“Streets of London” was one of the background songs to my time at university in Nottingham, the first track on Ralph McTell’s album “Spiral Staircase” (1969). The song’s a mainstay of London buskers even now - I heard it played and sung very creditably by a busker at Leicester Square tube station just yesterday. Not a hit until a rework in 1974, the song has a timelessness with its poignant words and simple tune.
Ralph McTell performed a couple of songs on his own piano, introducing it as the original instrument he used to compose many of his songs whilst he was still living in a council flat in Croydon, South London. His piano accompaniment to “Growing old with Naomi”, with piano and singer highlighted against the dark of the rest of the stage and hall dark, had an air of being invited back to his flat for a song session. No small feat to pull off in the huge space of the Albert Hall.
Mostly, though, “a bloke singing with a guitar”, still using his line from the seventies. Back in those days I was laying out lights and a basic PA for university Folk Club, though never Ralph McTell. A folk singer performed to a lively pub, pint on stage, occasionally asking for quiet, introducing his songs and chatting to and with the audience. Tonight’s classic blue and amber lighting recalled that ambience though few of the audience had a pint in their hand.
Ralph McTell’s gentle lilting ballads build sound pictures of memories and emotions; the bite is in the depth of the scenes his songs conjure up, perhaps bathos, sometimes nostalgia and usually not political. Ralph McTell’s musical heroes seem to have included Bob Dylan and The Everley Brothers, all of whom he has seen play this same hall. He described the Albert Hall as “a proper London venue, a secular cathedral... you can feel all the spirits of all the performers who have been on here before”. He described the walk from the dressing room as particularly long here for him as a result being conscious of those who have trodden that walk before.
His guitar playing is matchless: the accuracy, evenness and plasticity of tempo, are from another era. It’s as though the electronic drum machine had never been invented. Incredibly refreshing. A little bit of forgivable vocal instability in the more vicarious melodies but the baritone voice is still very sure and strong.
The audience loved him, humming sympathetically when invited and joining in gustily for the choruses of “Streets of London”. Several encores and a photocall for the singer’s website.