Review: Bright Phoebus Revisited

First published in the Guardian on 25 January, 2018

Revamping a cult masterpiece is a dangerous business, and Bright Phoebus — the 1972 album by Mike and Lal Waterson — really is a masterpiece. Imagine the most severe voices in folk music pitched against lush, boozy, crushingly tender instrumentals. The songs have a gnarled lyricism, a concise and dreamy poetry. If you’ve never heard the album that’s probably because half of the original vinyl copies were pressed with the hole in the wrong place and it took until last summer for Bright Phoebus to be remastered and rereleased — largely thanks to the efforts of Lal’s daughter Marry.

And if anyone’s got the credentials to risk putting these songs on stage, it’s Marry and her family. The evening featured her cousin Eliza Carthy, Eliza’s dad Martin. Marry’s son Joe Gilhooley unleashed a sweet baritone during the trippy psych-folk interlude of Magical Man. Even Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, who appeared as a sensitive guest singer, has family connections: his parents sang with the Watersons in Hull in the 1960s. The odd one out was John Smith, whose stylised crooning and Americanised vowels sounded pallid next to Eliza’s force in the devastating To Make You Stay.

Maybe it was foolish to hope for the full potency of the album. I spent the night wishing the sound engineer would cut the reverb – it swamped the austerity of the originals. But the young team made a fond tribute. The stories were intimate and teasing; we learned that Mike drank his tea with seven sweeteners, that Lal drunkenly leapfrogged a bollard on the night she wrote the powerful Red Wine Promises. There’s uncanny family resemblance in the voices of Eliza and Marry: that rasp, that strength and gripping Yorkshire directness. When first released, these songs received a scathing response from puritans of the folk world. Now they’re being hailed for what they are: a new folk canon.