As is traditional when going to shows in London, the Tube trains aren’t working properly. This time, it’s the Circle Line which is out, meaning that we have to walk the last ten minutes or so from Embankment to Temple, our intended stop. This is no great hardship, however. The weather is breezy but fine, not too bad at all for early March, really. We walk along the bank of the Thames, through the heart of tourist London, under Waterloo Bridge as the sun goes down (hey, ‘Waterloo Sunset’!), past Cleopatra’s Needle towards St. Paul’s and 30 St. Mary Axe, better known as ‘The Gherkin’. The Royal Festival Hall and the rest of the South Bank arts complex are visible across the river, and behind them the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Our destination for the evening is moored off Temple Pier – the rather unimaginatively-named Bar & Co. is a floating nightclub on a boat, and tonight’s gig is the first in an intended series of bi-monthly club nights called the Ship of Fools, promoted in association with Tursa Records, the label of Tony Wakeford, founder of Sol Invictus and elder statesman of English neo-folk.
Walking down the gangway to the boat, I'm glad I brought some extra layers along. Previous experience of boats has taught me that however windy it is on shore, it’s always twice as bad on the water, and while it’s cosy enough below decks in the bar, going up on deck for a smoke is bracing, to say the least.
We arrive to find Tony Wakeford’s band still soundchecking. After that’s done, I grab Tony for a quick chat before the evening gets underway.
Heathen Harvest: Hi Tony. When we spoke last year, you were talking about doing a monthly residency for Tursa-related artists and various friends and fellow travellers at Ryan’s Bar in Stoke Newington – is this bi-monthly Ship Of Fools event the new version of that plan?
Tony Wakeford: Yeah, that’s right. We found it really hard to get people to come out, In fact, the more central you can be, the better, and this is very central, so there’s more of a chance of getting people to come out, and so hopefully they will.
HH: I believe you played on this boat once before, for the launch party for the Triple Tree album Ghosts, which I unfortunately couldn’t attend. Was that when you had the idea for using the boat for regular events?
TW: Yes, that’s what gave us the idea of trying it out for a bi-monthly Sunday event.
HH: This venue is quite local for you, isn’t it?
TW: Yes, it’s about five stops on the bus from my house.
HH: It occurs to me that this is a propitious location for Sol Invictus, given that we’re right near Temple tube station, which is named after the Roman temple of Mithras.
TW: That’s right! Our song ‘Old London Weeps’ actually mentions Temple and Blackfriars Bridge, so this place is certainly an appropriate residence.
HH: Too bad we’re not making like the Sex Pistols, and cruising up and down the river outside the Houses of Parliament!
TW: [laughs] Well, we’ll start small and work our way up.
HH: So how come you’re performing tonight as Tony Wakeford and Friends, rather than as Sol Invictus? The show seems to involve most of the same people.
TW: Well, tonight doesn’t involve the full Sol lineup, so we decided to do some of the more experimental tracks, a few from the solo albums, plus Sol stuff. But really, for a Sol gig, this place only holds about 60 or 70 people, so for the turnout you’d get for Sol Invictus, it wouldn’t really be possible.
HH: What about your support tonight, Lunamoth? What’s the connection there?
TW: Klarita, who’s promoting the event – [the boat suddenly lurches violently] Fucking hell!
HH: A little bit of turbulence there…
TW: Either that or we’re under attack! Klarita of Kaparte Promotions, who’s promoting the event jointly with Tursa, friends of hers have played with Lunamoth before, so she thought it’d be nice to bring him in on the debut.
HH: You’ve already got the next couple of events lined up – do you want to say who’s playing?
TW: Yes, the next event is Sieben on Sunday 10 May. That’s Matt Howden, an old friend of mine, and Spectre, a band from Italy who are friends of Klarita’s. And then after that, the next show is on Sunday 12 July, and that’s Naevus and Andrew King, both of whom are friends of ours.
HH: Are there any more shows planned after the May and July ones, or are you waiting to see how it goes?
TW: We’ll see how it goes. If it’s successful, then we’ll start getting other artists
HH: One final question – do you get seasick?
TW: I thought I didn’t, but I'm beginning to wonder!
Fortunately, the river doesn’t get any choppier, and the gentle rise and fall of the floor merely gives the pleasing sensation of having drunk more than we really have done as Lunamoth’s performance begins. This is a South London-based project founded by Tom Moth, formerly of Tearso, who combines virtuoso concert harp playing with loop and effects pedals and laptop electronica, something like Matt Howden’s Sieben, but using a harp instead of a violin. Tom is joined for a couple of songs by a female singer, but the set is mostly instrumental, multi-layered, introspective and quite lovely.
After that, Tony Wakeford takes the stage, accompanied by his wife, the violinist Renée Rosen, also of Sol Invictus, and flautist Guy Harries and percussionist M, both of Orchestra Noir. The set opens with Orchestra Noir’s ‘The Last Train’, and although there’s plenty of crowd-pleasing Sol Invictus numbers, such as ‘King & Queen’, ‘Sawney Bean’, ‘Sheath & Knife’, ‘An English Garden’ and ‘Twa Corbies’, these are interspersed, as promised, with less familiar material, including the title track from his solo album Into The Woods. There’s time too for some more recent Sol Invictus material, including ‘Old London Weeps’, ‘Down The Road Slowly’ and ‘Blackleg Miner’. Guy Harries sings ‘August’ from Tony‘s solo album, Not All Of Me Will Die, coming soon on Israeli label The Eastern Front. The only song which falls a bit flat is one I didn’t recognise about toys and the man in the moon, which isn’t one of Tony’s more inspired pieces of writing. Another couple of friends also take a turn – Andrew King lends his unmistakable voice to a couple of songs, including the rousing ‘Twa Corbies’, and Joanne Owen of Naevus pitches in with some accordion. M keeps time with a variety of percussion, including cajón, hammered dulcimer, cymbals, tambourine and tom-tom. The band encores with the Sol classic ‘The Fool’, and the whole Ship of Fools goes crazy.
London, and indeed Britain in general, does not suffer from an embarrassment of riches when it comes to neo-folk events. Despite the genre having been developed here in the 1980s by Death In June, Sol Invictus and Current 93, neo-folk enjoys much more substantial support in continental Europe, especially Germany, Austria and Italy, and English neo-folk fans often cast envious glances across the channel at what’s happening there. So the establishment of a new regular event in the centre of London is welcome news, and the Ship of Fools is off to an auspicious start. An unusual, intimate venue, good company and great music – what more could anyone ask? Even the beer wasn’t too pricy, by London standards at least. The fact that this show was sold out augurs well for the future, and I for one will be eagerly awaiting the Sieben show in May. If you’re intending to go to one of the future events, advance booking via the Ship of Fools MySpace page is definitely recommended – a friend of mine bought his ticket on the door, and only just scraped in.
The Ship of Fools has embarked. God bless her, and all who sail in her.