A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 5 June 2008

June Tabor: Folk Diva

The time: 7.45pm, Saturday 19 April 2008. The place: Harlech Theatre, overlooking the sweep of Cardigan Bay.

She stands in the spotlight like a low-key jazz diva (low-key literally - her voice is deep and dark, as smooth and rich as a nutty, deep red wine - perhaps Rioja or Cabernet Sauvignon, not young Beaujolais or sweet sherry).

She is dressed in trademark black. Her normally jet black hair has a honeyed tinge. She stands motionless; the only movement comes from her hands, clasping and unclasping as if from tension. The small audience of 50 is motionless too, silent, concentrated. She sings. Between the songs she interweaves stories, anecdotes, tales of injustice and retribution. But mostly her words are about love gone wrong.

Depending on the song her voice chills, warms, lightly dances. I feel she is looking directly at me, singing to me alone. She breaks off in the middle of a song, stands to one side, nodding to the pianist at the grand piano next to her on stage. He solos for a while, inflecting the folksy tune with blue-note jazz shadings and textures, cascading up and down the keyboard as effortlessly as Keith Tippett.

The pianist is Huw Warren. The singer is June Tabor, Britain's greatest interpreter of the folk ballad. The Billie Holiday of folk song. I've seen her in concert twice before, and each time has been an intense musical experience, a revelation. She switches from folk to jazz to popular song, from Don't Think Twice It's All Right to Aqaba to Underneath The Lamplight. I don't want it to end.

I worked with her for a couple of weeks in Hornsey Library in the mid-to-late 1970s - about the time her 1st record Airs And Graces came out. There was a buzz around her then but she seemed very modest. She was a qualified librarian. I was a trainee. She taught me the secret lore of bibliographical research, the arcane knowledge of cataloguing. How to straighten books on shelves. Dealing with awkward borrowers who wanted the latest Catherine Cookson yesterday and wouldn't pay their fines.

The rest is history. Well, not for me. But for her. She's worked with some of the best folk singers and musicians in the business. She won Singer of the Year at the 2004 BBC Folk Awards. Elvis Costello wrote a song specially for her - All This Useless Beauty.

Two hours later she leaves the stage after thanking the rapt audience for its quiet concentration. I hang around a while, thinking she might come and sign some of her CDs which are for sale in the foyer. She doesn't. And I am too shy to ask to see her for a minute or two backstage. So, to quote Dylan, I melt back into the night. It is dark outside. A strong wind is blowing. I head back down that long. lonesome coastal road to the campsite and my tent.

Details of June's current tour can be found here and a short biography of her here. I urge you to try these YouTube videos and see what you think. I hope you love her as much as I do. Enjoy.

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