[12 April 2007]
There’s something odd about discovering that a concert one attended has been released as a live CD, especially when one didn’t know it was being recorded. This was the case of a performance I went to in London more than 18 months ago and whose CD is scheduled for a late March release. Of course, an audio disc cannot capture the excitement of getting last-minute tickets to a sold-out show, the beauty of the South Bank venue, and the buzz one feels just being in the audience, but this double-disc set does a great job of faithfully delivering the good vibrations made musically and emotionally by the artists involved. I was there. I can attest to the CD’s accuracy in presenting what occurred.
The show was held to honor folksinger Peggy Seeger on her 70th birthday, featuring Seeger accompanied by her family and friends, including well-known musicians like her American brothers Pete and Mike, English folk legends Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and their daughter Eliza Carthy, and folk-punk notable Billy Bragg, among others. The individuals involved have performed with each other many times during the past decades and have an easy rapport. They joke and tell stories, but mostly they play Peggy Seeger songs and familiar tunes from the traditional repertoire.
The 70-year-old honoree has been a social activist her whole life and her self-penned compositions reflect this. She sings here with her guests about Che Guevara, human rights, and the cost of war. Seeger also performs her celebrated feminist anthem, “Gonna Be an Engineer”. This live disc documents Seeger’s vocal problems at the beginning of “Gonna Be an Engineer” when she has to stop (“I have a frog in my throat”) and then makes a joke about Lady Di and Prince Charles while she cleans her pipes by going “ahem” several times. This incident shows the event’s spontaneity and suggests how much the Yank musician has been accepted into the British fold. Seeger was born and raised in America, and currently lives here. Yet for more than four decades she lived in England, and with her husband Ewan MacColl, was at the center of the English folk scene from the mid-‘50s (when her American passport was revoked for visiting Communist China) until the late ‘80s. The London audience clearly sees Seeger as one of their own.
The guests who join Seeger are all given their star turns to shine, but brother Pete is clearly the biggest guest star. He’s brought on next to closing and does three solo songs, although the latter statement isn’t quite true as Pete always has the crowd join him in sing-a-longs. In fact, this recording helps clarify one of the mysteries of the folk ages: why does Pete always sing a song twice, once quickly at the beginning of a tune so that the audience knows all the words, and then later drowned in with the multitude? It’s because Pete can’t sing harmony. When he tries to join in with Peggy’s sweet voice on Pete’s famous anti-war ballad “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” it’s clear that his voice detracts from the mix. He’s better off letting Peggy and the audience go at it by themselves.
As the concert was marketed as a birthday event, there was the obligatory singing of “Happy Birthday” and cake brought on stage. But really, the trappings of the birthday celebration were just an excuse to have a concert to honor Peggy Seeger and feature her music. It wasn’t even really her birthday, just a convenient time to rent a hall and get the guest artists together. That made the event even more special as it wasn’t held to commemorate a particular landmark, but to simply pay tribute to one of contemporary folk music’s most important artists. Judging by Seeger’s liveliness, she should be around to celebrate many more birthdays. Let’s hope she can use this as an excuse to get her family and friends together again and have another concert with them.