Quercus at The Pepper Canister Church, Dublin

Ian Patterson By

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The Pepper Canister Church
25 January, 2014

St. Stephen's Church is familiarly known as the Pepper Canister Church owing to the form of its cupola. The church's handsome Georgian architecture blends with the affluent surroundings, but it was the pools of light and the dark recesses of its interior that made it the perfect venue for the chamber intimacy of the traditional—and not so traditional—songs of love and pain that are Quercus' staple fare.

Quercus' set was drawn in large measure from its eponymous debut album released in spring 2013 but the chemistry between singer June Tabor, pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Iain Ballamy was the fruit of a collaboration that stretches back to 2006. And like the oak tree that inspired the band's name, Quercus' 100-minute set demonstrated that its musical folk roots run deep while its branches embrace—at least instrumentally—the improvisational and harmonic terrain of jazz.

Tabor's unaccompanied vocals on the intro to "Brigg Fair" lent a haunting air to this ode to love, while the warmth of Ballamy and Warren's extended coda contrasted with Tabor's wistful delivery. "Brigg Fair" was one of a collection of English folk songs sung by Joseph Taylor and recorded on a wax cylinder in 1908 by Australian composer/arranger Percy Grainger. It segued into another tune from those early field recordings, "Rufford Park Poachers," the tale of a battle in 1850 between local peasants and the landlord's gamekeepers. The skipping, buoyant interpretation mirrored the defiance of "the poachers bold."

Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Insensatez"—stripped of the original's gentle bossa sway—was a stark lament for love ended, with Ballamy's tenor lines speaking of the jilted's inner unrest. Ballamy's cheery instrumental "Strawberries" lightened the mood before the trio's haunting delivering of "Near but Far Away"—a Ballamy tune with lyrics by Queen Caroline Hughes—an English gypsy singer-songwriter.

A beautiful version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice it's Alright" was played just a notch above balladic tempo and the first set ended with "This is Always," which Tabor introduced to laughter as "one of the classic songs about love really working; there aren't many." Tabor's tender vocal on this Harry Warren/Mark Gordon tune contrasted with Ballamy's billowy lyricism.

Quercus began the second set with one of the most moving and lyrical anti-war statements ever penned—"The Lads in Their Hundreds." Originally a poem by A. E. Housman about the loss of young men's lives in the Boer War, the words were put to music by George Butterworth in 1911, who in a cruel twist of fate, was himself killed by a sniper at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Ballamy's arrangement and Tabor's poignant delivery combined to evoke village idyll and its shattering. The elegiac strains of "Teares," Warren's lovely piano recital inspired by English Renaissance composer John Dowland provided a fittingly emotive coda.

The lightly stated sexual insinuation of 'Who Wants the Evening Rose?—originally an Arab tale with Hebrew lyrics—and the "The Shepherd and his Dog" brought romanticism and haunting pastoralism to the set. "As I Roved Out"—inspired by Irish folk singer Andy Irvine's version—returned Tabor to more familiar territory of love spurned; the trio's heartfelt interpretation was captivating. The tempo went up several gears when Warren and Ballamy locked horns again on the pianist's instrumental "Pig"—a flowing, cinematic piece based on a short story by Roald Dahl.

With the concert falling on the birthday of Scottish National Poet Robert Burns, the evening wouldn't have been complete without "Lassie Lie near Me"—and the trio's rendition captured the tenderness inherent in Burn's lines from 1790. The gently melodic contours of "All I Ask of You"—an affirmation of love—prompted Tabor to quip that she was in danger of losing her Triple A doom rating. It capped a fine concert and earned the musicians a standing ovation.

"We sing and play songs that tell stories," Tabor had told the audience earlier in the set. "It doesn't matter where these songs come from. They all tell stories, whether literally in words or through pictures in the music." Whatever the source, Quercus threaded the narratives together in a universal mosaic. Arabic and Scottish poetry were made to sing while Irish, English and Brazilian songs of love lost, unrequited and just occasionally reciprocated, were poetic. Tales spun of injustice, confessions of the heart and nostalgia for an idyllic past traversed time and borders.

It was a treat to see and hear the special chemistry at play between Tabor, Warren and Ballamy and to feel the deep-rooted empathy that translated into music that was sincere, touching and meaningful.

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