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REVIEW by Fred Hall

Deb Sandland & Phil Beer - Dartford Folk Club, February 25, 2003

Speed-counting is obviously a skill picked up Phil Beer when tallying up gig attendances to work out how much he should expect from the promoter. At Dartford Folk Club, however, he put his gift to work to assess, in four seconds flat, that it would be a 100-voice choir singing along for what was possibly one of the evening's least expected songs, a reworking of Stereophonics' "I wouldn't believe your wireless radio". The Welsh popsters' chart hit wound up the first half of an evening's entertainment in which Beer, with flame-haired chanteuse Deb Sandland - a veteran of The Phil Beer Band - held a crowded room completely spellbound.

It was a little strange hearing a song that's so well known in its original form sung by a different singer. While Sandland and writer Kelly Jones have voices at the, shall we say, hoarser end of the scale, Sandland's is a lot less coarse and is possessed of smoother edges and rounder corners, making for a more enjoyable experience. Similarly, hearing Sandland singing Show of Hands' "White Tribes" was a little disconcerting and, I have to admit, I do prefer writer Steve Knightley's take.

Sandland's voice, so full of emotion and warmth, is perfectly complemented by the virtuoso playing of Beer. Leaving his fiddle at home for this tour, he is limiting himself to a couple of guitars and a mandolin. That said, 'limiting' really isn't the correct word to apply to Beer. Quite simply, the man's a master of anything with strings and his playing with Sandland is vibrant, sensitive, lively, subdued and just what any particular song demands of it.

Both had opportunities to shine individually; the audience sat entranced as Sandland's smoky voice filled the room on unaccompanied ballads and Beer got to show off some fancy fretboard noodlings on a couple of dance tunes as his partner left the stage to put the kettle on - honestly!

"The Ballad on Henry Lee", like several during the set featured on Sandland's recent "My Prayer" album, was introduced by Beer as being a tale of sex, death, retribution and guilt and, I'm glad to say, it lived up to the billing.

Other album tracks to enjoy a live outing were John Tams' "Hold back the tide" and "Still crazy (after all these years)" by Paul Simon, preceded by a tale of a late-night session round the Beer kitchen table trying to work out Mr Simon's chords.

In addition to sharing similar tastes in music, the pair also have the same wacky sense of humour, both finding fun in the simplest of things. A favourite pastime, as they travel from gig to gig, is spotting amusingly named villages and shops. One tale of discovering a shop, in Otley, called Brian Pickles Lawnmowers spiralled off into a Beer monologue taking in such surreal topics as the difficulty these days in finding jars big enough to take the preserved grass-cutters. He was laughing, the audience was laughing and Sandland, who must have heard the story at least once before, was laughing with what appeared genuine mirth. A sure example of the fun they're having on this tour.

Over the course of their 90 minutes on stage, the pair tackled different genres, including Morris tunes, traditional folk songs, several slabs of Americana and the blues, the last represented by an old favourite of Beer's, a rollicking version of Big Bill Broonzy's "The leaving blues" that had many a foot keeping time.

A fine set was rounded off with a moving "Broken arrow", by Robbie Robertson, before they were brought back on for an a capella version of Jackson Browne's "Lady of the well", as fine a way to end a fine evening as one could hope for.

Fred Hall © 2003

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Essex Road

EVERY TUESDAY   8.30 - 11.00

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