Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood: Live: Macclesfield Barnaby Big Weekend 21 June 2014


There used to be trouble at ‘t mill in my home town of Macclesfield until the workers sorted the bosses out.

If my memory serves me, the story goes something like this: Once upon a time, in a town not known for militancy, a great day dawned, when a group of silk mill workers decided that they would act to improve their conditions. It being Macc, they didn’t strike. They took a self-selected holiday instead and then held a procession around the local mills to invite fellow workers to join them. Much fun was then had by all (except perhaps the mill-owners, who lost a day’s productivity and were forced to re-think about how to keep their wage-slaves happy). A great idea, in my opinion- should be more of it going on!

Subsequently, and not directly as a consequence of the above, the silk mills closed for annual overhaul for a wakes week during the early summer. This coincided with the feast of St Barnabas and the town’s annual holiday, known as Barnaby, started.

When I was growing up, Macclesfield more or less closed down for the week. Then, the following week the local papers carried pictures of groups of people leaving for the seaside and, increasingly as the 1970’s unfolded, for European package holidays. These days that week of calm peacefulness, in an empty town, which seemed so boring when I was young, has long gone. Gone away with the working mills, I suppose. However, about five years ago some visionary individuals started an arts festival and that is where downwithit will be tonight.

In the late afternoon, I was very lucky to get into the performance of Acid (House) Brass given by The Williams Fairey Brass Band. The venue, Christ Church in Macc was built by a mill owner who fell out with the local vicar. What did he do next? He built his own bigger, better church down the road (or, once again, I may be making that up- which doesn’t matter, because the Macclesfield Fibbing (lying) Competition is also taking place tonight.

Anyhow, the performance featured the award winning Fairey Brass Band playing rave flavours by KLF, 808 State and others. It was splendid to see over 30 musicians blowing a hurricane and entertaining the capacity crowd. What might Monk and Miles have thought? Don’t know, but I think they would have enjoyed themselves.

There’s a performance of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood and I’m going.

I’ll write about it for you later, but in the meantime, here’s a taster from YouTube. Starless and bible black has to be one of the richest and most evocative descriptions of a dark night in the British language, well done Dylan Thomas (who probably, as a proud Welshman, wouldn’t have allowed me to say English language).

To play, click on or touch the arrow.

And so, onto the performance, for that, indeed, was what it was. I’m not familiar with Stan Tracey’s interpretations of Under Milk Wood, but I have a passing knowledge of the work by Dylan Thomas that inspired it. I need not have worried because what I witnessed was an excellent introduction to both, since the music was accompanied and preceded by narrative and the poem itself. Caroline Berry and Phylip Harries, two fine actors, took the speaking roles.

It has been suggested that Stan Tracey worked on the idea of a suite based on Under Milk Wood on his small hours night bus journeys home to Streatham, from his job as resident pianist at Ronnie Scott’s. That would have given him plenty of time to think about the parallels with Thomas’ Llareggub and it’s residents rehearsing their life’s concerns in their dreams.

I was expecting the musical suite to be far more impressionistic and evocative. So I was surprised that it was no more, or less than, well-crafted though conventional early sixties jazz. Hard bop, a couple of slower ballads and all with a tenuous link to the words and feelings they were linked to in the composer’s mind. The performance and the quartet led by pianist Richard Roberts was captivating and the experience merited a rating of 7/10. The music was superior mid-60’s jazz, but it has very little to do, in my mind, with a tiny Welsh seaside village. I’m not the first to have experienced this and won’t be the last to comment on the ill-matched marriage where both elements have their own strengths but don’t sit together particularly well. However, perhaps there are some who think differently about the piece?

The venue for this performance was Macclesfield’s Parish Church (the rival to the one where The Fairey Brass Band appeared). I’d never been in there before and was impressed by the acoustics, and historic tombs, which provided a suitable backdrop for a piece that captures the unconscious dramas set in the depths of the night.