It’s the opening night of this year’s Ports Fest – last year’s was cancelled for obvious reasons – and this is an evening in The Quad of Portsmouth Grammar School devoted to the pleasures of the sea shanty.
Headliners The Longest Johns were booked to play at last year’s festivities, but since then fate has intervened in the most curious of ways.
Perhaps after the past year-plus, nothing should surprise us any more, but earlier this year sea shanties became an unlikely internet sensation which spilled over into the real world.
As a result the Bristol-based band now have a top 40 single to their names and are freshly signed to a major label.
First up though is local boy Chris Ricketts, ably assisted by Garry Blakely on fiddle.
A veteran sea shanty performer with several albums under his belt, his set gets off to a slightly wobbly start thanks to a technical problem, but once that’s sorted it’s – ahem – plain sailing.
The shanty is a form which practically demand that you join in, but not so under current coronavirus restrictions.
However, as Chris wryly notes before his own song, All Stand Together: ‘I don't know what the rules are on singing, but we can pretend it's a sporting event, then it’s okay – football’s happening, right?’
With a mix of laughter, pathos and an infectious joy for the material, Ricketts sets the tone for what is to follow.
He’s performing on the Saturday at this year’s Wickham Festival. If you’re there, do make sure to check him out.
The Longest Johns were originally an a capella group, but over time their sound has expanded and tonight the core four-piece are joined by a double bassist and drummer.
But they do still perform plenty of the material without any instrumentation at all.
This is the group’s first performance in front of a crowd in 16 months, and by their own admission they’re rusty. There’s fluffed lines and missed cues, but the guys don’t take themselves too seriously and it’s all dealt with in good humour in front of a forgiving crowd. As JD – he of the impossibly deep singing voice – notes with a chuckle: ‘Every verse is a triumph right now.’
Their set veers from traditional songs to their own material, from the serious to the witty – and some terrible puns, witness Moby Duck, about an evil mallard...
We get one song introduced as ‘the Enter Sandman of shanties’: Randy Dandy-o; but it’s not just shanties, there’s also the powerful anti-capitalist ode, The Workers’ Song and Rudyard Kipling’s stirring poem Oak & Ash & Thorn.
Got No Beard is a breathless, hilarious romp,gently mocking the scene’s gatekeepers, leading into the one shanty everyone knew before this year – What Shall we Do With A Drunken Sailor?
An undoubted highpoint is their own song Ashes – making its live debut tonight, which is about not staking ownership to a living artform. Led by Andy Yates, it soars when the other three join in.
Of course they have to play Wellerman – the song which sparked this year’s shanty-mania. JD introduces it as a song ‘we always thought was quite catchy,’ before Robbie Sattin finishes: ‘And we were proved right.’
While all four are great singers on their own, there is that indefinable something when they harmonise that makes The Longest Johns greater than the sum of their parts.
With sea shanties nudging up against the mainstream, The Longest Johns are perfectly placed to capitalise on that; gimmick-free and accessible – this is a wonderful evening’s entertainment.
As the chorus of Ashes goes: ‘I'll tend to the flame, you can worship the ashes...’
And these guys are definitely helping to fan those flames.
Ports Fest is the city’s annual celebration of culture and the arts. To find out more, go to portsfest.co.uk.
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