A brand-new band on the very first date of its very first tour, supporting a debut album that came out just the week before. That’s a daunting prospect for any musician, but the trio that make up Hack-Poets Guild (Marry Waterson, Lisa Knapp, and Nathaniel Mann) are all seasoned professionals with glittering track records in folk music and beyond, and not easily perturbed.
Their album, Blackletter Garland, and performance are based on a concept inspired by old broadside ballads – the pop singles of their day – found in Oxford’s Bodleian library, and the evening starts with a short film to offer context, explaining the history and use of these wonderful things. Then it’s on with the music, the three backed by cello and percussion/keyboards who more than earned their crust during the evening.
Shimmering with quiet power
What they’ve achieved is an ambitious reimagining of the past, grasping the very human threads that connect us to people who lived hundreds of years before. Bringing that sense of history into the present alive means subtle, layered arrangements of the ballads, with plenty of technology old and new as part of the armoury – looping from cello and Knapp’s fiddle (and voice at times) alongside a printing press as an instrument.
There were some small skirmishes with machines in the opening numbers but teething troubles are inevitable at the start of any tour, and things quickly found their feet in music shimmering with a wonderful quiet power and moments of unexpected magic in flourishes where twirlers swing in the air to autoharp, played with a drumstick under Knapp’s swooping voice.
Hemp And Flax is powered by a real wooden hemp press, and unlikely things are pressed into use as instruments – a megaphone with pre-programmed sounds, a bowed banjo, phones as vocal effects. It startles, but it all works, and not just because of the novelty.
A triumph of talent and imagination
Something To Love Me brings the woozy trip-hop swoon of the record to the stage in masterful fashion. The Cruel Mother, perhaps one of the most famous old ballads, but presented here in its American version, is so delicate that it seems as if a strong breath could tear it apart. Rare Receipts is a slow burner that transforms into something close to elegiac English gospel music at its climax.
From the sheer variety in approach, it’s sometimes hard to remember that this is folk music. It’s simply played in a way you’ve never heard it before. The whole idea is a triumph of talent and imagination, radically redefining the idea of folk music.
Given the fact that it’s based on broadsides, which offered the first printed sharing of songs, it’s an apt touch that for the encore they distribute a hand-printed ballad and lead the crowd in singing it. Now those people could go and share it. And they do; several were bellowing it at the top of their voices as they spilled out onto the street. That’s ample evidence of a great performance.
Hack-Poets Guild are appearing at Social, Hull at 7:30 PM – 19 February 2023