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Belinda O'Hooley and Heidi Tidow

Thorganby Village Hall, Near York
Friday 23 December 2016

Winterfolk - Winter Songs and Carols
An alternative celebration of Christmas
Supported by The Lennanshees

Belinda and Heidi last played Thorganby in October 2015. It's a lovely and very welcoming venue so I was pleased to see a return this Christmas. The crowd this year had obviously heard about last years appearance  as numbers had increased almost threefold despite the best attempts of Storm Barbara to keep people snug at home. 

The Lennanshees opened, three ladies, Bella, Maria and Tracey performing, with the exception of the occasional ukulele, acapella. They specialise in "spine tingling melodies to warm your heart". They certainly lived up to that description. Although they are York based I had never seen these before, a mistake I intend to rectify in future. Their name is derived from a malicious faerie in Celtic Folklore. There was absolutely nothing malicious  about the beautiful harmonies they sang to a rapt, spellbound audience who listened intently to every word. Opening with The Coventry Carol moving swiftly through excellent covers of songs by Anne Briggs, KD Lang, Sinatra, one of my favourite songs of all time,  John Martyn's May You Never and one song of their own More Time which compared very favourably to the wide range of covers. Their short but very sweet set ended with Kooks as a tribute to David Bowie, one of the many great artists who have passed over in 2016. They left the stage to considerable applause and I am fairly certain the audience would have liked a lot more.

Belinda O'Hooley and Heidi Tidow have had, by anyone's standards, a very successful year. Cambridge and Glastonbury appearances, rave reviews for new album SHADOWS, nominations for Best Duo, The praises have been many and well deserved. Live they are superb, shows which cover the full spectrum of emotions always performed with warmth and obvious enjoyment. They have an ever growing dedicated, knowledgeable and very friendly following. This tour was billed as "an alternative celebration of Christmas". Some songs were traditional, some jolly, some funny, some serious and some that brought tears in the eyes of the audience. They managed to evoke aspects of Christmas that are neglected in many shows. Christmas after all is not just about Santa, baby Jesus or the annual celebration of over indulgence. It can be a time when memories, either painful or pleasant or both are brought to mind. For many people it can be a lonely occasion. Times past can be remembered or longed for. 

A gentle piano introduction led into The Last Polar Bear from THE FRAGILE, an endearing love story between the last Polar Bear and a patch of snow. Winter scene set, they moved onto the more up tempo Colne Valley Hearts from SHADOWS, a song about their love of their home place and its people. Even more up tempo was Three Drunken Maidens from SUMMAT'S BREWIN'  described as "The Works Christmas Do, 200 years ago". A complete change of mood followed  with the traditional Wexford Lullaby sung acapella, performed off microphone at the front of stage. Still off microphone but with accordion Belinda sang Whitethorn, a truly sombre and harrowing song I haven't heard her perform since her days back with Rachel Unthank and The Winterset (now The Unthanks). It tells of Belinda's Great Grandmother in County Sligo. Many children of her 17 times pregnant ancestor were buried under a White Thorn bush. To be buried in Church grounds you needed to have been baptised. To be baptised you need to be born or live long enough for baptism. Seamlessly Heidi took this into a very slow and haunting Stille Nacht in German before singing the English version Silent Night also. Unbidden the audience spontaneously joined in with Belinda and Heidi's beautiful harmonies. Continuing the Christmas theme and a (their words) brief respite from despair with Richard Thompson's We Sing Hallelujah, another song also accompanied by the audience. The usual kazoo duet made its appearance at the end of this song. Back behind the keyboards and microphones they sang Blanket, a song about orphaned elephants in Kenya. Belinda and Heidi have always produced great harmonies but they now seem to have taken the art to a new level altogether. There are many intentional dissonances which with their intricate arrangements and phrasing produce very moving passages in their songs. A very rousing audience involved version of Summat's Brewin' finished the set. A celebration of the spirit of the small, inspired by extensive research of the many micro breweries around Yorkshire. Someone had to do the research, Belinda and Heidi, obviously reluctantly, agreed to undertake the task.

A  lively but serious celebration of diversity and social commentary song, Made in England, opened Set Two. This song I find reminiscent and just as powerful as Billy Bragg's Half English. A return to the Christmas theme next with Steve Ashley 's Fire and Wine, interesting rising and falling  scale harmonies, stretched notes and tempo changes make this a powerful song. The very poignant and moving Calling Me from THE FRAGILE evokes the passing of seasons and time. Belinda's keyboards empathising  yet contrasting beautifully with Heidi's vocals. Lifting the now almost sombre mood was a "Bolly's Juke Box Section" which was essentially Belinda taking her accordion to stage front and requesting and performing any requests that were made. Following the previous song it was not surprising that In the Bleak Midwinter was first choice. It lifted after that with a selection of well known Christmas songs, all of which had great if not always correct help from the audience. It was like a sing song after hours at the pub, great stuff! No let up in pace as they launched into Beryl their tribute to Beryl Burton, described by their heroine Maxine Peake as one of the "criminally ignored people from our history books". From SHADOWS, this song really pedals along as is fitting for a song about a champion cyclist. I am always reminded (not that I am old enough to remember) of the type of piano used for silent movies. Not easing back on the throttle came Gentleman Jack with its usual splitting of audience into Team O'Hooley and Team Tidow for synchronised singing with the song finishing  on a huge crescendo of sound. The song is about Anne Lister, a Yorkshire woman of high birth who  instead of following convention and  marrying away her wealth and independence chose an entirely different way of spending her time. The lyrics tell you all about her secret life. Slowing the pace down Belinda performed her solo piano piece Shadows, fully demonstrating just how good a pianist she is. On the CD it was recorded on a Steinway grand piano at Museum of Modern Art in Machynlleth. It is an exceptional piece of music. The last song proper of the set was the oft recorded River by Joni Mitchell. Normally I despise Joni Mitchell covers but this was superb, it has more passion than the original. The deft re-arrangement adds so much more to the song. Some slight lyrical changes "She loved me so naughty", somehow made all the more powerful by the Northern vowels. Most effective, to me , however, are the harmonies that swirl around the line "I would teach my feet to fly". Somehow the lyric just takes off and soars away, absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. Of course there was an encore and for me this was the most powerful and emotional part of the evening. The relatively rarely played One More Xmas from SILENT JUNE. I confess this is a song that has escaped me in the past but for anyone who is remembering different times at Christmas it is just so meaningful.

"I just want to be little and spend Christmas with my mum,
I don't care what it means , I'm not concerned if it's wrong,
I just want one more Christmas with my Mum"

To really finish the show they went straight into a slow piano introduction to one of the best arrangements of Fairytale of New York I have ever heard . As with River, so much was added to the song. Their harmonies have evolved to a wondrous level, getting ever more challenging. A wonderful concert that left the audience, many who were O'Hooley and Tidow virgins, buzzing before setting off home. Thankfully Storm Barbara had done the decent thing and subsided. A really great night. They have much lined up for 2017 including shows with Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie as The Coven as well as song writing workshops. If you haven't seen them yet then you owe it to yourself to do so soon.

Keith Belcher
Northern Sky

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