I first saw former Steeleye Span violinist Peter Knight back in 2007 guesting with Mostly Autumn at the memorable launch gig for the album Heart Full of Sky at the late-lamented Astoria, playing violin on several numbers where he’d guested on the album. So when his current folk outfit Gigspanner came to South Street Arts Centre in Reading it seemed like a good opportunity to expand my musical horizons a little.
Gigspanner are a very different beast from Steeleye Span, an acoustic trio with Knight’s violin accompanied by guitar and percussion, playing a mixture of traditional-style folk songs and evocative instrumentals with influences from many different parts of the world. Once or twice Peter Knight dispensed with the bow and played his instrument like a ukelele, much of the time his emotive and lyrical playing was the heart of the sound. He is an undoubted virtuoso, going from folk jigs and reels to evocative classical melodies.
Roger Flack’s guitar played more of a supporting role, though the occasional Mark Knopfler-style lead runs were impressive. Vincent Salzfaas on Congas, Djembe and other more exotic percussion added a world music touch, and the uncluttered and crystal clear sound meant you could hear everything perfectly, which is more than can be said for a lot of noisier rock gigs.
Not a rock band of any kind, not quite a traditional folk act either, but for something well outside my usual comfort zone it was an excellent gig.
The advantage of living in Reading is that I have a rock venue, Sub89, right on my doorstep. In recent weeks I’ve seen ex-Deep Purple man Glenn Hughes and blues legend Walter Trout tread the boards, a couple of excellent gigs. On Sunday it was the turn of Ade Edmondson and The Bad Shepherds.
The Bad Shepherds were formed by Ade Edmondson, once the frontman of NWOBHM legends Bad News using the name Vim Fuego. But this band play celtic folk arrangements of classic punk and new wave songs, with Ade’s “thrash mandolin” accompanied by Troy Donockley on Uilleann pipes, whistles and cittern, and Andy Dinan on violin.
I saw them a year ago in Manchester, playing as a four piece. Now reduced to a trio, they’ve not really lost anything from their sound. Given the similar concept, comparisons with Bluegrass cover band Hayseed Dixie are inevitable, but The Bad Shepherds are more that just a British take on the same idea. Many of the songs are radically reconstructed, with lengthy instrumental intros and outtros of weaving pipes and violin lines. You frequently don’t recognise the song at all until the vocals start, and sometimes not even then. The set includes songs like “Anarchy in the UK”, “London Calling”, and their version of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” played on pipes simply has to be heard to be believed. The whole thing is immensely enjoyable even if you don’t particularly like the original songs; Troy and Andy superb instrumental playing providing the melodic element many of the original songs lacked,
While Ade Edmondson is better known as a comedian than as a musician, the show is all about the music rather than comedy; and while Edmondson may front the band, it’s as much about Troy and Andy, both very talented folk musicians, as it is about him. And like every great live band, they fact that they’re clearly enjoying their time on stage shines though.