Wednesday 9 February 2022

An evening Lost in the Cedar Wood with Johnny Flynn & Robert Macfarlane

I went to a gig a couple of days ago! Rejoice. Although ‘gig’ perhaps isn’t the right word, and doesn’t do the evening justice. In the candlelit setting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a 340-capacity space that is part of the Globe Theatre no less (!) I saw two of my favourite writers, Johnny Flynn and Robert Macfarlane, performing their album Lost In The Cedar Wood. Music there was, but it was so much more than a gig - a journey… a magical, bewildering evening of story and song, traversing across timelines and continents. Genuinely mesmerising. Tickets were difficult to come by and I feel SO incredibly lucky to have been there.

Music, stories, nature - this show couldn’t have been any more my cup of tea.

Having seen Johnny once before at the Roundhouse (the performance of Live at the Roundhouse album fame) I was very excited to get tickets to see him and Cosmo Sheldrake playing as part of a series of socially distanced folk gigs in Hackney towards the end of 2020. Sadly it wasn’t to be and the shows were put on hold and were eventually refunded a few months ago - the announcement of this pair of shows at the Globe came at around the same time. The world might not make it easy for me to see Johnny perform live, but it had offered up some kind of gig exchange.

While I’ve been in love with Johnny’s music for nearly a decade now (after buying the Country Mile vinyl at my local HMV on a whim) my love of Rob’s work is a more recent thing. Since starting work as a bookseller in 2019 I’ve gradually been made aware of Rob’s writing - for me, The Lost Spells was my introduction. The pocket-size (ish) follow-up to Rob and Jackie Morris The Lost Words (look it up), I couldn’t resist it upon its arrival into the shop, and have since been gradually acquiring most of Rob’s books. I’m currently reading Underland - slowly, savouring each page. Rob is genuinely a magician with words, and when I found that he and Johnny were collaborating on some music, my heart skipped a beat. The album was one of my favourite releases of last year… here’s what I wrote about it in my AOTY post:

In the past couple of years, my interest in and love for the natural world has increased dramatically, with furlough offering up more time to get into the garden and to go on walks locally. As my curiosity has grown, I've been seeking out writing on nature, and was unbelievably excited earlier this year to find that one of our best natural history writers, the great Robert Macfarlane, was releasing an album with one of my favourite folk artists, Johnny Flynn. A masterpiece waiting to happen, surely.

As I expected, the pair did not disappoint - Lost in the Cedar Wood is something to treasure and an album I will love for years to come. It arrived at exactly the time I needed it and perhaps could most appreciate it. My favourite line, from Enkidu Walked, describing my experience of the past two years - "the birds have my heart and they won't give it back to me." When two brilliant writers come together to make art it was never really in doubt that it would be something truly special...

Fast forward to Monday… negative covid tests, masks on - ready for the first train journey of the year. A novelty at the moment, that’s for sure. Wanting to make the most of the day out, we first visited the eight miles of bookshelves that make up Waterstones Piccadilly, before my first trip to the Natural History Museum in years. The foundations of a dreamy day, by all accounts. Food consumed (Wahaca - yum) it was almost time for the show, so we wandered along the south bank towards the Globe, passing the National Theatre and Tate Modern, and admiring that night-time London skyline for the first time in a *long* time.

There was time for a spot of birdwatching along the way, as a pair of Mute Swans bobbed around in the Thames, with Greylag Geese resting nearby, one eye open to observe passersby. The entire day had this vibe - spotting Great Tits flitting between trees outside the NHM, a Moorhen rooting around in the grass, and a pair of Cormorants flying over… Robins trying to out-sing one another near the Royal Albert Hall… Goldfinches in a tree just off of The Strand… the train journey too offered up Buzzards, Red Kites, Herons and an Egret. I’m incredibly grateful and excited by this new found love of just observing, of watching. There’s a lot to see when you take the time to look.

After an introduction by Robert and Johnny to the ‘world premiere (part 2)’ of the record, we settled in for an evening of stories and music, all surrounding the Epic of Gilgamesh, the inspiration for the record. It was unlike anything I have experienced before - Rob’s narration transporting us into these far distant settings - that of the Epic itself, and of George Smith, who translated it in the 1800s. Johnny portrayed Gilgamesh and George, intercepting Rob’s narration with lines, often witty. The script contained echoes of the music, and of Rob’s work more generally, I think - and suddenly, Johnny would fill the intimate venue with his song, no microphone needed - the audience were silent, and his voice carries with it a certain power. Some of that power is in knowing when to use it, with moments of tenderness interspersed throughout - if they wanted me to leave having felt a spectrum of emotions, they succeeded.

The songs (including two new ones…!) were utterly transfixing. It was incredibly special to experience tracks from an album that I love so much performed in such an all round beautiful setting. A highlight for me, though, was seeing firsthand the love that both Rob and Johnny have for one another’s art. Johnny clearly found Rob’s words as magical as the rest of us, and Rob’s love of Johnny’s music is no secret… at one point he broke the fourth wall (forgiven) to declare just how much he was enjoying sitting beside Johnny while he performed.

Theirs is one of my favourite working friendships, where both genuinely admire the other’s work, and they make up part of a beautiful ecosystem of musicians and writers with an interest in the environment that I very much wish to be part of. I guess, for the evening, I was…

Loitering in the foyer after the show, checking train times, adjusting coats and scarves… and full of the requisite emotions. I’d had a little cry and was full of adrenaline from the final song (with the audience erupting into a cacophony of clapping for the outro of The World To Come, reflecting the album recording which ends with pans clattering). All of a sudden I look up and… Cosmo Sheldrake! Ah! You all know how much I love Cosmo (and was gutted to not get to see him at the initial show with Johnny) and there he was… and just past him, Sam Lee! Folk musician and general hero of the scene, but also the author of the brilliant book The Nightingale.

We had a train to catch, and I didn’t want to interrupt friends reuniting… but just knowing that I’d seen them was a treat. Since the show, I’ve found this thread of tweets by Dr Amy-Jane Beer (author of, most recently, A Tree A Day) who was at the show with Sam as well as Nick Hayes (author of The Book of Trespass). A little bowled over to find in the replies that Merlin Sheldrake was there too - I’m traipsing slightly away from the ‘cool music’ and into the ‘things’ (about time) but my last year or so of bookselling have found me recommending Merlin’s book Entangled Life to just about anybody who will listen. While I didn’t talk to any of these incredible writers, I’m finding something really special in the fact that I got to share the experience with them, spending a couple of hours in that special venue on that lyrical journey…

There’s a chance this show could be taken on tour and I can only implore you to keep an eye out and get a ticket if you’re able to. Pure magic.

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