Gig review: Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar at The Grove Folk Club, Leeds

All of us have that one gig or, if we're really lucky, several gigs, where we sit down, look back, and can say: 'I was there'. Personally, I think of Springsteen at Hard Park in '09 and Billy Bragg at Dewsbury Socialist Club in '05 (yes, really).

Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar
Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar

I have also been lucky enough to have seen many of the folk music luminaries who have kept the genre alive over the preceding decades: Vin Garbutt; Martin Carthy; The Wilsons; John Kirkpatrick; Pete Coe; nearly all of these have been seen in the little back room of The Grove Inn, Leeds – the longest running (single venue) folk club in the world – (with apologies to The Topic!).

To the above, I can now add a new memory: Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar in February 2018. The last time I saw them was at the aforementioned Topic, but tonight trumped that gig. Didn’t it just.

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Despite arriving early, it was almost standing room only already. The Grove (sadly) hasn’t been this full in ages – I couldn’t understand why the audience was so sparse for Mike Wilson and Damien Barber just weeks earlier – “there’s often just two men and a dog in here,” I quipped to my companion. “I’ve been the dog before now,” replied the wannabe comedian in the corner.

If floor singers are the life-blood of folk clubs, then Ciaran and Gregg were tonight’s defibrillator. Thankfully, Brenda limited the floor singers to just a few. And then they were off –- from the word go, it was obvious this was going to be good. They started off with a set of tunes which had the audience table-tapping and foot-stomping within minutes. Then it was a song off the new album – yes! – about the blues and the greys.

After a rendition of ‘Lock-Keeper’, from the cannon of Stan Rogers – the Canadian folk singer who died at just 33 – it was on to another set of tunes: George’s in fact. Then the due put their own spin on a ‘Broadside’ before launching into a new one, written by Greg, about the ridiculous, vain-glorious project, that is HS2. A decision probably taken in Chipping Norton he mused, only to discover someone in the room with connections to Chipping Norton. Luckily, it turned out to be that other folk luminary, Tom Bliss, so all was well.

Not too far away from the sentiments of that new train set, which is demolishing houses and countryside both in its wake, the duo launched into ‘Crooked Jack’ with its rousing chorus which was taken up by the crowd: “I was tall and true all of six foot two, till they broke me across my back/By a name I’m known, that’s not my own/For they call me Crooked Jack”. The room was rocking now.

The first half at an end, doors were cracked open, pints were replenished and the raffle was held...

Then, we were into the second half at just the same speed, although we did start with ‘Happy Birthday’; you had to be there to understand.

Greg Russell has the rakish, devil-may-care attitude, that epitomises many of the characters in the songs he sings. He is rough and ready, whereas Ciaran Algar is altogether more smooth, more polished. Without doubt, he’s one of the best fiddlers I’ve seen in this club, right up there with the great Tom McConville. The fact the two of them are so different is why they work so well together. Their banter is also top notch, whether they’re ripping each other, or the audience.

Songs from their last album, The Silent Majority, illustrated the majority of the second half, with ‘Did You Like The Battle Sir’; ‘The New Railroad’ and ‘The Silent Majority’ all making the set list. Then it was ‘E.G.A’ (Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) a song from the musical project “Shake The Chains” that Gregg was involved in. The first female doctor, the first female mayor, yet most people have never heard of her; the societal relevance of this song was pertinent.

Resting their vocals, the duo treated us to another set of tunes. As good as their songs are, witnessing four or five minutes of Greg and Ciaran’s guitar and fiddle duel, is pleasure defined. Their tune sets accelerate to such a crescendo that you expect the fiddle strings to snap like they did in that scene from Waking Ned...(watch it, if you haven’t already).

Before we knew where we were, it was all at an end; oh how I pine for those days of Sam & Ed when they kept the club running until the audience or the artist had had enough. Tonight, neither of us had, but it was ended none the less. The encore-finale was ‘Rolling Down The Ryburn’ which, as Greg articulated, was made all the more strange by the fact that the face of the author – the wonderful Pete Coe – now adorns one wall of the club room.

And that was that: another great gig, another one for the memory bank. Long may the Grove (and other clubs continue) with youthful talent (they’re only in their twenties) as good as this, the folk scene looks good for the next decade at least.