Live : Merry Hell Acoustic1st October 2017 : Hermon Chapel, Oswestry
Oswestry is a Shropshire border town that grew around its mediaeval castle, which was built on a glacial debris mound at what is now the north edge of the town centre. Welsh place, street and house names reflect how language, and influence, has ebbed back and forth through the town's history.
Just shy of the castle, Hermon Chapel is an 1862 built building, originally designed for a local Welsh speaking congregation. It was nearly demolished a few years ago, before being reborn as a community arts centre. Much of the interior is intact - a bar has been added, and a carpeted stage area where once the minister would have stood.
Planning to see Merry Hell perform at the venue, I spoke to John (guitar) and Virginia Kettle (half of Merry Hell's lead vocal attack) a couple of weeks beforehand.
Rather than a single distinct entity Merry Hell is now a northern folk powerhouse, with three overlapping projects - the main band, an acoustic offshoot and an intimate four piece, Virginia Kettle and The Dreamkeepers.
Bloodlines, Merry Hell's fourth album, was released at the end of 2016, and re-emphasises a continued shift folkwards since the group formed in 2010. An EP that featured two songs from the album, Come On, England! and We Need Each Other Now, an acoustic version of a live favourite (Lean On Me Love) and a live recording of The War Between Ourselves, both shows the strength of the recent album and heralds new projects (notably an acoustic album early in the New Year). The EP topped the Amazon Folk Chart.
I started talking to John and Virginia about the EP, and its title track - Come On, England!, which was billed as an alternative English national anthem. A bold step, not without some point and humour - as John explained, laughing, "The national anthem thing, it was always a bit tongue in cheek, a line to get people's interest, but when she introduces the song on stage Virginia describes it as being about appreciating our nation and environment, whilst pointing out some of the flaws in our society." He continued, "We live in abundance, and people should never go hungry, but they do. Come On, England! also celebrates some of the movements in the past that have encouraged us to share what we have. It has its historic context, the Diggers and Levellers, as a good national anthem should!"
The small 'p' politics have always been present in Merry Hell songs, and when I spoke to them they had just triumphantly played The Wigan Diggers Festival, which commemorates the life and values of Gerrard Winstanley. Reflecting on this gig, the conversation naturally moved on to how the themes they address work their way into lyrical form. Virginia took the lead, "I have always been a folk singer - I don't write political songs as such, I write about what I see around me - they are more human songs, But even the richest and most entitled can't hide from things as they are now - how divided we are. From all the places we go and people we talk this seems to be a general view; there is more desire to feel emotion and money might be meaning less."
John re-iterated her point, "We have different political views amongst ourselves, in the band, but we also want our music to be inclusive as far as we can. We wouldn't stand up for extreme, intolerant views. In the end we're not party political, just human."
Part of the band's strength is the balance between the political (or perhaps humanist) subjects they tackle straight on, and the intensely personal, intimate songs they also offer. Talking about the different perspectives being brought to bear in the song-writing (five members contributed words or music to the last album) can't help highlight that Merry Hell is a 'big band' - you'd think that scale might generate problems, but John was emphatic in explaining the reality, "Yes, there's eight in the main band, six in the acoustic version. For organisation - it's always down to the commitment of the members; a three piece can be hard if the will is not there."
"For us - we have an amazing manager, who ties it all together, and we all have a lot of commitment to our 'crusade', but beyond that it is a simple group really. There are eight people playing simple parts - we are not a virtuoso group, apart from Neil our fiddle player, he's got some chops (laughing). In essence the arrangement of the music has to give the vocals the room, the lead vocal mixture of Andrew and Virginia works because of the varying emotional texture it brings, and that is central to how we work."
He then paused before offering another, subtly related, take, "I have also, especially in the past, been greedy as a songwriter - I wanted to go down lot of different avenues and explore them musically. For Merry Hell - we have all these people in it, the writers produce a vast amount of material with all these different textures needed for the lyrics and the songs - but we can manage this with our two singers and all the instrumentation we can arrange, whilst still keeping it simple."
However many avenues have been tried out, there has been an undeniable movement towards a purer folk sound. Listening to John map out the history of this shift, it seems this has been an organic progression and a response to the audience they have gathered, rather than a conscious choice of direction, "When we started Merry Hell, in a way we didn't know how to produce folk - we started wanting to be a folk-rock band, and our arrangements were heading more towards the rock idiom, despite having some real folk moments - even on the first album Crooked Man has a Celtic folk melody - but we didn't have all the signifiers of a folk sound, such as a fiddle. When Neil McCartney brought that instrument into the group, that instantly added a folkier texture into the sound, and that took a lot of pressure off the guitar."
"We also found ourselves embraced by the folk community, right from the start, in part maybe as we had signed to a folk label.
The folk element is most pronounced in the acoustic gigs the slimmed down band plays - which started as a response to the amount of space in some of the clubs they were invited to play, rather than by grand design, as Virginia spelt out, "The 'acoustic' shows began when we got asked to perform at a lot of folk clubs early on, especially in North Wales, Conwy and Rhyl, in the football club, in the tiny building at the back, and then Ruthin, where we couldn't physically fit the whole band in; the first time in Ruthin only four of us could fit in the room. So it was purely space to start with - then the songs started to take on a different feeling in that context, it wasn't contrived - they changed, and not just by the band's intent, due to the audience reaction too."
John added, "In these settings the songs' arrangements have evolved, they are now more sensitive, still with the energy, but rawer too."
This transformation led to a desire to capture the difference in a representative album. As Virginia continued, "Some of the dates were unamplified - amplification is against the rules of some clubs. It forces change in how you work. In turn this led to the acoustic album we are working on. Mostly the same songs, but they have evolved so much from the full band sound it is almost necessary to put them out in this form too, to celebrate it."
John stressed this last point, "And it's being fair to the audience. We were playing a lot of these club shows, and the studio CDs we have on sale there don't actually reflect what people have just heard."
"There's also some music going into it that has been left out of the main set in the past. When we tour the new album those tracks will be getting a proper airing."
He detailed how the acoustic album has been put together, "Most of it has been recorded live in our village hall, that's another challenge. We have taken some of the songs apart and then played them with little rehearsal - take Drunken Serenade, the night before we recorded that Virginia said 'We have played this the same way so many times' so she rearranged it in a completely fresh way and we recorded it straight the day after."
Time was pressing, but there were a few moments to touch on The Dreamkeepers, which sounds very much Virginia's project, as she outlined, "It's a four piece, all Merry Hell members, as I write so many songs, we can't fit them all in. It's very folk - and more ethereal. It has only started, a few gigs." The one song I had heard, The Butter Song, fitted this description, really pared back to essentials and a real stunner. John seemed as excited about this development as any, "There will have to be an album, maybe before Christmas this year - it's very different, a relaxed, beautiful thing. You don't come out of the gig sweating cobs with your head like a burst couch!" The last phrase a mental image I won't lose quickly.
And that brings us, a fortnight or so later, to the acoustic gig at the Hermon Chapel. Arriving just as the show started to an almost full house, I sat in the balcony near the front, almost in line with the band - which was an unusual perspective for a gig, but offered just as much a view of the rapt audience as the musicians.
Relaxed, humble and communing with the people who had paid to see them, Merry Hell played for a scintillating hour and a half.
This was the usual acoustic line up - the main band shorn of drums and keyboards. There were six very distinct characters on stage; mandolin wielding Bob Kettle artfully unkempt under a pristine top hat, Andrew Kettle a barely repressed Wigan Nutty Boy, Virginia likewise full of energy and mischief, John studiously stood with his guitar to the side of the stage, bass player Nick Davies lost in the music, and, sat where you would normally expect a drum kit, Neil McCartney quietly focused, offering constant subtle lift and the occasional punctuating virtuoso flourish on his fiddle.
Starting with Loving the Skin You're In, the jaunt of Let's Not Have a Morning After, the withering accusatory stomp of Crooked Man ("Criminals in pin stripped suits, pecking the flesh from our back bones"), and the burst of militant hope that is Stand Down, they worked through a set that should be a greatest hits, and which was certainly treated as such by the front rows in Oswestry, who mouthed every word, and moved to every rhythm.
The most arresting moments came with a heart-rending Lean on Me Love, the unaccompanied Coming Home Song and the wistful, unlikely love story, The Butcher And The Vegan.
They finished with a rousing run through of The War Between Ourselves, then a rolling, surfing wave of a first encore - One More Day Without You, followed by a second of Let the Music Speak For Itself and a brief acapella fragment to close, with the crowd stamping along, deep in injury time. A complete ninety minutes of fast flowing magic Jürgen Klopp would be ecstatically pleased with.
This is contemporary folk, and it is the very best of it - funny, authentic, warm, universal in its human values and providing moments of unlikely rapture; just 'music and honesty' as Iain Evans of support act I am Sam put it.
Hermon Chapel was built to bring a community together in contemplation and joy; from the evidence of this gig in its newest incarnation it is not straying far from that purpose. If you have not seen Merry Hell play a live set, then just go and do it.
Come on, England! is available from the Amazon as a CD or DL. This Autumn Merry Hell play the Ruthin All Styles Music Club (Nov 16) & Conwy Folk Club (Dec 11).