Southern Tenant Folk Union – Merlin Theatre, Frome (Sept 9)

For their latest UK and Ireland tour Edinburgh based Southern Tenant Folk Union have turned to the world of regional arts centres to showcase their unique and contemporary take on bluegrass. It’s a choice of venue  that is working well based on this performance  at the Merlin Theatre, on the outskirts of Frome in the heart of rural Somerset.

The acoustics perfectly matched the intimate nature of the music as the six-piece band huddled around a single mic to create the kind of clear, crisp amplification bands in a back room of a pub can only dream of.

They also planned it well, a 90 minute set, featuring local violinist Gemma White on a number of tracks and a completely acoustic encore without mic to give the audience a taste of how the instruments were heard before Edison. The self deprecating request section was also well done, as they concede that any of the almost full 240 seater theatre  knowing “this obscure band’s” back catalogue would be a surprise. In the end two did and requested ‘The Cold Flagstone’, a murder ballad with a contemporary, suburban twist from their 2007 self-titled debut album.

It’s impossible to do this kind of gig by only belting out track after track. Banter is the key to successfully handling an arts centre gig and luckily STFU have that in spades.

Before each song each songwriter explains how it was written, often with an improbable story attached. The conveniently bluegrass tale of a  failed long distance relationship with a woman in Louisville was the inspiration for one of singer and banjo player Pat McGarvey’s tracks.

Performing at a caleigh on Ibiza “for the wedding of some guy in Coronation Street.”  was the inspiration for another for violinist Carrie Thomas.  Jed Milroy explains before another track how he went to a pub in Edinburgh and ended up in Alaska. We also learn that Thomas is improbably a  trainee embalmer in addition to being an accomplished violinist.

Even the absence of seventh member and lead singer Ewan MacIntyre sounds like fiction.  We learn after the gig that he couldn’t make this latest tour as he is also a puppeteer and on tour with one of the team behind 1970s kids show Rainbow. We are assured by McGarvey that all these tales are true.

As well as the engaging banter the band are helped by the eclectic nature of Pencaitland, their latest and fourth album that they are promoting for this tour. The tracks from this album may be performed on blue grass instruments but often sound like soul  in places. This mix of genres led us to compare them in our review of Pencaitland to other progressive UK folk acts, such as The Miserable Rich and The Leisure Society. These  also use more traditional instruments to create a far more contemporary sound.

It was the Pencaitland tracks that were among the most interesting and most familiar for us during the performance. ‘At the break of dawn ‘, the title track and  ‘If’ you’ve got the love’ were among the best of these.  The Milroy penned ‘An Irish Airman Forsees His Death, based on the first world war WB Yates  poem  was another high point, with its themes of camaraderie  and fear as relevant now in the mountains of Afghanistan as they were then on the fields of Flanders.

Tracks from their other three albums also get an airing and you can see how they’ve become bolder with each release, perhaps becoming less traditional each time. On third album The New Farming Scene, an album that attracted critical acclaim from the likes of Stewart Lee,  the aim was to create music of the future. Perhaps wisely though they predict that as gas and oil runs low the real music of the future will be acoustic banjos and singing, rather than the electro-bleeps of 1970s films like Logan’s Run or Clockwork Orange.

While we are far more used to reviewing acts while standing in a sweaty venue with mobiles annoyingly held aloft to record every moment, this 90 minute set offered something different, intimate and far more engaging. There was a sense of finding out more about the song writing process, of actually hearing the instruments and the songs. It went down well among the audience. The band’s vocal harmonies in particular were striking in this venue. I think I’ll check out my local arts centre lineups more often, especially if they continue to book bands as interesting and engaging as STFU.


by Joe Lepper

More pictures from the night can be seen here.