Faustus – Nottingham Playhouse Studio, Thursday September 11.

The professional bit:

Boasting a collective pedigree that stretches from Norma Waterson to Seth Lakeman, and from Paul Weller to Bellowhead, Faustus could almost be described as a folk supergroup. Kicking off an exceptionally promising new folk season at the Playhouse, they worked hard to warm up the initially subdued audience, scattered over three rows in the stark studio space above Cast.

The three band members – Paul Sartin on violin and occasional oboe, Saul Rose on an array of melodeons, and Benji Kirkpatrick on guitar and bouzouki – radiated a relaxed, good-natured rapport, interspersing their music with droll asides and a dry banter which sometimes bordered on the surreal.

This easy demeanour masked a remarkable level of dexterity and craftsmanship. On dizzying jig medleys such as Next Stop Grimsby / The Three Rascals / Aunt Crisps, the players perched their intoxicatingly cheery melodic refrains on top of complex rhythms and constantly shifting counterpoints.

While the jigs were largely self-penned, the songs were all traditional: excavated from a variety of archives and songbooks, and given fresh, sturdy new arrangements. A broadly nautical theme ran through many of them. The Green Willow Tree told the story of a heroic but doomed cabin boy, betrayed by his captain and dispatched to a watery grave (*), while The Old Miser recounted the fate of an amorous sailor, sold for transportation by his sweetheart’s jealous father. On The New Deserter, a ballad made popular by Fairport Convention, the familiar lyric was given a haunting and effective new melody.

The amateur bit:

(*) This was of particular interest, since I ONCE WAS THAT CABIN BOY! ‘Twas in the year 1974, and I had been assigned an understudy role to the lead chorister in our school’s end-of-term production: The Golden Vanity, a childrens’ opera by Benjamin Britten, which is based upon the same story as The Green Willow Tree. (With certain variations as to the exact manner of the plucky cabin boy’s watery demise.)

Three or four days before show time, said chorister went down with a nasty case of the measles, and I was duly bumped up to Heroic Male Lead – a role I discharged with great gusto (drama being one of my Big Things at the age of 12, and did I ever tell you about the time I played Mole to Jeremy Clarkson’s Toad?), albeit a semi-tone flat throughout (I winced my way through a subsequent classroom playback on the music master’s reel-to-reel).

All matters of pitch control aside, my greatest challenge was miming a convincing dive from the deck of my ship (the titular Golden Vanity) into the tempestuous ocean below (as represented by the floor of the school gym), and then battling my way through the waves until I reached the dastardly pirate ship (on the other side of the gym, manned by a bunch of classmates in Marks and Sparks pyjamas with their mothers’ scarves tied around their heads). As a confirmed non-swimmer, whose irreducible combination of stubborness and terror had broken the will of a long succcession of swimming teachers down at Doncaster Baths, I lacked all semblance of convincing mime technique. Many hours of coaching ensued, after which I was just about able to muster a vaguely convincing upper body breast stroke.

Following the high drama of my drowning (“And then, and only-then, did the crew-throw-out-a-ROPE!”), the opera climaxed with my re-appearance as a ghostly presence (i.e. standing behind a darkened screen with a gauze-covered, head-shaped hole cut in it, a hand-held torch pointing up at my ghostly chin), forever destined to haunt the ocean waves with my netherworldly wailing:


It was very moving. If half a tone flat.

I nearly told all this to Benji Kirkpatrick during the post-gig Meet And Greet/Retail Opportunity session – but thought better of it, confining myself to a simple “Ooh, I’ve got all these CDs already, thank you very much, that was great, bye bye!”

Well, one doesn’t like to monopolise.

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