Thursday, November 22, 2012

Martyn Joseph / Luke Jackson

Colston Hall

"Where's Luke," calls out someone from the audience, just as Martyn Joseph is about to start his first encore ("No Retreat Baby, No Surrender" played exquisitely on a ukulele). Naturally, Martin takes this as cue to start taking the mickey out of his young protege..."Where's Luke? I fired him, that's where he is...It's my show...."

All bands engage in this kind of banter: I imagine it's the only thing which keeps them sane on a tour. But I couldn't help wondering whether the veteran really did feel a bit upstaged by the newbie. The previous night, Mike Harding had named Luke Jackson as a finalist in the Young Folk Awards (which was pretty much a foregone conclusion) and also as a nominee for the Horizon Award (which Luke says came as a complete surprise to him -- he thought at first they'd read his name out in the wrong category.) I do wonder what percentage of the audience were there to hear the support rather than the act.

Luke's first proper tour doesn't seem to have diminished the sincerity or honesty of his performance, although it's a much tighter set than I've seen him do before, cutting a lot of the chat and showcasing the different kinds of songs he can turn his guitar hand to. So it's not only the touching, biographical ones tonight: he starts and finishes with the abstract, rocky ones, and in between gives us a new bluesy one, and a gospel cover, and a narrative ballad as well as the bitter-sweet country-ish title track off his album. Only at the very end of the concert, in that final encore with Martyn, does he look back on his childhood and break our hearts as only he can.

It really does feel as if we are watching a career in fast forward -- he's already thinking about his second album -- and it's honestly hard to imagine where Luke Jackson is going to be in twelve months time. 

As to Martyn Joseph himself: he's entirely new to me, and I never feel confident in forming an opinion of a singer songwriter on the basis of a single listen. A splendid showman, definitely, who carries off a lot of slightly eighties mannerisms with some aplomb (He keeps addressing the audience as "Bristol", and comes down off the stage and stands on a chair at one point.) Not a gospel singer or a "Christian" artist, but there's a pretty strong streak of the religious running through his act. "This is not a good time for God", he sings "The right wing have defaced, the left wing have displaced, bigotry's disgraced..." It sounds a bit like Dylan's Material World and treads a fine line between the witty and the preachy. ("I'm looking forward to singing this in America" he says, after the first chorus which can't decide if it's "Allah" or "Allelujah".) Okay, I compare everyone with Dylan, but a performer who happily says things like "The sun remains an adoration flame / In spite of what these dungeons days proclaim" probably deserves it. (I think I detect a Dylanesque drawl in several of the songs, but at the end of the evening he goes into a very funny mimic of the great man.) 

A singer I haven't heard before proves his worth if there's at least one song which punches me firmly between the eyes. Martyn passes this test with flying colours: Proud Valley Boy is an astonishing, complex, rant in which an old miner looks back on Paul Robeson's visit to Wales in the 1930s. It has some re-world thoughts about unemployment ("It was one of those retraining schemes--a room full of discarded dreams") and a powerful central metaphor: 

A dragon came here once 
He shone like ebony 
At Mountain Ash and Neath 
He gave us dignity 
Back home some cursed his name 
And tried to quench his fire 
This David and Goliath in one frame. 

He talks about a musical torch being passed from Woody to Dylan to Springsteen, and there's certainly a strain of the angry blue collar industrial rant in several of his songs. He seems to like the oblique mythologising of the relatively ordinary: there are also several dragons wandering around On This Celtic Morning, a song about, of all things, the Ryder Cup. I wouldn't have expected a song about golf to work, but it really, really does, presumably because the singer really, really cares about golf. ("And the gods who play before us / somehow carry all our names / as tall as any mountain / but not bigger than the game") 

But he also does a nice line in soft, reflective ballads. I was genuinely touched by Clara, the apparently true story of an old man being saved from suicide by the old lady who had taken care of him when he was a baby. 

I hope we all have a Clara
Who sings us songs unknown 
Songs for the healing
And songs for the coming home.

Martyn is the sort of singer who produces a sequence of little epics; songs which imbue their subjects  with importance and significance; songs which take you on a journey. I must admit, though, that while any one of the anthemic songs was terrific, by the end of the set I felt I had possibly got the hang of the fact that Love was a good thing and he was in favour of it. 

This evening was the real thing. A young man with a guitar and pure, fresh voice wailing "I'm only going over Jordan..." and an older man with a darker, more world-weary voice growling "Mr Robeson, Sir...I hope that Tiger Woods knows your name". I have, as you know, nothing whatsoever against huge groups of musicians having elaborate, festal parties on the stage. But Bellowhead have never once made me cry.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Colston Hall, Bristol




They aren’t folk music any more, are they? They may not actually be music any more. They are a different thing altogether.

They are in the actual charts. They've been on Radio 2. On a proper programme, as well, not just Mike Harding. Twice. They used to finish festivals; now they are a festival. A Bellowhead concert is a celebration of the fact that you are at a Bellowhead concert. We all know to point in roughly the right directions when the chap is going (all together now) UP to the rigs, DOWN to jigs, UP to the rigs of London Town and to turn to each other to yell that, should you ever come to New York's shore you'd have to get up early to be smarter than a


“Mak shau! Mak Shau!” as a very wise man once told an up and coming boy-band. Bellowhead are a show, not just a concert.  Jon Boden is a singer, a multi-instrumentalist and when he gets on the stage his personality is somehow dispersed through the other ten musicians, so it's taking nothing away from them to say that Bellowhead is him.  Sam Sweeney, for example. A serious young fiddler who plays  old English Christmas carols in chapels: put him in in Bellowhead, and he ends up playing the fiddle on his back, pogoing, whipping out his northumbrian pipes and corpsing when the filthy sea shanty about little Lucy Lucket who washes in a bucket turns briefly into a Sunday School hymn. Boden’s own performance and body language is sixteen or seventeen times more extreme than when he is just being Spiers-and, but the songs never get completely submerged under everything which is going on around them. (What, never? Well, hardly ever.) He sort of bends his whole body into an arch at the end of Lilibulero (yes, Lilibulero — want to make something of it?) and snarls out “now I’ve been with the devil the whole of my life but I never knew hell til I met your wife…” at half speed.

There are basically three different acts on offer. (Pay attention: I am going to attempt to do music criticism, and will probably end up revealing that I don't know my Northumbrians from my English Smalls.) The first act onto the stage tonight is, for want of a better term,  Mad Bellowhead. Mad Bellowhead can be fantastic, but they also have a pretty low hit rate. (We missed Cholera Camp tonight, but be honest, did anyone miss Spectre Review or Widow's Curse …?) Their first number was Black Beetle Pie, about which I had serious doubts. Jon started out seated at the back of the stage, delivering the song through a megaphone for reasons which still slightly escape me. It was hard to track down the actual song in the arrangement. (It comes over very much better on the recording.) You can see that the title, and indeed the subject matter would appeal to their sense of the bizarre. It was followed by the similarly impenetrable Old Dun Cow. Clever? Yes. Mad? Definitely. Straight onto my playlist of songs to listen to over and over and play to friends who don't really like folk music? Not so much.  

But then mercifully, Jon announces a song about having your girlfriend deported to Australia and Fun Bellowhead take to the stage. Ten Thousand Miles Away is the song that Chris Evans played twice in succession, and it’s the kind of thing that Fun Bellowhead do best, or, in fact, the kind of thing that Fun Bellowhead do, with the raucous sing-along foreground revelling in just what a lot of bloody good tunes Anon could come up with, but which bears multiple re-listening because of the amount of fiddly bits going on in the background. It instantly takes its place as one of the songs without which no Bellowhead concert is complete. They also unveiled a very good Byker Hill (showing some Mad influence, but not enough to drown the melody) as well as touching most of their greatest hits bases (Whiskey is the Life of Man, Haul Away, London Town, New York Girls, the instrumental where they all jump in the air, etcetera.) 

I have always felt that, if the only folk music you like is Bellowhead, then you are probably missing the point of Bellowhead: like the person who eats the sage and onion stuffing without the actual turkey or goes to Last Night of the Proms without having heard any of the previous seventy five. It is, after all, a lot of very serioius musicians who we are watching being crazy and extreme and silly, people who deleted more about folk music than I'll  ever type. And by the end of the evening the original incarnation of the band, let's call them Folkie Bellowhead, had been given some time on the stage. The Wife of Usher's Well was a very impressive piece of theatre; the whole ensemble singing together with that pulsating rhythm that Bellowhead do so well, with some twangs of 80s Dylan over the top. It was shame you couldn't hear any of the actual words: it's the sort of ghost story that I'd like to have heard Jon getting his folk-teeth into. So the biggest smile of the evening came, not from the shanties and the dancing tunes or the crazy stuff, but from the sensitively iconoclastic reading of Thousands or More. Regular readers will remember that I was moved to hear your genuine original Copper Family singing this at Cecil Sharp House last month. Bellowhead start off, perfectly, with a close harmony riff on the Coppers church-style singing, before opening it up into swinging sunny arrangement, wholly in tune with the original, with Jon in his best Folksong-A-Day mode, revelling in every sweet traddy line. You had to wonder about the hippy poppy repetition of “thousands or more” at the end, but it immediately settles back into a straight fiddle melody, so we left feeling that he had started off drinking cider on the village green, gone on an excursion to some weird place, and then found our way back home. Clever without being smartass. Already almost my favourite Bellowhead track of all time at the moment, probably. 

Oh yes. After the show John and Jon decamped to the nearest pub the theatre after the show, rapidly joined by Sam and Paul, and carried on singing and playing. So we got to join in with Thousands or More, and New York Girls, all over again. And Paul Sartin completely failed to keep a straight face during an unaccompanied rendition of one of Anons forays into the  art of the Single Entendre. (It involved a farmer taking a male hen to market and everyone remarking on how large it was.) You can't get much more folkie than that.

So I mean, basically: Bellowhead.  


They’re loud. They’re mad. They’re completely over the top. They sing songs about black beetle pies. 

If Chumbawamba has just split up and you aren’t feeling miserable enough for Show of Hands, they really are the best act in the country.  And Spiers and Boden are coming back to Colston Hall, just the two of them, next year, and inviting local people to suggest local songs for them to learn. Which I have to say will be something of a relief.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

"Songs and Southern Breezes"

Cecil Sharp House

This evening was intended to commemorate the Eightieth anniversary of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. This turned out to mean the Eightieth anniversary of the English Folk Dance Society merging with the English Folk Song Society. Worth celebrating. Cecil Sharp House is exactly half way between Bayreuth and a rather old fashioned Anglican church hall. It's both the very heart of English Folk Music (definitely with capital letters) and it's a place where people go to learn country dancing. In the basement, the beardiest barman I've ever seen sells real ale.

The first half of the evening consisted of the aforementioned Shirley Collins giving an illustrated talk about the life of Bob Copper. Bob, as well as being patriarch of the Copper Family and therefore the main cause of the Second Folk Revival, was a BBC broadcaster and collector of folk songs during the 1950s. This was the last time when it was still possible to go into an English country pub and have a good chance of bumping into an old fellow who never went to school, started working as a farm labourer at the age of eight, and could sing to you songs as they were sung to him by his grandfather. The living tradition, to coin a phrase. He could reasonably claim that Noah Gillette’s version of the Bonny Bunch of Roses represented a direct link to the age of Napoleon. The talk was illustrated with fascinating archive recordings which I had never heard before. An old gentleman singing through an interminable “Pickle-ally Bush” which left you wondering how many relatives he would have to go through before someone paid off the ruddy hang-man; another one singing a unique version of Long Lankin (”Cruel Lincoln”) which Mr Copper said was as precious as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The second half of the evening was a rare performance by the actual Copper family themselves. I've heard them once before in their Young Coppers incarnation, but this was a multi-generational, extended line up, doing a good selection of the family repertoire, running the gamut of human experience from “isn't working on a farm awful” to “isn't working on a farm brilliant” interspersed with family history and memories of Bob and the previous generation. (He only bought a tuning fork when the Coppers were invited to appear at the Albert Hall. Up to then, they’d used a cow-bell.) They aren't all professional musicians, but they have preserved a style of singing down through multiple generations, and they love it. They all clasp hands warmly in the last verse of Drive Sorrows Away (”although I'm not rich and although I'm not poor / I'm as happy as those who have thousands or more”). In a way, there is nothing better than hearing them throw themselves into Sweet Rose of Allendale and joining in the harmonies of Sportsmen Arise. Cecil Sharp House isn't the heart of English folk music, of course: it’s these people, and a few others like them. 

A charming, informative, moving evening.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Don McLean

Colston Hall, Bristol

He distinctly sings "Lenin". All the printed libretti say "Lennon".

If it's "Lennon" then everyone else's identity falls into place — "the quartet", "the park", "the king", very probably "the jester". If it's "Lenin" then the whole idea of the song being about the history of American pop music breaks down.

Not that, at this stage in the proceedings, it matters very much. Who's paying attention to the symbolism or even listening to the words? It's more like a national anthem. The whole song, all fourteen minutes of it, is now a symbol of itself, a celebration of itself. "Sing it with me! Oh yeah! Sing it again." It's about eight minutes long on the record; tonight, he makes it last double that. There's a substantial musical break between the last two verses, during which two people on the balcony start dancing. When we finally realize that the church bells are all broken the audience start to hoot and whoop...and we get two more choruses, one more slow repeat, massive applause...."Do you want some more....let's do the first verse all together." Milking a song? Absolutely.

The band comes on first, there's a big musical build up; Don comes onto the stage; the lights go up; there's thunderous applause. He goes straight into a Buddy Holly medley that starts out as Well All Right and ends up as Peggy Sue Got married, and then says he's going to do some Gene Vincent just for fun. "Thank you, thank you, I love this place!" A lot of the congregation have clearly been singing along since 1971: I'm one of the younger people present. That indefinable yokel twang has disappeared from his voice; he doesn't move about that much. He's full of old time pop-mannerisms, yelling "One more time!" and "take it away!" with no hint of self-consciousness. There's no question of reinventing or reconstructing these songs: the guitar riffs in Winter Wood are instantly recognizable from the recordings. This is a man who's had songs covered by Elvis, who's having a film made of his life story, who's had a famous song written about him, but when he cries out "Oh, this is fun!" in the middle of a number we’re inclined to believe that that's why he's doing it. "I know its not inexpensive to go out and hear someone with a guitar singing songs, I honour you and thank you and will try to give you your money's worth."

If you wanted to be critical, you would say that his less famous songs are all variations on the famous ones; that they all come to the same kind of emotional climax at the same point. He didn't sing the one about George Reeves (which I'm rather a fan of, for obvious reasons) but he did sing one about a cowboy which said identical things about the crucifying power of fame. ("I could beat those desperados/but there's no sense fighting time") About halfway through the set he sits down and does a series of slow songs without the band, including one I'd totally forgotten about about the loneliness of being by himself in a motel in Los Angeles, and the auctioning off of the original ruby slippers from Wizard of Oz (a metaphor which Salman Rushdie also found irresistible ). It's a stream of images and pop culture references, a try out, a dry run for that Other Song and a point in favour of my theory that his whole career has been a series of footnotes to Desolation Row. But it's delivered with such perfect poise and sincerity that one doesn't feel inclined to be critical, and anyway, who wants to analyse a party? Lines like "Over the rainbow a Kansas tornado / can twist up a little girl's head / Aunt Em's on relief and the tin-man's a thief and even the wizard can't wake the dead" may be sub-Dylan but there's no-one better to be sub. (Which is ironic if Dylan is the jester who stole the people's music from Elvis, but there's nothing wrong with irony, either.)

After he's done And I Love You So and Crossroads he starts chatting about rock-a-billy and end up doing a very decent version of That's All Right Mama, by which time the band has come back on, and we're into a long sequence of lessor known rocky numbers. This was the only part of the set that I felt dragged a little, but it picks up nicely with a Johnny Cash cover and a nice ranting thing, new to me, called Fashion Victim ("How did the land of Jefferson, how did the land of King / become the land of hamburgers and raisins that can sing? / Roosevelt was cripple, Lincoln was a geek. /They'd never get elected, their clothes were never chic.") He saves Vincent for the encore, and winds up with a long, dramatic perfectly pronounced cover of El Paso. He admires and identifies with Marty Robbins, who also had a very long, very famous song who people asked him to sing over and over again.

What does American Pie mean? It means wherever and whenever your were when you first heard it; and all the times and places you have heard it since. It means drinking coffee in an undergraduate bedroom (when coffee percolators were still luxury items available only to engineering students); it means driving around the countryside trying to remember where the youth hostel was; it means the sun finally coming out in Glastonbury.

What a show-man. What a show. What a lot of verses.


I am just barely old enough to remember when "The Radio" was a big black machine that sat on its own table in the corner of the room.

When I was in Miss Walker’s class, I acquired a transistor radio, still a slightly novel artefact The only thing I can recall listening to was Junior Choice a request show which played both Do You Want To Be In My Gang by Gary Glitter (what ever happened to him?) and Nelly the Elephant by Mandy Miller (I looked it up.) The DJ was Ed "Stewpot" Stewart, who Wikipedia tells me is still alive, though no longer working. In the nature of these things, Ed "Stewpot" Stewart appeared in the 1972 production of Cinderella at the Golders Green Odeon. (You will be pleased to hear that I looked that up as well. Barbara Windsor was Cinders.) Naturally, he went on and on about it on his radio show. My parents took me to see the show. I don't know whether I pestered them to take me to see my hero giving his Buttons, or whether Golders Green was simply a relatively local place to see a Christmas panto.

Furriners will presumably not be aware that Buttons is Baron Hardup's comedy servant. He spends the first half being in love with Cinders, and gets a moment of pathos when she marries Prince Charming at the end. (Come to think of it, they probably don't know that Baron Hardup is Cinderella's father. I bet they don't know the name of Aladdin's mother, either.)

The one strong memory I have of the show is that, at this dramatic juncture, Ed "Stewpot" Stewart got to do a straight performance of one of the popular romantic songs of the day. He would play it incessantly on Junior Choice, pretending to bawl "Oh, Cinders..Cinders...." during the fade-out. The song was, of course, And I Love You So by Don McLean.

Elvis who?

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Bristol Folk House

Shall I tell you what sometime surprises me. It sometimes surprises me that you can’t get tickets for Bellowhead (that doesn’t surprise me at all) but that a group like Faustus, including Paul Sartin, (from Bellowhead), Benji Kirkpatrick (from Bellowhead) and Saul Rose (not from Bellowhed, but has played with Eliza Carthy and other big folk names) play to small, not quite full venues. Does Bellowhead now have that kind of mainstream appeal which means that people want to hear Bellowhead in order to say that they’ve heard Bellowhead, but don't want to hear people doing the same kind of thing that Bellowhead does, just as well? Or that there are people who want to hear a twelve man band doing bouncy punky jokey irreverent creative silly versions of traditional English folk songs, but won’t get out of bed to hear three men doing punk jokey irreverent...doing the same thing, basically?

Obviously, I’ve always thought of Bellowhead as “Spiers and Boden and their friends”, but after tonight I can see what a large chunk of what they do comes from Faustus as well. Would it be fair to say that the story telling and engagement with traditional songs comes from Jon and John but the wild gypsy circus stylings come from Benji and Paul? Probably not. I shall move on.

Unlike most guitar (Benji) fiddle (Paul) and squeeze box (Saul) outfits, all three performers take it in turns to sing, and all of them are very good at it. (They can also turn their voices to close harmony for an impressive Copperish Brisk Lad.)

They open up with a volley of nautical numbers: Benji does The Golden Vanity (about the cabin boy who sinks the Spanish ship while sailing in the lowland low); Paul does a slightly unfamiliar Captain Ward and Saul does the Old Miser.

The joke about preferring miserable songs, and apologizing for the odd happy ending, has perhaps been a little overworked, bit Paul’s version of the Captain’s Apprentice (which ends with the aforementioned Captain getting hung for beating his apprentice to death with a spike) does have an almost camp level of grimness to it. Things don’t notably cheer up for a slowed down version of the Deserter; even when Prince Albert comes along and says that the soldier doesn’t have to be shot after all, its delivered in a tone of voice which seems to say “This Never Happens". We get a wonderfully dead-pan version of a traditional bit of single-entendre lifted off Voice of the People about a farmer who lets a young lady have a go on his Threshing Machine. (”I puts down me hand for to cut off the steam / But the chaff had blown out of my threshing machine.”) But it might just be that the highpoint of the evening (particularly for those of us who were still on a Nic Jone high) was Saul leading the group in an extended Humpbacked Whale (properly Balina Whalers) complete with the verse about skinning kangeroos.

Folk music, as a wise person once said, is about three universal themes: Sex, Death, and Young Women Putting On Boys Clothes and Joining the Navy. So would it be true to say that in conjunction with Spiers, Boden and the others, Benji and Paul do the sex, but when they are with Saul, they major on the death? Almost certainly not. So let’s just say that this was a lovely evening of well chosen traditional music, given exciting, but not overly revisionist arrangements by an ensemble with a great on stage rapport.

And start lobbying for a full dress Bellowhead version of Balina Whalers.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Robin and Bina Williamson

Bristol Folk House

A Robin Williamson gig never fails to be a source of joy and laughter. Robin had set up his harp in the middle of the rather cavernous main hall at the the Folk House, with chairs and tables set up in a semi-circle round him; it felt less like a cabaret than a church. Already seated, he greeted punters individually as they arrived. Warmth; intimacy; connection. With all the sectarian violence and hatred in the world, he says, the one thing we can agree about and celebrate is the wonderful fact of just being alive. St Jerome translated Psalm 24 into Latin to make it comprehensible (instead of being stuck in obscure languages like – he draws the words out - Aramaic and Coptic). But the trouble with religion is that people think that they and only they know what God is really, really thinking, really thinking, and the great thing about Jerome's translation nowadays is that nobody understands it. In the course of the Latin he gets into strange burr-burr noises with his lips, and suddenly decides that he wants the audience to start chanting "diddly diddly diddly diddly" (which is the definition of a jig) while he sings nonsense words unaccompanied.

Bina contributes a couple of very evocative Indian language songs. I sometimes found myself wishing she could have taken more of a back seat in some of Robin’s numbers; her robust accompaniment sometimes threatened to drown out his quirky, idiosyncratic voice. But that would probably be to miss the point of the evening, which was clearly a product of the chemistry between the two performers: their love of music, their love of life; their positive eclectic version of God.

No Celtic folk tale tonight, but a rambling shaggy dog story without a punch line: the point of the tale is the telling, the silly voices and digressions. I loved Robin's made-up proverb about the Three Ages of Man:

The first age of man: My Dad's bigger than your Dad.
The second age of man: Oh, shut up Dad, what do you know about anything?
The third age of man: As my old Dad used to say...

He loves weak jokes ("the closest the west came to Zen"). When Bina says that a songs in A Flat, he remarks "or, as we say, an apartment." He's delighted (and so is the audience) by an American ballad about a mermaid's curse from which, apparently, the story of the curse dropped out, leaving with a song about a man who came home one evening and died.

They wind up the evening with two very nearly seasonal songs: the gypsy carol, and Sydney Carter's lovely "Joseph Came to Summers Town" which imagines the holy family staying in a disused railway carriage round the back of Euston station.

"Whatever Christmas is about" he says afterwards "It isn't about the God of Shopping."

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Nancy Kerr and James Fagan

Chapel Arts, Bath

In a way, Nancy and James are as different as chalk and cheese.

James gets quite carried away singing Alistair Hulett’s powerful Australian protest song The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away (”blood stained the soil of Australia!”); Nancy plays exquisite English tunes on the fiddle.

They meet somewhere in the middle for Nancy's self-penned "Cary My Bones to Jerilderie”. It’s based loosely on Ned Kelly’s famous Jerilderie letter; ("the road's my home; I know no other") and has one of those melodies that always seems to be leading you on to somewhere it doesn't quite arrive.

The song they wrote about leaving the narrow boat where they had lived on the Kennet and Avon Canal (they live the folkie lifestyle) has an astonishing lyrical and melodic complexity (”there must be better ways / for to keep the debts at bay/and the whisky trickling”). The one about the Greek gods coming to London for the Olympic games (written for the new Radio Ballads, which I'm ashamed to say passed me by) seemed contrived to me, but these things often grow on me on a second listening.

Maybe the highpoint of the evening was the extended arrangement of Dance to Your Daddy, with long fiddle interludes and ending with Nancy's winsome English voice and James more robust Ozzie in perfectly balanced melody and counter melody.

Anon wins the day every time, doesn't he?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Nic Jones

Cecil Sharp House

Nic Jones stands at a sort of music stand, possibly to lean on it, possibly because he has the words of the songs written on sheets of paper. He shows no particular signs of needing either, although someone helps him up and down the steps onto the stage. I don't think I would have recognised him; but then my only mental picture of him is the cover of Penguin Eggs. He greets the audience with a Carthyesque nonchalence: “Hello. How are you?” He starts out speaking -- almost whispering -- the songs, with the endearingly dated habit of cupping his hand over his ear. His son Joe plays guitar; people who know says his technique is just like his father's was. The redoubtable and not at all depressing Belinda O’Hooley provides keyboard, squeezebox and quips. (”You should go on Britain’s Got Talent.")

There is an atmosphere of irreverence of the kind that only happens in the presence of someone who is universally venerated. Joe says that he knows that everyone regards his father has a hero and an icon, but that he thinks of him as a man who got stuck in the revolving doors. Later, he seems about to choke up when saying what an inspiration his father has been to him, but Nic chips in "Oh...I never meant to be.”

I've probably been a little inclined to over-work the term "legend" in the past. Maybe I've even applied words like "great" and "mighty" to any three men with a fiddle and an accordion between them. I fell in love with songs like Humpbacked Whale and the Drowned Lovers simply as songs, when I was first listening to folk music. Before that, actually, since Bob's version of Canadee-i-o is generally regarded as a homage to Nic's version. My I-Pod would claim that The Little Pot Stove is one of my two or three favourite songs. As I started to learn a little more I found out that Penguin Eggs is pretty widely regarded as the greatest folk album of all time (second only to Fairport's Liege and Lief). And that Nic Jones is a legend in every possible sense of the word. So forgive me if I find it a little hard to maintain any critical distance. A review which summed up my feelings would have to go something like this:


Saturday night's concert, at Cecil Sharp House was very much a "Nic Jones and friends" event, and billed as such. It was a funny, messy affectionate, exasperating gig. Belinda and Heidi tweeted straight afterwards that they were disappointed; that they felt the evening lost its focus on Nic. I certainly wished he'd started earlier: he didn't begin his set until around 10.30. Maybe his state of health doesn't allow him to perform for more than half an hour or so?

There’s no getting away from it. In a strange way The Accident almost seems to be one of the friends who is sharing a stage with him; not so much the elephant in the room, more a family ghost who’s no longer scary or even particularly embarrassing. In a horrible way it’s part of what makes him legend: in 1982 Nic’s car collided with a lorry, and for 30 years he didn't perform. But then he made a public appearance at a tribute show at festival in 2011. People referred to that his final live performance; but he appeared a few festivals this summer. So picking up last minute tickets to see this concert felt a bit like discovering that there were one or two spare seat to see James Dean doing a cameo at the National Theatre.

I don't know my way around the Jones discography beyond owning the currently available CDs, so I admit to rather loosing track of who all the friends and associates who queued up to pay tribute to Nic, sometimes at considerable length, for the first three hours of the concert actually were. His first band, in the 60s, was called Halliard; they split up in 1968, so getting them to appear together tonight was a considerable coup. They described searching libraries for obscure broadside ballads and composing cod-traditional tunes for them. ("Bedlam lads are bonny" was one of theirs.)

A big tip of my folk hat, incidentally, to Jim Moray who came onto the stage; sang exquisite versions of his three best songs (Long Lankin, Jenny of the Moor, and Lord Douglas), said how privileged he felt to be present, and got off the stage. That's exactly the right way for the current Biggest Thing In Folk to behave when paying tribute to a legend.

Nic is present on the stage during Halliard set, and with his old friends from Bandoggs, but he isn't doing much more than singing along. Some of us became nervous. Is this all the Nic we are going to get?

But at about 10.30, after he had been awarded his gold lifetime achievement badge by Shirley Collins (current president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society), his turn finally came around. Belinda says that she hopes we brought sleeping bags, and claims that Shirley has missed the last train back to Brighton. I myself am becoming resigned to spending the night on Paddington Station.

It's cliche, I suppose, to say that when he started sining the years seemed to roll away, but there is something in the voice, in the delivery, in the way in phrases the lines, in the atmosphere, in the storytelling — the little laugh in his voice at the punch line of Barrack Street (I HAVE HEARD NIC JONES SING BARRACK STREET) which is unmistakable. Magical. I have him filed in my head as a traditional sing of the Carthy school (or, in fact, vice versa), but he’s a very fine song writer in his own right. “The Ruins on the Shore” is a strange ballad about the end of the world ("It was inspired by Planet of the Apes" quips Belinda.)"Now" is a quiet philosophical piece which seems to sum the story up pretty well. "The past is gone / the future will come / the soul shows us how / to live in the now."

Of course, there is only one song to finish on. I hate to think how many professional and amateur folkies must have been in the audience, so the singing along is of an exceptionally high standard. We’re only meant to be joining in the chorus, but when we get to the bit in verse 3 which goes….

We live it seven days a week, cold hands and frozen feet
Bitter days and lonely nights, making grog and having fights
There's swordfish and whale meat sausage and fresh penguin eggs a treat...

…we can’t help calling out the name of that famous album, and there’s a ripple of applause. Nic’s been conducting the audience throughout, but now he seems to clench his fist in a triumphant salute. And why not?


(I cannot speak for Shirley Collins, but I got to the station in time to catch the midnight coach. In case you were worrying.)

Friday, September 21, 2012


Bob Dylan

Tempest is a very nice album.

Four of the tracks – Tin Angel, Scarlet Town, Tempest and Roll on John are very nice indeed.

I think it is the nicest of the five albums which Bob Dylan has made since resuming song writing in 1997. (Christmas in the Heart doesn't count.)

I think it is probably the nicest thing he's done since Blood on the Tracks.

I liked it very much indeed.


Bob says there is no significance in the title. This album is called Tempest. Shakespeare's last play was called The Tempest.

But if Tempest should prove to be Bob's final album then its closing lines, addressed to a mysterious figure identified only as "John", would serve very nicely as a final curtain-call for the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll.

Tiger, Tiger, burnin' bright
I pray the lord my soul to keep
In the forests of the night
Cover him over and let him sleep

This is someone who doesn't use language in the same way that the rest of us do; who increasingly communicates by borrowing words, phrases, images, quotes from other people and mixing them up until they mean something different. This is an oracular, almost scriptural voice: words not spoken by anyone, but standing for themselves; words referring to other words; songs about songs; text for text's sake. 

Two lines from a romantic poet; a line from a child's prayer; a line which sounds like a quote but isn't. It's a clichĂ© to say that someone who died young "burned too brightly". The mysterious "John" seems to have died young, evidently killed in some kind of ambush. The line "you burned so bright" is repeated eight times in the course of the song. But right at the end, we are asked to make a connection between it and Blake's poem The Tyger (as opposed, presumably, to Tyger). Did the singer have it in mind from the beginning that this "John" (whoever he may be) was tiger-like? Or did the repetition of "burned so bright" suggest the quotation? Does the "tiger, tiger" line retrospectively change the rest of the song? What happens when you put The Tyger and Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep side by side? Part of the point of the Tyger is that it contrasts with the Lamb (as opposed to Lamb) which is also, arguably, a children's prayer. (Did he who made the lamb make thee?) Does a stanza made up entirely of quotes evoke the mood of the sources? Or their meanings? Or their original context? Are we reading literary hyper-links? "When I talk about 'John' I want you to feel the way you did when you first learned to recite Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright in school?". Or are the words just tumbling out because they sound so good. 

Shine your light
Move it on
You burned so bright
Shine on, John


Does Bob Dylan know Bill Caddick, Steve Tilston, or Dave Sudbury? I assume he does. I mean, I assume he knows everything. I assume he spends his days in the gramophone library of the Abernathy building, endlessly listening to obscure folk records. (There is no such place as the Abernathy building, but then, I seriously wonder if there is any such person as Bob Dylan.) We can be pretty sure he knows Fairport Convention.

But that's not really the question. I hear the Writing of Tipperary in Tempest, the Slip Jigs and Reels in Roll on John and the King of Rome in Early Roman Kings whether Bob put them there or not. And I hear at lot of things which Bob definitely did put in, and a whole lot of other things which he definitely left out. The point of Scarlet Town is that it isn't Barbara Allen and the point of Tin Angel is that it isn't Black Jack Davey and the point of Tempest (I'm astonished no-one else has mentioned this) is that it isn't the Great Dust Storm Disaster.

And that's true even if you have never heard those songs, which obviously you have.


Dylan has, at different times in his life believed in astrology and synchronicity. He toys with the idea that the Long Black Veil might have been dictated by Joe Hill from beyond the grave. Astrology and I-Ching are all about fuzzy logic: a symbol with a dozen possible meanings is placed alongside a symbol with a dozen possible meanings, and you are are invited to choose the meaning you want to believe from a huge and shifting quantity of data. (
This is also how Sociology works.)

The succession of phrases and words and symbols in a Dylan song are much more like a hexagram or a horoscope than a recipe book. They don't mean. They evoke moods and suggest and allude. And they put you in a state of mind in which you draw inferences and make connections even if they aren't there. I'm told some kinds of drugs have much the same affect.


We can all agree that Tin Angel isn't Seven Yellow Gypsies, or Black Jack Davey or any one of that genre of songs about the lady who would rather have one kiss from a gypsy's lips than all of her husband's lands and money. Oh. Bob takes:

It was late last night when the boss come home
Enquiring about his lady
The only answer he received
"She gone with Gypsy Davey...."

and turns it into:

It was late last night when the boss came home
To a deserted mansion and a desolate home
Servant said "Boss, the lady's gone
She left this morning just before dawn..."

"You got something to tell me, tell it to me man
Come straight to the point, as quickly as you can"
"Henry Lee, the chief of the clan
Came riding through the woods and took her by the hand."

It's partly another hyper-link. The opening line tells us "when you are listening to this song, I want you to be thinking about the story of Gypsy Davey and the Raggletaggle Gypsies"; the rest of the verse fleshes out the scene in the ballad, tells us what master and servant really said to each other and how they felt.

But what are we to say about a line like:

"Go fetch me my coat and tie
And the cheapest leather than money can buy
Saddle me up my buckskin mare
If you see me go by, put up a prayer."

At some level it connects back to:

"Go saddle for me my buckskin horse
An a hundred dollar saddle
Point out to me their wagon tracks
And after them I'll travel..."

But it's as if the line has become distorted – as if endless repetition has retained a trace of the original line, but removed its meaning. Dylan's own version of the original song is much concerned with the value of the lady's shoes:

"Pull off, pull of your high-heeled shoes
Made of Spanish leather
Get behind me on my horse
And we'll ride off together." 

Woody Guthrie's version (the best) is more concerned about her gloves

"Now I won't take off my buckskin gloves
They're made of Spanish leather
I'll go my way from day to day
And sing with the Gypsy Davey."

And of course, in Dylan's own girl-leaves-boy ballad "boots of Spanish leather" are a cryptic sign that a relationship has ended. And all of this is somehow evoked by not being in the new song. Not a hundred dollar saddle, but a cheap one. Not expensive Spanish leather, but the cheapest you can find.

It sometimes feels as if classic songs are being boiled down to their constituent motifs and reassembled in random orders, as if someone wanted to convey to you his feelings about  St Mark's Gospel and told you that it was a story about a man in a cave hammering nails into a boat with a fish. The sad story of Barbara Allen is almost always set in a place called Scarlet Town which some people think may simply be a pun on "Reading". But all that's left of the ballad in Dylan's song "Scarlet Town" is the repeated line "In Scarlet Town, where I was born" and the fragment "In Scarlet Town in the month of May, sweet William on his death bed lay." 

This is also what dreams are like, at least according to Dr Freud.


 It's perfectly obvious which "John" Bob is singing about.

From the Liverpool Docks to the red light Hamburg streets
Down in the quarry with the quarrymen
Playing to the big crowds, playing to the cheap seats
Another day in the life on the way to your journey's end

John Lennon really did grow up in Liverpool; he really did have a residency in Hamburg; his first group really was called the Quarrymen, he really did perform to big crowds, he really did make a famous one-liner about "the people in the cheap seats" and he really did co-write a song called Day in the Life. That's what, six references in four lines? But Roll on John really isn't "about" that John. Dylan once wrote a song about Lenny Bruce called "Lenny Bruce" that really was about Lenny Bruce. It said things like.

Maybe he had some problems, 

maybe some things that he couldn’t work out
But he sure was funny and he sure told the truth 

and he knew what he was talkin’ about


I rode with him in a taxi once
Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months

That actually tells us things about the comedian. For example, its tells us that he was a comedian. If we had never heard of Lenny Bruce (and I hadn't, not particularly) then we would come out of the song better informed. But as a lyric, it sucks.

Roll on John tells us nothing about John Lennon. Or Bob Dylan. You wouldn't know from the song that the two of them ever met. You'd hardly know that John sang songs. Lennon certainly did form a skiffleband called the Quarrymen but they certainly never performed in a quarry. Some of the lines are very obscure indeed:

Sailin' through the trade winds bound for the south
Rags on your back just like any other slave
They tied your hands and the clamped your mouth
Wasn't no way out of that deep dark cave

Lennon did travel from England to America, but he went by plane. Maybe it's a reference to the story of him learning to sail a yacht and holding onto the wheel all through a storm, one of those things which is such a perfect metaphor that you can hardly believe it happened in real life even though you know it did. But that works only if you know in advance that "John" is John Lennon, and are trying to retrofit the solution to the riddle. And the song isn't a riddle. It's a song.

It's a song about a man who travels from England to America, who is killed in an ambush, possibly in Texas, and whose death makes lots of people very sad. The atmosphere and melody, as well as some of the lines, strongly recall Knockin' on Heaven's Door – a not inappropriate song to evoke when talking about a man who was shot in the back. But having drawn the line from Tempest to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, I can't help hearing echoes of Steve Tilston's fictitious Billy the Kid in the new song. Compare:

A train to St Louis, just one jump ahead
he slept one eye open a gun 'neath his head
but he dreamed of the green fields and mountains of home
while crossing the plains where the buffalo roam


Slow down, you're moving way to fast
Come together, right now over me
Your bones are weary, you're about to breath your last
Lord you know how hard that it can be.

Roll on John, through the rain and snow
Take the right hand road and go where the buffalo roam
They'll trap you in an ambush before you know
Too late now to go back home

Lennon wasn't killed in an ambush: he was shot by the loneliest and nuttiest of all lone nuts. (And Billy the Kid didn't travel from England to New York with a ten shilling note in the lining of his jacket.) This is a fictitious John made up of half-remembered fragments of the real one. But the above verses contain no less than three quotes from actual John Lennon songs. The quotes and the actual facts about Lennon's life seem to hover above the story about the English slave who was killed in an ambush in the Wild West; whispering "when I talk about this imaginary figure, think about John Lennon". (Thus it was fulfilled which was spoken of the prophet: I am the egg man.) 

It has a very good chances of standing as a memorial to Bob's friend John. "Lenny Bruce was bad/ he was like the brother you never had" is already long forgotten.


There is a danger of getting lost in Dylan's songs. You either approach them as codes which have a magic solution ("Aha! "John" not having time to escape from the Wild West to England is an allegory of President Nixon trying to deport Lennon because of his drugs conviction") or you start trying to unpick a network of intertextuality. Or you start to tell complete falsehoods, like "Tempest tells the story of S.S Titanic", which it plainly doesn't.

Most likely

fly away little bird
fly away flap your wings
fly away by night
like the early roman kings

is referencing the nursery rhyme

two little dickie-birds, sitting on a wall
fly away Peter, fly away Paul
come back Peter, come back Paul.

("Peter" is the Pope in Rome; "Paul" is the protestant church.) But when I hear "fly away and flap your wings" I can't help thinking about the best song ever written about a little bird, who certainly did flap his wings, the famous pigeon named the King of Rome (as opposed to "King of Rome").

Is this the connection that Bob intended me to make? I doubt it.

Did Bob intend me to make connections that Bob didn't intend me to make? I'm quite sure of it.


John Lennon wasn't buried, but cremated. No-one even knows where his ashes were scattered. Titanic didn't go down in a storm. It hit an iceberg. So why is the song which gives the name to album called Tempest?

Well, because Tempest isn't about the Titanic. So far as I can tell, it's about the end of the universe. It just uses Titanic as a sort of controlling metaphor. Dylan puts his cards on the table in the first stanza. That godawful movie is about an old lady telling a crew of treasure hunters what really happened on the day of the disaster. The most famous Titanic song of all says that

It was sad, (it was sad)
it was sad (mighty sad)
it was sad when the great ship went down (to the bottom of the sea)

Dylan's opening stanza references both of them:

The pale moon rose in its glory
Over the western town
She told the sad sad story
Of the great ship that went down...

It's fictional versions of the story that Dylan is drawing on. "It was sad..." sees Titanic as an example of hubris and nemesis and God being a bit of a bugger.

When they built the great Titanic, they said what they would do
Was build a ship which the water could not go through
But God with power in hand
Showed the world it could not stand
It was sad when that great ship went down....

Dylan conflates the sinking of the ship with God's final winding up of his creation to the point where you can't tell which bit refers to which event. His song could also be seen as an account of all the husbands and wives and little children who lost their lives. There certainly was a rich man named Mister Astor on Titanic. Davey the brothel keeper is rather harder to track down. Leo, the mad artist who painted whatever was in his head, is a reference to Jack Dawson, the perfectly sane artist who painted naked women, who didn't exist, and was played by Leonardo Dicapprio in the movie. Cleo is there because she rhymes with Leo. We aren't told if any of the uncles and aunts and the nephews lost their pants.


Dylan's last idol, Woody Guthrie, said that on Black Sunday when the worst of the dust storms struck Oklahoma, lots of "religious minded folk" thought that it was literally the end of the world.

It fell across our city 
like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, 

we thought it was our doom.

Dylan's account of Titanic is likewise steeped in imagery which is literally apocalyptic. He 
is clearly using Guthrie's song (Great Dust Storm or Dust Storm Disaster) as a model. Both songs are waltzes; both songs are very long. Both convey the scale of the disaster by piling up individual facts and stories. Both use religious imagery. And there is a rather more obvious connection which explains why the album is called Tempest and not, for example, Iceberg.

Guthrie's song begins:

On the fourteenth day of April
Nineteen thirty five
There struck the worst of dust-storms
That ever filled the skies.

Dylan's second verse goes

Twas the fourteenth day of April
Over the waves she rode
Sailing into tomorrow
And a golden age foretold 

And yes, the standard works, or at any rate Wikipedia, confirm this: April 14th, 1912, Titanic struck an iceberg; April 14th, 1935, a dust-storm struck Oklahoma. But we aren't simply dealing with a coincidence of facts. The date is part of the meaning of the song: it would hardly be going too far to say that the song is about the date. Every note of the tune is a hyperlink; saying, over and over again "when I sing about Titanic, I want you to think about Woody Guthrie and the dust bowl disaster and therefore of the end of the world". The most famous book about the dust bowl takes as it's title a quote from a song which is itself a quote from the Apocalypse. Chapter 14 verse 9 if I remember correctly. 

As a matter of fact, Titanic hit the 'berg at about 11:30 PM on Saturday night, and sunk a couple of hours later on the morning of April 15th. So placing the disaster at at about 12.30 seems fair enough. But when Dylan tells us this, his religious imagery reaches a climax: 

The ship was going under
The universe had opened wide
The roll was called up yonder
The angels turned aside
The veil was rent asunder
'Tween the hours of twelve and one
No change no sudden wonder
Could undo what had begun

This is all straight out of the Redemption Hymnal. "When the roll is called up yonder" is an inspiring ditty about the end of the universe ("when the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore and the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there"). Charles Wesley's great hymn And Can It Be... talks about the angels being unable to look directly at the wounds of Jesus. The synoptic Gospels all say that when Jesus Christ died, the veil in the Holy of Holies was ripped in half. Traditionally, Jesus died at 3PM on Good Friday, but the land was said to have been dark between 12 and 1. I don't know whether Bob is saying "the sinking of the Titanic was like the death of Jesus" or "I want you to feel some of the horror and sense of gravity that a devout Christian would feel reading the story of the Passion". Perhaps it's just that he likes the idea that his fictitious "Titanic" is dragged, not to the bottom of the sea but through a rent in the fabric of space and time -- out of the universe itself, into the underworld -- and felt that "the veil was rent asunder" is a nice phrase to describe that.

The idea that the Crucifxion of Jesus took place on April 14th is common enough to have a handy theological nick-name: "quartrodecimism".


Very probably, you may say: but does that help us find out what the song is about?  Well, no. We already know what the song is about. It tells us. It's the story of a Watchman who dreams that Titanic is going to sink but who fails to warn anybody in time. The song, I think, is more a description of the dream than of the real disaster. 
The Watchman is referenced four times in the song; it's almost a refrain. On the third occasion we're told

The Watchman he lay dreaming
The damage had been done
He dreamed that Titanic was sinking
And he tried to tell someone.

I think that's the point of the song. The apocalypse is coming; someone knows it; he tries to tell someone; but no-one listens. Is the Watchman Jesus,  who died on the same day the Titanic went down? Or is it Bob Dylan, the spokesman who denied he was a spokesman, standing on the ocean and reflecting from the mountain? Or is it literally the author of the book of Revelation, cooped up on an island, telling the truth, not being heard, refusing to be silenced? (Roll on, John.)

None of the above. The song isn't about anything. None of Bob's songs are, not since he stopped writing protest songs. It's an artefact enacting the connection between the death of Jesus Christ, the end of the universe, the sinking of the Titanic, the dust storm of 1935. If we enter into the ritual, then we experience the idea that we -- individually, collectively, cosmically -- are on the edge of a precipice; like the people on the Titanic, in their tuxedos, eating their fine food, listening to their fine music, not knowing that their ship was inexorably heading towards an iceberg and there was nothing they could about it. 

In a very real sense, life is rather like that. "Thou fool: this very night they life is required of thee".


The was a movie, itself replete with apocalyptic imagery, which began and ended with a Dylan song and had a Dylan song in the middle. The title of the movie was Watchmen. And definitely not the Watchmen.


I have heard Bob Dylan perform live three times. The third time was October of last year. The second time was in the spring of 2009. The first time was...hang on, just a minute, let me check:

It was D.H Lawrence, wasn't it, who said you'd be crazy to try to read the book of Revelation, and if you weren't crazy when you started, you'd be crazy by the time you finished.

In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years
He read the book of Revelation
And filled his cup with tears.

Roll on, Bob. 

A short playlist about intertextuality

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

More Than Boys

Luke Jackson
Pipe Records

How old was John Lennon when he wrote Strawberry Fields Forever? Twenty-six? Twenty-seven? Dylan wasn't much younger when he wrote Bob Dylan's Dream. Luke Jackson is 18: presumably he was 17 when he wrote most of the songs on this album. There are lots of growing up songs and growing up poems and growing up stories in the world. (Some people say that all stories are growing up stories.) But I am struggling to think of another example of a singer who has written a good song -- a whole album of good songs -- about growing up while they are still living in that moment;  a 17-year-old telling us what 17 feels like from the inside.

It's quite hard for me to put into words just how much I like this album; it's so unselfconscious and honest that analysing it feels like using a sledgehammer to describe a spider's web. When Luke signed my copy of his EP at the Frome festival, I said "Your songs are very true" and I'm not sure if I am going to think of anything more helpful to say in the next few paragraphs. At the Trowbridge festival I heard a nice man in the club tent singing a nice version of John Denver's nice song "Will I Ever Catch Another Butterfly" and I caught myself thinking: none of that is true, you didn't really think that, you just wrote it down because its the sort of thing people say about their childhood in songs. But when Luke sings...

Hours in our hideout, safe from the winter breeze
Yes and I, well I wonder if it's still standing up there, at the top of Old Wives Lees
And it's where we'd talk about our first loves, with our hearts worn on our sleeves
It turned out we were far too young, to really know what any of that means...

...I instantly believe it, and instantly know what he's talking about. The most personal is always the most universal: we all have our own Bakers Woods, Old Wives Lees and Kitchener Roads, and we all have moments when we long to return to them. But although there's a wistfulness to these songs, they never become mawkish. The singer regrets the passing of his days of doing nothing in the park ("It seems like all my childhood songs have been sung") but suddenly interrupts himself mid-line to wonder about "the person I will be". It's that shift from looking back to looking forward which raises the songs several notches above the merely sentimental.

I've said before that what is most affecting about Luke's live performances is the way that he shifts between lyricism and ordinary language; a deep, mature, astonishingly pure singing voice, but songs which are phrased like day-to-day speech; chatty local turns of phrase ("six young men had a day down the lakes" "down by the rec where he spent most his time") which are embedded in little poems. These are the kind of songs which seem to catch a thought at the moment at which it happens. We seem to hear the singer doodling away on his guitar, maybe resorting to some slightly conventional singery songwritery language ("made me smile to hear the birds singing the sweetest lullaby by / the world was looking fine, oh so fine, through my eyes") and then suddenly realising what he has to say --

down at the wood side with my two allies,
none of us sure how to spend our time
thinking about life, and so we climb, oh we climbed

My two allies. That nails, that pins down, that captures the flavour of boyhood friendship perfectly. "I'd do anything just to climb, side by side, one more time, with my two allies." Perfect.

I wouldn't like to choose a favourite song. Clearly and rightly he's pushing "More Than Boys", the title track as a possible "hit". But I think the cleverest and most complex and moving thing on the album is "How Does It Feel?" Someone who can speak music can maybe explain the melody better than I can: the opening stanzas with their long, meandering lines "...she has bloomed to your girl and your have the ambition for her to try to conquer the world..."; the refrain which keeps changing direction and catching me out, but which has an almost hymnal quality about ("how does it feel to see your children grow and face the world?") and just when he think we're finished, the simple and wise full stop:

kiss us at the door and wish us luck
because we all grow up

But here's the thing: this is not a growing up song in which a young man tells us what it feels like to leave home, but a growing up song in which a young man imagines what it feels like for his parents to see him leave home...but which then twists round and notices that his parents must have left their parents too. And that plain-English voice comes right through:

you have been here before, with your bag, beer and fags you decided to sneak out the door
but they stayed to watch you grow, gritted their teeth as you became someone they didn't know.

I think that catches a really powerful and universal moment: seeing yourself as an adult for the first time because you can see for the first time that your parents were once children. And it's one of those melodies that I don't want to listen to very often in case I spoil it.

One of the things I like most about folk music is the way in which each performer seems to invite you into their own little world of interconnected songs. This album draws you into a landscape of orchards and broken bicycles and muddy rivers and playing fields and fishing lakes; on the border between the city and the country; a very modern, very English pastoral that's both happy and sad because our guide realises that he's leaving it behind. I've been milking the gag about folk songs being about how much better things seemed in the olden days for far too long. These are songs written in the space between the olden days and the future:  honest, wise and very, very true.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Trowbridge Village Pump Festival

"Seed, bud, flower, fruit -- they're never going to grow without their roots...." 

Show of Hands gigs always feel a bit like revivalist meetings. The less kind prefer the word "rallies". On Saturday night, Steve feels even more like a worship-leader than usual. Throughout the weekend there has been a positively Glastonian sense that the star of the Trowbridge folk festival is the Trowbridge folk festival – that bands have only to say the the word "Trowbridge!" to get a big round of applause. Steve, as ever, encapsulates the moment:

"Branch, stem, shoots...we need roots! We need roots....we need The Trowbridge Village Pump Folk Festival!" 

There is a back story. The 2011 Trowbridge festival (not to be confused with the 2011 Trowbridge festival) was cancelled for the first time since it started in the 1970s, so everyone is keen to maintain that the 2012 Trowbridge festival (not to be confused with the 2012 Trowbridge festival, which was cancelled) has full continuity with the old one, despite being run by different people at different locations. 

The weather is on the new organizers' side. By day, there is sun and blue sky. At night, there are stars. A spotlight from the marquee illuminates the White Horse. The drumming workshop comes out of the tent and finds a home under a tree; people in the bar busk Rock Me Mama Like a South Bound Train. The Bloodstone Border Morris interpolate "My friend Billy had a ten-foot willy!" (which I suspect of not being entirely traditional) into one of their blackface routines, and no-one seems to mind or notice. I buy a slice of Victoria Sponge from the cake stall, and a hat from the hat stall. People get out rugs and camp chairs and drink beer and wine and newspapers and kindles. The music becomes the idyllic backdrop to an English summer picnic.

By Sunday, expressions like "triumphant return" and "feels just like the old one" were drifting across the valley. Earlier in the weekend the word "shambles" was being avoided like one of those elephants that hides in peoples rooms. Show of Hands and the sun (and the cake shop and general niceness) had saved the day...

I wasn't entirely convinced by the arrangements in the main marquee. There was no seating; there was an imaginary line in front of the stage; behind the imaginary line, you could sit on your own camp-chair; in front of the line (hereafter "the mosh") it was standing room only. This meant that those of us with long legs could choose to stand all day, get buffeted by dancers, but actually see what was going on. I wasn't quite clear whether the lady behind me was miming intercourse with a: the crash barrier, b: Steve Knightley or c: Me, but it was not an experience I have had a folk gig before, and not one I would care to have again. Another reveller explained to me after the show that I was a fucking tall bastard, without making it entirely clear what he thought I could do about it. I don't think I am noticeably taller, and certainly not noticeably wider, with a hat (did I mention that I bought a hat?) than I was without. Those who thought to bring camp seats would presumably have got through the weekend without cramp but without actually seeing any of the acts. Since a lot of people knew to bring chairs, this may have been the normal set up at Trowbridge (applause!) But I wish -- in all seriousness -- that festival organisers would put you this kind of thing on the website when you buy tickets. "Bring you own chair.  Bacon sandwich kiosk ten minutes walk from camp site." Things you actually need to know.

The programme bore only a coincidental resemblance to the actual running order, which was fine for people like me who plonked themselves in the mosh at lunchtime and stayed there until the security asked us to leave; but less good for the people who turned up to hear Cara Dillon and found that her act had finished 15 minutes ago. I noticed that the very lovely O'Hooley and Tidow were giving out flyers in the beer tent telling punters what time they were coming on. 

And the PA system was very special. I know literally nothing about this sort of thing. I'd been going to concerts for a year before I realized that the blocky things at the front were what the performers listened to themselves on. Running sound may, for all I know, be like twiddling knobs on a wireless, or more like quantum physics. Quite often, you got to concerts where slightly precious musicians seems to be getting annoyed because the sound isn't just so even though we mortals in the audience didn't quite see a problem. But this weekend, we had guitarists who couldn't go near the mic because of feedback and reverb -- see, I do know some technical words. ("Could we do anything about the feedback on this note? This one? It's "C". We use it a lot. One of the white notes...") We had change-overs so long that there was hardly any time left for acts to actually do their set. (Fay Hield, in the company of Jon Boden, Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron, barely got to do half an hour.) My impression, which is based, as I say, on complete ignorance, was that the amp worked fine for instruments that plugged into the system directly (the very very electric Oysterband went right through a long set without a hitch) but panicked when attaching itself to acoustic instruments. Seth Lakeman appeared to be rewriting his set on the hoof based on which of his instruments were working at any given moment. Things aren't going well when a performer of this calibre calls into the audience mid-song "Can anyone actually hear my fiddle?"

Show of Hands brought their own cables. 

But Technical Problems (no less than Rain) can create an atmosphere which puts the audience and the band on the same side, having a great time in the face of adversity. In the end, it's the Moments that we take away with us. (Poss. title for song if I ever take up song writing?) Here are some moments I will remember (poss. second line?)

John Jones climbing over the barrier and mingling with the punters during Here Comes the Flood.  I've only previous heard the Oysterband with June Tabor, but they work great by themselves, more like small scale 80s stadium rock than folkies. Jones sings with his hands, gesticulating like a politician, drawing the audience in or thumping the air, making a clenched fist and then a single finger for "all things in common/ all people one"  in the obligatory World Turned Upside Down. ("I give you this song" he says at one point "I give you this song", leaving the audience repeating the refrain for several minutes, before, er, taking it back again. Possibly you had to be there.) The Oysterband are now firmly ensconced in my premier division of performers. No-one in the audience knew the words to "Put Out the Lights". It didn't matter.

(By the way, I committed a calumny, a solipsism and also a booboo the other day, implying that I thought most of what the Oysters do are covers of things which mainstream pop groups have done, largely because I know for a fact that the one with June Tabor  was written by the Velvet Underworld. So I should point out that I now fully believe that I Haven't Prayed Since God Knows When My Teeth Are UnAmerican and  Put Out The Lights, Put Out The Lights, Put Out The Lights on London City are Oysterband originals. And bloody good songs of course)

Luke Jackson singing his poignant coming of age song "The Big Hill". (All Luke Jackson's songs are coming of age songs. The song which he called "Oh Me Oh My" when he sang it in Bristol has been renamed "More Than Boys": it's going to be the title track of his album, which is absolutely spot-on.) The Oxford English Dictionary states that "Luke Jackson completely blew me away" is now a single word, like "England Test collapse". It's the ordinary language rising to the surface of the lyric which breaks my heart every time I hear him.

Reg Meuross was entirely new to me. He sang a pleasant enough song with a guitar; and then he sang a pleasant enough song with a guitar; and then he song the best damn song about a highwayman (and there are one or two) I've ever heard, and then followed through with the agonizingly beautiful World War I ballad ...And Jesus Wept. He has a Tilston-esque facility for complex, cerebral lyrics combined with melodies that could almost, but not quite be traditional. ("A nations guilty secret is this generation's debt / the hand of God came down last night and Jesus wept.") Lizzie Loved a Highwayman has something of the rambling quality of Slip Jigs and Reels, come to think of it.

Seth Lakeman is possibly still not quite My Kind of Thing but he did an absolutely storming set, and his new Blacksmiths Prayer, is a strange, powerful, beautiful thing.

Karine Polwart is my new folk hero for keeping going when the first bout of technical hitches threatened to mess up her brutal ballad "The Sun's Coming Over The Hill". ("He said that the loved me and swore he would die for me / then he drove off the road full of whisky and irony"). I associate her with the elliptical, enigmatic and slightly dark songs, but she can run to lovely sentimental gush about talking to her daughter on over skype ("I give a little, take a little wi-fi love / better than nothing but its never enough.)

But it was, as ever, Show of Hands who provided the defining moment of the weekend. Three lines into Cousin Jack, the PA exploded into feedback and Steve, entirely unphased, pointed out at the audience who took up the song until the electrics started working again. Magic. The sort of thing you can't plan for, and the sort of thing you can't get on a CD.

But maybe fix it so it doesn't happen again next year, peoples?

I wear a hat now. Hats are cool.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Priddy Folk Festival

It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet said that in all his years of going to festivals, and he was goodness knows how old -- three was it or four? -- he had never seen such rain. Except at Glastonbury last year, of course. That was real mud. At Priddy I didn't do much worse than get the tops of my wellie boots damp. In the old days when we had proper mud, we used to sink right down to our knees. Took two people to pull me out, it did, and leave my boots stuck in the mud. And you try to tell people that, and they just don't believe you.

In a way it is a Good Thing that this festival was such an Adventure. It is the first proper folk festival I've gone to under my own steam, as it were, and having survived more or less intact and even had a good time, I will feel confident of striking out on my own the next time two men with fiddles and one man with an accordion are playing music in a wet field in Somerset. (For example, the Trowbridge Village Pump festival the weekend after next. It could plausibly be argued that I am completely insane.)

Priddy is a smallish village, about 6 miles from Wells (as in "the bishop of Bath and") and about 15 miles from Brizzle. The only thing I knew about the place previously was that in the 19th century someone heard a friend of a friend remarking "As sure as the Lord walked in Priddy" and spliced the place into the "Jesus lived in Glastonbury" myth which Dan Brown inexplicably ignores. There is a church, a village hall, two pubs, a village green, no shops and a regular bus service (every Tuesday). I had a plan to get the bus to Wells and walk to Priddy if the weather was nice. So I got a taxi, shared with a nice man with a beard who was headed the same way and seemed to know absolutely everybody, and told me slightly more about medieval coins than I was able to absorb in one sitting. We had a drink in a pub and I proceeded to the Field to put up my Tent. 

All credit to the man in the camping shop at the top of Park Street. I asked for a tent that was a: waterproof and b: idiot proof, and he sold me an end-of-line thingy for about £25 which was so light that I was fairly sure there must be a bit missing. (Do the Boys Brigade use this type of tent nowadays, I wonder? I can't help thinking that tents which are easy to put up and stay where you left them even on dark and stormy nights take all the fun out of camping.) I erected the thing in a light drizzle; and while I had to admit that what I ended up with was tent shaped, the instructions (which made Ikea look like a model of clarity) gave relatively few clues about what I was meant to do with the various pegs and ropes that came with the package. Having put my tent as "up" as I could make it, I went back to the field where the actual music was happening.

The "official" part of the festival (accessible only to those of us who had purchased arm bands) consisted of two marquees, with concerts going on on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and evening and Sunday afternoon. They had, of course, cunningly arrange for James Findley, who I badly wanted to hear, to be playing in the small tent and the same time as Belshaazzars Feast, who I even more badly wanted to hear, were playing in the large tent. Such are the frustrations of festivals. I seem to recall that at Glastonbury (which was very muddy) faced me with a choice behind the Wombles and Show of Hands. Having positioned myself towards the front of the main tent, the rain decided to level up from drizzle to torrential, which made any question of running between tents, or even grabbing a beer, rather moot. Someone said that the entire rainfall for July fell that evening, although I don't think that can be right because it rained the next day as well. All I could think of was whether my extremely small tent would actually still be there when I got back....

The Saturday Do was opened and compered by The Willbees, two men singing close harmony and playing the ukelele, with a nice line in silly patter songs. I particularly enjoyed the one about the reversible ("I call it percival") fleece. We also had Jackie Oates, doing her sweetly traditional thing, this time in the company of a guest hurdy gurdy player. We had The Incontinentals, a comedy skiffle band who obviously believed themselves to be the funniest thing in the world. If they had quit the stage after 20 minutes, I might have agreed with them. We laughed when they sang an insanely OTT Grand Coulee Dam in cod American accents, practically getting on their knees for " uncle Sam's fair land..." And we were almost literally rolling in the aisles when they said "And now, we're going to introduce the band...." before going into a huddle, turning their backs on the audience, and introducing the band to each other. But there is really only so long that it remains amusing for one person to sing a song while the other person puts a chicken on his head.

I finally got to hear a full set by Balshazzars Feast. (I was right at the back of their set in Bristol 2011, and came in at the end in Frome this year.) They are rather brilliant. Paul Sartin is the one from Bellowhead who isn't Spires or Boden.  He sings and plays the fiddle. Paul Hutchinson plays the accordion. At no time do either of them put chickens on their heads, but if music could ever be "funny", this is funny music. It drifts from folk to music hall to light classical and back, so you are not quite sure how you got from a grim traditional one about being careful of picking your wife because most women are no good to "Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside". They get laughs merely by bobbing up and down in tune to the music. Inevitably, we finish with "...and we jolly sailors were lying up aloft while the landsman were lying down below below below..." with traditional folk actions. ("You look quite stupid" Paul tells the audience.)

By the time Spiers and Boden (the ones from Bellowhead who aren't Paul Sartin) arrive, the road into the festival has actually flooded. "Thank you for inviting us to the Venice of the West" says John Spiers. They have clearly taken to heart my comments about needing to vary their set, adding a Farewell Lovely Nancy which I don't think I've heard them do before, and a brand new take on the Seven Yellow Gipseys, slowing the tempo right down and adding a chorus to emphasize that it's actually a sad story about marital breakdown. (Expect it to be a fixture of their concerts all next year, and on the Bellowhead album after that.)   This doesn't mean they don't do the obligatory Bold Sir Rylas and the even more obligatory New York Girls, of course.

After concert. Returned to camp site. To my astonishment, my tent was still standing, and, indeed, almost completely dry on the inside. The ropes with the tent pegs attached to them had moved, but I stuck them back in and went to bend. Either I stayed up all night listening to the rain, or else I woke up every time it started to rain. Time passes at strange speeds under canvas.

Emerged from tent on Sunday morning. It was not actually raining. The ropes with the tent pegs attached to them had moved in the night; I stuck them in again, and proceeded straight to the New Inn and consumed Full English and coffee, followed by a coffee and a coffee, and then, not being quite ready to face the rain again,  sat in on a Sing Around during which an old man was so moved by a Steeleye Span song that he was unable to complete it. 

Thence up the hill to the village hall where Wil Kaufman was doing his astonishing live documentary about Woody Guthrie. This one-hour festival version concentrates on Woody's life story and skips over a lot of the background about the depression. Kaufman is a gripping story teller with well practiced audience pleasing gags. ("Has anyone read, or is anyone planning to read, Bound For Glory?...If you haven't, make sure you have your bullshit detectors on. If you's too late.") He sings a mix of Woody songs (Do Ray Me, So Long Its Been Good To Know Ya); sub-Woody songs (The Unwelcome Guest) and related contemporary numbers (The Preacher and the Slave, Brother Can You Spare a Dime). He winds up with his literally jaw-dropping reconstruction of This Land Is My Land based on Woody's original notes (he has a photo of himself in the Guthrie archive with Nora) when the refrain was going to be "God Blessed America For Me" and "This is land is my land..." was going to be the eviscerating final verse. He encores with Steve Earl's Christmas in Washington. Stunning. The longest and warmest ovation of the whole weekend, and an early front runner for next year's Takes Out An Onion award. 

(The Plan had been to proceed from the village hall to the church to hear Three Cane Whale, but as a great man might have said, the church was full and the church was packed, so I went back to the field and listened to the overly bluesy afternoon concert instead.)

Two big musical discoveries  on Saturday night – were The Young 'Uns, a three man outfit doing a mix of close harmony traditionalish (they kicked off with the cheery "Every day you're in this place you're two days nearer death..") and self written industrial ballads with names like "Love In a Northern Town" and "Waving Good Bye To Stockton". The other was the gently marvellous Colum Sands who sings sparkly witty humorous songs which just stop short of caricature Irish whimsy. He offers songs about the daft things people say at wakes and songs about the daft things people say when you try to ask them for directions and serious reflective ones about carrying water from the well with his aunty, and ones that are half way in between, like the quite mad "Whatever you say, say nothing" which clearly arises from growing up during the Troubles. ("If an Irish village is called Kil-something it means there is a church there. Actually, most villages have two churches, one for us and one for them. Some have a third one, for the others.")

He did an additional, informal set with Rory McLeod in the pub on Sunday morning. It has to be said that much as I like groups of skilled musicians going diddly-diddly-dee on the stage while the audience get more and more excited ("If some of you would like to get up and dance in your wellies" says either McCusker, McGoldrick or Doyle "That would give us a good laugh") it's these informal, intimate moments which is what I go to festivals for. Rory McLeod was a revelation. I enjoyed his Saturday night set with his band – harp, double bass, lord knows what else – but I think his talent is shown off to much better effect when he's just singing. There's something of the white rapper or at any rate the performance poet about him: rambling songs, obsessed with rhymes, that get caught up in their own metaphors. The one about the old man who took a job in the old fruit and vegetable market for a week and stayed there for 50 years seems to go on and on forever without being too long.

The final Sunday afternoon included Phillip Henry (mouth organ genius) and Hannah Martin (fiddle and banjo  person) who I am starting to feel that I have heard the requisite number of times this year. (They've been opening for Show of Hands.) They are actually very good. Phillip demonstrates that by taking a mouth organ apart and combining it with "beatboxing" you can make it sound a lot like a melodian; and they wind up with a really very special blue grass shoe gaze trance version of the Lazy Farmer Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn. I don't know what that means either; but it was mournful and bluesy with lots of twangy bits round the edges. Heidi Talbot sang a song about a grey starling that is flying over the sea, trying to find the light at the edge of the land. It was only after five verses that I realised that it was the same  grey starling that lived in a lighthouse and rescued sailors from storms. Mabon wound the festival up by making practically everybody dance. The Sunday concert was massively improved by MC Tony Slinger (he's always around at these things doing ceilidh calling) who did a marvellous job of revving the audience up before and after each act. In fact, I am pretty sure that he told each act to wind up their set five minutes early so they could do an encore. It somehow feels like a downer for an act to go off stage with the audience stomping for more and the compère to have to say "I'm sorry but we're out of time."

So: having put the tent up successfully and pulled the tent down successfully, and not fallen on my arse in the mud even once, I felt that I had avoid all the pitfalls, literall and metaphorical of the weekend, and headed back to the Queen Victoria pub (where lots of people were still playing spontaneous sessions), ordered a beer and a burger, and asked if the landlord wouldn't mind pointing me in the direction of a taxi firm to take me back to Wells in time for the last bus to Bristol.

It appears that "Priddy" is the West Country equivilent of going South of the River. I felt, I do not mind telling you, like a bit of plonker. I could have phoned for a taxi at 5 o clock when the music finished, or at 6 o clock when I had demolished my tent. "Oh no" quod I "It is only 6 miles up the road, and I do not want to be struck stranded waiting on Wells bus station a desolate place full of lost luggage and lost souls for two hours!" I could, in fact, have set out after the music finished, and comfortably have walked to Wells in time for the last bus. Oh no, said the taxi people, we can't come all that way at this time of night. Not for hours.

The pub was presided over by one of those country landlords that they don't make them like any more. I strongly suspect he spent his spare time organising pilgrimages to Canterbury and forgetting about important letters to Hobbits. He appeared to know everybody, even the people he didn't know, to maintain a funny banter with them, and not to mind if lots of people who couldn't quite remember all the words to Matty Groves were in his pub provided they kept on buying his beer. Unflappably, he said "Just walk down to the sign post, follow the sign to Wells; there's a bus stop three miles up the road; if you start now you'll be able to have a pint at the Hunters Lodge and still catch the last bus". (You see, all the Landlords know each other: the pubs are connected by leylines, I shouldn't wonder.) This I did.

I am going to claim now, as a mean of winding up the story amusingly, that having reached the age of 100 (*) without ever having hitch-hiked, that as I rambled down that long dusty road with a back pack on my back I stuck out a thumb, was picked up by a passing motorist, and the weekend ended with bonhommie and chat about the relative merits of Show of Hands and Bellowhead. In fact, it didn't even occur to me to stick my thumb out. A nice man who had taken up the fiddle late in life saw me with my backpack and stopped without asking and took me all the way back to Bristol.

Because most people are nice. There were a thousand people at the festival, I guess, and lots of beer being served, but I didn't see one single police officer. They could have been disguised as morris dancers, I suppose. There were some of the mad violent kind who black their faces up before hitting each other with sticks. (Morrismen, I mean, not police officers.) But honestly, when was the last time you heard of a folk music riot?

(*) No, sorry, that's Woody Guthrie.