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The Gift Band (Liverpool Philharmonic Hall)
If you'd asked me a couple of years ago to compile a list of gigs I thought I'd never see this may well have appeared somewhere near the top. In the winter of 2010 Norma Waterson and daughter Eliza Carthy embarked on a national tour to promote Gift, the album they had released earlier the same year and their first as a duo. During the tour Norma developed a knee infection that quickly escalated and she soon found herself critically ill, on dialysis and hooked up to a ventilator. She ultimately spend the best part of three months in Intensive Care and when it emerged that she had endured a tracheotomy as part of her treatment and that she could barely speak, never mind sing, the prospects of ever hearing one of Britain's finest female singers in full flight again seemed anything but positive.
So it's no surprise that the biggest applause of this evening occurs before a single note has been sung as Norma, assisted by husband Martin Carthy, walks out to take her seat at the front of the stage at the Liverpool Philharmonic. For the vast majority of this audience Norma is little less than an icon and one of our finest musical treasures but she takes this adoration in her stride and quickly gets on with the business of introducing the first song. She and daughter Eliza start things off with their version of Louden Wainwright's Dreaming and it's immediately apparent that Norma has lost none of her ability to communicate with an audience but, it becomes apparent over the course of the evening, her voice does seem to have developed a slightly deeper timbre.
Early in the evening Norma, relying partially on a set list and lyric sheets on the music stand immediately in front of her, forgets the next song and Eliza removes herself from her chair, proceeds to rearrange the various song sheets until the correct paperwork is visible and returns to her seat. This forms a theme throughout the evening as Norma's set list seems to differ from everyone else's at various stages and Eliza, ever the dutiful daughter, gets up, re-arranges the papers and sits down again. In lesser hands this would seem somewhat ramshackle but with this pair it becomes an amusing pantomime that is never less than endearing. Besides, Norma has built up an enormous amount of credit with this audience over the years and considering that it's remarkable that she's even here they are not about to let a few fumbled set list issues spoil their evening.
Norma is very much the centre of attention throughout the evening but Eliza has her time in the spotlight, most notably with with her version of the beautiful translation of Manx lullaby Washing Song, specially requested by Norma tonight. Eliza also provides fiddle accompaniments throughout and the pair of them are wonderfully assisted by a four-piece band consisting of two refugees from Eliza's band, Phil Alexander on piano and accordion and David Donnelly on double bass, plus Dave Delarre on mandolin and beautiful jazz-inflected guitar and of course Martin Carthy on guitar and vocals.
Their set draws largely from the Gift album and from Norma's various solo releases and the repertoire is both interesting and diverse. Many of the more unusual choices derive from Norma's childhood experiences such as the half-remembered nonsense lullaby which, through some judicious Googling on Eliza's part, was revealed to be the 1920s standard Ukulele Lady and which in turn goes on to form an improbable medley with Amen Corner's If Paradise Is Half As Nice and this pairing becomes a kind of microcosm of the set as a whole. Traditional songs from both sides of the Atlantic rub up against odd bits of music hall or swing which in turn give way to the work of contemporary songwriters like Wainwright or Richard Thompson, whose work is twice represented tonight with Josef Locke and Al Bowlly's In Heaven.
Norma's anecdotes of her childhood or of her early days singing with The Watersons are fascinating and frame many if the songs tonight. When she tells us about meeting the great American singer Almeida Riddle, by way of an introduction to Poor Wayfairing Stranger, it's hard not to be taken in by the wonder of it all and to be hit by a tinge of regret that we weren't all there to witness it ourselves. Eliza too has a great way with a story and does her fair share of the introductions, but it's the songs that we've all come to hear. With such a diverse and lengthy set it's not easy to pick out a favourite but when the entire audience join in with the final chorus on Bunch Of Thyme it's something of a defining moment for a comeback that may never have been and, more importantly, a fabulous high point to an emotionally-charged evening.