Image by Jason Thompson (Sound Ideas Media)
Off to the wilds of deepest, darkest of Northumberland for the opening night of this year’s Allen Valley Folk Festival. All this to catch Stick In The Wheel, who are surely the most vital folk act in the country right now, as much as anything because of how much they buck many of the norms of that scene.
It’s still astonishing how much magic they can create from the simplest of elements: a tea chest and bass drum, a guitar, and a sparingly-used fiddle to back Nicola and Fran’s remarkable voices. Given that it’s a folk crowd, Nicola does go through the process of introducing the songs with some comments about their provenance, but in keeping with her charmingly curmudgeonly approach, these intros normally end in self-deprecation, or giggling, or desperate attempts not to swear. In fact, a lot of the joy of a Stick In The Wheel gig is the patter, from Nicola and the others, which at this gig covered everything from Nandos (standard) to the disco over the road. But of course, it’s really all about the songs and there’s barely a band in the country who can make my skin tingle the way SITW do.
From sparse reinventions of traditional numbers like The Blacksmith and Bows Of London, to more recent reinterpretations (Ewan MacColl’s Champion, a tribute to Nicola’s lorry-driving forebears) to their own compositions, which tackle the personal and political in a series of Shitty State Of The Nation addresses which are defiant and angry without ever being hectoring or polemical. Songs like Me And Becky, about the recent London riots, and the harrowing Common Ground (“On common ground the poisoned seed, was sown in my country, they fenced me in and took away, the things that belonged to me”) are a reminder of what folk music should be, rather than the quaint museum piece it all too often is.
Sadly, the only downside to tonight’s performance is that Nicola’s voice, that had clearly been bothering her throughout, started to fail before the end. She tried her best to get through Seven Gypsies – ironically, one of the songs that depends most on her vocals – but was reduced to a sore whisper by the end, and there was no chance of an encore. Such was the goodwill the band had amassed during the gig that there was no grumbling from the crowd, just enthusiastic, boisterous applause. Stick In The Wheel continue to amaze.