We’re getting increasingly excited at the thought of a full-length debut from transatlantic duo Son of Town Hall. Filled with much hope and a little trepidation, the RGM team head to Cecil Sharp House for the London date on their current UK tour...
The Trefusis Room doesn’t have the feel of the CSH main hall but nevertheless the quirk and grandeur of the building (it’s the home of all things English Folk) lets you know you’re in a unique and very special place. It therefore feels entirely appropriate that Son of Town Hall have moored up here, of all places. This is not your average Camden venue and this is definitely not your average acoustic duo.
The English half of the act is Ben Parker (formerly of Ben & Jason) and his American counterpart is singer-songwriter and author David Berkeley. Their delicately precise fingerpicking and finely-woven harmonies dress songs that owe debts in equal measure to English folk and American roots music but, as we’re about to find out, there’s a bit more to them than just acoustic loveliness.
The pair enter the room to a backing tape of brass band and seagull noises. They are dressed in tattered Dickensian clobber (the look is Waiting for Godot with guitars) and they shake hands with members of the audience as if they are welcoming us to their small-town place of worship which, in a way, I suppose they are. There’s a tall, feathered hat for Berkeley and a neat bowler for Parker and on stage there’s a wine bottle apiece from which they will swig between songs. The shtick is that the two live together on a raft afloat in the Atlantic and only occasionally come ashore to play shows. There is much talk of the lonely life at sea; ‘the new land’ and of the temptations of gambling, liquor and ‘woman’. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek of course and makes for banter aplenty and much laughter all round.
The water-bound characters may be only loosely held but the pair’s onstage chemistry is clear. Both Parker and Berkeley have their own vocal style but, surprisingly, the blend of American and English accents isn’t at all jarring. They harmonise over the exquisite guitar work with such deftness and accuracy that you start to wonder whether or not they really have been at sea together for the last two hundred years.
The undefined bygone age in which Son of Town Hall reside inevitably dictates that their songs are timeless tales of loss and longing. This makes them universally accessible; ‘Leaving London Town’ and ‘The Line Between’ pulling particularly hard on the crowd’s heartstrings during the first 45-minute set. Naturally, there is balance in more rousing tunes such as ‘Rocky Shores of England’ during which the congregation lustily obliges by contributing vocal support. After a short intermission, Son of Town Hall are back and, once more, the seagulls and brass band fade away as ‘To Breathe Is To Burn’ ushers in the second set. The high standard of between-song quipping is maintained and is in pleasing contrast to the reverent delivery of the songs themselves. ‘Louise’ and ‘The Man With Two Wives’ are two that really stand out, along with the encore ‘Song You Never Heard’, replete with yet more audience participation.
Son of Town Hall are about to set sail for the USA but will return to the UK for more shows later in the year. Let’s hope they bring that finished LP with them. Tonight has proven, though, that in order to fully appreciate these gentlemen you really need to get out and see them live (something a record junky like me hardly ever says), so do keep your eyes on those tour dates. Better still, just bug them direct to come and play in your town. Tell them that the folks aboard the good ship RGM sent you.
Review by Rich Barnard.