Deborah Rose, St. Laurence’s Church, Ludlow, Shropshire, 02/07/2021 (part of Ludlow Fringe Festival) by Ian Mann
Both the singer and her accompanists performed with great assurance and skill over the course of two lengthy and adventurous sets that explored a wide range of musical territory.
Deborah Rose – vocals, acoustic guitar
First Set – Martin Riley – piano, percussion, Benet Walsh – violin, acoustic guitar
Second Set – Steve Dunachie – piano, acoustic guitar, Benet Walsh – acoustic guitar, Martin Riley – piano
The Sounds Interesting String Quartet – Anne Tupling – leader, violin, Julia Hargreaves – violin, Georgia Vale – viola, Hilary Summer – cello
String arrangements written by Steve Dunachie
After seeing no live music performances for over a year suddenly two gigs come along on successive nights!
After dipping my feet in the live music pool with a performance by pianist Dave Jones and his quartet at Kidderminster Jazz Club the previous evening tonight’s show offered a different type of music in a very different setting, the sacred space of Ludlow’s magnificent parish church, St. Laurence’s.
The event featured the voice and songs of singer, songwriter and guitarist Deborah Rose, now a Ludlow resident. The show was part of the multi-disciplinary Ludlow Fringe Festival, a month long celebration of the arts taking place at a variety of venues around the town during June and July 2021.
Rose has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages for a number of years. Blessed with a stunningly pure voice and an innate musicality her love of words, song and singing has found her exploring the worlds of folk, jazz and Americana with a variety of collaborators, including local gypsy jazz guitar wizard Remi Harris, another artist who is due to feature on the Fringe Festival programme.
Following a number of self produced EPs Rose released her first full length album, “Song Be My Soul”, in early 2014, a charming collection of self penned songs combined with settings of the words of poets and authors such as Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake and Christina Rossetti. Review here;
The follow up, “Wilde Wood”, was very different as Rose abandoned her literary leanings to explore the world of Celtic folk music in the company of locally based musicians from two different groups, The O’ Farrells Frolicks and Grey Wolf.
Rose’s love of poetry and song transcends musical boundaries and her material covers many bases including folk, jazz, pop and classical. She writes high quality original songs and her choice of outside material is often quite inspired. Rose knows a good song when she hears one.
She is a consistently excellent live performer and I have witnessed many of her local appearances over the years. No two shows have been exactly alike and I have seen her sing and play with a variety of accompanists. Her work has attracted the attention of many celebrity admirers including American folk doyenne Judy Collins, New York based singer/songwriter Kenny White and Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant who contributed backing vocals to the “Wilde Wood” album. She is also a great organiser and facilitator as well as being a significant musical talent.
Her most recent album, “The Shining Pathway” was released in early 2020 and was largely comprised of self penned songs, plus the occasional collaboration.
It was largely recorded in Nashville, Tennessee with further sessions taking place closer to home in Ludlow. The songs were inspired by travel, literature, personal experience and her Christian faith. A musician with a social conscience Rose has championed women’s issues, worked on teaching and song-writing projects with prisoners, children and dementia patients, and travelled to Africa to work for the charity Planting for Hope in Uganda. She has also performed fund-raising gigs for the charity in the UK.
Inevitably Rose’s touring plans for the album were sidelined by the pandemic, along with just about everything else. However she has never been an artist content to rest on her laurels and tonight’s show was an ambitious project that saw her performing two lengthy sets with two different sets of collaborators.
The first mainly featured material from “The Shining Pathway” and saw her voice and guitar augmented by the playing of her long time musical associate and song writing partner Martin Riley on piano, plus multi-instrumentalist and producer Ben Walsh on violin and guitar. Walsh was heavily involved with “The Shining Pathway” recording, acting in an engineering capacity and also providing much of the instrumentation. He also served as Rose’s co-writer on two of the songs.
The second set featured newer material, much of it written during, and as a response to, the pandemic. It is likely that these new songs will form the focal point of the next Deborah Rose album. For this section the piano chair was taken over by the locally based musician Steve Dunachie, father of rising star jazz pianist/organist Liam Dunachie. Steve also doubled briefly on acoustic guitar and wrote the string arrangements that were performed by the Shrewsbury based Sounds Interesting String Quartet led by violinist Anne Tupling. Ben Walsh also joined the ensemble intermittently, this time concentrating on acoustic guitar.
Rose has accrued a considerable following for her music and tonight’s event was very well attended with an audience of around one hundred and twenty seated in the nave at St. Laurence’s. With so much locally based talent on show the townsfolk of Ludlow had turned out in force to support their fellow residents, and it should also be remembered that with the Fringe Festival in full swing this was not the only show in town.
Rose took to the stage for the first set accompanied by Riley at the piano and Walsh on violin, standing to sing the haunting “Taigh Allain”, one of her oldest and most popular songs and one co-written with Riley. The title is Scots Gaelic for “Beautiful House” and the lyric celebrates idyllic holidays spent in the Hebrides. It’s a beautiful tune and is obviously a personal favourite of the singer. It appears on the 2014 album “Song Be My Soul” and also on an earlier EP.
Next we heard “Wrestling With Angels”, the opening song from “The Shining Pathway” album. Here Rose took up her acoustic guitar which was teamed with violin and piano in an arrangement that included brief solo features for both Walsh and Riley. Rose’s pure, well enunciated vocals were well suited to a poetic lyric inspired by a visit to Crathie Kirk, near Balmoral, at a time when the Queen was in residence.
The twin acoustic guitars of Rose and Walsh were featured on “Grace Go I”, a song co-written by the pair that also appears on “The Shining Pathway”. It’s a song about counting your blessings and was partly inspired by Rose’s work in UK and US prisons. It also references a long journey on a Greyhound bus and some of the characters she met along the way. A poetic and evocative lyric expresses empathy for the marginalised of society, whilst simultaneously giving thanks for her own good fortune and her Christian faith.
One of Rose’s primary influences is the inspirational Canadian born singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Also from “The Shining Pathway” album Rose’s song “Basket Of Roses” was written after a visit to the cave at Matala on the island of Crete, where Mitchell wrote most of the material the material for her seminal “Blue” album. Rose has described the song as “an ode to the goddess within” and makes allusions to Mitchell’s work in the lyrics, name checking Matala, the Mermaid Café and “Blue”. This was another performance to feature twinned acoustic guitars, but one which also found room for a brief piano solo from Martin Riley.
The lyrics of “Basket Of Roses” also make reference to the Joni Mitchell song “Carey”, which in turn contains the names Matala and Mermaid Café. Recorded by Mitchell on “Blue”, released in 1971 and thus currently the subject of numerous 50th anniversary celebrations, “Carey” is one of Mitchell’s most melodic and best loved songs. Rose’s interpretation featured her own Joni-esque vocals alongside Walsh’s guitar and the sound of Riley on bongos.
Also from “The Shining Pathway” “Willow of The Canyon” was the last of the Joni related songs. It was written in Mitchell’s former hangout of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles and its lyrics name check Joni, Stephen Stills and Mitchell’s former lover, Graham Nash. At the time of its composition Rose was staying in California prior to performing for the Democrat politician Marianne Williamson, another immensely influential figure for Rose. Tonight’s pared down arrangement featured the sounds of Rose’s wistful vocals and Walsh’s acoustic guitar.
Another key figure for Rose has been the late American singer Eva Cassidy (1963-96). Rose has strong connections with the Cassidy family, including Eva’s violin playing brother Dan Cassidy, who appeared on “Song Be My Soul”. To celebrate what would have been Eva’s 50th birthday the Cassidy family gave Rose permission to set one of Eva’s poems, “Springtime”, to music, the melody being written by Worcester based pianist, composer and educator Ian King. I remember seeing King performing with Rose and was shocked to hear that he has also passed away. Cassidy’s poetic words and King’s beautiful melody live on in the setting of “Springtime”, performed here as a voice and piano duet by Rose and Riley. The pair also paid tribute to King with a version of his song “Little Boat”, which Rose recorded on “Song Be My Soul”.
The “Song Be My Soul” album also featured a series of settings of poems by some of the giants of English literature. Two of these were to follow, beginning with the Rose / Riley setting of the Shakespeare sonnet “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day”, again performed by just voice and piano.
Walsh returned to play violin on the Rose and Riley composed title track from “Song Be My Soul”. Although Rose was born in Wales and now lives in England much of her inspiration for song-writing has come from visiting Scotland, and this song was no exception, the lyrics written in Scotland, but about a deep longing for Wales.
The second setting of an existing poem came in the Rose / Riley arrangement of William Blake’s famous “Tyger Tyger”, which featured voice, piano and both pizzicato and bowed violin in a quirky, but effective, arrangement that wasn’t afraid to embrace an element of wilful dissonance in its instrumental sections.
A lengthy first half concluded with a version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” in an unusual, but again highly effective, slowed down arrangement for piano and
vocals, with Riley briefly afforded a little solo space. Rose is not a jazz singer as such but often includes jazz inflected material in her sets. She and Riley are due appear at the Green’s venue in Solihull at 5.30 pm on 18th July 2021 as part of this year’s Birmingham Jazz Festival, performing a more obviously jazz themed set. For further information please visit http://www.birminghamjazzfestival.com
The second set commenced with Rose taking to the stage alone to sing unaccompanied. This acapella performance was particularly well suited to the church acoustic, with every note seeming to hang in the air. The song was a response to events during lockdown and began with the line “The blackbirds are singing much louder than ever before”, a reference to the peace and quiet and the resurgence of nature during the initial lockdown perhaps, but as the performance continued it became apparent that something rather more political was being addressed here. Rose had taken Paul McCartney s ‘blackbird’ metaphor and applied it to more recent events, the lines “say his name” and “I can’t breathe” making it clear that this moving performance was making reference to the killing of George Floyd and to the Black Lives Matter movement. Finally the victim’s name was sung, the title of this song was indeed simply “George Floyd” and it represented both a touching tribute and a call for greater understanding and tolerance. Rose later told me that it had been a last minute decision to include this song in the set. I’m so glad that she did.
Rose was now took up her guitar and was joined on stage by Steve Dunachie at the piano and the members of the Sounds Interesting String Quartet. During lockdown Rose wrote and released two songs as a seven inch vinyl single and these were performed back to back, commencing with the ‘A side’ “Anam Cara”, another Gaelic title, this time meaning “Soul Friend”. The string arrangement, with Georgia Vale’s viola playing a prominent role, was well suited to the song and worked superbly.
The ‘B side’ was “Rings of Saturn”, a song originally written in Nashville and inspired both by the planet and by Rose’s meeting with the son of Johnny Cash, these diffuse sources of inspiration both finding their way into a lyric with the chorus “Rings of Saturn, Rings of Fire”. Both sides of the single are excellent songs, and although it has been Rose’s intention that the “Anam Cara” single should represent a stand alone entity the quality of the material demands that both sides should also be included on the forthcoming album release.
The new “Thunder and Bird Song” then featured Rose and Dunachie on twin acoustic guitars, with the latter also undertaking a brief solo excursion.
Rose’s literary leanings came to the fore with “Living Waters”, a song inspired by the River Teme, upon which Ludlow stands, with the words of the poet A.E. Housman incorporated into the lyrics. This saw Dunachie returning to the piano and featured Hilary Summer’s cello in the arrangement, flowing through it like a river. As a Shropshire resident it’s not the first time that Rose has deployed settings of Housman’s words.
“Catalina” was another song inspired by the town of Ludlow, in whose castle Catherine of Aragon, whose name is referenced in the title, once lived with her first husband, Henry VIII’s older brother Prince Arthur. Rose’s songs have frequently addressed historical matters in a convincing fashion and this was another intelligent and intriguing song with an accomplished arrangement for piano and string quartet.
“Heroes”, not to be confused with the David Bowie song of the same name, was another product of lockdown, one that acknowledged the role of the NHS while also making lyrical references to musical heroes as diverse as Pete Seeger, John Lennon and U2.
There was a return to “The Shining Pathway” repertoire with a performance of the song “Butterfly”, written by the Canadian songwriter Melodie Mitchell, who travelled to Nashville to play piano on the recording. Tonight the ivories were played by a returning Martin Riley in a pared down voice and piano arrangement of this simple but evocative song.
Also from the album came “Shallow Waters”, co-written by Rose and the American singer-songwriter Christina Nichols, who also played piano on the record, in addition to providing harmony vocals. Tonight’s arrangement added Walsh’s acoustic guitar to the vocals and piano. One of Rose’s most evocative and affirming compositions this is a song that possesses a distinct anthemic quality.
From the same album “Glow of a Thousand Candles” exhibited similar qualities, this time in an even more sparse arrangement featuring just Rose’s pure, clear vocals and Walsh’s acoustic guitar.
“We’re going to play a pop song”, declared Rose. This turned out to be the Miley Cyrus hit “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart”, originally written by Dolly Parton. Like many ‘pop’ hits this is actually a very good and highly evocative song, one that actually sounds better in a stripped down instrumental environment, away from the sheen and gloss of most pop productions. This was certainly the case here with Rose singing the song with great authority, backed only by Riley on piano and Walsh on acoustic guitar.
Finally, we heard a second cover, Rose’s version of Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home”, arranged for just voice and piano. This represented a suitably fitting way for Rose to round off a triumphant ‘home town’ gig, her first public performance for over eighteen months.
Although I had some quibbles about the organisation of the event (compulsory mask wearing throughout, even when seated for the performance, plus a lack of toilet facilities) I could find little to complain about in terms of the performance. Rose was understandably a little nervous but she had clearly put in a lot of work before the gig and this paid off handsomely. Both the singer and her accompanists performed with great assurance and skill over the course of two lengthy and adventurous sets that explored a wide range of musical territory. Twenty four different songs were performed in all, and in musical terms the event represented great value for money.
The quality of the new material performed in the second set suggests that Rose’s next album release is a recording that will be well worth waiting for. With the forthcoming easing of Covid restrictions let us hope that Rose will be able to return to more regular live performances and will also be able to visit the studio to document her more recent compositions on disc.