Monday 18 December 2023

Gig Review: Merry Hell - Katie Fitzgerald's, Stourbridge. Sunday 17th December 2023

From the cotton mills of Wigan to the glassworks of Stourbridge, Merry Hell cherish a distinguished English heritage wrapped in a progressive blanket of unity, while expunging differences at every opportune moment. Blending a fiery fervour with wry humour, this seven-piece band deliver an amenable basket of relatable folk-rock inviting people of all persuasions to join the affray. The key to the appeal is that no previous experience is required to bask in their crafted humility. Accessible lyrics are heartily sung from the floor with minimal instruction and being part of a crusade for justice is an immediate fix. All was in place as they closed a gig year in several quarters with a debut Stourbridge performance that raised the roof of Katie Fitzgerald's cellar venue.

For many years my hometown of Stourbridge has been been the departing point for a gig journey, but far too infrequently the destination. Shows that pierce the core of a musical odyssey crop up from time to time in a smattering of venues. Memory bank excavation of local gigs finds few to match the feeling evoked from Merry Hell being the chosen band to end the substantive run for this calendar year. A winter afternoon gig starting at 3:30 and finishing at 7:00 can be a touch discombobulating. While the band packed the van before tackling the M6 at the end of the tour, the decision to extend the night with an extra pint was a wise one.

Merry Hell have been an active outfit for over a dozen years and are a much loved feature on the folk circuit. Festivals, shows and multiple releases have kept them in the public eye as the core of the band remains staunchly intact, while the edges tinker a little. Up front you are confronted by a quartet of Kettles. No collective noun required just three brothers and the spirited presence of fourth named acquaintance at the vocal heart in the guise of Virginia Kettle, who has no doubt decided they ain't a bad bunch to keep in check. She is the wife of guitarist John from whom much of the musical output derives. Her sparring partner in the voice stakes is co-orator Andrew, while Bob quietly strums his bouzouki (I think!) amidst writing some quality stirring songs. The centre of the backfield for tonight's line up is Simon Swarbrick on fiddle, a nephew of the legendary Dave and more than adept with a little bow magic that ranged from frantic foot stomping to dips into psych. To his flanks were Nick Davies on bass and Lee Goulding on keyboards. Together fine music poured out with vocal renditions fleetingly incorporating the whole band joining an engaging twosome raising a toast to what can be right in the world from their industrious Lancashire brogue.

As fine a musical combo as there needs to be, the depth to a Merry Hell concert is in the content and the messages poetically conveyed. Politics with a small 'p' runs through the veins. 'We are Different, We are One', 'Sister Atlas' , 'Come on, England!' and 'We Need Each Other Now' would all make a Katie Fitzgerald's manifesto for the evening. For around an hour and half music, stories and humour flowed. 'Lean on Me Love' paid a tribute to the late Shane MacGowan, a friend of the band, and Virginia gave the guys a five minute rest to serenade us all with 'Violet'. The ever inclusive and stripped to the core content of 'Bury Me Naked' is close to the summit of a signature moment, and the band have nailed the finale in the very apt 'Let the Music Speak'. In these days of well-being programmes tumbling out of every media zone, why not the tonic of a Merry Hell show. Socially prescribing what they have to say is right up the street of those hooked in, but many outside would benefit from a dose of literary folk rock - Wigan style.

To enhance this afternoon/early evening of refreshing verve, two support acts took to the stage. You only have to dabble a little bit in the Katie Fitzgerald's scene to come across the powerful folk-punk presence of Jess Silk. On the stroke of 3:30 she took to the stage in a duo format this time and threw her heart into a wrath of solid songs, strongly delivered and right to the core of protest. In between this and the main set, the venues's proprietor and long time singer-songwriter Eddy Morton shared a couple of songs ranging from one of his highly familiar signature tunes to a thoughtful new offering. From a combination of passion and refinement, the scene was set for Merry Hell to  rouse the occasion.

A perfect end to the year and a little glimpse into what might be if the connective channels of the local scene truly reached the personal parts that drives a love of live music. Maybe the future will see a rejuvenated surge. Politically all is in place, just a few more acts in the shape of Merry Hell to forge the union. In the words of Skeryvore: 'paradise is wherever your people are'. Just maybe they congregated in a small venue in Stourbridge on a December afternoon.