Ralph McTell – Live Review – Leeds City Varieties
By Victoria Holdsworth, October 2019
Tonight was a concert I had been waiting for all my life. Ralph McTell, for me, embodies a significant proportion of my childhood memories, and I had not managed see him until now. As the lights go down on the stage, and Mr McTell walks out to the centre spot and picks up his guitar, I manage to lose myself in a time warp of familiar, comforting, and thought-inspiring songs.
Ralph jokes that he almost feels like a regular at the Leeds City Varieties, as he eases into the first song of the night, ‘Walk Into The Morning’, from his 2010 album, Somewhere Down The Road. ‘Nanna’s Song’ raises the bar as he warns us that there is no co-ordination to tonight’s songs, so we may be in for a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, as the old mix with the new, some taken from recent album Hill Of Beans.
An early standout is ‘Lunar Lullaby’, with stunning lyrics and imagery, as Ralph takes you on a musical journey. Between songs he comments on war, conflict, poverty, but always in a non-confrontational way, seeking out the peace which seems to fill the venue.
The sell-out crowd are hooked on every single note, and things start to pick up pace with the social commentary of ‘Peppers and Tomatoes’, which manages to tackle segregation and prejudice through an allegory about an allotment.
I spot a few duff strums in instrumental piece ‘Guitar Shuffle’, but no one seems to mind or notice. Ralph explains that lots of people like to stick him in the folk pigeonhole, which he says suits him fine, but he feels he has a foot in many other camps – as he demonstrates with a tribute to Robert Johnson in the remarkably delta-sounding ‘Somewhere Down The Road’. The riffs from his seat are stunning, and really show off his aptitude for his take on the blues. It’s a real showstopper.
‘Close Shave’ from Hill Of Beans tells the darkly comic tale of a barber who is asking questions about the delicate matter of his wife’s infidelity with a friend while he is giving said friend a shave with a cutthroat razor.
McTell’s back catalogue is finely crafted, and his attentive delivery and guitar playing add extra dimensions and personality to the songs. There’s over half a century of material for him to please his steadfast fans.
There is just the one cover song tonight, which originally came from the man of the hour’s namesake, Blind Willie McTell. ‘The Gambler’ is executed beautifully, and is very befitting of Ralph’s style.
“Charm and emotion”
The magnificent story telling continues, and we get to hear some of his history, about a father that he barely knew, with a song about him as a baby, being handed over as an infant by his dad to ride upon the footplate of an old steam engine called The Brighton Belle, which was operated by his Grandfather. The song, which takes the same name as the train, is a melodic delight, and it was clearly emotional for him to sing. The whole crowd is hushed by the performance.
Another stand out tune is the exquisite ‘Saucers’. The title of the song came from his father’s nickname for his mother, on account of her large pale blue eyes. He explains that he had never written a song about his mother, although he had written plenty for her, until a friend pointed this fact out to him. The quick answer was that she would not have approved of an overtly sentimental song written about her, but it was a beautiful piece, regardless.
Another old track, ‘Grande Affaire’, conjures up landscapes which will sweep you away, and is followed by ‘Girl From The Hiring Fair’, a song that was covered by Fairport Convention in 1985, and is from McTell’s Streets Of London album released ten years prior.
Speaking of ‘Streets of London’ , the song he is forever obliged to play, closes the set. Sounding even more poignant these days, it still sends a shiver down my spine.
Tonight’s set was beautifully paced, full of charm and emotion. It was a spiritual journey through the life and times of one of our greatest songwriters.