Sandra Kerr

The Patrick Kavanagh upstairs room is a pleasant and intimate space; 50 people filled it comfortably. The pub itself was crowded and noisy and the audience for this folk concert had to push their way through the din to reach the stairs. Once upstairs, however, little noise could be heard from the bar, although the noisy fridges at the back of the room meant that the music had to be amplified.

The concert was sold out completely in advance and many of the audience, who ranged in age from 20 to 80, knew Sandra Kerr and each other well. There was a convivial atmosphere with lots of chat before the concert started, giving the whole event the feeling of an evening round at a mate’s, rather than a formal concert.

Sandra Kerr

The support band, Cuckoo’s Nest, are well known around the traditional music and ceilidh scene, with a five-piece line-up consisting of Pam Bishop on duet concertina and guitar, Susan McClure on fiddle and melodeon, Belinda Hutchings on whistle and bodhran, Barbie Norden on guitar and whistle and Liz Jablonski on bassoon and keyboards — although dental problems restricted her to the keyboards this evening. The set was varied and toe-tapping and as the evening went on the audience warmed up and began to sway and beat time — although no one went so far as to leap up and start dancing! Cuckoo’s Nest frequently play for country dancing and it shows in the crispness of their playing and the precision of their rhythm.

Sandra KerrSandra Kerr

Particularly noteworthy was a three-tune combination which began with the haunting ‘Bright Hollow Fog’, moved into the liveliness of ‘Mad Moll’ and then moved again into the whirling wind sensation of the Shetland Reel ‘Sleep soond in da morning’. The band’s tunes were all from the British Isles with the exception of the Swedish ‘Stensale Polka’, the different tuning of which stood out against the others.

Sandra Kerr

The band finished their first set to long applause and then Sandra Kerr was greeted with even longer applause! Pointing out that she knew at least half the people in the room by name, Sandra suggested that the rest could just come and introduce themselves at the interval! The room at the Patrick Kavanagh is flat, with the stage only about three inches off the floor; this meant that Sandra performed many of her songs perched rather precariously on a high stool.

Sandra Kerr

The set began with ‘Miner’s Washing’, a song that Sandra said reminded her of her own mother-in-law’s life in Northumberland in the 1920s and 30s. One of the pleasures of the evening was the storytelling that accompanied each song, whether traditional or more recently composed. Many in the audience knew the song already and, without prompting, joined in enthusiastically from the very first chorus, much to Sandra’s delight. This song set the tone for the rest of the evening — the audience continued to join in lustily throughout both sets.

‘Whittingham Fair’, a Northumbrian version of ‘Scarborough Fair’, showed off the clarity of Sandra’s voice, which at its best is strong and true. ‘Hopping in Kent’, a song learned from her mother in the East End of London, was accompanied by the spoons — which sadly moved far too quickly to photograph! Throughout the evening Sandra moved smoothly from guitar to autoharp to concertina, seemingly equally at home on all.

Sandra KerrSandra Kerr

Next came a number of concertina tunes. The first, ‘Solace’, was a complex and moving tune, written after the death of Sandra Kerr’s mother — although without having been told that fact, the sense of the tune would have been harder to interpret. The final two tunes were played with Pam Bishop from the band, first a slow Northumbrian pipe tune, ‘Bonnie Woodside’, and secondly a tune that Sandra had written for Pam, ‘Pam’s Publication’. The two women have known each other for years and it was lovely to see the genuine enjoyment on their faces as they played together. The tunes and the interaction between Sandra and Pam brought echoing smiles to the faces of the audience as feet tapped and heads nodded.

The set ended with ‘Big Knicker Blues’, a song written, according to Sandra, for ‘women of a certain age’ — although, as she pointed out, the younger members of the audience would get there eventually!

Sandra Kerr

There was a long interval — appropriate to an audience who all wanted to talk to each other and for whom socialising and reminiscing was an important part of the event — and then Cuckoo’s Nest started off the second half with as much verve as the first, with three lively Irish tunes frequently used for English country dancing. Again, one of the bonuses was watching the obvious pleasure that the members of the band take in each other’s playing.

The Shetland tune ‘Full-Rigged Ship’ conjured up the slow rocking motion of a boat; the band then moved into another nautical Shetland tune, ‘New-Rigged Ship’, a fast lively piece which highlighted Susan’s fiddle-playing. The band’s sound was well balanced throughout the evening.

‘Poll Ha’penny’ featured Barbie on whistle with the rest of the band gradually joining in, a light delicate tune. The ending of the tune wandered a bit strangely and looks exchanged between band members suggested that this was not intentional but this was probably the only occasion all evening where anything went at all awry.

Three Scottish tunes ended this second set, with ‘De’il Amang the Tailors’ taking the playing to a storming finish.

Sandra Kerr’s second set began with a couple of requests from the audience. First came an unaccompanied and highly accomplished singing of the demanding traditional song ‘Barbara Allen’. The audience was rapt, despite the fact that the jukebox from downstairs could be heard in the background.

The voice of Madeleine, the rag doll in Bagpuss, was provided by Sandra (along with the voices of a couple of the mice!), and again in response to a request, she — and the whole audience — sang ‘The Bony King of Nowhere’ with gusto.

Sandra Kerr

Picking up her autoharp, she moved back into the world of traditional song with ‘The Outlandish Knight’, the tale of a woman who triumphs over a man who is attempting to murder her, a song that she had rearranged in 5/4 tuning because the original version was a bit boring!

Another notable moment came with Leon Rosselson’s ‘My Daughter, My Son’, the story of a mother whose fear for the safety of her children causes her to lock them up. Sandra’s concertina playing was particularly effective here, with a sinister background tune that was almost cinematic. Again, the noise from downstairs intruded a bit, but the audience were sufficiently involved in the music to ignore it.

Sandra Kerr

Several more songs and then Sandra ended the set and the show with Peggy Seeger’s great singalong song, ‘Sing About These Hard Times’. The audience weren’t ready to let her go, though, and shouts of ‘More’ were heard (along with a very loud police siren outside the window!), bringing Sandra back to finish with a child’s song she had written for her daughter, ‘Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire’.

Sandra Kerr treats the whole audience as friends and creates an atmosphere that is relaxed and welcoming. I wandered off, satisfied, humming ‘The Bony King of Nowhere’.

Cuckoo’s Nest Set List

1st set:
Morgan Rattler/Time for a Jig/Miss Thompson/Sligo Fancy
Bright Hollow Fog/Mad Moll/Sleep Soond in Da Morning
Stensale Polka
Frost is all over/Kitty lie over/Bonny Kate

2nd set:
Blackthorn Stick/Rakes of Kildare/Old Joe
Full-Rigged Ship/New-Rigged Ship
Poll Ha’penny
Miss Lyall/Cuckoo’s Nest/De’il Amang the Tailors

Sandra Kerr Set List

1st set:
Miner’s Washing
Grace Darling
Whittingham Fair
Hopping in Kent
Bonnie Woodside/Pam’s Publication
Big Knicker Blues

2nd set:
[Added by request – Barbara Allen; The Bony King of Nowhere (from Bagpuss)]
The Outlandish Knight
Why Does It Have to Be Me?
My Daughter, My Son
Music and Movement
I Didn’t Raise My Son to Be a Soldier
Emily Davison
Sing About These Hard Times
Encore: Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire

Cuckoo’s Nest website:
Traditional Arts Team (who organised the concert):

Review & Photos – Betty Hagglund

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