Review and Photography by John Bentley

Bridget St John

Back in the days of my youth I was a regular listener to DJ John Peel’s Radio 1 ‘Top Gear’ programme (not to be confused with the TV programme of the same name associated with some chap called Clarkson). Peelie specialised in bringing to the attention of us listeners all sorts of bands and artists that were ignored by the mainstream. So dedicated was the man that, not satisfied with just playing such artists on his radio programme, he actually set us his own record label, ‘Dandelion’, to record and distribute their work. Of course, this was in the days before indie record labels and home recording. One of the major artists on Dandelion Records was Bridget St John, who Peel described as “the best lady singer-songwriter in the country”. Bridget emigrated to New York in the mid-1970s and largely disappeared from the public eye. However, she’s now re-emerged and is doing a rare tour of the UK.

Django Bop

First support band tonight is Django Bop, a local ensemble from the Preston area. They are a highly competent and enjoyable three piece, playing instrumental guitar pieces that owe a great deal to jazz guitar legend Django Reinhardt.

Michael Chapman

Michael Chapman is a celebrated singer-songwriter and a brilliant guitarist with over 30 albums to his credit. Another big favourite of the late John Peel, Chapman is widely respected as a writer and performer. I last saw him touring with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore a couple of years ago and now he’s teamed up with Bridget St John, performing his own music as well as doing songs with Bridget. The pair are old friends who have long worked together and Bridget describes him as a musical brother.

Bridget St John

Chapman plays his song ‘That Time of Night’, which was covered by Lucinda Williams and gives us an ‘older folk and technology’ anecdote about how he sadly missed playing with her at The Sage in Gateshead because, as he didn’t have a computer, he didn’t get her e-mail invitation. Chapman’s voice has got ever more gravelly with the passing of the years, as is notable as he performs one of his classics, ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’. Chapman is rightly celebrated for his instrumental guitar pieces, with comparisons being made with great players like John Fahey. He is on great form tonight, performing several lengthy instrumentals, notably ‘La Madrugada’ (which I recommend readers seek out on You Tube), a sonically adventurous piece which really soars and which would surely be thoroughly approved of by Thurston Moore.

Bridget St John and Michael Chapman

Seeing Bridget St John on her current tour was a ‘must’ for me. I fondly remember her dulcet tones coming from my radio back in the Peel show days. She made three celebrated albums for Peel’s label, which included her own songs and some covers. Most notable is her voice, which has an alluring husky tone reminiscent of Nico, but with far more warmth. Fortunately her singing voice is still as good as it ever was, as we hear on her acapella cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Fiddle and the Drum’, which she links in with her own anti-war song ‘Look at the Child’. Among other covers is Michael Chapman’s ‘Rabbit Hills’.

Many of her songs are quite gentle and delicate; as is the cover she performs of Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’, with the words modified to reflect a woman’s perspective. There are a fair number of covers performed and it would have been good to hear more of Bridget’s own songs, of which there are many greats (like ‘If You’ve Got Money’, for example). At least she plays ‘Ask Me No Questions’, one of her true greats from the Peel days. Before she plays the song she tells a charming story of how it took a long time to do because (producer) John Peel rather delighted in it and went to the BBC library to find bird song to include on the recording. She also performs a more recent song, ‘The Hole in Your Heart’, inspired by her living in Greenwich Village and witnessing one of the planes flying into the Twin Towers on 9/11. The song is about the big hole left in the collective New York heart by the tragedy.

Bridget St John

Michael Chapman joins her to play guitar on the last few songs. Most notable is their rendition of ‘Lazarus’, a traditional song Bridget covered on her third album and inspired by Buffy Sainte-Marie’s version. Chapman picks his guitar while she plays percussive effects on hers and the song rises in intensity, as it reaches its finale. Interestingly the passionate song also takes her usually gentle voice to more abrasive levels.

It has really been worth seeing Bridget St John perform after all these years, although I would really have liked to hear more, with extra helpings her own classic songs and more of her splendid collaborations with Michael Chapman.

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