Published on 9th December 2021
Acapela Studio, Pentyrch, Cardiff
Sunday, 5th December 2021
The Mediaeval Baebes have resonated around my musical psyche for more than 20 years, since around the time of Worldes Blysse, their second album, but I haven’t followed them closely in the interim. That said, it seemed like a timely opportunity to finally see what they do in a live setting when tickets were announced for a December 2020 show at the lovely Acapela Studio as restrictions eased after the initial lockdown. Things were opening up again and I was keen to get back to gigs, so ticket duly bought.
You know what happened next.
And here we are a year or so later, and even though we seem to be heading towards difficult waters again, this first date of the rescheduled tour (which runs through to a Winter Solstice Celebration at the Heath Street Baptist Church in London on 21st December) went ahead without a hitch in front of an expectant throng.
The Acapela is ideally suited to a show like this, and as the Baebes processed to the stage in their flowing gowns and exquisite headgear, the anticipation was electric.
This isn’t going to be a blow by blow account. I don’t have a setlist or even confirmation of the names of everyone involved (so apologies for any errors) and I wasn’t planning a review (hence the quickly snapped pics), so this is going to be more of an overview and a collection of thoughts.
From their original white dresses, there were changes to red and later to green, festive colours that matched the setting, with subtle lighting and ivy wound around the mic stands and decorating the stage. Coupled with the mulled wine and mince pies, there was definitely a seasonal edge to the show without it needing to rely on Christmas music. Sure, there were carols, but much else besides, touching a myriad of bases and textures, emotional, heart-felt and at times deeply moving.
Taking pieces from throughout their recorded oeuvre, including traditional pieces of all stripes, from carols to nursery rhymes (Ride A Cock Horse and The Lion and the Unicorn making an appearance), Latin verse to Olde English, the performance took on a cornucopia of delights and was never short of mesmerising.
The supporting musicians, including Knifeworld rhythm buddies Charlie Cawood (on a gazillion stringed things) and Ben Woollacott (drum and percussion), plus cellist Maya McCourt and occasional pipes from Michael J. York, were spot on, building the perfect structure upon which the gorgeous blend of voices and complex harmonies could hang, augmented by violin, pipes and Josephine Ravenheart’s unexpected clog dancing from within the realms of the singers.
And those voices.
Angelic is too simplistic. The depth and resonance of the arrangements, from Gaudete to a haunting Coventry Carol to a melancholic alternative setting for Robbie Burns’ Auld Lang Syne, saw the voices complement and enhance each other magnificently. The solo parts soared while the full gamut of the harmonies lifted the soul. You just need to immerse yourself in the wonderful sound that they create together.
The first half was great, but after the interval the levels were raised considerably, and it became a tour de force. The instrumental showcase for Charlie’s Iraqi Oud and Maya’s cello, moving into a fine solo section for group founder and leader Katherine Blake was awesome and the wonders continued through to the well-deserved encore, the whole show peppered with comedic asides and good humour. This is not a po-faced performance, the laughter and warmth making those in attendance feel very good inside. There is something organic about a group of people singing together, accentuated by the resonance of the acoustic instrumentation; human experience, resilience and artistry handed down through the centuries with the interpretations of generations of singers related in these songs. It’s both humbling and uplifting, the perfect antidote to the woes of the world continuing unabated outside the safety of this small oasis.
A thoroughly warming and engaging evening of optimism, built on the truth and depth of ancient texts, sung through the ages to tell the story of real lives and all the suffering, hardship and celebration wrapped up in them.
Long may the Baebes continue, this music needs to be heard and they successfully deliver it with panache and great skill.
You really can do worse than see this show on a cold and wet December evening. I’m (almost) looking forward to Christmas now…
Katharine Blake – Voice, Violin, Woodwind
Marie Findley – Voice
Fiona Fey – Voice
Maya McCourt – Voice, Cello
Josephine Ravenheart – Voice, Dancing
Sophia Halberstam – Voice
Charlie Cawood – Stringed Things
Ben Woollacott – Drum & Percussion
Michael J. York – Pipes