For one of the Folk Festival’s earliest concerts, Step Into My Parlour was certainly one of the most unorthodox. The bustling Thursday-night audience, sat at cabaret-style tables in the Mareel auditorium, weren’t sure what to expect of a show billed as “songs, yarns and a complement of Scotland and Ireland’s finest musicians” set in a “memorabilia bedecked living room”.
The stage was made up like a cross between an eccentric grandmother’s house, and a student flat in the West End of Glasgow; an old dresser, a birdcage, a lamp covered in draped sheets, a turquoise folding screen plastered in bits of cloth and news clippings, and a very creepy painting of a little girl. Introducing the show, Folk Festival Compere Mhairi Pottinger observed “We’ve never done anything like this.”
The ‘parlour’ was soon inhabited by the gregarious, intensely Irish vocalist, and her band, comprising of pianist James Ross and guitarist Tia Files, with guest trombonist Rick Taylor. Burke poured herself a sherry, introduced herself and the band, and asked if there were any knitters in the audience, to help knit the next part of a shawl that had been worked on over a number of shows.
A lady from the back volunteered, crying out: “You’re living with me!”
“Now everybody knows you’re a plant,” Burke replied with a laugh, handing over the knitting with a promise of sherry (which was eventually delivered).
The ‘parlour’, Burke explained, was inspired by a scrapbook that her sister found in a loft, that had belonged to their great-grandmother. The scrapbook had been filled with poems, songs, and housekeeping tips culled from old Irish newspapers. Burke’s sister had went on to create the installations about the stage (or ‘bits and pieces’, as Burke called them).
Burke certainly had the proverbial gift of the gab, and drew the audience into the songs; a tune about a girl falling in love with a cobbler was prefaced with the story of how Burke’s grandfather- a cobbler- met her grandmother. Another tune was learnt from a lady in a care whom, who was still able to remember the complex lyrics- including a phone book’s worth of Irish surnames in the last verse- while her advanced Alzheimer’s meant she could not remember her own name.
Several of the songs were either remembered from Burke’s childhood, or were written by friends. There was a story to every song, which gave the whole affair a cosy, intimate atmosphere.
The songs themselves were straightforward, uncomplicated Irish ditties; parlour tunes, intended to be sung along to. Most of them were jaunty, merry numbers, although a surprising amount of them had incredibly grim lyrics (over the course of the concert, there was a song about a farmer wound up destitute in New York with his family all dead, a suicidal cow, and couple who died of pneumonia- the gentleman of whom, the song informed us, ‘sizzled and fried’ in hell).
The special guests for the show were award-winning singer-songwriter Kris Drever, and local fiddle virtuosos Kevin Henderson and Chris Stout.
Drever’s own signature style was on top form, alternating between a relaxing, chilled out sound and a toe-tapping frenzy. He polished his first set off with a dainty sip of sherry.
As Drever was being introduced for his second set, Burke failed to notice that he’d already wandered on to the stage, and helped himself to another nip. Burke stood, expectantly gesturing towards the stage-left, as Drever stood unconcerned behind her, sipping unflappably on his sherry, before picking up his guitar and launching into the crowd-pleasing If Wishes Were Horses, for which he recently won ‘Best Original Song’ at the Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Henderson and Stout’s set began with the inexplicably sad Unst Wedding March, and followed it with some energetic and fiery Shetland reels, ably vamped by Files on guitar, while Burke went round the hall with biscuits and sweets for the audience. As usual, Henderson and Stout’s playing was without peer, and they brought the house down with their flawless and dynamic fiddling.
Not to be outdone, Ross and Files were able to shine with a sombre Irish hymn (written by Ross) that moved into a marvellously vibrant, technically complex jig that really let the pair show off their talents in a way they had not been able to so far.
It was hard to tell if the music or the chat was the real focus of the concert- certainly some of the most memorable moments were from Burke reading tips from her great-grandmother’s scrapbook on combatting ringworm (topical application of soda and paraffin) or how to ‘clean your saucepan’ (which may or may not have been a euphemism), and the stories to some of the songs gave them a real depth they would otherwise have definitely lacked.
A vigorous round of applauses and cheers brought Burke, her band and all the guests back on for a final couple of mellow ‘goodbye’ songs together.
If this year’s Folk Festival is setting out to be a little bit different, then this was certainly a good way to begin. Step Into My Parlour was, as the Irish say, mad as a box of frogs. An interesting, occasionally bizarre, but ultimately rewarding evening’s performance.