A few weeks back, our friend Leo Saunders sent me a message asking if we would like to come and see him perform at The Guild Hall in Gloucester. Leo was part of the 90’s indie scene, so I was expecting something along those lines. Because of his looks and style, he could very easily pass himself off as Paul Weller’s younger brother, so initially I imagined an evening of floppy hair and ironic songs sung in an estuary accent. But I was mistaken.
Leo, along with another muso called George Moorey, had decided to take on the task of rifling through the poems and letters of the renowned Gloucester poet and composer Ivor Gurney and set them to music. Now, Ivor Gurney was born in 1890 and a twist of fate at his christening resulted in him having the Reverend Alfred Cheeseman as his Godfather, a man who took his duties very seriously and was a great influence on the young Ivor. Gurney won scholarships to Kings School and The Royal College of Music. He was described as a genius but almost unteachable due to his personality. An image of an early 20th century version of Johnny Rotten or Noel Gallagher springs to mind.
In 1915, Ivor Gurney went off to the war, being invalided out for the second time in 1917 after being gassed. During his time in the trenches, Ivor continued to write every day – letters, poems, songs, a prolific amount of material.
Leo and George’s project involved writing two pieces of music – one 19 minutes and 14 seconds long, the other 19 minutes and 18 seconds long, for the obvious reasons. If it isn’t obvious, you may have trouble answering those quiz questions on Deal or No Deal or a four year old who’s brilliant at reading but crap at history.
So, quite a task, you may think. But wait. There’s more. Not only would they be composing the music, they would also be involving other musicians and schools in the city. The idea of all those highly strung creative types combined with school kids and their teachers was enough to make me feel faint, and I wasn’t even doing it.
So, in an effort to support Leo and curious to see how much the whole process had aged him in the last few months, we went along to last night’s ‘one-off’ performance.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some sort of school play/concert on a grand scale? An indie band playing in front of surly school kids holding brass instruments?
Well, it all started with a bit of a warm up from two musicians, Dan Vickers and Adam King. Dan sang three songs, with a breathless, husky style which reminded me of Passenger. Lady Barton and I decided that this style of music could be described as progressive folk and Dan didn’t let me down; for his last song, Overboard, Dan played his guitar keyboard style, the instrument in his lap. The last time I’d seen guitar played like that was in a folk pub in Brighton, by a gnome like man in full Morris Man regalia. However, the sound that Dan made was magnificent. Not for the last time that evening, I felt enormous respect for musicians who are able to make such amazing sounds.
Adam King had just the one song, explaining that it was about The Great War and the ANZACs and the British Forces and their Gallipoli campaign, a song well known in Australia and the most requested when he toured the country. The great thing about Adam was that he sang with what appeared to be a West Country accent with a clear, note perfect vocal rendition.
So, that completed, a few words from George Moorey, who somehow looked like Leo’s nerdy brother, followed by a little potted history of Ivor Gurney from Sebastian Field (more of him later). Leo took to the stage to explain the whole process, which obviously took a great deal of effort. No signs of a nervous breakdown at this juncture.
So it began, 19:14 – we knew we were about to watch an epic progressive folk track. We were wrong, as the musical styles changed effortlessly. My eyes kept being drawn to The Crypt School Orchestra and the violin section, providing a beautiful accompaniment. This was a school orchestra, where you expect the violin players to make a noise that sounds like a cat being scalded, but instead they combined to make a magnificent wave of music they ebbed and flowed.
Leo changed from a rather solemn demeanour to a briefly surreal and comical one, picking up a ukulele and joining in with a reggae inspired section, followed by some powerful rap provided by Shaquille Douglas.
Sebastian Field was suddenly given the stage, his counter tenor voice reaching such high notes I was left open mouthed and I wasn’t the only one. Somebody in the audience let out a short burst of laughter, not knowing how to react to this amazing voice: think Joe Newman from Alt J or Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe.
After a brief interlude, 19:18 again showed more musical genres, Leo smoothly changing from intense balladeer to laid back soul singer. The school choirs complemented the whole thing.
So, it turned out not to be an ego infested, stressful school production, but something worthy of a bigger stage (no offence, Guild Hall). In fact, if this had been Paul Weller or Noel Gallagher or even Sir Paul McCartney himself, it would have been lauded as a great work of art and featured on BBC3 or BBC4.
And it was a one off, never to be performed again – like taking months to build something wonderful and then knocking it down. I’m sure it will return somewhere.
Lady BSM and I discussed whether displaying the words being sung would have enhanced the performance, but we agreed that this may have been distracting. In any case, it encourages you to go and find out more about Ivor Gurney. Furthermore, having read the words to some of these poems, the audience would have been reduced to emotional sobbing wrecks, never mind Leo.
Leo’s speech included a part about how we rarely celebrate ‘differentness’, how talents like Gurney’s can be overlooked. Indeed, Darth Cowell and his X Factor machine would have dismissed Dan Vickers and Adam King without a second thought; Leo mentioned that the biggest talking point of The Brit Awards was Madonna falling down the stairs, with no mention of music whatsoever. Also, during Gurney’s time, he came from a modest home in Gloucester to take a place in King’s School and The Royal College – Leo pointed out that there was greater social mobility in the early 20th century than there ever is today, with our reliance on digital communication and reportage and the dominance of materialism and a ‘I win, you lose’ mentality.
These words echoed around my head during the concert, indeed after it when Lady BSM and I left The Guildhall onto the chilly streets of Gloucester, where inebriated people were already shouting and the philanthropists were at The Cross handing out food to the homeless, as they do every night of the week.
If you’d like to know more about War Songs, go to: