Dark doings and darker sounds: Crows’ Bones at Spitalfields Music Winter Festival

Crows’ Bones puts together a series of murderous folk ballads which make for an eerie, atmospheric evening – yet never quite come to life. Part of the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, and a project by Opera North.

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St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, is in a terrible state. Extremely dilapidated, cracked and peeling all over, it is not so much a noble ruin as a shocking relegation of responsibility. As I took my seat, I wondered: could this tattered, lovely, exhausted church symbolise our modern attitude in Britain to our folk heritage? Something which, like religion, is today the obsessive hobby of the few; increasingly irrelevant to the many? Something we once cared for as a community, but which now we can scarcely muster the energy to keep up? Above all, is British folk something, like this church, we have forgotten how to look after?

We sit in pews. The stage is marked by some bare trees (bearing microphones) with beautiful old gramophone speakers, like giant brass flower-heads, perched on towers. The most wonderful part of the stage design is undoubtedly Ben Everett’s fabulous lighting, which creates a dark, dramatic atmosphere; by felicitous accident, the church itself is as cold as a midwinter graveyard, so a truly Gothic atmosphere prevails from the start. The unearthly figure and voice of Inge Thomson, who sings the first song while playing an invented instrument known as “the log” with her bow (it looks remarkably like a log with some strings on it), adds to the air of faint menace which pervades through much of the set. And it really is a set: the songs come one after another, often bleeding into each other with no break, without any chat or discussion between songs. The programme notes are helpful and informative – but generally it’s too dark to be able to read them, so unless you’ve had a good nose through them beforehand (which I would strongly recommend), you are soon lost.  This disorientation is compounded for the audience by the fact that many songs are sung so slowly, in such long-drawn-out phrases, that it becomes very difficult at times to interpret the lyrics. Which leads to the main flaw of this show.

The sound itself is often spine-tingling. Martin Green is making this into an album, to be co-produced by Portishead’s Adrian Utley, and I can already imagine it as a magnificent film soundtrack. Overshot by panoramic Celtic riffs, Hollywood-style, it’s underpinned by largely traditional harmonies, but the occasional modern dissonance adds bite. The nyckelharpa, clearly from the fingers of a master in the shape of Niklas Roswall, gives a truly rich and rounded tone which was a joy to hear. Martin Green’s accordion has a warm, full sound, almost organ-like at times. The dry, dead clicking of a metronome is used elsewhere to brilliant contrast. A range of instruments feature in the course of the evening, but while we are greeted by a rush of variety at the end (including music boxes), many of the songs in the middle of the set use a similar sonic palette. The set would have more energy if that variety could be a little more widely dispersed.

The problem with Crows’ Bones is not the sound, though; it is the pacing and diction. Some of the songs set off at such a painfully slow pace that they are agony to listen to – and sound even tougher to sing. The only song which genuinely merited the super-lentissimo treatment was the final, dazzling, unaccompanied solo by Becky Unthank (Banks of Red Roses), sung entirely in the dark to a spellbound audience. Everything else would have benefited from a bit more brio: it’s hard for an audience to absorb meaning from words which are so strung out. The power of a folk song often lies in the acute clarity of its story; here, some of the diction wasn’t clear enough for the stories to survive the singing, which was a great pity.

Beyond this, something on stage just doesn’t quite gel.  The tempo occasionally slips. Becky Unthank seemed be suffering from entirely unmerited stage fright – her singing is exquisite, but instead of enjoying her own unique skill, she looked terrified throughout. There wasn’t much on-stage chemistry between any of the artists, who seem to be playing in silos, not together. For one song, visuals were added, and abruptly the performance came to life, only to sink back to listlessness as the visuals were taken away. If every song had a visual projection, it might be a real help.

If this is the future of folk, a glamourous sound effect, whose sound constantly threatens to overwhelm the story it proposes to tell, then we really have forgotten what folk is for. It’s good to be contemporary, just as long as you don’t simultaneously relegate the genre to an irrelevant piece of nostalgia. By clouding the central act of folk (communication), I fear Crows’Bones risks becoming a musical curio – just as, for some, an old church is simply a sociological curio – not a living, breathing entity.

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