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Howard Assembly Room, Leeds
Friday 16 February 2018

June Tabor, or rather, the voice of June Tabor, has been ringing in my ears for over thirty years now, ever since I first heard June sing back in the mid 1980s. A Cut Above, an album she made with guitar supremo Martin Simpson, was my initial introduction, although she had in fact been around on the folk scene a good deal before this, her first records appearing in 1976. The tall slender almost beguiling figure who appeared on the cover, wearing boots that could've been mistaken for fishing waders, owned what was to become one of the principle voices on the British folk scene over the next few decades, winning plaudits not only from the folk and world music communities, but also the rock world, her voice being championed by the likes of Radio One's John Peel.

Cut to 2018 and June's voice is as good as ever. Gone are the unfeasibly long boots and jeans, together with the long dark locks, today replaced by predominantly black shawl and gown with just a hint of twinkling stars, resembling a grieving Sicilian widow. What does remain though, is that voice, a voice that defies description. Of the numerous collaborations June has undertaken over the years, some of which I’ve been lucky enough to see first hand; her performances with Oysterband for instance, or that one memorable appearance with Richard Thompson and the rest of Fairport Convention on stage at Cropredy performing A Sailor's Life, not to mention that one occasion when she and Martin won the hearts of a packed house at the late lamented Rockingham Arms Folk Club in Wentworth.

Tonight, at the Howard Assembly Room, June was joined by Iain Ballamy on saxophone and Huw Warren on a rather grand Steinway, for a performance by Quercus, one of June's other projects, which investigates the more jazz focused side of the Warwick-born singer's voice. It seems only right that a trio who go under the name 'Quercus', meaning 'Oak' in Latin, should be surrounded by the un-fussy wooden panels of the Howard Assembly Room stage. Any prior investigation into June's jazz leanings would have already revealed her treatment of Chet Baker's This is Always, and I guess tonight we knew what delights lie ahead. We'd heard the trio's rendition of Bob Dylan's Don't Think Twice It's Alright, which appears on their current release NIGHTFALL, but did we really expect such a performance as this tonight? Every word from the heart, every word truly meant. June sings with her eyes open, focused on the middle distance, a tear occasionally evident, or is that just a twinkle reflecting the stars on her shawl?

June can be hilarious too. When talking of her days as a librarian, she mentioned the most requested book at the time, being Love Story by Erich Segal, with the tag line 'love means never having to say you're sorry', delivered in an almost valley girl accent, then a pause, then a stern expression, then "bollocks". You tend to hang on to June's every word, an authority on matters of the heart. This shows in every word she delivers both in song and in-between songs. The Manchester Angel, Lassie Lie Near Me, You Don't Know What Love Is, The Lads in Their Hundreds, Caroline of Edinburgh Town, each song magnificently investigated, researched and delivered in the most sublime fashion. On that aforementioned album from the early 1980s, June sang Richard Thompson's Strange Affair, demonstrating even back then, just how beautifully she is able to craft Thompson's lyrics and tonight she closed the final set by revisiting Beat the Retreat, one of her finest covers of any song.     

It wasn't all about June Tabor tonight though, Quercus operates as a democratic trio, with each contribution as vital as the other and tonight both Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy sparkled with musical ingenuity, the impressionistic piano and breathy tenor sax working so well together, especially on Fern Hill, part of a wider Dylan Thomas suite, whilst June disappeared for a short while to tend to her, according to Iain, "online poker habit." Returning to the stage for just the one encore, Quercus performed a fitting Auld Lang Syne, the song that opens their current album, and a great farewell closer if ever there was one, leaving the audience momentarily spellbound. A wonderful evening of truly inspiring music.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky