It was wonderful to see the Fisherman’s Friends back on stage, at the Beer and Mussel Festival in St Merryn on March 9. Around the packed festival tent, tacked onto The Cornish Arms, fans young and old sang lustily and applauded enthusiastically as the men belted out familiar tunes.
The welcome had been equally rapturous, albeit on a larger scale, the previous month at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, where the men performed to a standing ovation before a full house at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It marked their return to public performance following the tragic deaths of tenor Trevor Grills and tour manager Paul McMullen while on tour in Guildford in February 2013.
In fact, the group had made its tentative debut closer to home towards the end of the year, with local, understated performances at St Peter’s Church in Port Isaac and Boscastle Farm Shop. “After everything that had happened, we all turned a little corner in November,” said Jon Cleave, the group’s moustachioed bass singer and witty MC. “We did 20 minutes, to stick our toes in the water. Then we sang before 4,500 at the Albert Hall. What could go wrong?”
Answer: nothing. “We were given a standing ovation as we walked on stage, which was very touching. We blasted our songs out, and afterwards, everyone was on their feet again. It was almost embarrassing. All these proper musicians were there to receive awards, and we blagged our way through the evening.” This modest attitude is typical of a bunch of singers who, as Jon himself says, started singing out of friendship and fell into fame by chance.
The Cornish Arms, owned by Rick Stein, constituted their first advertised gig since their break. Unsurprisingly, despite being promoted just a few weeks before the event, the festival tent was heaving with fans young and old. “We thought we’d go down and give it a bit of welly. We’re still rusty,” laughs Jon. “It was great to get out and sing to a Cornish audience. It felt really warm. People seemed genuinely pleased that we were back to it. It buoys you up to do more.”
It goes without saying that stepping back into the musical fray was not easy. “It was terribly hard,” Jon admits. “In the immediate aftermath of the accident, we were all over the shop. People asked if we would replace Trevor; they meant well, but think about it. He was a friend.”
The band has coped with its loss in other ways. “When we started out, we had two high tenors. One left early on; the other was Trevor. Now we don’t have one, but the bulk of our songs don’t need the exquisite melancholy that a top tenor can provide, so we will focus on those. We will also sing more solos, duets, trios.”
The music didn’t stop for gallery owner Jon, who launched a series of “open mic” nights under the title Mare’s Tales and Mackerel Scales (“… make lofty ships carry low sails”, according to the proverb). The evenings feature song, storytelling and poetry, with Jon’s wife, artist Caroline Cleave, sketching scenes on an iPad. “I wanted to keep singing, and this was stuff we wouldn’t normally sing. It’s more spontaneous than the Fishermen’s Friends’ concerts, with their running orders; everyone gets a good show.” Publicity was low-key – word of mouth, posters stuck on lamp-posts a few days before – but attendance has been keen, from across North Cornwall. “If people are determined, they will come.”
It would appear the music world is happy to have the Fisherman’s Friends back, as it shapes up to be a busy summer. The band has confirmed gigs on the Acoustic Stage at Glastonbury (June), at the Cambridge Folk Festival (July) and Beautiful Days in east Devon (August), and at the St Ives September Festival.
Will they go back to touring? “I hope so – but only if everyone wants to,” says Jon. “If some don’t, for whatever reason, I would understand that. We’re really playing it by ear this year. So far, it’s felt really good to be back.”
And of course, Trevor will never be forgotten. “The whole reason we started singing was because of our friendship. The recording contract and the exposure is a bit of a red herring. We are singing out of friendship and community, and the feeling that gives you. If someone’s not there, you think about them every time.
“But you take strength from anything in life. People have been so good to us. If someone is telling you that you’ve got something good, that has to count for something.”