Jah Wobble, Carla Bruni, Rufus Wainwright, the Fugs, Syd Barrett, Mike and Kate Westbrook, Christine Tobin – these are just some of the many artists who have set classic English and Irish poetry to music, but Fred Thomas is unusual inasmuch as he has dedicated his trio project, the Beguilers, exclusively to the form. Thomas himself plays discreet, neat, finger-picked acoustic guitar (and occasional rippling piano), Ellie Rose sings and Dave Shulman provides tasteful, sympathetic clarinet commentary; together they create a mellifluous, graceful sound that entirely justifies their band name. |
The bulk of their material comes from the visionary genius William Blake, and poems such as ‘How Sweet I Roam’d’ and ‘The Dream’, their deceptively simple verses often concealing bitter truths, or the more overtly dark ‘A Little Boy Lost’, with its horrifying conclusion (‘They strip’d him to his little shirt,/And bound him in an iron chain;/And burn’d him in a holy place,/Where many had been burn’d before’) provide rich material for the nuanced, sensitive live performance in which the trio specialises.
Rose has a touching, pure, sweet voice, well suited to the affecting melodies Thomas writes, and Shulman, switching as required between elegant clarinet and its slightly more sinister bass sibling (particularly effective on ‘A Little Boy Lost’), provides just the right amount of textural and tonal variety. Interspersing the Blake with settings of Walter Savage Landor (a plaintive visit to ‘Mother I Cannot Mind My Wheel’), Shakespeare (‘Take, O take those lips away’ from Measure for Measure) and – perhaps most memorably – of the love poetry of John Clare, the Beguilers plough a singularly rich furrow and, in an hour-long set, clearly entranced a respectably sized and characteristically supportive and attentive Vortex audience.