Another absolutely delightful concert as part of the Stroud Green Festival, as The Askew Sisters took to the stage of Holy Trinity Church Hall with a show entitled ‘In London Fair City’. There’s something extra-special about siblings performing together, and Emily and Hazel make a wonderfully warm and winning duo – even as they sing songs of dark deeds and disaster, London-style.
The sisters engage us from the start with fantastic musicianship, fresh arrangements and a deep connection with the music. Voices and instruments combine in ways that captivate and sometimes play with our ears – was that Hazel’s melodeon or Emily’s violin that we just heard? There’s colour, humour and a lightness of touch, making the dance-tunes sparkle and the ballads breathe. We’re also given just the right amount of history – these tunes all have interesting back-stories, and it’s fascinating to consider the life of a song, how it can travel and change even over centuries but its essence remains. One such is the incredible ballad ‘Bows of London’. Here it’s a perfect fit – a song about two sisters and an extremely weird violin: with Emily and Hazel performing it, this macabre story is brought, quite chillingly, into the present. The way Emily’s violin picks out the details of the story exactly is stunning. There’s huge power in this song – in its twists and turns, in its litany-like refrain – and some startling black humour (older sister’s response to her rapidly-sinking sibling’s request for help: “Did you think I pushed you in / Just to pull you out again?”!!) As with the whole of their programme, The Askews make a great choice of repetoire here and bring it grippingly to life.
Elsewhere there are echoes of Thomas Hardy (dashing soldiers and absent sailors), and snapshots of history – the story of the London Waterman and his courtship, a happy song! (“Her pretty face was the fare for the ferry…”) And we were introduced to a genre known as ‘goodnight songs’ – the words of the condemned outlaw on the night before his death (I realised the Richard Thompson classic ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952’ is one of these!). What a rich treasure-trove we have in the folk tradition! And what a privilege to hear it performed as here, with joy, understanding and vitality by these exceptionally talented sisters.
There are lots more wonderful events still to come in the Stroud Green Festival – check the website here http://www.stroudgreenfestival.org.uk