The award-winning, quintessential folk duo Megson is well known throughout the UK for innovative, superbly arranged, distinctive traditional English homespun performances enjoyed by all age groups. These brilliant singers, composers and multi-instrumentalists, Debs and Stu Hanna, are originally from the north east of England and now live in Cambridgeshire. They follow the trail laid out before them by Ewan MacColl and Woody Guthrie in respect of fighting for the preservation of their industrial heritage and spreading their music across the country.
Not normally associated with covering other people’s material, Megson devotes part of tonight’s show at the Victorian Queen’s Hall in Hexham to songs written and performed by fellow north east singers and songwriters. They highlight a range of hard hitting social, political and environmental issues. It isn’t just the intense edginess of these songs from the duo’s Unknown Waters album which draws gasps from the audience but the fact that they are given a refreshing and unique vibe while communicating the original powerful message.
Legendary singer and guitarist Chris Rea’s long career has spanned pop, soft rock and blues. His life in the fast lane was assured with the 1989 smash hit, “The Road To Hell (Pt. 2),” a song written when stuck on a congested motorway near London. It was never a song about a traffic jam, rather an expression of disillusionment with the state of the world, commercial pressures and the pollution of the environment, “Well I’m standing by the river/But the water doesn’t flow/It boils with every poison you can think of.” Rea’s trademark gruff voice and searing slide guitar conveyed his angst to perfection as he wrote his name into music history. Whilst the compelling chorus of the original is preserved throughout, the frustration and angst expressed by Chris Rea is communicated more subtly and incrementally as the driving rhythm of Stu’s mandola gathers pace towards the finale. The rolling tempo of Debs’ accordion creates a contrasting jaunty feel, giving the song its unique flavor while also retaining its integrity.
“One Law” was written by the late Matt Chipchase and originally recorded by his indie folk band Young Rebel Set, the need for equality and community expressed in the mantra, ‘one law for everything, one law for everyone.’ Tragically, Matt took his own life in December 2019 aged 35 but his legacy continues through his songs. Just like the original, Megson’s version starts from the soul, the impassioned plea for one law growing increasingly more intense with Stu’s rhythmical, melodic mandola accompaniment. Eclectic folk rocker Martin Stephenson wrote ”Rain,” a song which is one of his very best and most memorable, Debs creating an ethereal atmosphere and a perfect ambience for such beautiful lyrics:
Alan Hull was lead singer with one of the north east’s best known folk rock bands, Lindisfarne. He wrote “Marshall Riley’s Army” as a protest song in tribute to the Jarrow March when 200 unemployed men walked the length of England to petition the Prime Minister in London about their appalling living conditions. “In October ’36 they took a trip, the men who made the ships/ Searching for some kind of salvation.” Megson’s arrangement is again exemplary, the marching tempo of the instruments and the catchy chorus lines bringing the song and its sentiments to life, these downtrodden yet spirited folk protesting for their right to work.
It is appropriate that Debs and Stu include one of their own songs on the Unknown Waters album entitled “Through The Winter.” Written during lockdown, the consummate storytellers are back in their natural habitat making brilliant, provocative and incisive observations from their everyday lives in their inimitable style.
don’t wish the season gone too fast
cause you never know which ones yours last
and though you might not like the weather
it won’t stay like this forever
so just button up your coat
put the kettle on let’s raise to toast.
to how we made it through the winter.
What makes Megson’s celebration of these songs special lies within the combined musical and artistic talents of Stu and Debs. At one level they are traditional acoustic English folkies but they are also politically and socially conscious researchers and interpreters of songs from the past and masters of the contemporary. The rest of Megson’s repertoire comprises the more traditional, self-penned folk songs which have made them famous. Some reflect the social injustices, growing unemployment, poverty and hardship associated with the decline of the iron and steel industry, such as “Burn Away.” Most are entertaining stories from everyday life such as caravan holidays, living with parents while saving to buy a first home, the village judo club and the nostalgia of looking through memorabilia stored in an attic, the latter with its brilliant immortal lines “Maybe you could tell me why we have still got that box set of Friends, Bloody show seemed to never end, It just went on and on and on.”
Debs sings with precision throughout with subtle cadences, careful phraseology and varied intonation, her mellifluous vocals and Stu’s harmonies in perfect synchronization. Their chemistry is tangible, befitting road warriors keeping traditional music alive and creating new songs between them along the way.
Stu alternates on lead vocals with equal competence and more than a hint of showmanship, his impersonations of a wannabe rock star complementing seriously impressive guitar skills. Debs’ accordion injects a very different emotion to a bluesy guitar style as she weaves in and out of the vocal phrases and leads the choruses with panache. It takes different sets of strings to add further variations and textures to their songs, Stu’s double stringed mandola creating exquisite mellow and percussive sounds.
The show is a roller coaster of emotions — reflection, pathos, optimism and mainly joy, the audience relishing the banter and enthusiastically participating in the choruses. Fittingly, the show ends with the fans packed into this historic venue demanding an encore, the aptly named “Good Times Will Come Again” hopefully an omen for the future.
Megson’s songs and albums including Unknown Waters can be downloaded from Spotify and other streaming platforms.