Event review: Bob Fox at the Oval Tavern, Tuesday 9th May

By - Friday 19th May, 2017

The Oval audience was drawn together by a compelling performer with tremendous range

Photo author’s own.

One time culture minister Kim Howells once said that his idea of hell was being stuck in a pub with a bunch of folk singers from Somerset, showing once again the remarkable level of stupidity and arrogance that needs to be attained before you can be a fully-fledged member of the government.

On Tuesday 9th May, I was stuck in a pub with just the one folk singer. He wasn’t from Somerset. And it was truly marvellous. But like many folk songs, there’s a tale behind it.

Now, it’s how many stories start. Boy meets girl. In this case, boy meets girl in the pitch dark in the middle of a field in Oxfordshire, looking for chips and beer. Carol Whinnom, who in her day job teaches music at Keston Primary School in Coulsdon, was attending the Towersey Festival, an annual celebration of folk and world music held near Thame. Late one evening, both hungry and thirsty, she bumped into a similarly minded chap who she recognised as the County Durham born folk singer, Bob Fox. Two friendly sorts, they chatted, and as an idea formed in her mind, she seized the opportunity and invited him to sing down in Croydon. He agreed easily. It’s possible that beer had been drunk….

And so Bob Fox, a stranger to these parts, found himself one Tuesday evening sitting in the Oval Tavern armed only with a guitar, a harmonica, a melodeon (think accordion crossed with a Rubix cube in terms of complexity), his distinctive voice and an encyclopaedic knowledge of songs, both his own and those of other such folk luminaries as John Tams and Euan MacColl.

He had no set list, and was often guided by requests from the audience with whom he was only too happy to stop and chat. He had no support act either. For whatever reason, whoever it was who was supposed to appear failed to do so. Carol, determined that her audience not be short-changed, stepped nervously up to the microphone and gave us, unaccompanied, three Eric Boswell numbers, kicking off with ‘There’s more to life than women and beer’. Bob Fox joins in with the refrains from the crowd. Whatever her own opinions on her performance, she was warmly applauded by the audience and rightfully so, her classically trained voice delivering the songs with clarity and no little charm.

When Bob sings ‘we will rebuild’, you don’t doubt it

Then up steps Mr Fox, picks up his guitar and after informing us, with a smile, that “he’d never thought he’d get to play here”, takes his audience to the north of England by steam train, with McColl’s ‘Song of the Iron Road’. We’re encouraged, as we will be throughout the evening, to join in on the chorus (or at least make steam train noises, for which he gets an outbreak of owls and snakes. “C minus, could do better”). It’s followed by ‘Greek lightning’ and ‘Jack Crawford’, the latter about the Sunderland-born sailor whose actions in battle give rise to the phrase ‘nail your colours to the mast’.

Which Bob does, in his asides to the audience between songs. He does it in a friendly and inclusive way, but there’s steel beneath the smile as he refers to our present prime minister as ‘Thatcher II’ (and not in a complimentary way). He talks of the 187 working collieries that used to exist in County Durham, now near extinct, and the ‘Big Meeting’ that takes place annually (since 1871) as the miners all gather together. Almost every Labour Party leader has attended and given a speech. Jeremy Corbyn will do so this year. Tony Blair never did… And then it’s into the duo of ‘Waters of Tyne/Big River’ a nostalgic remembrance of the vanished dockyards of the Tyne, tinged with the pain of loss but full of pride and determination. When Bob sings “we will rebuild”, you don’t doubt it.

It’s funny, but in the pop world, singers seem desperate to achieve some sort of trans-Atlantic non-accent. In the folk world, the sense of origin is important. It reinforces the meaning behind the song – gives you a connection. Bob’s accent is undeniable but is a key part of his tuneful and melodious voice. Another set of linked tunes, ‘Bonny Gateshead lass’ and ‘Elsie Marley’ lead us into a section dedicated to his work with the stage show of Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Warhorse’. Recommended to the National Theatre by his friend John Tams, Bob auditioned for the part of ‘Songman’. And he got it, on two conditions. One: he learned to sing with his eyes open, and two, he learned the melodeon. In six weeks. On this showing, it was six weeks well spent: ‘The year turns round again’ was especially strong. And then he wrapped up the first set with ‘Rolling home’.

This performance was about the gathering of people; everybody sang

One of the joys of Bob’s voice, rich in tone, is that it can effortlessly switch from the upbeat to the more sombre and back with no feeling of artifice. He’s part of it, or it’s part of him. And by extension, he draws you in too, so that the performance is not just about watching and listening to a man and a guitar but it’s about the gathering of people, and a sharing of the time together. Everybody sings.

Now, with closing time approaching, Bob dispenses with the guitar. The jaunty, comic tale of infidelity and bewilderment, ‘My good man (seven drunken nights)’ is done accapella. And to close, and there really is no way you can follow on from this, he plays ‘Stand to’, accompanying himself on the harmonica. Taken from Warhorse, it was only ever played once in full, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One. Haunting, poignant, beautiful.

Then you finish your drink, step out through the door of the Oval, and you’re back in Croydon. You’ve travelled in time and space for two and half hours, courtesy of a Sunderland supporting, truck driving minstrel. And you hope he finds his way south again. Thanks Carol…

Paul M Ford

Paul M Ford

Writing, singing, acting, stand-up comedy, not to mention banking and marketing, Paul has not so much followed a career path as leapt blind-fold into a dodgem car and headed down life’s highway, probably against the flow of traffic. With a fascination for history and a seemingly anachronistic sense of fair play, he’s a born-again Coulsdonian, who wants people to realise that a vision for a better Croydon should extend beyond a half-mile radius of the Whitgift Centre…

More Posts