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Izzy Isgate, songwriter/composer (& accompanist Paul Sparks) – Live at Bedern Hall, York – 29th May

Izzy Isgate’s askew folk originals find their natural home in Bedern Hall, former dining hall to the vicars choral of York Minster, in whose shadow the restored relic stands. The singer-songwriter’s contemporary melodies of heartbreak and resolve swoop over her own glistening chords and Paul Spark’s plucked arpeggios, each song given time to swell, recede, and reverberate before a rapt audience in the last of the day’s sunlight.

izzy with hammered dulcimer blue, high res
The concert also provides the opportunity to hear the duo play – to use Isgate’s term – a menagerie of stringed instruments, including lutes, dulcimers hammered and Appalachian, a Bulgarian tambura, and most bizarrely an electric bass guitar. Each new instrument, all of which Isgate lovingly introduces as she would old friends, lends new colour to the songs, with the instrumentalists clearly energised by the creative possibilities of such variance. The epic ‘Hummingbird’, appearing close to the end of the evening’s second set, exemplifies Isgate’s new creativity; this paean to a lost guitar includes Sparks’ most ambitious playing of the evening, coaxing mimetic glissandos, trills and harmonics that call to mind the metaphorical bird and honour the beauty of the instruments themselves.

As with the best folk music, the meaning of each song stretches beyond the surface, yet each is so beguiling that it is a joy just to hear the playing and original composition. The songwriting is never swamped with self-seriousness, with its levity exemplified by the delightful instrumental that ends the first half, ‘Syncopated Suite 2. No Alarms & No Reprisals Please’ and the encore ‘Sea Shanty Shanti Shanti (Or, the Polyamorous Lesbian Sailor)’. In the latter, Isgate delights in weaving contemporary gender politics with an accessible form and melody as old as time, as Sparks’ mandolin tremolos play up the pathos of the sea(wo)man’s tale. It’s another song that gathers ironic meaning in the setting; following its inhabitancy by the (supposedly) celibate sacred choral, Bedern Hall stood in the centre of Victorian York’s slums and red light district. Afterwards we stumble into the gloaming, aglow.

Written by Andrew Bogie.