Lady Maisery / Coven

Lady Maisery at the Elephant and Castle, Lewes, 1 June 2013

After an unexpectedly complicated journey from Brighton to Lewes, Harriet and I had just time enough to grab a pint each at the bar of the Elephant and Castle before zooming up the stairs, past the demonic skeleton in its alcove, and on into the meeting room of the Commercial Square Bonfire Society to catch Lady Maisery, fresh and on excellent form, on the final stop of their tour to promote their new album, Mayday.

The band performed all the material from this, along with a generous portion of their first album, Weave and Spin, including the exquisite “Colour of Amber”; a brief sample of the secular requiem which they are due to perform at the Spitalfields Festival later this month; and “Idumea”, an interesting bonus on Shirley Collins’ home ground.

Thanks to our precise arrival, we found ourselves at the back of the room with a somewhat restricted view of the band: this was mostly of tall Rowan, swapping between fiddle and banjo (sadly the mysterious bansitar was not in evidence) along with occasional glimpses of Hazel poised over her harp. Hannah was an invisible presence somewhere up ahead to our left, most disconcertingly evident as a barrage of seemingly disembodied taps and bangs. While I strained to see the group, Harriet kept her head down and drew continuously throughout the gig.

For all the threefold implications of its title, Mayday is a far more tightly focussed work than Weave and Spin, which came across as an announcement of versatility, in which several distinct strands of material ran in parallel to each other: this was not altogether surprising given the band members’ background in various other ongoing projects. The overwhelming impression of the new album is of its being a meditation on lost ground, harsh manners returned to, and on what can be salvaged in the personal, in the dealings between individual people: territory that has been traditionally presented as a woman’s sphere.

Independence is not represented here by Sovay, or some crossdressed adventuress, but by the factory girl who turns down her rich admirer, and the outcast Katy Cruel. The failure to find any ground of negotiation between the public and private realms is shown at its starkest in “Lady Maisry” (not, as the band were careful to point out, the Lady Maisery, but one of her incarnations) which ends with Maisry and her unborn child killed by her family, and her lover going to war in an act of retribution that will extend far beyond her persecutors.

A couple of tracks on Weave and Spin foreshadow the new album’s direction: the grim but jaunty “Portland Town”, with its narrative of women’s lives hideously impacted by government decisions, and “The Changeling’s Lullaby”. The latter’s theme of a supernatural narrative grounded in a problematic domestic situation is revisited to heartbreaking effect here in “The Grey Selkie”.

While the band draw upon a wide range of source material, from a reworked “Two Magicians” to the Kate Bush cover initially released as a fundraiser for the End Violence Against Women Coalition, the tracks that do most to set the tone of Mayday are two items of classic folkie agitprop: Sydney Carter’s “The Crow on the Cradle” and Leon Rosselson’s “Palaces of Gold”. While the passage of years can render the hand on heart earnestness of such material difficult to take, it is perhaps as much a token of darkening times as of the band’s sincerity that these songs are delivered to maximum effect here.

Coven at the Con Club, Lewes, 12 March 2016

I caught Coven on the second to last night of their brief tour, playing to a full house in the Constitutional Club in Lewes. The tour itself was put on in celebration of International Women’s Day, and included a gig at the 100 Club in London. I was mildly surprised that their south-eastern stop-off was in Lewes, rather than Brighton, though the Con Club was evidently enough of a psychological, if not actual, distance from Lady Maisery’s usual circuit for me to overhear someone further back in the audience remark that he’d been looking forward to seeing the band “for years”, which seemed quite odd, as I’d witnessed the Maiseries and their sister bands perform in various pubs just down the road on quite a few occasions without ever having my pocket picked, getting shanked, or being drafted into a Bonfire Society.

The show opened with Grace Petrie’s barebones performance on guitar, so blazingly good that I would actually have gone home happy if that had been it for the evening. She was followed, in arithmetic progression, by O’Hooley & Tidow, and then Lady Maisery. O’Hooley & Tidow kicked off their first short set with “The Hum” and brought it to a close with their tribute to Beryl Burton, with Lady Maisery taking up the chorus. Up to that point, the Maiseries had been on stage, listening to the others while waiting to begin their own performance, and I could not help but notice their attitude from time to time: Hannah sharp and alert, potentially mischievous; Rowan with thoughts moving across her face; Hazel poised and reserved.

Hannah introduced the Maiseries’ set by referring to a review of Coven’s Norwich gig which described their contribution to the show as being like “watching a school concert”. It might have been better left unmentioned, but the remark evidently rankled, and is perhaps worth a bit of examination: it seems so far off any probable account of Lady Maisery that I find myself wondering what might have provoked it. The most simple explanation would be that, in Lewes at least, they were subject to the constraint of dealing with a more complex set up than the rest of Coven in a very limited space, although I don’t feel that this impacted upon their performance: its worst disadvantage was that Hazel seemed rather cut off from the exchanges that took place in between songs, being barricaded behind her harp at the far end of the stage. Otherwise, it is possible that the reviewer may have brought a set of expectations of the band along with her, which didn’t match what she found: this would not only explain her dismissal of them, but also touch upon some of the reasons why they strike me as so consistently interesting.

While an audience member with no previous exposure to Grace Petrie or O’Hooley & Tidow would be able to form a clear impression of the range of their work from the outset, Lady Maisery occupy far more ambiguous territory. As a band they are impressively decentred, being genuinely without hierarchy, while also giving no sense of being three soloists taking turns: this seems both a demonstration of their radicalism, and an important element of the shared identity which they project. When I saw them perform “Lady Maisry” in concert around the time that Mayday was released, I was impressed by the way in which they took care to point out that the heroine of the song was a Lady Maisery, not the Lady Maisery: ever since then, I have found it hard not to think of the band as the emanation of a persona which flickers and shifts from song to song.

They started off with “Katy Cruel”. When I last heard them perform this, about six months ago, the song had been grave, constructed around a drone: it unfolded as a narrative of its protagonist taking a cold decision to break from society and follow her own path. Tonight Katy fell like Lucifer, the music breathtakingly fast, acquiring body and complexity as it went on. It was the closest I’ve heard to the Maiseries threatening to spill apart, while remaining under control throughout, an exhilarating rush. This was followed by “Honest Work”, a Todd Rundgren cover. I have to say that I’m not totally sure about this one: my problem with it is that it’s an art song written in the manner of a traditional piece, and when it’s performed by an actual folk band its nature as a simulacrum becomes altogether too evident. This shift of context highlights the way in which it states, rather than illustrates, the situation it describes: the song lacks that sense of the particular which the genuine article possesses, being written on behalf of a class rather than arising from lived experience. The next two interlinked pieces were introduced by Grace’s deadly impersonation of Hannah and, although it’s hard now to remember that their revival of tune singing was what made Lady Maisery seem most distinctive when they started out, this did feel like the point at which the band fully engaged with the audience, to the degree that Hannah had to keep diddling straight through a tremendous burst of applause at the bridge. The first half of the concert closed with Coven assembling at last to perform “Bread and Roses”, the first full “co-lab”, as they all never tired of saying, of the evening.

The Maiseries returned after the break with “Sing for the Morning”, Rowan’s evocation of the actual and emotional pathways that link scattered family members, rendering the shifting terrain between sisters located in Toulouse and Sheffield as a songscape with a rondeau embedded within it. I had heard this performed before, when it must have been very new, and it came across then as a loose assemblage of interesting components that didn’t quite hold together. In the meantime, it has settled into a complex, supple work, which adds to the impression given by “Soil and Soul” and the original songs on Already Home of how Rowan has become not only a fine songwriter, but an utterly distinctive one whose compositions push at the edges of their medium. Then there came a colossal performance of “This Woman’s Work”, with the rest of Coven joining in, which builds upon, and fully realises, the Maiseries’ already impressive arrangement of this Kate Bush track, and a hair-raising “Crow on the Cradle”: this struck me as the highlight of the evening, although it had apparently only been slotted into the setlist on the previous night, in honour of Sydney Carter’s son being in the audience then.

After further sets from Grace Petrie and O’Hooley & Tidow, including the mighty “Gentleman Jack”, the second part concluded with all of Coven performing “Coil and Spring”. At the outset, Heidi Tidow jokingly referred to the combined band as a supergroup, which does actually seem a fair enough description of them, though one mercifully more akin to an outfit such as the New Age Steppers than whatever cluster of jaded old stars might come to mind. They chased this down with two encores, Rowan introducing a glorious version of the Roches’ “Quitting Time”, followed by an a capella, unmic’d performance of “Never Turning Back”.

There is apparently an album in the works, which should be superb, given the quality of the music this evening, but I’m glad that I had this opportunity to see Coven play live, as there was a whole level of interplay between the performers in concert that can’t really be captured in the studio—which is perhaps just as well in some respects: it’s going to take a while for Grace’s description of Hannah as “Limbs” to be bleached from my memory. Through all the cameraderie and joshing, it remained clear that this was intended to be an evening of celebration and protest, with a political edge that gave the gig, and the band itself, a focus that can sometimes be lacking when friendly musicians team up on stage.

And finally, a word on the band’s choice of name. If they collectively assumed the figure of the witch, it was not in the manner that takes possession of, but does not depart from, a hostile stereotype imposed by male authority, or even in the more integrated way exemplified by Una Baines, once of The Fall, in The Fates’ great album Furia. More than anything, they put me in mind of the definition set out in the 1968 W.I.T.C.H. Manifesto: “You are a Witch by being female, untamed, angry, joyous, and immortal”—it seems an apt description of the force that manifested on this particular evening.