REVIEW: Christine Tobin - Pelt at Kings Place

Christine Tobin
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Christine Tobin - Pelt
(Kings Place, 3 February 2018. Review by Chris Parker)

Although she established herself as a recording artist with a series of albums featuring her own strikingly original compositions judiciously mixed with versions of songs by everyone from Joni Mitchell to Cole Porter, Christine Tobin has concentrated of late on interpreting the work of poets: W. B. Yeats (Sailing to Byzantium), Leonard Cohen (A Thousand Kisses Deep) and – the material for this concert – Paul Muldoon (Pelt). She’s based in New York these days, so a concert from her has rarity value, and there was a palpable buzz of anticipation discernible in Hall Two (the more intimate of the Kings Place venues) as she took the stage to join the septet featured on the last-named album.

Paul Muldoon, like Tobin, was born in Ireland but lives in America (Princeton, New Jersey), and his poems draw their inspiration unaffectedly from both countries. This concert’s opening song, Zoological Positivism Blues, is a wry invitation to sample the delights afforded by the petting zoo in Dublin’s Phoenix Park; San Simeon is a series of reflections on the effect of William Randolph Hearst’s bizarre retreat on figures as diverse as George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill (who described Hearst as ‘a grave, simple child – with no doubt a nasty temper’); Promises, Promises (set to a typically swooningly lovely Tobin melody) contrasts the peace of a North Carolina landscape (‘a cardinal sings from the dogwood/For the love of marijuana’) with the yearning of the poet (‘I am utterly bereft … Whatever is passing is passing me by’).

L-R: Kate Shortt, Christine Tobin, Dave Whitford, Phil Robson
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska


As with her previous Yeats and Cohen settings, Tobin handled Muldoon’s lyrics and poetry with an almost uncannily deft sensitivity, unerringly sympathetic to the subtlest of his nuances of meaning and tone, yet also making them speak in a voice unmistakably her own, courtesy of the imaginative use of a supremely responsive band of musicians, most of them Tobin regulars. Kate Shortt’s cello and Richard Jones’s violin provided both textural variety and pungent solos; Gareth Lockrane’s various flutes and Phil Robson’s guitars were exquisitely calibrated to provide the precisely appropriate sounds for songs as varied as the jaunty celebration of scientific thought through the ages that is Big Idea and the insightful musing on emotional anthropocentrism of Wind & Tree. Mellifluous pianist Steve Hamilton, deft bassist Dave Whitford and the supple, discreet drummer (mostly utilising brushes) Simon Lea anchored the band’s sound perfectly, but of course it was the peerless voice of Tobin herself that rendered the music so affecting and made this concert so memorable.

Richard Jones, Kate Shortt, Dave Whitford
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

From her early days with the folk-jazz band Lammas and through her subsequent solo career (documented initially by a string of Babel albums and latterly by a series of recordings on Trail Belle), Christine Tobin has set the standard for virtuosity in song interpretation, whether she’s bringing out all the emotional subtlety of lyric poetry, providing wry commentary on life’s vagaries, or simply belting out a soul classic (her rendition of Dancing in the Street from Billy Jenkins’s True Love Collection has to be heard to be believed). This ninety-minute concert was, quite simply, an unalloyed treat from a consummate artist on top form.

Christine Tobin with Dave Whitford (background)
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

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