Review: Maz O’Connor and Matthew Jones

JAMES MCNAMARA finds the best of old and new at a night of Folk in the Portland Arms.

Finkel brothers folk Gig I don't like his writing style much james macnamara Matthew Jones Maz O'connor review The Portland Arms twat

Maz O’Connor and Matthew Jones supported by The Finkel Brothers

Portland Arms, 26 March

Cambridge’s folk music scene may not have the highest profile, but town and gown have plenty to offer participants and listeners, and a handful of venues have been hosting high quality acts this year. Your intrepid reviewer visited one of Cambridge’s smaller folk music stages on Tuesday night – the Portland Arms, located just beyond the undergraduate’s radar range on Chesterton Road – and found a beautiful example of what the newly revamped venue has to offer.

Gone was the faintly school-hall-like charm of the Portland’s old gig room – expect purple lights and walls with panels at funny angles – but the space remains intimate and well suited for small ensemble folk which bodes well for the profile of future gigs, even if recent gigs have included the high-voltage tune phenomenon KAN. Last night the figurative curtain was raised by the Finkel Brothers – of Toft – who eased the audience into the evening with a gentle but varied finger-picking guitar set, nicely matched by their understated humour and stage presence.

Maz O’Connor, an alumna of Jesus, returned to familiar territory with a programme that tastefully mixed trad songs of the British Isles with some of her own compositions (occasionally in the same set), solidly backed by Matthew Jones on guitar and puns. O’Connor’s contribution to folk music at the university remains in the CU Folk Society which she founded, members of which provided stalwart assistance in some of the refrains.

O’Connor’s ability to deliver fresh renditions of familiar songs shone through in traditional numbers like South Australia. Particularly engaging was her ability to get into the corners of well-known tunes and make them new, and at the same time never to sacrifice the clarity of the storytelling – even those listeners who knew the dastardly miller was going to fashion a fiddle from a flayed fibula were hanging on to hear how that went. And the songs covered a range from the sweet to the fey. If quibbles be sought, in Caw the Yowes, your ignorant reviewer would have liked to know what Yowe was; a well adapted Woodie Guthrie song provided a pinch of transatlantic spice – though occasional hints at assonance half way between USA and UK caused a pedant’s head to spin. The programme was well planned, however, mixing vocals with one or two guitars and occasional shruti box, and unaccompanied song delivered to devastating effect in a Geordie tale of naval press gangs. O’Connor’s recent success in earning a BBC Music Fellowship has already been fruitful, as she brought to life several spooky Child ballads (not ballads for children) inspired by research at Cecil Sharp House. Jones’s guitar playing added a welcome variety of textures to the songs. Let it also be noted that his jokes during a re-tuning break produced an appropriate proportion of groan to chuckle.

Amongst O’Connor’s self-penned songs, a particular success was Rambling Free – new, but so at home in its idiom that it invited immediate familiarity. It’s clear that there’s life in the trad scene when you hear new songs like that. And the old songs were on great form too last night, O’Connor showed that in a novelty-obsessed culture, there’s a fine art in traditional song sensitively interpreted. Folk geek’s tip: if you thought you’d had enough of pub bands singing The Leaving of Liverpool, you’ll hear it brought to new life on O’Connor’s album On a Stranger Shore which is worthy of comparison with Irish singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s mature version of the Leaving of Limerick on her recent album Ar Uair Bhig an Lae – The Small Hours.

A grand evening of music, well attended, at a smartly refurbished venue that deserves to go on the map of any Cambridge folk music listener. Hup!