"Shane: Poor Laurie is Dead"
by Jeffrey Gordon Baker for remotegoat on 11/07/10

I would not have guessed when I woke up on Friday morning that in a few hours I would be sat in church listening to a singer backed by a 20-piece 'Orchestral Fusion Band,' performing a song about a little boy being molested by a priest. But in fact, this and several other similarly uncanny numbers were in store for me upon attending what is apparently the annual outing of Tonic Fold at St Paul's church in Covent Garden. This large and lavishly orchestrated musical collective is at the service of the tunes and obvious passion of composer/pianist Shane Cullinan, and delivers as peculiar a blend of classical instrumentation, pop sensibility and socio-political pathos as one is likely to find this side of a certain erstwhile rock musical about the denizens of New York's East Village.

I enjoy seeing things about which I have no prior knowledge and, except for a bit of quick web research, this was the case here. So the sweeping, cinematic quality of the music was a pleasant surprise, as it in turns emphasised and (boldly) contrasted with the sacro-sanctity of the venue. Tonic Fold seems to have quite an enthusiastic following as well, and they were out in force for the group, rewarding them with whoops of approval and only the second standing ovation I have ever witnessed in London; and the first, I assure you, I've ever seen erupt out from behind the pews of a house of worship.

The songs seem at first to belong to the pop genre. Some of the online material about them uses the word 'funk,' however the music and the band for that matter, are too clean cut and pretty for this label. But the orchestrations are what is on show here; grand mixtures made delightfully unusual, even at moments eccentric, by the inventive use of alternately biting and lyrical string parts, thumping upright bass and blasts of brass, along with the more usual pop elements of trap set and electric guitar. Although all the musicians were professionally virtuosic, there were some particularly well executed licks by first fiddler Kate O'Connor. The two instrumental works were energetically ornate and thrilling.

However the content of the lyrics, which I would not have fully understood - this having more to do, I suspect, with the acoustics of the space than the serviceable delivery of singers Tamsin Stewart, Andrew Derbyshire, Richard Wilson and Claire O'Brien - had Mr Cullinan not helpfully narrated them for us in rambling explications between numbers, quite peaked my interest. At first, I did not agree with his assertion that it is sometimes 'important' to explain where songs come from, but by the end I couldn't wait to see what the next improbable subject of the Cullinanian musical universe would be.

Along with the aforementioned priest-sex-scandal ditty, there was a chaplin-esque shopkeeper who falls in love with a homeless girl, a retort against composers (I presume of the Jamaican Dance Hall and Gangsta Rap variety?) that persist in populating their work with homophobic lyrics, and (my favourite) a re-working of the plot of the musical Oklahoma called Judd, in which the antihero Judd Fry actually murders the prairie-girl heroine. Full disclosure: Having grown up in Oklahoma and thus having been subjected to the Rogers and Hammerstein classic more times than is healthy for anyone, I have often secretly harboured this last fantasy myself.

The musical compositions that followed these narrative explanations did not always seem to quite fit with the topic, but as Mr Cullinan said himself, he cannot always be expected to write about love found and foundered (I paraphrase). And after all, life doesn't always seem to fit with itself does it? I hope he keeps on with his musical and lyrical innovations, for the energy, sincerity and sheer pluck Shane Cullinan brings to his quirky work - apparent also in the obvious affection shown to him by the crowd and his fellow musicians - was as warmly inspiring as the flourishes of music he and Tonic Fold sent swirling into the night.

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