It would be special enough to meet the author of the bestselling novel The Salt Path, Raynor Winn, whose memoir of walking the South West Coast Path won worldwide praise for its uplifting message, and a very frank portrayal of the reality of homelessness.
But here she is, on stage at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, with another must-see outfit, the Gigspanner Big Band, a collective of some of the most high-profile names on the British folk scene.
It’s an exciting and ground-breaking collaboration, and one that provided an evening of entertainment unlike any other. Together they were celebrating, in traditional songs and newly written words, a journey along the salt-laden air of the coastline. “We are all made of salt,” Raynor Winn begins. “It’s in our DNA, it pervades everything, it influences everything.”
The band has done a wonderful reimagining of traditional songs and tunes collected from the area of the Path, alongside some new words from the author, and together they have created an emotional odyssey which explores the beauty, stories and traditions of the region.
Folk-roots supergroup Gigspanner Big Band features some of the most celebrated names on the British folk scene. Formed by legendary Steeleye Span fiddle player Peter Knight, the band line-up has acclaimed multi-instrumental duo Edgelarks (Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin -BBC Folk Awards Best Duo); Bellowhead co-founder and melodeon player extraordinaire, John Spiers; Roger Flack on guitar; and Sacha Trochet on percussion.
The vibrant, thought-provoking compositions by Raynor were specially written for this show, and the songs and tunes were curated from collections by Cecil Sharp and Sabine Baring-Gould, and the archive held at Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
But it’s not a collection of old songs re-hashed under a new banner. Along with being a tribute to the beauty of the South West Coast Path, the songs touch on social and environmental issues that face all coastal communities – and all of us.
Most haunting of all the songs come from the exquisite-voiced Hannah Martin, a Lady Guinevere figure who also plays fiddle, guitar, banjo. One song was sung in Cornish. We supposed. It hardly mattered, the beauty was in the sound.
Raynor Winn’s words are lyrical, sometimes meditative, almost mesmerising, a mindfulness experience, and then angry, at the loss of habitat for bees, at the plight of unemployed tin-miners and fishermen: “What are the Cornish boys to do? They still meet from time to time, in the food bank queue.” She speaks of storms, while the musicians, virtuosos collectively and individually, create the rain and the wind, and not just the sound of it. Then the storm abates, and she talks of knitting a fisherman’s gansey, while percussionist Sacha Trochet clicks together two small drumsticks, tic, tac.
Says Raynor: “I met this amazing group of musicians, individually with remarkable musical histories, but they’ve come together to form this band, and the idea of the collaboration came from them.”
This event marks the start of a new venture for the Keswick theatre, a series of one-off, one-night music concerts which fit so well into the overall programme. Next up are BellaTromba, an all-female trumpet quartet playing dazzling music from the baroque to the 20th century, including works by Monteverdi, Handel, Faure, Gershwin and Enescu. Later this week sees an appearance by the legendary Isle of Skye band, the Peatbog Faeries with their mixture of traditional sounds and dance music that draws on a myriad of influences from jigs and reels through dance music, jazz, African, and more. And, yes, dancing will be allowed.
Coming soon are Piva, six exceptional musicians performing 16th century renaissance music linked to Shakespeare’s world played on over 40 instruments from the period; and the Alkyona Quartet, the award-winning new generation artists delivering imaginative interpretations of well-known and hidden gems of the string quartet repertoire including Brahms and Janacek. The classical concerts are organised by the Keswick Music Society.
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The Saltlines tour continues this week at Hexham Queen’s Hall tonight, and York at the National Centre for Early Music on Thursday.