who had come down from Hamilton. The weather was kinder than had been forecast, which means we got wet but not completely blown away. (Except by Ralph, of course.) The famous waterfalls were in spate. The B&B accommodation was splendid. The pubs had Thwaites, Timothy Taylor's and Black Sheep beers. Next year's Weekend is in the diary already.
Ralph's set - all played on the Yamaha 6-string - in thematic order from memory:
Three flat-picked classics
Michael in the garden
Peppers and tomatoes With a new (to me) explanation of its origins
Two by His Bobness
Girl from the north country
One too many mornings
Three songs of London
Earl's Court breakdown Followed by explanations of the Cockney/Yiddish expressions
Slip shod tap room dance
Streets of London After verse 3 Ralph said 'D'yer wanna sing?' Did we??!!!
Three tributes to personal heroes
That'll do Babe Note perfect
A feather fell
Zimmerman blues Without harmonica
All interspersed by
The girl from the hiring fair
Maddy dances / London apprentice
Still in dreams Before which Ralph had welcomed Paul
In the dreamtime
Now this has started
Glory of love
After the show, whilst Ralph was talking to Paul, Nanna came over to say hello. Such a gracious lady. And so ended a perfect day….
“…..the difference between the church and stage is whether we are enlightened or amazed”
Ralph McTell Acorn Theatre. Penzance 7/8/2004.
Mike Cohen. Bristol
A balmy Saturday summer evening found Ralph back in his beloved Cornwall for this gig and I was delighted myself to hear him do a concert in these parts for the first time. I was really lucky to have winged this one. Our house is in a mess with builders and my wife had taken herself and the children away for a week so what else could be more perfect than to spend a lovely day in Cornwall and catch a Ralph McTell concert?
Most of you will know that Ralph’s early career took off in Cornwall in the mid sixties and one of those people responsible for this, Wizz Jones was in the audience tonight. I suspect this beautiful converted church was also packed with people who heard Ralph for the first time all those years ago and subsequently followed his music and career thereafter. This concert came a day after the Sidmouth festival and one week after Cambridge. Unlike those venues the acoustics in this hall were pretty much perfect and from the First Song it was clear Donard had got the sound just about right. Cornwall is Ralph’s second home and from the start he was relaxed and into the groove. His singing and playing was absolutely superb and it was obvious he enjoyed playing this venue immensely. We were treated to stories about his experiences of playing in Cornwall all those years ago, yo yos and the illegal one and thru penny version from British Home Stores which cost him the Croydon championships. We also heard about the McTell Theory on immunity-that is how sharing gobstoppers with your mates in Saturday picture shows boosts your own immune system- and he probably is right!
I have seen and heard Ralph countless times but I think it is fair to say that tonight was as close to perfection as it gets. There was some wonderful playing especially on That’ll Do Babe (“the guitar feels like a greased eel!”- it was a hot night) and Gary Davis’s Candyman which somehow still gets better and better. His harmonica on Dylan’s Girl from the North Country was beautifully understated and, though he will modestly deny it, this man can really play the harp. I have noticed how Ralph is using a flat pick more these days and this was used really effectively in Lost Boys-you could feel the boys hearts beating through the song.
I was speaking to some friends in the bar afterwards. We all agreed that being at a Ralph McTell concert was a spiritual experience that was tremendously uplifting. It was difficult to say whether it was enlightenment or amazement but we settled on both.
Thank you again Ralph for a superb evening and see you in the Autumn at the Royal Festival Hall. Keep on Trucking Man!!
Songs Played: -First Song, Hiring Fair, Michael in the Garden, Candyman, Maginot Waltz, Lost Boys, Summer Girls, Jesus Wept, That’ll do Babe, Weather the Storm, Girl form the North Country, Slip Shot Tap Room Dance, Easter Liles, Let Me Fly or Let Me Fall, Streets of London, A Feather Fell, Zimmerman Blues, One Too Many Mornings.
Ralph at The Lowry, Salford Quays,
Tuesday 1 June 2004.
John Beresford, Manchester, UK.
going out tonight, looking for a bit of fun…”
We were a party of nine on the second row – three generations of my family and four friends for whom this was their first McOuting. Leighton and his wife Sue were right in front of us, and Chris a little to the left with his unobtrusive camera. Ralph stood centre-stage for nearly two hours with his Yamaha guitar and harmonica brace. No piano, no Tom Mates 12-string, no sign of the genuine National… maybe Ralph is saving them for his birthday concert in November. But with a set like this, I’m not complaining:
First Song. The opening chord sequence and the last two words still send a shiver down my spine after 32 years.
The Girl from the Hiring Fair. Nobody does a mid-eight reverie like Ralph.
Maddy Dances. Ralph says she still does.
A Feather Fell. This is destined to be a classic.
Lost Boys. Very poignant in the light of current events in Iraq (my opinion, not (necessarily) Ralph's).
Candy Man. Probably one of the first pieces Ralph played in public.
Mr Connaughton. Already a classic.
Now This Has Started. Gets better with each hearing.
Let Me Fly or Let Me Fall. Gently strummed with a plectrum. I have never seen Ralph do that before.
Slow Burning Companion. With harmonica.
Earl's Court Breakdown. Reminds me of Al Stewart's 'Bedsitter Images'.
Slip Shod Tap Room Dance. Plenty of finger-picking.
Streets of London. The loose hand version.
That'll Do Babe. I hear it was perfect in Wales last week. We got 'oops' and grimace and roared our appreciation!
Easter Lilies. A poem in a song.
Weather the Storm. I wish Ralph would invite the audience to join in on the chorussy bits - I was mouthing this all the way through.
Peppers and Tomatoes. As Jenny says below, off the excellence scale. Quite magnificent. This is way out in front as my No 1 McSong.
Still in Dreams. As the man says, something to calm down to. Lovely guitar work.
Glory of Love. Encore!
Ralph duly re-appeared in the foyer to chat to the fans. Perhaps because for many it had been a year or more since their last meeting, Ralph seemed in no hurry to get to the end of the queue, and he willingly obliged everyone who wanted autographs on their CDs and books and/or their photograph taken with our hero. All too soon I’ve had my two minutes and it’s time to go…
first train that comes is the train I must ride.”
Where will the next stop be? One of the summer festivals, perhaps. Hopefully Birkenhead. Then the Royal Festival Hall. See y’all on the Eye now…
Set List: Blackwood 28/05/04
Ralph played 'Earlscourt Breakdown'......the first piece I ever learned, but in 33 years had never heard until Leics. I caught up with the tune a couple of years ago as it is from a Chet Atkins instrumental, 'Trambone' but the words are a scream....I just wanted more (and more verses) There were some small changes at Blackwood but a world of difference in the venue to that of St.Georges
Girl From The Hiring Fair
A Feather Fell
Still in dreams
Slow Burning Companion
Earls Court Breakdown
Slip shod Tap Room
Maddy Dances ( with London Aprentice tacked on )
Let Me Fly
Nanna's Song ( played with more intensity than I've heard, really extending all the notes)
That'll Do Babe ( Audience erupts!)
Now This has Started
Set List: Bristol 27/05/04 (Not a note out of place to my ears)
A Feather Fell
Conundrum of Time
Still in Dreams
Zig Zag Line
Weather The Storm
Slow Burning companion
Earls Court Breakdown
Mrs. Adlam's Angels
Now This has Started
Peppers and Tomatoes
Let Me Down Easy
St Georges Brandon Hill Bristol
27th May 2004
"From changes that I've been through and what I'm coming to"
A full house and a warm reception greeted Ralph's return to this beautiful converted church in the centre of Bristol. Ralph was performing in the "Late Notes" series of concerts which started at 9pm. This enabled many of us to enjoy the balmy late May evening with a relaxed drink or two outside prior to the show.
Ralph looked relaxed and at ease as he opened the first set with First Song. Perhaps the words to this song sum up the success of Ralph and his work. Always evolving and on the move whilst at the same time reflective and appreciative of times past. Several audience requests formed the bulk of Ralph's two sets and he seemed quite happy with this. Good to hear Earl's Court Breakdown again and thanks Ralph for the translation-another new Pykey word there then.
Songs performed were:-
First Song, A Feather Fell, Hiring Fair, Lost Boys, Conundrum of Time, Still in Dreams, Zig Zag Line.
Weather the Storm, Easter Lilies, Slow Burning Companion, Earls' Court Breakdown, Mrs Adlam's Angels (Ralph dedicated this to Jonah), Slip Shod Taproom Dance, Streets of London, Jesus Wept, Now This Has Started and finally Let Me Down Easy.
No Glory of Love then-still you can't have everything but hey Ralph please put this on your next live one!
So on he goes and on we go hopefully to end the year together on the South Bank celebrating another milestone in Ralph's life and career. Enjoy the summer!
Ralph McTell at The Crucible - Sheffield
18th May, 2004
After his year away from heavy touring duty I was fascinated to see which songs would make Ralph's playlist this time. Unaided by Red Shoes or the Nearly National Guitar, he was given an enthusiastic welcome by a packed Crucible audience to the following:
First Song, The Hiring Fair, A Feather Fell, Lost boys, Still in Dreams, First and Last Man, If You ain¹t got the Dough (Woody Guthrie)
Then, post interval The Setting, Gypsy, In the Dreamtime, Slipshod Taproom Dance, Easter Lilies, Earls Court Breakdown (words by Alan Tunbridge, tune by Chet Atkins), Now this Has Started, That¹ll Do Babe, Summer Lightning, Streets, Peppers and Tomatoes, Encore Story /Glory of Love (Big Bill Broonzey).
The sound quality was so good that you took it for granted, which is, of course, normal when Donard is the engineer. Ralph was in great voice and many of my personal favourites were included. I was glad to get better acquainted with the new song A Feather Fell and there was some high wire work when Ralph risked asking the audience for a request and responded magnificently with First and Last Man.
The surprise of the evening was the addition of harmonica to The Setting, appearing where the pipes would be on the recorded version. It¹s always good to hear Ralph play harmonica - wish he did it more often - and though it was a shock on this particular song I think I shall come to like it very much. For Ralph this tour must be feeling like a series of first nights, but in Sheffield it was the second in a row, so that tricksy number That¹ll do Babe gave us Olly dancing impeccably, and if Peppers and Tomatoes continues to get better it will soon go off the scale of excellence. I hope to find out at the Lowry on 1st June!
Ralph McTell Set List: Leicester 17/05/04
The list from Leics 17/05/04 Ralph described this as 'an organic mix', owned up to some 'rickets', which probably went unoticed by most, although he did seem slightly unsettled or concerned by something else.He sometimes finds 'Saucers' difficult to get thro' clean....bit Like 'Irish Blessing' used to be...emotionally involved and very hard to do. Keith Littlechild
A Feather Fell
Earls Court breakdown
That'll Do Babe
Let Me Fly
Now this Has Started
Clare to Here
Peppers and tomatoes
Glory of Love
Half Moon, Putney, SW London
31st March 2004
“One for Jonah”
Earl Okin, Ralph McTell and Fairport Convention
Just being in the place is a thrill; there is a sense of the walls being insulated not with building materials but with all the music that has poured into this venue over years of daily live gigs; some of them being given by a certain Ralph McTell at what has been his local for many a long year. I would have liked to have absorbed better all the photographs of artists on the walls, but by the time I arrived it was very much find a space and shuffle round in it where you can. Unless you're a lot taller than me, distant glimpses of fascinating faces in their frames was all you were going to see. I made a note to return under quieter circumstances and then realised that Lady Luck had landed me at a relaxed Simon Nichol's elbow. Unable to resist telling him how much I had enjoyed Fairport at Buxton in February, he said how nervous Ralph was about this evening and sympathised generally with how he suffers before coming on stage. "If I had to go through that I'd get another job!" I asked him how he coped himself with nerves, and he more or less admitted that he didn't have any! I think this must be a rarity in any artist who can perform as well as Simon, but it must be true, because no musician suffering stage fright would want to be out front as he was, chatting happily to the punters.
Of course, this was an evening for John (Jonah) Jones - organised by Ralph; an evening when we could all think back to our respective memories of "Johnny" and dip into our pockets to support a tangible memorial to him, including a major donation to his favourite charity; the "National Playing Fields' Association".
It fell to Earl Okin to open the concert. It is a few years since I have seen him perform but he was sexy as ever, irresistibly cravatted and bespatted and with a witty turn of song and trumpeting lips that must have left every woman (and probably some men too) craving more. Fortunately, after he had completed a short set and then abandoned us to our lonely fate, consolation followed swiftly; Ralph took the stage, instantly radiating the warmth which draws an audience to him. If one did not know about the nerves they would be hard to credit, though it is probably the case that it's always harder to perform for people that know you well than for total strangers. He said he would be playing songs that were Jonah's favourites. He began with "Maginot Waltz" with its gentle slightly mournful tune that tells you without it being spelt out in the lyric that Margery will wait in vain for her soldier's return.
Next came "Mrs Adlam's Angels", which, played in these circumstances, had more resonance than I have ever known - I think there were halos glowing on the walls. The set moved all too quickly through "Little Birdie" (thanks to Mags for the correct title - "A Feather Fell" ) and "Dry Bone Shuffle" to the redemptive "After Rain" and the renewed hope of "Easter Lilies" which is a favourite of mine, as is the next song "Peppers and Tomatoes", which I swear Ralph sings better every time I hear it live. I find it truly frightening, and wonder how anyone could think it begins as some sort of eulogy to vegetables, when the air is filled with menace from that first chord on the guitar. In a rare word change, the originally recorded "Military vehicles are passing through our village" has become "military vehicles are moving through" and that alliteration makes the rumble of the trucks go through your own bones.
Then, although we were with the "dead and dying" it was on a much lighter note; Ralph with "his hat screwed on real tight" took us into "Cowboy" accompanied by the wonderful Danny Thompson - alas from my stance masked by a vast speaker - but very effective all the same! Danny stayed with Ralph for the last two songs; the charming "Sweet Mystery" - yes, he can still surprise with those high notes - and that classic Irish folk hit "From Clare to Here".
After the break (when I failed yet again to win a raffle) the impeccable Fairport took over the music and gave us the joy of hearing Ralph sing "Pykey Boy" with them. What a belter - those raunchy fairground rhythms and the punch of the quirky gypsy language (juk, mush, cushty, parni ) enhanced by the Fairport sound to intoxicating effect. The rest of their set was pretty good too, ending with "Si tu dois partir" which had some people singing (it's easier if you know a little French!) through the painful stabbings and inventive rhythm changes of "Matty Groves", to the finale in which all the artists and all the audience sang together for Jonah - "Meet on the Ledge". It was an uplifting atmosphere of warmth, love and abiding affection, which if anything could, must surely have reached Jonah, wherever he is.
During the evening I had bought the CD of "Water of Dreams" with the faces of Peach, Towers and Kelly ghostly on the cover. Was it coincidence or my own heightened awareness, which focused my eyes on a small sticker on Euston station next morning? It said, "He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really co-operating with it." Martin Luther King. How can one disagree? However, 31st March was all about generating good feeling not guilt, so I looked to the Mahatma for a different emphasis. Gandhi said, "In my humble opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is co-operation with good." The Half Moon saw a lot of "co-operation with good" that night for Jonah Jones; thanks Ralph.
Half Moon, Putney, SW London
31st March 2004
“One for Jonah”
Earl Okin, Ralph McTell and Fairport Convention
This concert was held as a celebration of the life of John ‘Jonah’ Jones, who, sadly, died last December. I was expecting to find the evening very emotional, but although there was an obvious tinge of sadness, there was also an overwhelming feeling of warmth and love for this extraordinary man.
Earl Okin started the evening off in his own inimitable style, and soon had us relaxed and laughing at his inuendos, and worse! …………… Ralph then took to the stage and gave us a wonderful set of numbers that he said Jonah would have liked. He appeared very relaxed and was on great form. He began with Maginot Waltz, followed by Mrs Adlams Angels, A Feather Fell (first live performance in the UK), Dry Bone Shuffle (fantastic!), After Rain, Easter Lilies, and an amazing rendition of Peppers and Tomatoes. The great Danny Thomson then joined him on stage for When I was a Cowboy, Sweet Mystery, and From Clare to Here. After the break, Fairport joined Ralph for Pykey Boy and then followed with their set which included, amongst others, Wassail, Fossil Hunter, Portmeirion, Si Tu Dois and Matty Groves. Everyone returned to the stage at the end for a rousing Meet on the Ledge, with full audience participation, - a fitting end to a truly memorable evening. The concert was recorded and will be available on CD.
State Theatre, Sydney
Friday 5th March, 2004
To put things in perspective, my partner and I booked months in advance, and, courtesy of frequent flyer points, plus largish cash injection, flew from Tasmania to Sydney for the SteeleyeSpan/Mctell concert; this is some thousand odd kilometres, so, as you can see, we were pretty dedicated!
Firstly, the venue was great - the State Theatre in the heart of Sydney, a lovely old building full of character. It contrasted pretty dramatically with the last concert I saw when Ralph performed to an audience of perhaps one hundred at the Conservatorium of Music in Hobart, our state capital, some five, six, seven years ago? Prior to that, I'd seen him at the Birmingham U.K Town Hall back in the seventies. Firstly, I felt pretty good because I wasn't the oldest there! Secondly, it was good to see more than a smattering of young people there who couldn't possibly have been around when Ralph (or Steeleye Span) first started recording/performing.
What did we go for? We went for melody and lyrics that spoke to us - and that's what we got. After all these years (I'm 56, first saw him in my twenties) he has the knack of touching nerves, evoking time and place, arousing old emotions - carrying you along with him via that damn'd hypnotic guitar-playing and those deceptively simple lyrics. I think you"bathe" in his music - it washes over you in the best possible sense of the phrase and leaves you with a "glow" that few artists can aspire to. I am Australian by choice, having lived my first twenty-five years in Britain before emigrating, but there is something quintessentially English about Ralph that draws you in - and yet, in a contradictory sense, his appeal is universal. You get a strong feeling that you would actually like the bloke if you met him. (We went looking for him in the interval to say g'day, but he didn't turn up for the promised beer!!) Each song encapsulates something special - the only trouble is that he has written so many good ones, that you're bound to miss many of your favourites in a one hour plus set - and we did. No offence to Steeleye, but I know that Ralph could have carried us all along with him for two or three hours more, but them's the breaks! For me, his music confirms my notion that music is perhaps the greatest gift...."the flame needs air to burn" to quote the man himself, and there was more than a whiff of oxygen in that theatre last Friday night........... so, I'll be digging out my own guitar and songs more often, you never know!
So, in the purely Australian context, we overcame the tyranny of distance that affects so many of us in Oz, the next stage is to return to Mother England and catch him again and on his own - as you might guess, our journey from this lovely but somewhat isolated island (next stop Antarctica) was worth it -thank you Ralph! ........I wonder if he'd like to perform for my 57th? This is a beautiful and peaceful island, we have our own Launceston (should be geographically near to his heart!), and the whole atmosphere is highly conducive to songwriting.........dream onP.S Steeleye span was a revelation - consummate musicians and full of energy beyond their (our) years! Their performance was a bonus.