NANCY KERR & THE SWEET VISITOR BAND: Roots Unearthed, Lefel 3, St David’s Hall, April 25, 2017
Nancy Kerr is a visionary songwriter and an exciting, effervescent fiddle musician, who is the proud possessor of a mesmerising voice. She is the daughter of London-born singer-songwriter Sandra Kerr and Northumbrian piper Ron Elliott, and she inherited her parents’ burning desire for social justice and campaigning for a fairer, caring world. Nancy has performed on Roots Unearthed stage a couple of times before; her most recent visit was the Sweet Liberties show, an inspiring collaboration with songwriters and musicians, including Penarth-based Martin Joseph, Maz O’Connor and Sam Carter, celebrating 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta, 750 years since the Simon de Montfort parliament and the rights and liberties that people have fought to achieve and protect over the past eight centuries. However, The Sweet Visitor Band was Nancy’s first venture in Wales; she introduced guitarist Greg Russell, double-bass player Tim Yates and percussionist/guitarist Tom Wright, informing the audience that this was the band’s first gig in Wales and the second in the UK.
The programme showcased Nancy’s bubbling, switchback fiddling, her heart-warming, controlled vocals and her intricate, flowing songs, bar Leon Rosselson and William Blake’s amalgamation of ‘The Priests’ Garden’ (‘The Garden Of Love’) and the beautiful interpretation of the old Orkney Islands ballad ‘The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerry’. According to Orkney folklore, a silkie is a supernatural being that changes into a human when walking the land and back again to a seal when the sea becomes his home; the audience was hushed when Nancy, who learned the ballad from her mother, developed the story unaccompanied, and then went straight into her song ‘Fragile Water.’ Earlier, she opened the show with a rousing march that she wrote for her mother and the brave women of Greenham Common; she revisited Sweet Liberties with her rallying-cry ‘Seven Notes’ and closed the first half with the single ‘Gingerbread’.
However, Nancy battled against uneven and overloud amplification. Greg is a very fine musician, but his guitars (both acoustic and electric) swamped her intelligent lyrics and dancing fiddle; the same goes for the booming double-bass. Tom, on the other hand, played subtle steel guitar, electric guitar and percussion; however, the band, or the sound engineer, really needs to get the balance right. Nancy writes in a deliciously unique style, but it’s a shame when the audience cannot decipher her words; ‘Kingdom’ was a low point, when Nancy’s vocals were absolutely lost against the wall of fuzzed sound.
And that’s the important point… All through her musical life, Nancy has written the most wonderful songs that create a huge impression on her listeners. She finished off with her tribute to Australia, ‘Where Jacarandas Grow’, and ‘Sisterhood’, her statement against the bosses’ pressure to get female employees to wear high heels, with the far-right intolerance against the Muslim burka. ‘Written On My Skin’ champions the Human Rights Act and the two women who used the Act to bring prosecutions for assault; when he was Prime Minister, David Cameron vowed to repeal the Act and replace it with a ‘British Bill Of Rights’. Nancy and the band climaxed the show by going out with the stormer ‘Apollo On The Docks’, and the crowd was treated to a two-song encore.
I have been watching Nancy’s live performances for years, and audiences have always given her an encore without fail. Australian husband James Fagan was babysitting at the family home in Sheffield; she had just phoned him and the children. Let’s hope that the young’uns feel inspired by Nancy and James’ musical success; in the future, it’s possible that we could be seeing their offspring take a turn on the stage, in the same way as Nancy learned from her mother’s repertoire. Roll on the day…