Friday, 19 August 2022

No end of the road in sight for Streets singer

WHEN your work is also your favourite hobby there is no such thing as retirement.

WHEN your work is also your favourite hobby there is no such thing as retirement.

That’s why singer, songwriter and musician Ralph McTell celebrated his 70th birthday on stage at the Theatre Royal in London’s Drury Lane.

Now in his 71st year, he still revels in sharing his beautiful and thoughtful compositions with live audiences up and down the country, and is setting out on a spring tour that brings him to the Kenton theatre on Tuesday, May 19.

While his one huge hit, the Ivor Novello award-winning Streets of London, is his best-known song — covered by more than 200 artists worldwide — there are countless treasures in his half-century-old back catalogue, including From Clare to Here, his touching tale of Irish emigration.

Recognised as a virtuoso guitarist, and proud owner of a prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, he is also an accomplished piano and harmonica player, as well as a prolific writer, but he’s never been one to rest on his laurels.

“I’m glad there is life after 70. It’s a work in progress and I am still asking myself ‘what’s next?’,” smiles Ralph, who lives in Cornwall with his wife, Nanna. “My granddad was old at 55; seventy is not so bad if you can still leap about, shake a leg and play a guitar! Getting older has made it more important to write songs with humour and intelligence and that is what I am always aiming for.”

Ralph has always loved to tell a story — something he has been doing since his 1968 debut with the album Eight Frames a Second, via the unexpected route of 1980s children’s TV shows Alphabet Zoo and Tickle on the Tum, a major commissioned tribute to Dylan Thomas, many collaborations with fellow artists, and more than 40 solo record releases.

Last year he turned his attention to the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the results were captured in his moving EP The Unknown Soldier.

Another of the four tracks is Canopus, named after a little train that used to run in Cornwall, carrying clay from the pits at St Austell to the ships.

“I’ve always been obsessed by the First World War — my granddad and my uncles were there — and I have written about it before in an indirect sense,” he says. “I came across this story about the train that seemed quite poetic. When the war came they ripped up the tracks and sent the train over to Flanders to ship the boys to the front line and almost instant slaughter. The instrument of war carrying them to their deaths, returning them to the clay, was this little train.”

Mortality is something Ralph — a father of four and grandfather of 12 — has had on his mind more frequently of late. He’s lost several lifelong musician friends in recent years, including Bert Jansch, and, in March, John Renbourn (Pentangle), who were contemporaries in the 1960s British folk scene, along with Nick Drake and John Martyn.

“There’s a unique intensity about those old friendships. We came out of the clubs in London’s West End and we were known as the transatlantic generation. I guess it’s up to the ones that are left to carry on the tradition,” muses Ralph, who has just been recording with Wizz Jones, the musician friend who introduced him to Cornwall in 1966, and also has a project in the pipeline reinterpreting his favourite ballads of the 1940s.

But for now he is back on the road, continuing his practice of gearing his setlist to each venue and each audience — the beauty of playing solo.

“I get totally knackered, but it is a sweet exhaustion,” confesses Ralph. “It’s what I do, and I have to keep doing it.”

Visit for tickets.

REview: Jackie Butler

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