There probably aren’t too many people who’d consider a United Kingdom tour the best way to celebrate their 80th birthday, but then again, Peggy Seeger has never been one to follow the herd. A witty, smart woman, committed activist, prolific songwriter (or “songmaker” as she prefers it), sister of Pete and Mike, and spouse of the late Ewan MacColl, Seeger wears her folk legend status very lightly. The topic of attire actually came up during her 6 June show at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, in a remark that exemplified Seeger’s attitude to the future. “I’m a bit of a tightwad when it comes to clothes,” Seeger confessed. “I wore this outfit for my 70th birthday show. And I intend to wear it for my 90th.”
Like many an enduring folk troubadour, Seeger creates an exceptionally warm and inclusive ambience as a performer, even mingling with the crowd before the show begins. With sons Neill and Calum MacColl providing accompaniment on vocals and a variety of instruments, and guests Paul Brady and Eliza Carthy (no less) also on hand, the evening soon took on the feel and appeal of a relaxed family gathering, with much cheeky and affectionate banter throughout. “If there’s anyone in the audience who’s not related to us, there’s a helpline,” quipped Calum at one point, while Peggy gleefully noted that “there’s a lot of family linen being aired here” — after sharing some details about, yes, the circumstances of Neill’s conception.
The friendly atmosphere ensured that the occasional forgotten verse or mis-tuning mattered not a jot. Switching between guitar, banjo and piano, and forever encouraging audience participation, Seeger was in quietly commanding voice. Her warbly, quavering high register voice was as disarming as the lower tones she employed on several songs: a voice of experience that’s retained its wit and nimbleness, not to mention its hotline to the heart of the folk tradition.
The setlist also ranged widely, encompassing the earnest and the irreverent, the personal and the political, all in songs old and new. Though Seeger classics such as “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” were sadly absent, selections from her acclaimed recent album Everything Changes shone brightly, in particular the superb title track (inspired by her mother) and the BBC Folk Award-winning Titanic ballad “Swim to the Star”, with Neill’s wife Kate St. John hopping up on stage from the audience to join in on accordion. Such fresh dispatches rubbed up against the likes of “Cluck Old Hen”, Seeger’s great union anthem “If You Want A Better Life”, the Playford-derived dancing tunes “Lull Thee” and “Kettle Drum” and such superbly pointed, quirky items as Charlie King’s “Send in the Drones” and the eco-friendly “Wasteland Lullaby”.
A selection of Ewan MacColl songs were particularly moving, with Calum taking the lead on a tender “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”, a song that was also a highlight of the Valentine’s Day show performed by Barb Jungr at the Southbank Centre just a few months ago. Neill did the same for a lovely “The Joy of Living”, and Peggy tackled the classic that she inspired, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, with understated delicacy and grace.
The guests also took memorable solo spots. Brady contributed the rollicking anti-blues “The World is What You Make It”, the tender piano croon of “Harvest Time”, and a delicious, definitive rendering of “The Lakes of Pontchartrain”, before partnering Seeger on the traditional “Five Nights Drunk”, a hilarious account of an inebriated cuckold. Carthy, meanwhile, leant her ripe vocals and funky, sensuous performance style to a dreamy “Prairie Lullaby”, an a cappella “Maid on the Shore” and “Slave’s Lament”, augmented by sublime fiddle, while she and Seeger joined forces for a dynamic, driving “Logan County”. The evening was, in addition, enhanced by Seeger’s witticisms and observations: a joke linking anti-gay marriage rhetoric and the legalising of marijuana was especially choice.
The concert closed with Seeger at the piano and the assembled company all pitching in on the Pete-penned “Get Up and Go”, a wry musing on the ageing process that prompted the night’s most joyous and heartfelt audience sing-along. At the top of the show Seeger spoke of the songs as a route to survival and solidarity. This delightful evening, rich in history yet as current and vibrant as can be, offered conclusive prove of that.