The Cellar Upstairs at the Exmouth Arms near Euston hosts a regular season of folk clubs (restarting in September, it’s not a summer sport) with some of the top names in today’s folk scene as well as talented locals who just like to get up and have a go.
There’s something very unworldly about folk clubs. It’s not like other gigs. You’re not allowed to talk – you have to be there for the music and nothing else. Although young people are technically allowed to attend quite frankly it’s frowned on and those twenty somethings who do make it in clearly just haven’t picked up on the signals yet.
However, Leon Rosselson (who’s excellent boxed set The World Turned Upside Down is still getting overplayed in my house) is one of a small number of performers who can draw a marginally younger crowd. Partly because of his gentle humour, partly because of the profile that comes from longetivity and getting covered by Billy Bragg, but most of all because he deserves a wider audience.
There’s nowhere like a folk club
When the first song of the evening is an unaccompanied song glorifying Irish rebels fighting the British you do tend to think, “this isn’t happening anywhere else in this city is it?” and so even if you don’t get the music it’s worth experiencing just the once simply for that feeling.
Ever since the post-war Communist Party monopolised folk it has been a heady mix of stylistic conservatism and political radicalism, an effect that has long out-lived the life of the Eastern Bloc. You’ll hear very few pro-market, or pro-Empire songs in a place like the Cellar Upstairs despite the fact that if you go back far enough you’ll find a forgotten history of clearly right leaning folk songs. In that sense folk clubs are as much about shaping a “new” tradition as they are about keeping an old tradition alive.
Origins aside the egalitarian spirit feeds into exactly who gets to perform – i.e. anyone who wants a turn gets one. Surprisingly the standard is pretty high despite the lack of quality control, but even if there were, well, misjudged performances they’ll be over soon enough and they’ll give you plenty to talk about in the break over a beer.
The prevailing attitude of miserable criticism of both modern life and of how hard life was historically is possibly far more appealing than it may sound and where the performers are conscious of that miserabalist underpinning and play on it there is genuine joy to be had.
This was the second time I’ve seen Rosselson live an the first thing that struck me was that not a single song was the same as the set I saw him do back in February. I suppose when you take the need to promote the latest album out of things long standing performers get to tailor their set to each audience from that extremely long back catalogue.
Rosselson is a charming and literate singer songwriter who indulges his own pleasures and if the audience like it, well that’s all well and good but I get feeling that an optional extra rather than the purpose of the exercise. That’s another reason to like him.
Rosselson’s material often focuses on the gentleness and fragility of individuality in a world that expects you to conform. He glories in those who refuse to fit into a consumerist, market orientated world as this illicitly filmed youtube video shows (is this on?) but you won’t get agitprop or sledge hammer communist songs. There’s a depth here that means Rosselson is far more than a protest singer but rather one the best writers of our age who’s work is both politically engaged and emotionally rich.
Check out Leon Rosselson’s website here.