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Kathryn Tickell and the Side

Howard Assembly Room, Leeds
Tuesday 17 February 2015

It was way back in the mid-1980s when I first became aware of the 16 year-old Northumbrian smallpipes player Kathryn Tickell, who popped up on stage at the now defunct and lamented Rockingham Arms Folk Club in Wentworth, with her strange and unusual looking (and sounding) instrument in hand. In she flew on that memorable mid-summer evening, unpacked her strange and delicate kit, shyly yet confidently stood up on stage in the spotlight and proceeded to perform a short instrumental set, then quickly made her exit before the audience had time to settle down for the main guest. An impression must have been forged that night as almost thirty years later I can vividly remember Kathryn, yet not the headliner. Having said that, it's rather strange to admit that I haven't actually attended a single Kathryn Tickell show since that night, even though there have been dozens of opportunities. Okay I confess; I'm not the biggest fan of the Northumbrian smallpipes, but I wouldn't go as far as to employ the over-used Marmite analogy, of having to either love or hate the instrument. Let's just say I only tuck into Marmite if I'm really hungry.

So why did you go to this gig I hear you say; well it's simple, Kathryn Tickell is a master musician, not just on those crazy pipes, but also in regard to her command over composition and arrangement and let's not forget she's also a pretty nifty fiddle player. Added to this, Kathryn has recently put together an exciting all-female band of musicians capable of mixing traditional folk tunes with classical elements, which is something that immediately appealed to me, providing me with enough encouragement to try and put things right on the pipe-phobia score. 

The new four-piece ensemble 'The Side', features alongside Kathryn, Amy Thatcher, the nimble-footed clog dancing Amelie-like accordionist from The Shee, together with two classically-trained musicians, Louisa Tuck on cello and Ruth Wall on harp. The stage was set out for these musicians when I arrived at the Howard Assembly Room tonight and I felt an air of anticipation amongst the audience as the seats began to fill up almost to maximum capacity. On another night, it might possibly have been a sell-out, but Fairport Convention had a gig not two minutes away at another Leeds venue and therefore the folk crowd may have been slightly divided. 

Opening the concert was one time Fairport touring playmates Gilmore and Roberts, playing for the first time at this venue. No strangers to Leeds having met at the music college here a few years ago, the duo immediately found their comfort zone and soon settled into their opening set. Kat and Jamie performed songs from their current album The Innocent Left, including Doctor James, The Stealing Arm and Silver Screen, with a couple of newer songs, including Cecilia, which the duo opened with. With Jamie's idiosyncratic lap-guitar style and Kat's increasing use of mandolin over her distinct fiddle playing, the duo delighted the audience with their unique music. The set also included Billy Green, one of the songs from a recent project the duo contributed to, Songs for the Voiceless, based on moving stories from WWI. Closing with Scarecrow, the opening song from their current album, the duo certainly made an impression with this highly receptive audience.

After a short break Kathryn Tickell and the Side took to the stage to deliver a superb set of instrumental pieces, mixing traditional and original folk tunes together with classical influences and arrangements. During the set, Kathryn pointed out that prior to the formation of this quartet there were no known scores for this particular combination of instuments; Northumbrian pipes, cello, Celtic harp and accordion. The performance tonight really beggars the question why no one thought of it before now; it all seems such a natural musical combination. Nowhere was it more noticeable than during The Waters of Tyne set, which featured a beautifully rendered instrumental take on the familiar North East folk song, which morphed almost seamlessly into a classical piece from the pen of composer Augustin Fernandez, which employed the combined talents of both Louisa and Ruth. Throughout the concert the sheer grace and elegance of Ruth's harp was augmented by the fire and passion of Louisa's cello; probably the most determined player since Jacqueline du Pré in her heyday. The theatricality of playing was further enhanced by a couple of 'cello spins' in mid performance, which posed the question 'did that cello spin just the once or twice?' The speed made it difficult to tell. 

Kathryn Tickell is not quite as shy as that 16 year-old I saw at The Rock all those years ago. With a wealth of musical experience on stages all over the world, the Northumberland-born musician has also developed a pleasing and relaxed rapport with her audience and 'on the road' stories come thick and fast. With beautiful playing throughout, along with inspired and inspiring arrangements, the set was peppered with a couple of clogging routines courtesy of Amy Thatcher, who kicked up the dust whilst the band played a couple of speedy hornpipes, which the dancer had no problem keeping up with; in fact at times it looked like the band was having to keep up with Amy.

I arrived in Leeds pretty much a smallpipes sceptic and left very definitely an enlightened enthusiast. My ears have obviously become more attuned to the pipes over the years, which tonight sounded as sweet as they possibly could, ultimately forcing me to re-think my stance. Maybe I should also try Marmite again, I may have been wrong about that too.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky