Maddy Prior &
the Carnival Band
at the Concert Hall,
Reading, England
(9 December 2001)

It's not unusual to enter an auditorium and see the stage swathed in musical instruments. What's unusual is finding Flemish bagpipes and 'uds juxtaposed with a modern drum kit.

The Carnival Band has been blending musical instruments and traditions, ranging from early music to music hall tunes, since 1984. In that same year, vocalist Maddy Prior (of Steeleye Span fame) first joined them for a BBC radio Christmas carol program. Since then, she has collaborated with the band on various occasions over the years, generally making seasonal recordings and touring. Their recent joint release, Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, gave them the perfect incentive for a timely December UK tour. While the second set would focus on songs from that thematic album, the bulk of the evening was devoted to seasonal songs and carols dating from medieval to more modern times.

With shawms heralding them to the stage, the band members took their places. Five microphones stood in a row downstage, with Prior centered in the middle. (Room for the drum kit was allocated in the back.) A traditional-looking drum hung from the drummer's neck, and his was the only instrument heard on the verses of "The Boar's Head Carol." Everyone sang on the chorus, and Prior swirled her long velvet skirt and danced during instrumentals.

"They use that song to bring in the feast at Queen's College, Oxford," she informed us, going on to mention that this year's celebration lacked an actual boar's head. "Maybe," she speculated with a laugh, "there was a tofu head."

Folk carols were featured throughout the show. "The Carnal and the Crane" concerns apocryphal tales about confusing Herod as discussed by a carnal (crow) and a crane. Period-looking scenes from the story were projected on a screen behind the performers. While the illustrations were evocative, the room simply wasn't dark enough for them to have much effect.

"Hark, Hark,What News the Angels Bring" has had, according to multi-instrumentalist Andy Watts, "a convoluted history." This traditional carol began its life in the written tradition, but it went "underground" in the 19th century, only to re-emerge in the 20th century as part of the written tradition and be included in the Oxford Book of Carols. Remnants of its oral past seemed obvious as each singer entered on his or her own note for "hark, hark, hark" as this part song began, almost as if they were singing scales -- "hark, hark, hark" for "do, re, mi."

Bits and pieces of pagan tradition were evident in some songs from the English tradition. "The Sans Day Carol" from Cornwall was reminiscent of "The Holly and Ivy" with lines such as "the first tree in the green wood / it was the holly." Legendary references to how animals behave around Christmas were evident in "Round of the Animals," during which the performers all donned animal masks (yes, they still could sing; the masks only came down to their noses) and joined in on the round, with an occasional baa or other animal noise made at just the right moment. "The Oxen," a Thomas Hardy poem set to music, is about the myth that all the animals kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve. "Maybe it's the truth," Prior suggested. Laughing, she admitted that "I've not been in the barn at Christmas Eve; I'm usually in the pub."

Both Prior and the band were in good spirits and genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. For the "Suite d'Noel," a grouping of French tunes and songs (Prior sang in French), drummer Raph Mizraki, already dressed in a black-and-white striped shirt, picked up an acoustic guitar and a black beret. He proceeded to react dramatically to the other players as they wound up the number on a jazz note. Improvisational jazz on recorders? Andy Watts and Giles Lewin managed to pull it off.

The band tried to include the audience on some numbers. After displaying a large tin of sweets, children were invited onstage to help play bells. Prior's daughter, Rose Kemp, joined them to sing and help look after the children, who were given bells of various size and breeds to play. The song's words were written in the 19th century, but the tune was the dance "Bransle Official" (or as Prior loosely translated it, "Swaying Dance of the Bureaucrats"). Prior worked well with the children, walking about and sharing her microphone with her young bell ringers. She then discussed her upcoming twelve-day walking trek of Peru for cancer research. Originally, the trip was to have been to Jordan, but it had been changed to Peru, and she was a little worried about the altitude. She explained that the raffle tickets sold in the lobby were not to pay for her holiday but to help her raise money for cancer research.

To close the first set and then release everyone to the lobby to purchase raffle tickets and CDs, the band played a rather waltzy wassail song. Prior came in a little early; mandolinist Steve Banks shot her a look of mock surprise. When the chorus was projected on the screen, the band encouraged the audience to sing along.

Prior didn't take much of a break. She immediately headed to the lobby to sign autographs and chat with the crowd. She magically managed to change from her festive red-and-black outfit to a Middle Eastern-looking affair for the second set. The new album is focused on the stories of the three kings, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, who brought the gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem. The second set started with music emanating from the back of the hall, with Middle Eastern-style drums, bells and shawms playing as the band processed down the aisle to the stage. The auditorium was darker, and the slide show behind the performers was clearly visible at this point. Various photographs of Middle Eastern scenery and artwork played behind the music.

The men contributed more vocals. As Prior sang the verses to "Melchior," the men all joined in together for the choruses. Giles Lewin was the lead vocalist on "Caspar," with the rest singing very low, deep, chantlike backing vocals. The entire mood of "Caspar" was very meditative and thoughtful. The men became the echoes behind Prior's voice on "Balthazar" as she took on the role of Balthazar to tell the story accompanied by recorder and lots of drums and percussion. "Jericho" took on a traditional Jewish, almost klezmer feel with Watts' clarinet. The song shifted from a slow klezmer beat to a blend of various types of Middle Eastern influences. Here, Prior was able to practice her vocal "tricks," as she "laughed" down the scale, extending one syllable into several notes. It's the same technique she uses with traditional ballads, and it works here as well.

A performance by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band is not simply a musical gig; it's an education unto itself. Prior's unique, distinguishable voice works well with the Carnival Band's material, whether she's performing in England, French or even Latin. (She noted that she was "thrown out of Latin in the second level," and it gives her great satisfaction to realize she's probably used the language more than those earned their O levels. "It's a lovely language to sing in actually," she said.)

The background information about the songs and their history is eye-opening. (For example, I previously hadn't been aware that with the exception of "While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks at Night," Christmas carols weren't sung in church until 1780.) To close the show, the band performed two distinct adaptions of carols. First, there was the a cappella "Poor Little Jesus," in which gospel met English tradition. It was followed by the final number, the first song Prior ever sang with the Carnival Band, "Angels from the Realms of Glory," a faster and higher version than any she'd known before, and it also came to them via Mississippi. It was a practical hoedown on stage, with Watts switching between clarinet and jaw's harp, and Prior and Kemp dancing together.

While the show featured seasonal songs about Christmas, it was interesting how the show didn't necessarily feel as if it needed to be part of a Christmas celebration. Yes, they lit a Christmas tree (a tiny little tree that they joked about) and sang carols and songs about the three kings, the songs either were historical or were based on history; the overall tone was celebratory rather than religious. It might have seemed disconcerting to listen to Christmas songs on the first night of Chanukah, but the joy expressed via Prior and band through their voices and instruments was appropriate for any holiday.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 21 December 2001



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