Kris Drever is another of Salut! Live's neglected artists, a man I have long admired but all too rarely written about.
Barbara Dickson gave him a little shout-out when she was interviewed for these pages in 2020 and, much more recently, Andrew Curry mentioned his appearance at the Dandelion festival in Inverness. That last reference necessarily came in a report covering performances by several artists. This time Andrew is able to devote an entire review to him - and I warmed to his admiring words to the extent that I stopped listening to a vinyl of Dave Burland's exceptional 1971 record A Dalesman's Litany (recently rediscovered by me at a great record shop in Lewes and likely to be featured here soon) to catch some welcome snatches of the Kris Drever clips chosen by Andrew ...
It was almost at the last minute that I noticed that Kris Drever was playing at Cecil Sharp House in London last weekend.
I’ve been a fan since stumbling on his set at a notoriously wet WOMAD in the 2007. The stage he was playing on was one of the few parts of the site that hadn’t become a sea of mud.
Most of the songs he played back at that Womad came from his fine first record Black Water.
Since then I’ve seen him solo several times and - because he’s an energetic collaborator - with Lau and the Spell Songs project. I also enjoyed his innovative online sets during lockdown, sometimes with guests.
The gig at Cecil Sharp House was, he told us, the seventh is a rapid 16-date tour, playing solo, just him and his guitar and some minimal electronics.
Previous gigs had been in a Masonic Lodge at Broughty Ferry and a former rope factory in Hull. It was all but full, and the audience was enthusiastic.
In the decade and half since I first saw him, he’s become an accomplished performer, a technically skilled guitarist with enough conversation to engage the audience between songs.
Sometimes this is stories about the songs, such as Sanday, which he wrote about his grandfather, who served in World War II, and in just an hour after getting into a row on Twitter about a government scheme to make VE Day more patriotic.
Sometimes it’s just a one liner. He played a new song, Change Will Always Change (I think I have that right) and closed it off by saying that he always liked to play the new songs early in the set because “it gives me more time to redeem myself”.
Or while re-tuning between songs: “This is a futile activity. We only do it to create suspense."
Sometimes it’s about the context of the songs. One of the two instrumentals he played was a bridal march, from Unst in the Shetlands, which he introduced with an explanation of the difference between Shetland fiddle music (more Scots) and traditional Shetland fiddle music (more Norse, and a bit stranger). This Bridal March was in the traditional camp.
And sometimes it’s one of those little nuggets about the source of the song, as with The Greenland Whale Factory, which he had found in a pamphlet published by a song collector in South Ronaldsay, near to where Drever grew up in the Orkneys. This version had a distinctive feature: the last line is different from the other versions of the song. “I can’t sing it,” he said, “without thinking about the singer insisting that his version is right, and everybody else is wrong.”
He also knows how to build a set. He finished the concert with a sequence that started with Scapa Flow 1919, his song about the scuttling of the German navy in the Orkneys in 1919, then Harvest Gypsies, from his first record, and ended up with I Didn’t Try Hard Enough, which is one of his most popular songs on Spotify. It was a strong ending to an excellent set.
Of course, he came back for an encore, with If Wishes Were Horses. There’s a line in the second verse that says ...
I wish that politicians’ ties
Would tighten up when they told lies.
... And it got an impromptu round of applause from the audience. We were clearly listening carefully.