christopher james

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Category: christopher james

‘Sing us an old song’ – Review of Before by Boo Hewerdine

A new album by Boo Hewerdine is always an occasion for bell-ringing, carousing and general rejoicing. In short, it’s something to look forward to. ‘Before’ is no exception. Except ‘looking forward to’ is perhaps the wrong phrase, because this is another impeccable collection of those irresistibly old-fashioned songs in which Boo excels.

He admits as much himself in ‘Old Songs,’ in praise of the ancient melodies that had families gathered in parlours singing with grandad, a pint of stout and a woodbine. ‘Sing us an old song,’ he begs, ‘one we all know, that lives in our memories from so long ago.’ It’s a lament for a simpler, happier time when families didn’t disappear into their devices and Netflix box sets on a Friday evening. Not only does it seem like it was written about the 1930s, it sounds like it was written then too. What makes Boo’s music so audacious is that he attempts (and usually succeeds) in creating brand new classics.

There are two theories. Either he has a stash of Sinatra and Nat King Cole albums that no one else has heard, and is slowly releasing the songs, or else he has an ear trumpet that reaches all the way back to 1937. His ability to transport you back to the golden age of popular song is consistently astonishing.

Last Rays of the Sun is a nostalgic, elegiac reflection on ageing, with toy piano accompaniment. ‘We see true beauty in the last rays of the sun.’ It’s one of those luminous, mid-pace numbers that Boo has made his own. His McCartney-esque melody is a counterpoint to the gloomy ruminations, the metronomic ticking in the background reminding us of the unstoppable march of time.

One of the many delicious quirks of this album are the extra tracks between the songs – eccentric instrumentals that foreshadow the main songs. For example, the one before Before is called Before Before. It’s a little confusing, but you get the idea. These are recorded in bizarre, creaky, arrangements on what sound like Japanese banjos and toy pianos. They’re like those odd, lean-to sheds that are squeezed into the gaps between houses. My favourite is Prepared, a funky, lo-fi interlude that threatens to turn into something interesting before vanishing into the ether.

If the opening track is a reflection on advancing years, then Imaginary Friends is a bittersweet look back at childhood spent on bicycles riding ‘by the old canal.’ It conjures images of a lonely existence, but with the consolation of a vivid imagination. It’s graced with beautiful instrumental passages, descending lines and unusual instrumentation.

Silhouette is the first of the true classics, beginning with a delicate, timpani-like accompaniment, rather like opening a music box. The lyric is masterful ‘When shadows are your own company, then you’re a silhouette.’ While classic sounding, the melodies are genuinely affecting, reliably inventive and freshly minted.

The title song, Before, continues the purple patch. Except this time, we’re not merely returning to the early 20th century. Instead Boo transports us back several million years ago, to an unspoilt planet Earth untroubled by human meddling. ‘Come with me and understand, this was never our own land.’ It’s a brilliantly original take on conservation, climate change and a warning against hubris. We weren’t around for billions of years and the Earth did just fine without us.

Reno is something of a departure; a low-key country balled, complete with mournful dobro. ‘Don’t go to Reno’ is Boo’s advice – ‘you won’t come back this time.’ By the resigned tone of his singing, he doesn’t believe you’ll follow his advice. He knows you’ll be led into temptation.

Undoubtedly the jewel of the collection is Starlight, a song he had already gifted to Eddie Reader. She delivers an ethereally beautiful cover; yet Boo’s stripped back version is arguably better. His voice is high and keening and the melody utterly mesmerising. If it found its way into a Disney film it would earn him a million pounds.

Wild Honey is another magical tune, with fragmented poetic lyrics, but like so many of the songs on Before, it’s tinged with melancholy. That’s perhaps why the optimistic, defiant sounding ‘I Wish I Had Wings’ is such a welcome closer. I imagined hundreds of synchronised swimmers performing to it, in a lavish finale to an MGM musical. ‘I know these words aren’t much, but I don’t care/I can hear an orchestra it’s in the air.’

One day, these new songs will become old songs and people will appreciate more than they do now.  Bravo Boo Hewerdine on a first-class return.

Before is released in September.

The First Canal Boat in Space

Like a lolly stick balanced on the Ariane,

we clung to the sink, clutching the Davy lamp,

waiting to be flipped to the heavens.

During powered ascent, we stowed the pot plants

and lashed our bicycles to the taff-rail.

On a slow boat to Pluto, we dreamt of cowslip,

heather and The Black Lion at Froghall.

Safely in orbit we stayed below decks,

sipping tea and singing space shanties.

We survived on air trapped in the bilge.

 

A coil of wet rope on the prow,

we bumped through the cosmos, drifting

through wormholes, navigating each

like a series of locks. The stars were like

phosphorescence in the water.

Rudderless, we woke to find our tiller

floating above the deck. We retrieved a chart

from the monkey box and found a safe berth

on Phobos, the small moon of Mars,

our boat-hook finding purchase in a crater.

 

Losing power at Neptune, we traced

the problem to a blockage in the remote greaser,

flicking open the quick release weed hatch.

Now leaking oil we prepared for re-entry,

securing the saucepans and Toby Jugs.

Parachute deployed, we splashed down in the marina

at Great Haywood, sending shockwaves

down the Trent and Mersey. On the rescue boat,

there was loose talk of ticker tape parades,

and the front cover of Canal Boat Monthly.

Anyone for tennis?

A brand new song for all you lovers of barley water and white flannel trousers! Anyone for Tennis? 

tennis

All of Me – a songwriting masterclass

You’ll notice with a lot of the popular songs from the first half of the 20th century that there isn’t a lot to them. And I mean that in the best possible way. In songs such as Fly Me to the Moon and I Got Rhythm there’s often little more than a couple of verses then a repeat with a small variation. But often, what’s there is sheer perfection with every line responding melodically to the one before it. All of Me is a case in point.

All of Me

The Thirty-Nine Steps

It was only last year that I finally got around to reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I’d watched the celebrated Hitchcock film, but the book has a particularly stylish and exhilarating quality all of its own. The voice of the irrepressible, resourceful Richard Hannay, an engineer and intelligence officer recently arrived in London from Africa  is what gives its character, both cynical and scornful of authority. The pace is astonishing, with several things happening almost at once – there are chases, explosions and gun fights, but the central motif is travel.

The 39 steps

Buchan clearly has fun with the possibilities offered by motor cars and aeroplanes and along with trains, and chases on foot across Scottish moors, Hannay is always on the move. The plot, which revolves around a plan to precipitate a European war, is almost ancillary to the odd characters (including a milkman, hung over road worker and prospective parliamentarian) Hannay meets on the way. While it owes something of a debt to Conan-Doyle, it has inspired a thousand of copy-cat blockbusters and Hollywood films, particularly those which feature the archetype of the stylish, clever, maverick outsider, wayward, but ultimately committed to King and country. Ian Fleming, you suspect had a copy on his bedside table.

Anyway, all of this inspired the inevitable song! 

How Bright the Moon

I set myself a little challenge to write a big band number. The trouble is, I’m missing a big band. So with four strings and a little enthusiasm, I’ve done my best. Your imagination can do the rest. Hit it!

What would you do if you had all the money in the world?

Well, it’s the old question isn’t it? But in all likelihood it would stop you doing all the things you like doing.

Top hat.jpg

You’d be on the phone to your accountant, or out shopping for cars and holidays … when in fact all you really want to do is read books, write poems and play the ukulele all day, which costs nothing at all… Here’s a little song about the high rollers of this world. “On a whim we had some Pimms until we couldn’t feel out limbs…’

With These Hands – A Tribute to Eric Roche, Haverhill Arts Centre, 13 November 2015

A spotlight on a solitary acoustic guitar set the tone for a moving tribute to the life and music of fingerstyle guitar legend, Eric Roche. Ten years on from his untimely death, the great and the good of the acoustic guitar world assembled to pay their respects. With his family among the crowd in a packed Haverhill Arts Centre, it was set to be an emotionally charged evening.

Eric

Any suggestion that this would be a sedate affair however, was banished immediately as the show began with an explosion rendition of Roundabout from the man himself up on the big screen. With his acrobatic percussion techniques and distinctive sway, it was a reminder of the extraordinary physicality of Eric’s talent and stage presence.

Nick Keeble, resplendent in a t-shirt showing six guitars, introduced the proceedings in fine style, before Stuart Ryan opened the batting. His flowing melodic lines evoked a quiet pastoral beauty, and brought an elegiac tone to the hushed Victorian building, while also showcasing the venue’s fantastic sound. The gritty attack of his rendition of All Along the Watchtower showed that he wasn’t all about lyrical ballads.

Ravi was next up, barefoot and in beanie hat, wielding both a guitar and a kora (an African harp that resembles a sitar, played upright). His rendition of We Are, a deeply spiritual song about the links between generations was spell-biding, his rich voice occupying a space somewhere between Stephen Stills and James Taylor.

Guitar maker Nick Benjamin made an excellent unscripted speech about Eric, strolling about the stage, quite unable to resist the temptation to pick up Eric’s guitar. You got the sense that he remembered not only the hours making it, but the extraordinary transformation it underwent once in Eric’s hands. He replaced it with great care back in the spot light.

Another video of Eric’s great friend and fellow acoustic guitar innovator, Thomas Leeb was greeted with warm applause, which Thomas may well have been able to hear all the way from America, where he was unavoidably engaged.

Clive Carroll delivered a master-class with his strident, precise playing, the notes ringing high up into the rafters. He is a tremendously nice chat to boot and the audience loved his smiles and mugging while also enjoying his fiendishly difficult waltzes. Clive told us that he had spent every morning that week learning one of Eric’s pieces, especially for the show, only to discover that Higher Ground was in fact written by Stevie Wonder. The funky turbulence he generated from the six strings belied the short practice time.

David Mead gave a funny, charming and self deprecating performance, making a brilliant connection with the audience, who appreciated his own accomplished playing as much as his stories about Eric. David shared how Eric was often ‘relaxed’ about delivering his copy for the guitar magazine David edits. We learned how, on one deadline day, in a world before email, it was handed over ‘like a wad of used bank notes in a jiffy bag in a pub car park.’

Martyn Taylor was simply sublime, his effortless jazz lines lulling the crowd into a reverie. His reading of another majestic Stevie Wonder composition, If It’s Magic, prompted Nick Keeble to wonder whether in fact he had inadvertently organised a Stevie Wonder tribute night instead.

Taylor was also responsible for the anecdote of the night, remembering a famous mishap when he and Eric were recording up in the islands of Scotland. He recalled the intense pressure Eric put himself under while making the album. Suggesting they take a break for a drink, they caught a ferry to the pub. On the return journey however, they were so engrossed in discussing the music, they ended up back where they started, sheepishly having to ask the captain if he wouldn’t mind making one last crossing.

The young, bearded and ridiculously talented Declan Zapala provided a late highlight with his version of Angel, dedicated to Eric’s sister before essaying his own astonishing Philomena, dedicated to his own mum. He spoke movingly of the influence Eric had on his style and it was inspiring to see Eric’s legacy passed so impressively onto the next generation. The stretches Declan made with his hands to reach the notes made them look like spiders doing Pilates.

An all star version of With These Hands, one of Eric most beautiful compositions, led by Stuart Ryan, providing a fitting coda to the evening. The other guitarists crowded endearingly around their sheet music in an effort to keep up. A final song from Ravi, Time Capsule, finally ended the night on an optimistic note, with the image of Eric watching over us.

And if he was watching, Eric could not have failed to be impressed by the virtuosity, affection and joy so evident in the room. Cheers guys for an incredibly performance and thank you Eric, too!

The Wedding of the Year

We appear to be having some sort of seasonal confusion at the moment. On 1 November here in the UK it was 22 degrees centigrade and we were lounging about in the sun.

As we kicked through the autumn leaves in our t-shirts, this got me thinking about what would happen if one season got married to another. Naturally it would result in The Wedding of the Year. Enjoy!

The Hot Club of Bohemia

I discovered the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli in the most roundabout way, through his collaboration with Paul Simon on Hobo’s Blues, which appeared on Paul’s first solo album. It’s well worth checking out for its springy rhythm and stylish exuberance. I’ve written my own homage to the golden era on of the Paris nightclub with my song: ‘The Hot Club of Bohemia.’ Enjoy both tunes!Henri-Crolla-Grappelli1-400x208