Mr McFall's Chamber and Michael Marra in Edinburgh

Mr McFall's Chamber featuring Sterling, McFall, Schiele, Lee, Standley, Alexander, and Marra

Queen's Hall, 4 June 2010 4 stars

Michael MarraStrangely enough, there is another Michael Marra—apparently: an American author of hardboiled crime fiction with a bit of a Holly Martins tinge. On Goodreads, his book has 0 ratings; a 0.00 average rating, and 0 reviews. Anyone familiar with the singer-songwriter from Dundee will find it disconcerting to follow the trail, and to read the blurb in a Dundonian accent, as though the whole fictional enterprise is one long introduction to a song that we haven't heard before.

You see our Michael Marra, besides being a master singer-songwriter, is the master of wry, deadpan introductions. You could almost say that twenty percent of a Marra song is its introduction. As a troubadour, he bears a certain resemblance to the likes of Tom Waits or Dr John, but of course such comparisons carry you only so far.

With Mr McFall's Chamber, it's as though he has all of a sudden found George Martin in his back pocket. It is a relationship that has been maturing over the years, and Robert McFall has developed a repertoire of arrangements that complement the Marra persona with a quirky, unsentimental style that matches admirably. Against Marra's gravelly Dundonian introductions there are McFall's pristine BBC-voiced announcements.

The prevailing vibe being low-key, it is the small things that one notices. In Marra's first number, 'The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke', for instance, Su-a Lee picked up a musical saw. Well, just a saw, as far as I could make out—appropriately for a song about a carpenter—made musical with rare skill. The things are notoriously difficult to play in tune, but she… er… nailed it with elan.

Several numbers featured the harmonium—a real old-fashioned one with pedal bellows, so that one could appreciate the natural breathing and the occasional wheeze that an electric pump or a sampled keyboard does away with. Among the non-Marra numbers sprinkled through the evening, one particular delight was a little bagatelle by Dvorak, scored for two violins, cello and harmonium. It's the kind of thing that you could hardly imagine rushing out to buy an album for, and even if you did it you would seldom play it. Yet in performance it sparkled, paradoxically because of its simplicity, in contrast to the virtuosic and harmonically dense arrangements of numbers by Astor Piazzolla and Calixo Alvares. Two of the non-Marra numbers nevertheless featured Marra, his rich and powerful intepretations of Burns' songs 'The Slave's Lament', and 'Green Grow the Rashes'.

Having mentioned Burns, there is of course some point in comparing Marra to other musicians, but maybe the more apt similarities to talk about are with a couple of poets. Marra's delivery, as he yarns his introductions, resembles the deadpan-surreal Ivor Cutler. But his juxtapositions are not so much surreal as unexpected, in a way that recalls the brilliant associations of image characteristic of the lyric poet Norman MacCaig. In 'Hamish the Goalie', there's the proposition of writing a song about Hamish McAlpine, one time stopper for Dundee United, whose introduction takes in the newsreader pronouncing Tannadice in the Italian style instead of rhyming with 'mice', on the occasion that Monaco FC visited for a European tie, watched by none other than Grace Kelly.

In 'Schenectady Calling', Marra pays tribute to Peerie Willie Johnson, a noted folk musician from Shetland who picked up his unique style from listening to the New York radio station on a crystal set in the days when a long wave signal could waft all the way across the Atlantic, so the story goes. And then, to wrap up, there was Frida Kahlo's Visit to the 'Tay Bridge Bar'. The conjunction of events permitting this event to take place in Marra's imagination included the necessity that Kahlo be dead, and the Pearly Gates malfunctioning.

McFalls are recording performances during the course of their continuing tour, with a view to releasing a live CD in due course. I do hope they include the introductions.

By Peter Cudmore

Next up for Mr McFalls Chamber: Tango with Victor Villena (Gotan Project), Cyril Garac (Quintetto el Despues) and Valentina Montoya Martinez. Oran Mor Glasgow, 25 June, Queens Hall Edinburgh 26 June, Solas Festival Biggar 27 June.


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