Lisa Knapp, Jenna Reid
& Gwenan Gibbard
at Electric Theatre,
Guildford, England
(27 April 2007)

England, Scotland and Wales: three countries united as Great Britain, but individual pieces itching to be free. Scotland and Wales have their own assemblies, and some Scottish citizens, in particular, have been vocal in wanting to break away from their united kingdom.

Musically, each country seems different at first glance, what with slightly different traditions and even different languages represented within their folk traditions. However, Lisa Knapp (England), Jenna Reid (Scotland) and Gwenan Gibbard (Wales) did their best this night to convince their audience that whilst there are differences, there also are similarities -- and all of them are to be applauded.

First up was probably the least known of the trio, Welsh traditional harpist and vocalist Gibbard. From Pwllheli in the Llyn peninsula of northern Wales, a predominantly Welsh-speaking area, Gibbard focused on performing Welsh folk songs, whether strictly instrumentals or songs sung in Welsh.

There's something about Gibbard, that even though I can't understand a word she sings, I don't necessarily need to do so in order to get the gist of the song. When she introduced her first number, "Gwenni aeth i ffair Pwllheli," a song about Gwennie, an accident-prone girl, I can sort of hear Gwennie's accidents happening in a light-hearted manner. The "hey, hie, oh" refrain makes me think that all folk music, even when sung in Welsh, has its own version of the "hey ho"-type of choruses found in English traditional songs.

Throughout all of Gwenan's numbers, I felt the emotion in the songs. Granted, her introductions (with song translations in English) helped, but the pure feelings heard in each number made meanings clear even if I can't understand Welsh. Her harp playing also is accomplished and merely added to her apparent mission of making Welsh music come to life for the masses.

Next up was Shetland fiddler Reid of the all-female band Dochas, who, although technically representing Scotland this night, made it clear the Shetlands are distinctly different from Scotland per se, noting that she would be playing tunes from Shetland and Scotland. Sitting with her fiddle and accompanied by acoustic guitarist Kevin MacKenzie, she greeted us with a distinctly deep speaking voice, already making jokes about her Shetland home, often referencing its rain and gale-force winds. "We're just getting settled," she said, making a note of the stage set-up. "All these fancy wires. We don't have electricity yet in Shetland," she added with a grin.

Reid created electricity with her fiddle, however, as she moved through tunes she composed; tunes composed by others, including Shetland fiddler Arthur Scott Robinson; and traditional numbers. Although seated, she was dancing about in her chair, moving constantly. A slower number might adjust the pace for a couple of minutes, but she allowed neither herself nor MacKenzie, who helped set the relentless beat, much time away from a musically intense pace. This woman can fiddle, and with relatively little time as one of three performers on stage, she meant to demonstrate her skill as much as possible. She did take time to introduce her numbers, however, and was clever with her between-song patter, describing, amongst other things, what it was like meeting another woman named Jenna Reid at an Edinburgh gig.

Her success with the fiddle is blatant, but one of Reid's hidden skills is her voice. On only one number did she sing. There was a hint of husky velvet to it, along with some unexpected softness, and it's higher than expected from her speaking voice. Reid was clearly my discovery of the evening.

Last on stage was the lady best probably the most promoted of all three in the mainstream UK press: Lisa Knapp. Her debut album has been heralded for its approach to traditional English song. Accompanied during the set by her husband, Gerry Diver, she admitted her own personal homage to the "revivalist singers of the '60s and '70s," naming Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs. "I first heard this song on a Steeleye Span record and the singing of Maddy Prior," she said. It's "The Blacksmith," and Knapp performed it with a raw voice, similar to Collins. With that voice, Knapp could be part of the indie music scene; it's interesting to consider that she's chosen folk music.

At times Knapp seemed hesitant. During the interval, the promoter had been searching for Knapp backstage when she'd been onstage the entire time setting up her own equipment. Perhaps that confusion fazed her initially as she later seemed to hit full stride. Whether she was performing her own material or traditional songs, the theatre's atmosphere suddenly became that of a folk club from 30 or more years ago. She first heard "George Collins" from the singing of Shirley Collins, and the latter's influence was obvious. Her version of "Wild & Undaunted" (a variant of "The Newry Highwayman" and "Adieu, Adieu") was, initially, more slow and mournful that other versions I've heard -- more regretful than celebratory. However, the pace picked up as she sang about the places the narrator's robbed. One thing was clear: Knapp can sing and play fiddle simultaneously.

There's an almost surreal quality to Knapp's voice, and -- although on "Lavender" she truly sounded as if she were selling flowers in Covent Garden -- it's Appalachia in southern England later with her banjo and Diver's guitar. Primarily a fiddler and guitarist, Knapp confessed to enjoying "the different sounds and textures" from the banjo, an instrument she was given only last Christmas.

One number that didn't work live, unfortunately, was a more experimental piece, co-written by Knapp and Diver, "There u r," but I'm blaming this failure more on the sound system than on the performers. I knew Knapp was strumming her autoharp, but all I could hear was the "zip" sound of the pick hitting the strings; the autoharp itself was lost. Knapp requested more vocals midway through, and they were needed because her voice was overwhelmed by Diver's fiddle.

For the finale, all three women were back onstage, along with MacKenzie and Diver, for several tunes and songs, including a version of "Soldier, Soldier." It was a fiddle fest for a bit, with Reid, Knapp and Diver all together with Gibbard's harp and MacKenzie's guitar. Three women, three countries, all united with one purpose: making music.

by Ellen Rawson
16 June 2007