Sometimes it seems to me that there is something in my subconscious that, when going to gigs for review, says: “Do that one – traffic will be a nightmare that day”. In the past I’ve tried to get to Bristol on the day a certain drinks company’s truck brought the whole of South East Wales to gridlock, and this time Coldplay were playing the second of their Principality Stadium concerts, their only UK gigs this year, so getting into the centre of Cardiff with 60,000-plus other people was going to be interesting, to say the least – but travel aside, this was a gig I was really looking forward to.
For those of you who are not familiar with them, The Spooky Men’s Chorale are an Anglo-Australian male voice choir and possessors of an enviable collection of hats led by director Stephen Taberner, who also writes most of the choir’s original work. Owing to the sheer logistics of transporting the 16 members, a Spooky Men’s Chorale UK tour only occurs every couple of years, I was lucky enough to catch them at The Village Pump Festival on their last visit in 2015 and, based on that performance, this promised to be an enjoyable evening.
Apart from the interesting headgear, the first thing that strikes you about a Spooky Men’s Chorale gig is the total lack of instruments on stage, not even a piano for accompaniment; everything you hear is performed a capella.
If you’ve listened to one of their CDs, then you will know how much of a role humour plays in The Spooky Men’s Chorale. What is not apparent until a live show is just how deadpan they are as a group. For example, one of Stephen’s introductions describes how the song they are about to sing came about as a result of a brainstorming session about the choir’s favourite body part. Cue knowing smiles and laughs from the audience and equal surprise when the song turns out to be entitled ‘Foot’, a joke that was successfully returned to after the interval for ‘Eyebrow’.
While humour plays a vital role in a Spooky Men’s Chorale show, that humour can also be educational. As the show progressed, the audience was enlightened as to man’s primeval instincts that link hunting Mastodon on the plains to building an IKEA bookcase (other self-build bookcases are available) in ‘Don’t Come Between An Man And His Tool’, and the song Jim educated us poms in just how one man could mow all the lawns in Sydney.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there was also a certain amount of philosophy for the attendee at a Spooky Men’s Chorale concert to ponder upon. ‘Deep’ asked the audience to consider the meaning of words, ‘We Are Not A Men’s Club’ ponders the meaning of group participation while ‘Do Nothing’ asked whether to be a good person sometimes means having to do nothing. The climax, however, came at the end when ‘Ba’Hari Ghibb’ examined mysticism and the meaning of the prophecy of the three brothers.
Acting as a counterpoint to the show’s humour and the bombast of songs like ‘Universal Club Song’ were moments such as Dave Warriner’s tender solo rendition of Tom Wait’s ‘Picture In A Frame’, a version of The Beach Boys’ ‘In My Room’ which won the choir an award at this year’s Australian National Folk Festival in Canberra, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Crossing The Bar’ and a ‘Mirangula’, a traditional Georgian mother’s lament.
One thing that struck me was just how effective Stephen Taberner’s arrangements are at defining an atmosphere using only the human voice. The most striking example of this was the song that opened the second half of the performance. ‘Welcome To The Second Half’ was one of those performances where sounds were just as important as words in conveying an atmosphere, in this case the feelings of regret that what is in the past can never be recaptured and nervous anticipation at what is yet to come.
I suppose the bottom line is: Would I recommend going to see The Spooky Men’s Chorale? Well, I have now seen them and their UK-based offshoot, A Fistful Of Spookies, three times now and have thoroughly enjoyed each occasion, so definitely yes. Not only will you leave at the end informed and enlightened you will also have a smile on your face and an aching jaw from laughter. If nothing else, your life will be complete having had a Georgian music segment in it. If you get the opportunity, go and see The Spooky Men’s Chorale – you won’t regret it.