The future of reviving old time folk music is always going to be in safe hands with artists such as Anna and Elizabeth sharing the wares of their passionate endeavours. This talented duo from the eastern states of the US have been wooing British audiences on the current tour and brought the ‘house full’ sign to Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden Café on this warm August evening. Those inside, and outside, the regular viewing area were treated to an utterly compelling show – multi-media in its purest form. Not only was beautiful musicianship, enchanting song and enlightening inspiration on the menu, but also the charming world of crankies was revealed to a visual delight.
On several occasions during the brace of sets the duo delivered, a manually operated canvas scroll was ‘cranked’ into action adding an eye catching attraction to the song or tale being sung or orated. This unique art form is at the core of how Anna and Elizabeth play out their desire to keep the flame of the past burning, alongside giving a voice to the otherwise forgotten. Self-confessed historians and archive hunters is the part the duo communicate, while the audience unanimously marvels at the seamless harmonies, exquisite playing and sheer dedication to an admirable cause.
The duo’s instrumental presentation is focussed on the stringed trio of a 1937 Martin guitar, fiddle and banjo. Anna Roberts–Gevalt, originally from Vermont but now based in Baltimore Maryland, splendidly majors on the first two, while she shares the banjo playing with Elizabeth Laprelle, a performer heavily steeped in the music tradition of her native Virginia. Elizabeth also played the shruti box on a couple of songs and adds a special dimension to the overall sound with her distinct Appalachian vocals.
Themes surrounding the songs ranged from the personal experiences of meeting inspirational people, the spirit of fiddle playing camps in the wee small hours and significant historical moments like the American Civil War. Mixed in with reams of traditional songs were readings, poems and narrations, all given context whetted by the artist’s enthusiasm.
Among the most memorable songs were ‘Goin' Across the Mountain’ – the story of a Civil War soldier changing sides, a Kentucky version of ‘The Cruel Mother/Greenwood Sidey’ – complete with crankie, and one deep in the second set titled ‘Sing Hymns’. The crankie also provided the backdrop to the story of Lella Todd, narrated by Anna and evoking memories of an immortal past frozen in its deepest sincerity. It also made a final appearance for ‘Father Neptune’ and a poignant representation of the sea’s mundanity complete with an atmospheric fiddle accompaniment.
As if to keep in line with the evening’s traditional theme, the chosen opener was local based folk singer Alice Dillon, who leans heavily in this direction with her song selection. Alice’s thirty minute support slot was the perfect warm up performance with her stunning cultured vocals showing an equilibrium effect whether being guided by a subtle acoustic accompaniment or excelling in stand-alone mode. Alice showed no intent in hiding her love for the music of Joan Baez and included a version of ‘Plaisir D’ Armour’ in her set, alongside standard traditional songs like ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ and ‘Black is the Colour’. Alice has already been recognised by judges in the BBC Young Folk Performer awards with a semi-final place and on the evidence of this short showcase is likely to receive further acclaim in the future.
The impression Anna and Elizabeth left on this fleeting visit to Birmingham is likely to last a while. It was a privilege to be in the presence of their captivating show and part of an artist-audience interaction packed with mutual gratitude. This was pure unfiltered pristine music of a bygone age presented in a truly innovative way.