Music from North Eastern England. Season two: (2) Amelia Coburn, Richard Grainger, the Wilsons and Pete Davies's tribute to Vin Garbutt
For the second instalment of the second season of Music from North Eastern England, I turn my attention to Teesside. Nothing could be more appropriate: I am writing as I set off from London King's Cross on a trip back to the region that will begin at the home of my sister Sandra, who has lived in Middlesbrough for most of her adult life, unapologetically bringing a tribe of Smogmonsters into the world.
I shall shake off any lingering Boro dust with a pilgrimage to the Stadium of Light for Sunderland vs Plymouth Argyle. But a pleasant afternoon is in prospect: Sandra is smuggling me into the Friends of Nature World’s Christmas social.
Now read on for a quick introduction to the Teesside artists I have chosen to feature and a listen to samples of their music ...
Does Amelia Coburn want to be remembered as the woman who became the new Joni Mitchell, the new Francoise Hardy or a new petite anglaise*?
She reveres Joni as "one of the greatest musicians of all time". The admirable if, sadly, ailing Francoise** is also close to Amelia's heart: "my muse – I often don 60s/vintage-inspired outfits to a gig". And while music dominates her life now, she is a brainy type with a languages degree (French, Spanish and Russian) who could otherwise see herself exploring Latin America before settling in Paris and working as a translator.
The good news for now, and for this series, is that Amelia is doing rather well as a singer-songwriter. She is a former BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards finalist and plays what would be regarded as folk venues or events, but prefers to embrace a broad range of genres, refusing to be restricted by musical boundaries.
She sings with infectious joy and enthusiasm, accompanying herself on ukulele. Her introductions are warm and wry, delivered in her unmistakeable Boro tones; listening to her speaking in one live clip, I found myself thinking of another authority on Russia and Russian, Fiona Hill, the former intelligence and security advisor to three US presidents whose Bishop Auckland accent made a Trump impeachment hearing seem almost cosy. You can almost imagine her describing the North East as Amelia did in one splendid interview***: "Cheap pints, chips and gravy and the friendliest people you’ll ever meet."
I might have chosen any of a number of impressive tracks to illustrate Amelia Coburn's work, whether her own songs or covers of pop classics. Perfect Storm, for example, could be a celebration of the end of lockdown, premature as that may currently seem. Life on Mars breaks new ground on planet Bowie.
My selection, however, is Dublin Serenade because I like the story behind it and also thoroughly enjoyed listening to it when the LNER wifi system would let me. It's a lovely, lilting music hall sort of song inspired by what may have been a miserable experience, Amelia forced to wander Dublin's streets all night during a short trip to the city because she was an impoverished student and couldn't afford a hotel or B&B.
I think and hope we shall hear a lot more about Amelia Coburn before Parisians can hope to adopt her as a new petite anglaise as they tend to do when encountering a young female newcomer from Blighty.
Richard Grainger and I met electronically in unpromising style. In a previous edition of this series, he posted a comment containing nothing beyond an invitation to readers to check out his website. We exchanged e-mails, me regretting that he had not introduced himself and him explaining that he simply thought his site would be of interest given the series subject. So no harm done or offence taken.
Let us fill in the detail, gleaned from a biographical page at Richard's site that reads like a rebuke to my ignorance. I should have known this, but he is another product of Boro and has been kicking around the folk scene since the 1980s. He was, for a spell, a member of that excellent Teesside band, the Fettlers, featured earlier in this series.
An accomplished singer-songwriter, he has also branched out with exemplary versatility, as artistic director at festivals, a consultant to councils and arts bodies and presenting music in theatre.
There is a slightly theatrical feel to the song I've chosen. A long, lushly melodic instrumental introduction leads into the story of a sailor dreaming of the Girl on Scarborough Shore he realises he should have stayed with instead of heading out to sea and later to jail in a foreign land.
Any review of Teesside folk requires mention of the late Vin Garbutt.
His life and work have been covered at length at Salut! Live so I turn to one of his army of friends, Pete Davies, an outsider who made his teaching career on Teesside, holding headships in three schools. His tribute to Vin strikes exactly the right note.
And finally, a powerful a cappella performance by the Wilson Family from Billingham of Sea Coal, one of dozens of outstanding songs written by the late Graeme Miles.
The juxtaposition of full-throated unaccompanied singing and superior songwriting is irresistible. It seems as fitting a way as any of concluding a look at the music of Teesside that inevitably does little more than scratch at the surface of the area's rich culture.
See the entire series on Music from North Eastern England, seven instalments in season one and two so far in season two, at this link: https://www.salutlive.com/music-from-north-eastern-england/
* Another Petite Anglaise: https://petiteanglaise.com/about-the-sacking/
*** Amelia Coburn interviewed (superbly) for The Luminaries Magazine https://www.theluminariesmagazine.com/amelia-coburn