Celtic Connections review: Leveret & She Moved Through the Fair

First published in the Guardian on 24 January, 2017

Margaret Barry, born a hundred years ago, knew how to entertain a crowd. She had to — she left home at 16 with a bicycle and a banjo and sang her way to the Albert Hall via Cork street corners and the Irish pubs of north London. She was fearless, toothless (literally), a tiny balladeer with a colossal voice and tenacious soul in the way she sang, smoked, charmed and drank Guinness. She was dubbed “queen of the Gypsies” by a promoter and the moniker stuck, despite the fact she wasn’t really a gypsy at all. She told a good tale and didn’t let details get in the way.

So I wonder what Barry would have made of She Moved Through the Fair, the low-key, eulogistic theatre piece co-written by veteran folk critic (and Guardian contributor) Colin Irwin and Irish singer Mary McPartlan. Possibly she would have found it touching if a little tame. From one corner of the stage Irwin reads out her life story — a demure, fond, beautifully researched and endearingly un-thespian delivery. Actor Ruby Campbell gives a spry performance as Barry and other bit parts while John Wheeler is more laboured as various men who crossed her path: Alan Lomax, who ‘discovered’ her; David Attenborough, who put her on telly; Cliff Michelmore, who interviewed her there. A four-piece band underpins it all nicely — McPartlan can’t summon Barry’s raw power but brings simple poignancy to songs including Goodnight Irene, Loving Hannah and Freeborn Man. Musical highlight is John Carty, fiddler of unfussy grace and immense style.

“This is all dance music,” joked Andy Cutting the night before, knowing full well nobody was likely to crack out the steps to an obscure triple-time hornpipe or 18th century slip jig. Leveret — an old word for a young hare — is the finest of traditional English folk today: a trio of poise and subtle gesture, of deft layering, graceful swing, gorgeous understatement. Constituent members Cutting (button accordion), Rob Harbron (concertina) and Sam Sweeney (fiddle/viola) are all well-kent from other configurations but Leveret brings out the best in each of them — Sweeney’s playing, especially, has refined a lot since Bellowhead days and he weaves around the reedy textures with a deft light touch.

The band’s first public gig in Scotland was one of the mellowest options for a Saturday night at Celtic Connections, and one of the classiest. As on their two albums, they played old dance tunes unearthed from antique folk compendiums — names like Glory of the Sun and Purlongs (“the distance covered by a cat in a certain amount of time?” suggested Sweeney) — and their own new material. Some of the top tunes belong to Harbron: The Road to Poynton, for example, or the noble Dundas (sadly not on the Glasgow setlist). Cutting is the anchor, though, with his peerless French-Anglo harmonies, tugging rhythms and bittersweet fast waltzes. A third album is on the way but catch Leveret live for full convivial immersion.