christopher james

Poems and prattle

Category: folk

Harvesting gold: Boo Hewerdine and Dan Whitehouse at Cambridge Junction 2 (25/10/16)

To Cambridge’s Junction 2 for a spellbinding evening with Boo Hewerdine and musical accomplice, West Midlander, Dan Whitehouse. Dan opened proceedings with a pared back set of emotive love songs, carried home on a succession of glistening electric guitar lines played on his battered Telecaster, (which, he tells us ‘was rescued from a pub loo in Camden’). Imagine a Brummie Jeff Buckley and you’re nearly there, with a warmth and grit in his vocal which transcended his flat Birmingham vowels. As modest as he is accomplished, there was a strong strand of Americana combined with an attractive English understatement. His songs demanded attention and his stage craft was superb.

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Dan stayed on stage to add musical weight and heft to the songs of long-time troubadour, Boo Hewerdine. In something of a homecoming gig (The Bible played their early gigs at the Junction, next door), he was on assured form, leading off with comeback single Born, a litany of events from the year of his birth. This was swiftly followed by The Man That I Am, (already sounding like a classic) about the controversial child migration programmes to former Empire outposts. Village Bell rang out on Boo’s sky blue guitar filling the beautifully lit auditorium.

There were numerous highlights, not least a clutch of new songs, performed solo. Cinderella is a smoky, complex jaunt in the old style complete with Boo’s impersonation of an orchestra at the halfway point. Its cross-dressing theme (it’s from forthcoming musical Fancy Pants, written with Chris Difford) only added to the intrigue. Possibly his finest moment came in ‘Old Songs,’ an authentically ancient sounding tune (it could have been written in the 1930s) about the power of song in stirring lost memories. If Boo hasn’t shared this with those working with dementia, he probably should. With strange lost chords, unusual and affecting subject matter it’s another fine example of Boo’s quest for the perfect song.

Boo’s deadpan delivery (‘My record company is planning to turn me into a star – I’ve had plenty of practice’) is undoubtedly part of the attraction, but it’s the songs that constantly amaze. Sweet Honey in the Rock, originally from his State of the Union project is beefed up into a glorious stomp, augmented by a natty country solo from Dan. Their metronomic timing created a seemingly hypnotic effect on performers and audience alike. More recent songs, like Harvest Gypsies, sound every bit as strong as perennials like The Patience of Angels and Honey Be Good, the great lost classic from eighties. Boo’s voice was particularly strong this evening, nowhere more so than on an ambitious take on the Bee Gee’s ‘I Started a Joke,’ which soared to majestic heights.  

While light on tunes from his Brooks Williams collaborations (no Hellzapoppin!) Boo has songs to spare and is adept at varying his set to provide enough interest for long-time fans, as well as to keep himself engaged.

As with many Boo gigs, there is the spectre of a parallel universe where the Bible became as big as U2, and Boo became a superstar. As things stand, there were not many who would have traded the opportunity to listen to such fine songs in such an intimate setting. It was life affirming, inspiring stuff from two uniquely blessed musicians dedicated to their song craft, respectful of their musical forebears and still digging for musical gold.

Review: Born EP by Boo Hewerdine

The Born EP finds Boo Hewerdine in reflective, but never less than tuneful mood. The lead track, The Year That I was Born is a gently ironic meditation on the momentous events of the year 1961. From the publication of Catch 22 and the death of Hemingway to the ‘cracking of the genetic code’, he succeeds in producing a more measured, and quintessentially English, version of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.  

Boo Born

To stately piano and understated bass and percussion, he contrasts these seismic events with his own lethargy ‘(‘I let today just drift away’) and ultimately the admission that he was nothing more than a blip in history and just ‘another mouth to feed.’ However you cannot help but feel he was quite pleased to have made his own minor ripple in this eventful year. The major chords and gently ascending melody capture the optimism of the new decade, before being tempered by minor key diversions, suggestive of the looming threats of Cold War; he celebrates the: ‘post war girls and boys in a world that might explode.’ His voice, as always has a doleful clarity which seems to evoke pathos, resignation and humour in equal measure. It’s all quite beautiful. Further listening: That’s Me, by Paul Simon and That Was Me, by Paul Simon.

Hometown is an equally reflective piece and is delivered in a quietly dramatic performance. To the accompaniment of well mannered, front parlour piano, and with pastoral images of drifting clouds and passing bees, the narrative is pleasingly oblique. The theme, right across this EP, is the passing of time, and here, memory in particular is a place of sanctuary and retreat. It has a heartbreakingly beautiful bridge too.

Swimming in Mercury is a playful waltz with a bittersweet theme, namely that old television sets contained mercury, a deadly toxin that sat happily in the corner of the room beneath the plant pot and the school photo. It has the carefree resignation that is thoroughly charming.

If we are to skip past Tim Rice’s thoughts on the subject, Chess is hardly obvious territory for songwriters. However Boo hits a rich seam with Bobby Fischer, an elegiac two minute bio-pic of the 11th World Chess Champion, who placed himself into self-imposed exile in Iceland. The central tragedy is a genius who for reasons of his own turned his back on his talent, seeking ‘sanctuary in the land of ice and snow.’ The wordplay with ‘openings’ and ‘sacrifices’ is skilfully done and the chorus is strangely uplifting; the ironic counterpoint of the major key melody and downbeat sentiment is once again Boo’s trump card.

Finally, ‘Farewell’ is an elegant, doomed waltz that provides a fitting coda to an exquisite EP that is a love letter to Boo’s past. But far from being a pall bearer for the 20th century, with these songs you get the sense of Boo exploring his cultural influences, the landscapes of the past, drifting back to unlock his own identity and find the source of the river. 

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.

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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…’

Rainy Days

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What do you do when it’s raining? For me it was always the perfect excuse to stay inside, watch old black and white films, read a book, drink wine, sing songs. Bliss. Here’s my new song that tries to capture all of that. It’s not quite Singin’ in the Rain, but then you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?