Ralph McTell – Tuning Fork: March 13, 2024 (Concert Review)

It was three-for-one at the Tuning Fork as Ralph McTell held a reverential audience spellbound for a solo show, his first Auckland appearance in two decades.

A masterful voice, dipping into baritone with heartfelt songs, a virtuoso acoustic guitar player and entertaining whimsical stories.

Ralph McTellWalking into the Tuning Fork was an initial surprise. Usually it’s a mere handful of early birds gathering in advance of an opening act. Arriving twenty minutes after doors and the venue was already two thirds full. And all seated. A demographic approximating the vintage of the performer. A hush of expectation.

Then down a narrow aisle at 740pm, McTell arrives, guided up onto the stage. One acoustic guitar, one comfortable chair, one glass of water. A sparse setting with all focus on the man who fills it. He begins with Don’t Think About You. Nothing but power in the guitar-picking and rich vocals of this elder statesman of the English folk scene.

He speaks of a poor childhood in south London, segues into First Song, a “song about songwriting”. Someone behind me sings along. A little annoying. I mean who did I come to hear? But they’re forgiven. “You were my first song”, he sings. To many here tonight McTell’s clearly been someone whose songs they’ve been singing along to at folk clubs for years.

He speaks of influences between songs. The Irish he laboured with as London restored itself after the war. African-American guitarists whose records he wore out learning their picking styles: Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis.

There are songs that express a love for the past and lost innocence. A love for English heritage: painted narrow boats along canals (Barges); allotment gardening (Peppers and Tomatoes); and the rural village labour exchange (The Hiring Fair), written for Fairport Convention. But more than vignettes of social history, the songs are laced through with wistful feelings: brotherly adventures in a long summer in Oxfordshire, (Barges), the smell of his uncles shed (“creosote and rusty tools”) (Peppers and Tomatoes) and romance with a young fellow worker at (The Hiring Fair). Songs lifted from a memoir in the genre of Van Morrison’s older catalogue..

And there’s tougher stuff. Around the Wild Cape Horn recounts a young photographer who, a century ago, lived his dream to sail that feral sea. McTell conjures up the terror of that voyage. I’m reminded of the nautical storytelling of Stan Rodgers or Gordon Lighfoot. But these are largely pointless points of reference, for tonight we are hearing from a master, a pioneer of narrative. Even his new songs sound as if we’ve heard them before.

And McTell himself tells us as much. He recounts Reverend Gary Davis saying he hadn’t written and song but rather it was revealed to him. And a time he went into a music store and found sheet music (which he cannot read) for one of his songs, and for which the authorship was attributed as “Irish Traditional, written sometime after the potato famine”. And perhaps that’s the mark of greatness. To have people feel as if your songs are older than your 79 years.

After a short break for beer and bathrooms he’s back, more songs, stories, string-plucking. Next to me, I meet someone attempting a double-header as the say in baseball. A two gig night. Aiming to get to the second half of Witch at the Hollywood Avondale. Here out of curiosity and a sense of duty to see someone of such influence. We find we had both been front row at John Prine who swung by, just before Covid pulled curtains on so much, Prine included. We agree you don’t muck around when greatness comes to town.

I think my neighbour in row 13 will have made it to the Avondale gig , for we were out the door by 940pm, a time when many shows are just beginning. A good finish time for weeknight as I walked away with chords of the Streets of London (a song that’s reputedly been covered over 400 times) still resonating within. An evening of captivating songs, guitar and stories. Seated and sedate. Befitting being in the presence of greatness.

Robin Kearns

Ralph McTell (an approximate setlist)

Don’t Think About You

First Song

After Rain

Let Me Down Easy

In the Dreamtime

Walk Into the Morning

Mr Connaughton

The Girl From the Hiring Fair

Gammel Dansk


Avalon John

Reverend Thunder (Blind Faith)

The Hiring Fair

Peppers and Tomatoes

Around the Wild Cape Horn

Nettle Wine

Sweet Mystery

From Clare to Here

River Rising

Close Shave

Streets of London

Click here to watch the 13th Floor interview with Ralph McTell