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Anna & Elizabeth
The Arts Centre, Colchester
11th May 2017
An overcast Thursday evening in Colchester, a pint sized crowd at The Arts Centre, all hear to listen to Appalachian ballads and other old time songs of America performed, unsurprisingly, by two women called Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle. But before them came East Creek Union who, more often than not, upped the tempo and veered closer to the more commercial bluegrass sound. That is not meant to be unkind, for they appear, on this brief hearing, to a good, solid entertaining four piece who, whilst not doing anything startling, would be a worthy addition to any festival bill.
How to describe the main act? A simple overview would be an injustice whilst detail would be an indulgence, for this was not your bog standard song, chat, song, chat concert – This was much more. a simply choreographed undemonstrative piece of theatre that highlighted the stark beauty of the songs and stories that were sung and told. Having said that, it was a reviewer’s nightmare due, in the most part, for having to guess at the majority of the song titles. But that tiny gripe cannot be allowed to detract, in any way shape or form, from the quality of the performance.
Not only do the duo sing, with harmonies that would make a sinner repent, they seem to live in the telling of each story and song yet treat, with reverence, the tradition from which they come. This was, no more apparent, than on the opening acapella song which, although not named, seem to fit perfectly the surroundings of an old church. The next acapella song, called “Lonesome sea” I’m guessing, is the perfect illustration of how songs of tradition migrate across the oceans, for it is hugely derivative of a song called “Lowlands low, which is a staple in the repertoire of the superb English traditional band Brass Monkey.
That is more than enough of me showing off, for the purity of the singing is nothing but a delight and, instrumentally, they are no slouches either, adept on fiddle, guitar and banjo (not all at the same time), with accompaniment to the storytelling being particularly poignant. Much as I loved it all, it is the old time gospel songs that floor me every time, and they closed the first set with “Here in the vineyard”. So wonderful that even if you have no God you’ll wish you did.
What better way to start the second half than with Anna step dancing albeit with a twist, as it was more a case of foot percussion providing accompaniment to Elizabeth’s banjo tune. Then came the absolute highlight, stories of an old Kentucky fiddler called Lella Todd who would play all day, first for the children and then the grownups. All accompanied by the duo’s hand woven revolving tapestries and sympathetic stage lighting with which to highlight their simple beauty.
But try as I might to describe the murder, madness and cruel humour inherent in Appalachian songs it is to the gospel I must return. Both “Poor pilgrim of sorrow” and “Won’t you come and sing for me” touched a nerve somewhere and the harmonies just froze the blood, think female Louvin or Everly brothers and you will be somewhere although Anna & Elizabeth lack the familial link.
Another uplifting piece of gospel closed the show and, to be overly critical, I thought it a little short and would happily have sat through another hour of same. Never mind, for it is always best to never outstay your welcome, and I would welcome, with open arms, the chance to see that all over again. Guess that means I liked it.