To the Apex, Bury St Edmunds with my father to see the great Ralph McTell; it’s a cold Remembrance Sunday night. We are both serious fans since becoming addicted to his Right Side Up album, which is genuinely one of the great albums of the 70s – London Irish flavoured ballads mixed in with inspired covers, including a devastating version of Tom Waits’ San Diego Serenade. We are delighted to discover that through accident rather than design we are seated in the front row, giving us a close up of three beautiful guitars, waiting patiently for instruction.
The building itself is extraordinary – a sort of high tech barn. We are almost completely enveloped in wood which gives the odd impression that we are actually inside a guitar. It smells good too. When Ralph appears, a little shambling, he gazes around in wonder. ‘What an amazing place,’ he mutters, before adding: ‘but you know that because you live here.’
He’s in contemplative mood this evening, explaining how Remembrance Day has almost meant a lot to him – and treats us to memories of all kinds, including a powerful, haunting version of England 1914. There are reminiscences of his own army days, as well as long ago trips to the beach with his uncles and aunts. The past is a rich seam he returns to, exploring a sort of personal mythology of post war Britain. But he is far from a nostalgia act; this tour is not as extreme as the one in support of Somewhere Down the Road, where he played almost entirely new material – albeit with great power and conviction. Tonight old and new sit comfortably alongside each other, informing and enriching, while the unity of tone comes from his guitar playing – precise, intricate and melodic.
He shows off the guitar he’s owned since he was 19, while explaining how easy it is to covet others. ‘If you’re a guitar player,’ he confesses, ‘you’ll know you can never have too many guitars.’ He’s promoting a new album of instrumentals: Sofa Noodlings, his first all instrumental album, including re-workings of old favourites, alongside new tunes. A highlight is Housewives’ Choice, a kissing cousin of Blind Blake’s Rag, a jaunty jazz inflected rag (inspired by music he heard on the BBC’s Light Programme as a child, which ‘played cheerful music to keep the housewives cheerful. Please tell me I’m not the only one in here old enough to remember it!’) It’s also an excuse to essay his delightful and possibly unconscious hip shimmy while he plays.
Streets of London is received gratefully and inspires a hushed audience sing along. Although he must be sick to the back teeth of it by now, he still treats it with respect – perhaps acknowledging that it has allowed him a life of creative freedom and given him a following wider than some of his folk contemporaries have enjoyed.
Melodies still seem to come easily to him; The Girl on the Jersey Ferry (from his last album) is a lesson in classic song writing – using a single image well as exploration of memory and regret, while using a sophisticated double narrative. It sits comfortably alongside Naomi – his beautiful peon to love in old age, played in stately fashion on the gleaming grand piano. His introduction is typically enlightening, funny and poetic too – how a visit to an elderly couple for tea sparks his imagination.
But it is then guitar he returns to as his enduring love; he plays us hard edge blues alongside Reverend Thunder and The Ghost of Robert Johnson, both tributes to the great bluesmen whose shadows still hang across his work. A spirited Around the Wild Cape Horn also points towards this becoming something of a modern classic. Despite so many years on the road, Ralph still seems in awe at the love and acclaim he inspires. But he deserves every bit of it – as a living link to a valuable tradition of folk and blues and as a great English musician and poet. The past is something to be understood and unravelled over time, but this evening proves that music – the space between the six strings – remains the greatest mystery of all.