Thursday, 23 October 2014


Live review

Town Hall, Birmingham

There are no frills, no light shows, no smoke machines in fact very little in terms of a stage show at all, it's simply about the extraordinary singing of eight ordinary blokes from Port Isaac who are the Fisherman's Friends.

Fisherman's Friends including the tragic Trevor Grills
They did in the ornate surroundings of the town hall pretty much what they do most Friday nights during summer in their native fishing village - they stand around and sing traditional songs, sea shanties and throw in the occasional bit of banter mostly from author and bass voice Jon Cleave.
This was the band's third time in the Second City and the singing group's first tour since the tragic death of Trevor Grills.
Cleave set the tone with his double entendres before launching into an extremely bawdy song based  on the famous shanty Blow the Man Down and as you can imagine concerned itself with women of questionable virtue and the perils thereof. Without wanting to sound too unkind, individually the voices of Cleave, John McDonnell, Jason Nicholas, Billy Hawkins, John Lethbridge, Julian, John and Jeremy Brown are not the greatest but it's when they harmonise as a group you get the real point of Fisherman's Friends.
It was children's author Cleave who was the spokesman for the group looking very much like one of the strongmen from the Family Guy cartoons and he provided the links and introductions between what was a rollicking evening of great singing.
They moved to another traditional shanty with Don't Forget Your Old Shipmates which is part of what seems an endless repertoire upon which to draw and they gave a good salty flavour with Yarmouth Town, All The Night Long Laddies and Bully in the Alley.
Jon Cleave
An avatar?
You may not be able to get the full atmosphere of listening to them in the open air on the sea shore in their native port, but their singing certainly gives more than a chance to delve into this nation's nautical and musical heritage. One of the none traditional songs they have adapted is Bruce Springsteen's Pay Me My Money Down giving it a real gutsy feel this was followed by one many of a certain age may remember from music lessons at school, Riding on a Donkey.
They softened things up with Goodbye which was dedicated to everyone who has lost someone dear, but you got the sense it was mostly for Grills who tragically died after being hit by a metal door at a concert in Surrey last year.
The mood was lifted again by All Night Long Laddies which is about drinking, drinking and more drinking.
This was followed by one of the highlights of the night - a very theatrical rendition of Coast of High Barbary a tale of spooks and ghost ships and with their interpretation you almost expected to see the ghost of Cab Calloway come drifting on stage.
Not sure what the All Blacks would make of it but the Friend's version of  a Haka with John Kanaka went down well with the crowd this was followed by Paddy Lay Back which was accentuated by well rehearsed improvised comments on every chorus.
They got the audience in on the act or more in on the actions with one of their crowd pleasers A Sailor Ain't A Sailor Any More and later on they threw in familiar ditties which were the singalong opportunities such as What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor, their version of the Beach Boys' Sloop John B and as part of the encore, South Australia.
They toned proceedings down again with the gentle ballad Sweet Maid of Madeira.
There was plenty more in the form of Sally Brown and Union of Different Kinds which sounds like a cross between the theme to the Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads and The Strawbs' Part of the Union.
Cab Calloway
The Calloway sound was back again with Sugar in the Hold Below into which they mixed Hit the Road Jack.
Made famous by Bellowhead, New York Girls (Can't You Dance the Polka?) got the crowd clapping along with gusto.
As the concert drew to a close they pulled out No Hopers, Jokers and Rogues, Cousin Jack and of course no concert of sea shanties would be complete without the familiar drunken sailor and they made the most of it before finishing the night with another of their signature songs South Australia.
Fisherman's friends are singers, they are Port Isaac's equivalent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, without the dancing.
Their act is honest, down to earth as traditional as it gets and, even more so, great to listen to. You have to take your cap off to a bunch of ordinary blokes who look more like a group of builders than a close harmony group yet can keep an audience enthralled for more than an hour.

The Mike Harding Folk Show