Words by Ed King
With frozen toes and a full moon, I wait for the No 50 bus; watching two ‘hoodies’ talk in sign language outside the back entrance to Selfridges.
A young girl, with bruised legs and a suitcase, smokes angrily behind me. The old man in front curses at taxis. Birmingham, I think, and stamp my thinly clad feet on the concrete.
The last time I saw Martha Tilston was at a beach bar in Goa; a coconut grove music venue called The Alpha Bar. She performed as part of their regular open mike night and was hocking copies of ‘Bimbling’ – her second solo album.
I arrive at the Kitchen Garden Café in time for the support act, an absurdly humble young Folkster called Chris Cleverley. Playing a mix of UK and US traditional Folk, alongside his original material – Cleverley is definitely worth looking out for; with a beautifully laconic persona and dystopian sales techniques.
But the sell out crowd are firmly here to see Tilston Jnr, and as I nestle into my doorway view point I can feel a low rumble of expectation. Martha Tilston has played at the Kitchen Garden Café before, again supported by Chris Cleverly, and the capacity full room doesn’t feel like a fluke.
Opening with ‘Space’, one of my favourite tracks from ‘Bimbling’, Martha Tislton is immediately stronger on stage. The sometimes ‘ethereal’ production on her albums, especially surrounding her vocals, is replaced with a firm and confident delivery. I am reminded of what grabbed me when I first saw her perform.
Accompanied by Matt Tweed on the electric bass, Tislton moves into ‘Over to Ireland’; segueing with reminisce on how the track reminds her of Birmingham and our “friendly hecklers”, even changing a lyric to cement her point.
As Tweed exchanges bass for (and I think I’m right) a bouzouki, a Greek lute, Martha Tilston introduces ‘Falcon’; a song written on a grounded aeroplane about “taking stock of your life”. Tilston’s vocals hot step over soft strings, and eventually leave her eyes closed and smiling. The room, which is divided in an L-Shape, can be nothing but complicit.
Next up is ‘More’, with its more (no pun) fearsome delivery on the seduction of capitalism. I scan the room, with its well meaning middle class, and laugh inwardly a little. And then at myself; a glass of Malbec sitting between my Jasper Conran shoes.
Tilston and Tweed work comfortably through the rest of the first set; fitting in a full length traditional Folk song, ‘Willie o Winsbury’ (complete with an oddly homoerotic 10th stanza), alongside original solo album tracks. They even coerce a, seemingly unprompted, audience accompaniment; as crowd harmonies of “all the angels” respond through ‘Red’, the penultimate song of this first half.
A ten minute pit stop, and set two opens with ‘Survival Guide’, the gentle warning from Tilston’s latest album, and continues with mostly tracks from her last two LPs.
Personal laments about motherhood and sacrifice, in ‘My Chair’, are delivered alongside the more political message of ‘Wall Street’; whilst ‘Wave Machine’, a faster tempo celebration of nature, gets more audience participation – this time splitting the room into separate harmonies.
And there’s even another traditional Folk song, ‘Dowie Dens o Yarrow’; complete with spiraling body count and violent crimes of passion. Ah the days of yore… such simpler times.
But the highlights of the last act come in two, very different, homages.
The first is ‘Butterflies’, inspired by the ‘celebrated female singer/songwriter’ Joni Mitchell; with Tilston questioning both the necessity to define Mitchell’s gender, and to mention her quite so much on a recent biog. As the sole male of a matriarchal family home, and a copywriter, I breathe a very welcome sigh of sensibility.
The second, and Martha Tilston’s last song of set two, is ‘Old Tom Cat’; an almost classical Spanish sounding tribute to Leonard Cohen. Mellifluous finger picking, over a kindly satirical melody, builds with taunted relish to a “Hallelujah” crescendo.
I’m not a devotee of the man with a hundred nicknames (my personal favourite – ‘Captain Mandrax’), but if you’re going to salute Leonard Cohen, this is a grand way to end it. And the evening; which even squeezes out another audience sing-a-long during the single track encore of ‘Good World’, a positive protest song with one my favourite lines of the night – ‘Everybody’s saying time is running low, so meet you in the supermarket, panic buy, then down below’.
So, later than expected for a Sunday, I down the wine, shake the hands, and rush off for the last bus home.
A pair of extra thermal socks, and we’re even.
For more on the Kitchen Garden Café, including a full list of gigs and events, visit http://www.kitchengardencafe.co.uk
For more on Martha Tislton, including digital downloads of ‘Machines of Love and Grace’, visit http://www.marthatilston.co.uk