When Hal Willner takes the stage dressed as a pirate to introduce wily mountain man Baby Gramps, the show ahead is guaranteed to be out of the ordinary. After the third or fourth performer, the artists got tired of calling “ahoy!” and growling “arrrrgh,” but it made the evening no less nautical. Running nearly four hours with no interval, the show was something of a test of wills, but the attention deficit pace of the 43 songs kept things lively. With the exception of Neil Hannon, no artist performed solo for two straight songs, and Hannon’s jokes, awesome stage presence, and deference to the saw player excused this bout of continuity.
The exceptional Carthy Family dominated the evening, and Eliza in particular was especially impressive; she complimented several artists beautifully both on violin and vocals, but really shone on “Rolling Sailor.” If it’s possible to shred on a violin, she does.
Other fixtures were Ed Harcourt and Gavin Friday. Harcourt’s heartbreaking “Farewell Nancy” sounded less mournful with the Langley Sisters leading the vocals. Friday gave an inspired performance of “Baltimore Whores,” perhaps the first truly exciting performance of the evening. The pair shared vocal duties on “Boney Was A Warrior” with a visibly unsteady Shane McGowan on harmonica and were joined by Baby Gramps in backing Sandy Dillon on “Bully In The Alley,” which was all too perfectly suited to Dillon’s cat-scratch vocals.
Teddy Thompson, for his stiff countenance, was strangely compelling, especially on “Sally Brown” when he managed to lead a singalong by enticing, “You can sing along at the chorus — you must sing along at the chorus.” Sister Kami, with her smooth vocals, reminded us of just how lovely sea songs can be.
Deviations from the album track list included a new song by Baby Gamps, several by Scottish Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, and the lovely “Bay Of Biscay” by Norma Waterson.
Elsewhere, Richard Strange leant his rich, trilled vocals to the excessively vulgar “Good Ship Venus;” Tim Robbins, guitar in hand, rocked “My Son John;” Jenni Muldaur took the spotlight for a change on a Jamaican chantey; Robyn Hitchcock provided snark and crunchy guitars.
As Wilner said, you couldn’t get through an evening of sea chanteys without the obligatory rendition of “What Do We Do With A Drunken Sailor.” In the hands of David Thomas, Keith Moline, the still-shaky McGowan, and Gavin Friday, it took on an apocalyptic nature. Despite a light-hearted reference to the accordion on his knee, Thomas succeeded only in making perhaps the best known of sea songs borderline terrifying. However, if a song has been covered to death then it might as well scare you near to death.
Peter Doherty was a no-show, but honestly, if it hadn’t been drawn to our attention, he probably wouldn’t have been missed. And “Old Man Of The Sea” as led by Baby Gramps was probably the most appropriate the evening could have ended on.