Charlie Henry is a multi-instrumentalist and singer, of Welsh roots but based in Oxford, who performed this week with cellist Barney Moss-Brown as part of Oxford Contemporary Music’s Warneford Chapel series. Her charming and engaging stage-presence was immediately apparent, and was very effective in the intimate location and generating a great rapport with the audience. Warneford Chapel itself is a tiny venue (incidentally, the chapel of Warneford hospital), which automatically generated a ‘chamber music’ atmosphere for the concert. Henry’s soft, warm and mellow voice and the complicated but gentle arrangements of her music complemented the place superbly.
The gig presented a varied set, starting with a trio of songs, simply arranged, on quite maudlin themes, making great use of voice – cello – baritone ukulele as a combination and making an evocative and effective opening to the evening. The first two, ‘Failures’ and ‘Lost and Found’, were written by the artist herself on the themes of love, survival, loneliness and self-doubt, with very moving and thought-provoking lyrics (‘You’re a long way … from feeling at home in your own bones’). The third song was introduced as a traditional song, entitled ‘The Yellow Rose’, concerning death and loss in wartime as seen by a dying soldier, with the refrain ‘Sent my mother a lock of my hair, send to my father the watch that he gave me, tell my brother to follow me if he dares, and send my love a sweet yellow rose’. This haunting piece struck a chord both with the situation in the Middle East and the Ukraine, but also with the current centennial of the Great War.
Musically, as the gig progressed, it became more experimental and complex, with Henry using a loop pedal to great effect to introduce intercutting refrains into a number of her songs. The wide variety of instruments and sounds used in the building of these refrains allowed a great range of moods to be developed, ranging from from a musical saw (the inherent comedy of which was duly nodded to) providing its eerie, piercing sound, through jangling keys and tent-pegs, to vocal imitations of a Sedge Warbler, which, as the saying goes ‘makes sense in context’. Many of these carefully-built background refrains were built to support raps and monologues as well as songs, from an eerie piece about watching a lighthouse on a dark night, to a funny, cheeky song about a songbird which had set up its nest near Henry’s houseboat that summer. This last, as well as another based on Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, originally written for a shadow-puppet show, allowed Henry’s engaging enthusiasm and warm persona to come to the fore.
Whilst the last song You are my Sunshine was a charming conclusion for the evening, for me the highlight of the final songs (on a more traditional footing) was a self-penned folk-song about Welsh slate mining inspired by the National Slate Mining Museum in North Wales. With vocals backed by cello and accordion, the song fits into an eminently respectable ‘folk trope’ of grim, dangerous and dreary nineteenth-century industry, even if you mostly hear such songs being sung about the collieries. Henry provided a fantastic evening of entertainment, and with proceeds from the concert series going to the charity Artscape, I can only recommend the rest of the Warneford Chapel series.