19 Feb Village People
– With its high ceiling and granite walls, the village hall in Quorn, Leicestershire is an ideal location for amateur dramatics, yoga classes and, as an elderly Quorn resident called Jean tells me, “circle dances that get rather lively”. It’s also the venue for the first leg of a cutting-edge live music tour made up entirely of village halls.”You can’t miss it,” says Trevor of husband-and-wife singing duo Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou, who are headlining the tour. “I’ll be outside, putting the finishing touches to a sandwich board.” I do manage to miss it, chiefly because Moss is not working on the board announcing the concert. He’s inside, putting up the bunting.
Village halls do not tend to be the first venues up-and-coming bands choose to showcase their talents. But then, having brushed against the conventional music industry and found it wanting, Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou are building up a career entirely outside of the existing system. In 2007 their old band Indigo Moss became a hot prospect for its then-original blend of British indie and American bluegrass. They went through the usual route of getting signed to a label, doing support tours, and performing at showcases. Then, just as interest was building around them, they split up.
“We discovered that being in a hip band wasn’t as much fun as we thought,” says Moss, when he manages to find some time between nailing the last string of bunting and setting up the bar on a trestle table. “We would be doing press nights at [London venue] the Barfly, only for the press to turn up 10 minutes after we went on stage, not have a good time, and write it off as just another gig on the circuit. There was no point in playing at places we didn’t want to play, in front of people that didn’t want to see us. So we looked for alternatives.”
The alternative was to incorporate making music into everyday community life. Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou moved to a village in Kent, put on a regular folk night, and came to the conclusion that the village hall was their spiritual home. “We tried being cool and it didn’t work,” says Moss. “We’re much better suited to this.” At a time when pubs and churches are increasingly empty, village halls are places that still have the capacity to bring people together, and remind us that we are not alone.
There are logistical problems to booking a tour of this type. It involves a lot of legwork – Moss has spent hours walking down country lanes through rain and mud on his quest to put a flyer for the concert through every letterbox in the village – and a lot of bureaucracy. To stage a concert in a village hall you need to apply for an entertainment licence in order to sell alcohol. But before you can do this, a committee of elders vote to decide whether they want you to apply for that licence in the first place. Letters to councils and police must be written; parish committees have to be convinced that having a bunch of scruffy musicians coming into their village is a good thing.
“There’s usually an old lady to whom everyone else defers, and once you’ve won her over, she’ll be telling you to pop over to her house at lunchtime to pick up the key,” says Hannah-Lou, who used a double-pronged attack of politeness and an air of responsibility to achieve this.
“People often wonder why you want to come to their village,” says Moss. “One of the younger guys, generally in his 50s, will say: ‘Great idea, but they’re all a bit old and stuffy round here so it probably won’t work.’ But we usually find that if we’re nice to people they want to help in any way they can. They’re pleased that something is happening on their doorstep.”
Later in the evening, the concert is about to start. People are taking their seats, including Jean and her friend Pauline, who saw a poster for the concert on the village green noticeboard. But there’s a problem. One of the musicians Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou have brought up from London, a young Swedish singer-songwriter called Benjamin Folke Thomas, has downed the better half of a bottle of gin and is so drunk he can hardly stand up. This might go unnoticed in a pongy venue such as the Barfly, but in the rather more genteel environs of Quorn, the burly, staggering Swede stands out like Oliver Reed at an AA meeting. Hannah-Lou manages to hide Thomas in the corner of the hall until it is time for him to go on.
On each leg of the tour Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou have invited local musicians to do a set, and at Quorn a trio called the Kirkland Turn take the stage. They have an interesting set up: a thirtysomething singer, a fortysomething bassist and a teenage girl on drums who – musicians presumably being in short supply in Quorn – doubles up on trumpet. The singer makes the ubiquitous statement that the band has CDs for sale on the front desk, before undercutting himself by adding “and me mum’s made some chilli jelly. It’s very good, only £2 a jar.”
I ask Jean and Pauline what they make of the local talent. “A bit noisy,” says Jean, fingers in her ears. Is this different to what she is used to at the hall? “We have all sorts going on here!” she replies, a little affronted. “We have Singing for Pleasure, and the University of the Third Age.” (This last is not an apocalyptic cult but a self-help group for retired people.) “We put on our own dancing nights,” adds Pauline, nodding. “Sometimes we get thrown out and have to do them in the church hall.” Perhaps Benjamin Folke Thomas’s wild antics aren’t so unusual here after all.
More acts, some local and some part of Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou’s stable, come and go, typically of a folk or country bent. The audience is enjoying itself. Then comes the moment of danger: Benjamin Folke Thomas’s set. For the first song he manages to just about stand up on stage and play guitar, remarkably well given the amount he’s had to drink. For the second he stumbles into the audience, inadvertently unplugs his guitar, and jumps up onto a table. I fear that this will be too much for Jean and Pauline. On the contrary: they love him.
“He’s got what they call ‘character’,” says Jean as Thomas falls off the table and narrowly misses sending half a dozen real-ale bottles flying like skittles. “It’s good to have someone like him in Quorn. We’ve been missing a village idiot.”
Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou’s set gives evidence of why the village hall tour makes sense. Delicate but earthy, their songs are reminiscent of 60s folk-rock bands such as Fairport Convention, as well as Bob Dylan in his more reflective moments, and they are very much rooted in the realities of British life. Allotment Song, which opens their debut album, even manages to eulogise the joys of growing vegetables. The villagers recognise kindred spirits when they see them. They go down a storm.
Various invitations to pop round for lunch the next day are made once the concert is over, but the musicians will be off to Dilton Memorial Hall in Wiltshire, so they have to decline. The concert has been a success. It’s a return to the DIY ethics of punk, albeit without the spitting and bad language. And it points a way forward for musicians who want to do things on their own terms.
“Our attitude is: do it yourself, but apply for the right licences,” says Moss as he stacks the chairs away. And with that, he attempts to convince Benjamin Folke Thomas that there are better places to sleep than the village hall porch.
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