All Saints Church, Findon Valley; Thursday, December 21, 2017 (7.30pm). Richard Durrant, acoustic 6-string and 4-string tenor guitars, cello, bodhran, second vocals; Nick Pynn, violin, Eko bass pedals, dulcimer, musical saw, third vocal; Amy Kakoura, lead vocals.
The music of Christmas is domestic and local. It is also foreign and international. It is warm, tender, joyful and bold. And it is ancient, Victorian and modern, ecclesiastical and secular. Guitarist Richard Durrant’s Candlelit Christmas Concert stretches across this multiple terrain with a respect, affection, humour, range and depth of quality found in few other live musical celebrations of Christmas.
For some fortunate modern musicians and audiences, Maddy Prior and The Carnival Band pointed the way through the snow out of the ignorant dark. Increasingly today, serious Christmas musicians take us to visit musical roots, earliest origins and wellsprings back down through history of this midwinter festival. And versatile, small-ensemble instrumentalists and singers do this immensely well.
In Hove a fortnight ago, The Telling immersed us in the Christmas of medieval Britain and Europe with just two voices, narrator, harp and recorder: Christmas before Victorian choirs and organs, before 20th Century university-led performance standards, before radio and TV.
Durrant’s canvas is much wider-embracing. He has created his own unique joybringing event. He arranges and highlights precious musical stones of Christmas and nestles them among familiar English Tudor or Renaissance and Spanish classical items from instrumental repertoire, also blending in modern composed carols and songs from the last maybe 60 years, and handpicking thought-provoking pop with extracts from The Pogues, Chris de Burgh and Greg Lake.
During his opening solo guitar medley of Dowland, Canarios and Pipo, in popped the Sussex Carol from Horsham and the Shepherds’ Noel from Galicia. Such a subtle and smiling laying down of his carpet. Later, Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful) masqueraded in another fanciful solo instrumental. Familiar modern (eg. Do You Hear What I Hear?) rubbed shoulders with the undeservedly less-known (such as Child in a Manger Born or Carol of the Birds), and there were audience singalong chances (eg. The First Noel, The Holly and the Ivy).
This night of the Winter Solstice 2017 was my first experience of Durrant’s festive period persona. “We’ll have been touring the whole of Advent. Christmas is not a puff of smoke,” he told the audience. “It’s really about a whole month of calm waiting for this point in the middle of winter - and we should continue into January.”
The material was individual yet universal, and its juxtaposition affecting and uplifting. Yet I am on the slow train with most of Worthing. This show has already been on the road, some of its material in recordings (see below) for some years, and it has begun to propose itself as a potentially annual popular seasonal offering as a far-from austere antidote to our commercialised festivities.
I was watching this the penultimate date of its advent tour around dates in Sussex, Surrey, Kent and Yorkshire, and its third annual appearance at the enlightened and emboldened little All Saints Church of Findon Valley. Here it was that a fan of Durrant persuaded All Saints it was the right thing to do.
I call it a show. Candles, coloured lights, a double image backdrop projection, active stage lighting. And it’s more than just a reverential revival or restoration of the music. A couple of seasonal pop songs were lampooned. There was an interloper: a graphic, spluttering, storming rendition of the runaway bluegrass fiddle tune Orange Blossom Special – totally anomalous except probably to salute our tradition of seasonal holiday rail travel disruption.
One major reason for Richard Durrant’s popularity: he is funny. Humour freely interlaces his almost constant audience repartee. His wry and cheeky grins are never far away. He tells stories. He makes confessions, observes and comments. How we need laughter at Christmas. Do we get much of this beyond ready devotion in conventional Christmas concerts or services?
I have not yet used the musical work ‘folk’. For consumers it’s a defining category, a genre, a commercial compartment or box. But historical handing-down through generations and cultural transmission is the essence, source and inspiration of much great Christmas music. Durrant told us he relished how the Christmas festival calls him back to playing folk. It’s a time when we cherish folk music without realising it.
Such an accomplished musician of so many parts brings high skills, taste, artistry and presentation, plus an instinctive and winning selection of collaborating performers. Yet here we were, in a semi-folk club situation: joking, mirth, making merry, mulled wine, mince pies, shared audience connection and interaction.
Durrant firstly introduced his own familiar guitars and performing style. Then violinist Nick Pynn arrived to play with his feet as well as his hands. His bass pedals allied to Durrant’s down-strung bass strings created dynamic and expressive power beyond one’s expectations of a duo. When Purcell’s theme used for The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra appeared in a second solo medley, Durrant’s big sound alone was startling enough. But all three people storming dramatically through Personent Hodie brought the first set to a quite astonishing climax.
Amy Kakoura, half-Greek, mixed a voice of purity in her upper levels with a native emotional serrated edge which de-laquered the rustic elements of some important items. Their Coventry Lullaby, brittly based on bare-bones ukulele, became its genuine mother’s de-sanctified wailing of imminent child slaughter. And Kakoura’s more unbridled vocal delivery suddenly transported us to rural France as Durrant, for the only time on cello, with Pynn’s fiddle scraped out a bagpipe drone for Kanomp Nouel, a Breton carol I had not encountered.
The compliments of the season cannot unify nations without us listening to each other’s Christmas.
While Durrant was gifting some unfamiliar music to his audience, it was at least once reciprocal. Surprisingly to us, he said he’d discovered O Holy Night only this year and in its rehearsal had been enjoying his new acquaintance. This very week, this distinctive and much-recorded French carol has been the subject of BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music programme which focuses on widely-known pieces of uncommonly deep emotional impact. Katie Melua emerged as one of its adherents.
There were simply too many treasures and pleasures to number here on this special night – which I hope may become a traditional part of Sussex’s pre-Christmas as long as Durrant has the energy. This show sells out in Shoreham and Findon, and should return there next year, possibly also to elsewhere in Worthing. You will need to book early to watch one of Britain’s leading boundary-crossing guitarists come to work in his neighbouring town.
2013: “Christmas Guitars”; Durrant with Amy Kakoura, and the voices of Barry Cryer, Durrant’s children, and the choir of two Shoreham primary schools; 18 tracks, all except 4 being original Durrant. LongMan062CD.
2015: “A Quiet Word from the 13th Century, A Midwinter Song and Dance”; Durrant with Kakoura; 14 tracks, ancient and traditional mixed with modern compositions plus arrangements by Durrant. TheBurningDeck001CD.