Imagined Village are a force of nature, but is it folk? With their third album, Bending The Dark, the link with the Tradition becomes even more tenuous, and this is a band that defies glib pigeon-holing. With its roots in founder Simon Emmerson’s Afro-Celt Sound System, and with personnel from Transglobal Underground plus the world of traditional music, the aim of the band has always been to explore what Englishness means in a modern multi-cultural society. More a collective than a settled line-up, Imagined Village started their latest tour at Basingstoke’s Anvil, and managed to lift that rather soulless venue in a quite remarkable way.
There are changes to the personnel for the new album and then some more for the tour. Chris Wood is taking time out, so Jackie Oates steps in to share lead vocals with Martin and Eliza Carthy. With drummer Andy Gangadeen unable to tour, Ged Lynch steps in, but the band loses nothing through the substitution.
It’s the drums and bass that are at the heart of Imagined Village, and Lynch, fellow percussionist Johnny Kalsi, and bassist Ali Friend, produce a driving beat that allows keyboards, sitar, cello and violins to soar. Add in three of the best singers in traditional folk and you have a compelling mix.
‘The Captain’s Apprentice’ starts with Oates singing unaccompanied, but the band then come in, adding layer upon layer until it segues into another traditional song, ‘New York Trader’. Child abuse, murder, a miscarriage of justice, a great sea storm, and finally a wrong being righted – this is proper folk music, but it is done in a way that is different from any that came before.
‘Wintersinging’ is reminiscent of Pentangle’s ‘Take Three Girls’, and Oates’ vocals also feature on Nest which includes sections from the African American lullaby, ‘All The Pretty Horses’. Live, Oates sounds more like the great Sandy Denny than anyone I’ve ever heard, which can be no bad thing.
‘Sick Old Man’ has lovely vocals from Eliza, and somehow snippets of Raggle Taggle Gypsy sneak in, while ‘Fisherman’ is powerful enough that the lack of the horn section that features on the recorded version just doesn’t matter. ‘The Guv’na’ and Emmerson’s ‘Get Kalsi’, his riff on the Get Carter theme and a tribute to his percussionist mate, both leave the world of folk far behind.
‘My Son John’, from previous album, Empire And Sun, is Martin Carthy’s updating of a Napoleonic song for the war in Afghanistan, with the father telling us that his injured son gets carbon-fibre blades after losing the race with the cannon ball. Towards the end, Johnny Kalsi comes out from behind his drums, straps on the dohl, and gives the Punjabi drum a serious workout. Every time he has done this, and it featured first on ‘Cold, Haily, Rainy Night’ on their first album, the audience reaction is remarkable. Puzzling over why this should be the case, my partner simply commented ‘because it’s so uplifting’, and it is – in a band full of star names, it’s Kalsi and the big drum that always get the biggest cheer.
The title track from the new album is Sheema Mukherjee’s piece which won the Performing Rights Society’s competition designed to put new music at the heart of the Olympic celebrations. It should have been titled Bending the Da, the sixth note of the Indian scale, but the typo stuck! Written from the perspective of a second-generation immigrant, it is 12 minutes long and is simply wonderful. The complexity of ‘Bending The Dark’ is such that you wonder whether it can be properly reproduced live, but Imagined Village carry that off in a seemingly effortless, joyous, and exhilarating way. The drum battle between Kalsi and Lynch towards the end is stunning and a million miles away from typically tedious rock drum solos.
The band have contrived a beautiful ending to the show, with members gradually drifting off stage until the only one left is Martin Carthy with his acoustic guitar, performing a strangely-moving, slow version of Slade’s ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ – it shouldn’t work, but it does, beautifully.
Imagined Village are doing the rounds of the summer festivals – catch them if you can.
The Imagined Village Tour continues in the UK to the end of August
22 June 12 – Burton, Sunrise Festival
14 July 12 – London, Queen Elizabeth Hall
15 July 12 – Dorset, Larmer Tree Festival
26 Aug 12 – Suffolk, Folk East
27 Aug 12 – Cheltenham, Greenbelt Festival