The Carnival is never over

Bernie Jackson sings along with Maddy Prior’s festive frolics.

Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band
Carols and Capers
Birmingham Town Hall

The Town Hall was buzzing on Wednesday night for the return of the seasonal Carols and Capers event.

I say event because you get much more than music here. It was seasonally chilly outside too, but the wonderfully atmospheric Town Hall was cosy with Christmas jumpers and plaid shirts for the return of Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band.

The first thing to strike you is just how versatile the band are. There’s an impressive collection of instruments to be fitted into the set from bagpipes to double bass. And the voices on offer are equally impressive instruments. I’d almost forgotten the sheer thrill of perfect harmonies in a place with great acoustics, and I’m not ashamed to say that I got goosebumps in a good way at times during the evening.

So what does Carols and Capers actually entail? The carols themselves are a great selection, from the well-known such as While Shepherds Watched (featuring the Sweet Chiming Christmas Bells extra) and It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, to less sung such as the Coventry Carol with its chilling and poignant melody (a definite goosebumps moment).

There’s a lively I Saw Three Ships, and a canter through the Christmas offerings of countries around the world, featuring French Noels with bagpipes, the Polish Infant Holy, Infant Lowly followed by polkas and The Angel Gabriel (from the Basque Country). New to me was Bethlehem Down, featuring the rich and honeyed alto range of Rose-Ellen Kemp, and one of those moments you wish you could hang on to, it was so beautiful.

More highlights for me included a romp through Angels From The Realms of Glory, paced so fast there was no danger of running out of oxygen during the Glorias. In fact the Angels arrived via the Realms of Louisiana in a swamp-fed mash up of musical styles that was a brilliant combination.

We also got Monsieur Charpentier’s Christmas Swing – full of the medieval equivalent of the brass section, Maddy and Rose-Ellen in shades and sharing a joke or two, and the unexpected lyrical twist or two: “Je suis un Camembert” anyone? I really enjoyed all the anecdotes about the musical selection too, including the setting of the poem Minstrels by Wordsworth, when we heard that the poet clearly taken more by the singers’ enthusiasm than skill.

The capers side of the event saw ditties such as Bring Us Good Ale, a feat achieved by many of the audience during the interval. Then there was the entertaining Health And Safety Christmas, which made me feel that at some point I’d crossed another dimension to a Half Man Half Biscuit gig.

And indeed the second half of the event felt very like a gig, with a choir joining the stage for some lively additions, their sheer pleasure in singing evident in every smile, bounced knee and tapping foot. Maddy has been teaching people to sing for nearly two decades now, and the whole evening reminded me of the absolute pleasure of singing with others, something I’d recommend totally for feeling on top of the world.

The choir includes people who have learned to sing with Maddy and Rose-Ellen at Stones Barn, where you can take courses including the wonderfully named Singing for the Uncertain.

And Maddy Prior? The power and beauty of that voice was much in evidence. It’s a pleasure to hear someone who sounds as they ever did, a testament to all that vocal training and the love of the craft of singing. There were plenty of long-term fans in the audience, word perfect on some of the more obscure songs. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and made for a brilliant atmosphere. Don’t forget to call in when the Carnival’s next in town.