The Mediaeval Baebes,
with Carolyn Hillyer & Nigel Shaw
at Witchfest, Fairfield Halls,
Croydon, England
(8 November 2003)

Sound checks really aren't all that exciting, especially when there are eight women, a drummer and a guitarist all trying to make sure their microphones and monitors are working correctly. However, sitting in on one sure beats standing in a long queue in an overheated corridor. Finally, a few minutes after the doors were supposed to have been opened, a representative came outside and told everyone that they were having technical difficulties with the equipment -- just 15 more minutes, please.

When that 15 minutes turned out to be 30, the staff went ahead and opened the doors anyway. There were the Baebes on stage, in jeans and other "civilian" clothing, apologizing for the problems. "We wanted you to hear us sounding wonderful," one said, grinning, "but we heard we had an angry crowd outside." Eventually, they gave up with the sound check, laughingly cautioning us that if they didn't sound good, it wasn't their fault -- it was due to equipment problems.

Their over-long sound check meant that the opening act, Carolyn Hillyer and Nigel Shaw, didn't really get one. However, that was OK by them. "When you play Glastonbury," quipped Hillyer, "you get used to quick sound checks."

Dartmoor-based Hillyer and Shaw focused on material on recent albums, particularly one titled Ancestors. Money from the CD goes to Survival International, for their work supporting the rights of indigenous tribal people. The "Cold Lands of the North" inspired a lot of the music they played. On a recent tour that way, in Riga, Latvia, they had been given lots of old recordings -- some dating back to the '30s -- of traditional music from Siberia, and they incorporated that tradition into some songs as well.

There are times when their music sounds rather new-agey, but their instrumentation blended with Hillyer's voice moves them into the world music category. While Hillyer stuck to playing various drums and using her voice as her primary instrument, Shaw moved from different flutes and whistles to operating a sound machine with additional instruments and backing vocals. The highlight was when Shaw played the fujara, a Slovakian mountain flute. Hillyer maintained that it's the largest flute in the world, and it certainly looks like that's the case. In shape, it appeared more like a large bassoon, but the notes that emanated from it certainly sounded like that of a deep flute.

When they left the stage, it was time for more sound checks. This show was going to run very, very late indeed, but when the Baebes, all eight of them in this current line-up, finally appeared in full costume (the first dresses worn were long, white gowns -- not at all period in their design; they were purely fantasy mediaeval), they were determined to give the audience their all. They took advantage of a re-enactment group that had performed a fighting demonstration earlier in the day; knights in shining armor accompanied them onstage. Opening with the title track of their first CD, Salva Nos, they dealt with monitor problems ("more voice in the monitor for me," "less for me," "can we hear the guitar?" came the pleas to the sound engineers after the number) and blended their voices together successfully.

For the most part, the performance was a "best of" night, which was appropriate since their most recent CD, Mistletoe & Wine, is pretty much just that -- re-mixes of songs from previous albums and two brand new tracks. The title track from their first album was followed by another title track, this time from Undrentide, and the audience seemed generally familiar with most of the numbers played.

Accompanied by Steven Yates on guitars and Vince Johnson on percussion, three of the women occasionally joined in on recorder and violin, and another once on guitar at the very end. The Baebes performed music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, singing in languages including Middle English, Latin and mediaeval French, Spanish and Welsh. When the audience can't understand the words very well, they have to trust the women's introductions to the songs. For example, "The Sour Grove," written by a mediaeval Welsh woman tired of hearing songs written by men about the beauty of women's lips, faces, etc., wrote about women's genitals instead. (According to the Baebes, those lyrics have been banned from various anthologies of Welsh poetry over the years.) Other songs may have been familiar from English literature classes, such as "The Wake Lyke Dirge," better known to Baebes fans as "This Ay Nicht," to the haunting "How Death Comes." On that particular song, the women start with a spine-chilling, whispered round-like chant, leading to what might be termed the chorus of "all too late."

The Baebes run a choreographed show. There were two costume changes -- first out of the white gowns, dresses which led to them joking about pretending to be virginal -- very much a joke since one member, Rachael van Asch, was obviously pregnant -- into gold and silver glittery gowns and later long, red dresses. The dresses, designed by Van Asch, were made for the stage -- all were fantasy mediaeval, none truly were at all period. Katherine Blake almost looked like a flapper in her sparkling dress. But the fantasy image goes with the whole concept of the group. Here are eight women singing music rarely heard by the typical rock music crowd. These are songs generally saved for early music groups, songs performed in a very serious manner for very serious audiences. But whilst the Baebes seem devoted to their music, they aren't the mystical mediaeval ensemble that they easily could be. They chat with the audience, tell jokes, tease each other (Claire Ravel's hairstyle was the source of a lot of teasing -- in more ways than one) and generally seem to enjoy themselves on stage. They're fun mediaeval, and if they can attract even those younger audience members dressed as goths to period music, more power to them -- even if the show runs late.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 20 December 2003