christopher james

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Tag: Boo Hewerdine

Why Does the Nightingale Sing? Review of the new single from State of the Union

The new State of the Union song has dropped. Once more, it feels like a tune that’s been beamed down from a planet where it’s always the end of summer and always 1954. The moon shines and hearts reliably break. Business as usual then, for this most treasured of transatlantic collaborations.

Blessed with a timeless melody, and filled with the great unanswerable questions, Why Does the Nightingale Sing? is an unashamedly romantic offering. After the polished set of covers that made up their last album, this is State of the Union back to doing what they do best – demonstrating their peerless mastery of old school songwriting.  

The instrumentation is simpler than some State of the Union records, which occasionally border on showboating (and when you can play like Brooks Williams, why wouldn’t you?) They’ve clearly taken a decision to let the song stand on its own two feet and sing for its supper.

Unlike the bulk of their material, where one singer takes the lead (generally the song’s lead author) with the other harmonising like a ghost in the next room, this is almost a duet in the traditional sense. Exchanging lines like two seasoned crooners, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra could have made a decent fist of this. Still, it feels marginally closer to Boo Hewerdine’s oeuvre than Brooks’. As ever, it’s a masterclass in songcraft. Like Blake’s Jerusalem, it’s built around a series of questions – but at the core of this song is heartache – ‘Was it a love that went away? Is that why the nightingale sings?’

It sounds a plaintive note of sweet regret that haunts so many of their songs: ‘The sound of a joy that has gone/the sound of being apart.’

Now onto their fourth album, this is a collaboration that only gets more interesting. On the strength of this beguiling balled, the portents are good, and it all augurs well for a splendid album to come.

‘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.

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.

Boo and Dan.jpg

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. 

Joking apart – Boo Hewerdine live at Haverhill Arts Centre

Boo Hewerdine tells a joke. In facts he tells plenty tonight (and sings one) along with a shed-load of music industry anecdotes at Haverhill Arts Centre – on the first stop on his My Name in the Brackets tour. He reveals that he took ‘between 11am and 12 noon off’ between the end of his tour with Eddie Reader and the start of his new solo outing. As one of the hardest working song writing and touring troubadours, Boo’s work ethic is beyond question.


Boo is an imposing presence. His fabulous support act, Icelandic songstress Hafdis Huld, stands a clear two feet below the mike set up for Boo and she is equally glowing about his talent – singing beautifully on their beguiling, Icelandic fairy tale ‘Wolf’ from her latest solo album, which she co-wrote with Boo. Her own songs, especially Queen Bee and Lucky are sublime.

The idea behind the latest tour is showcasing some of the songs Boo wrote for others, along with new work. These include the Eddie Reader hits ‘Dragonflies’ (they go nuts for this one in Ireland) and most famously ‘The Patience of Angels’, which is still a powerfully affecting tale of a struggling young mother and sung with urgency this evening (although possibly to get it out of the way?). The Girl Who Fell in Love with the Moon is a lovely, lilting classic, given sensitive treatment and added poignancy by the fact that co-writer Jacob Eriksen recently passed away.

His reading of My Last Cigarette, penned for K.D. Lang is masterful, showcasing his pure vocals and impressive range. He is no three chord trickster on the guitar either; his jazz chords look like a spider doing the splits and the descending chords progressions add an engaging counterpoint to his classic melodies. It’s old fashioned song-writing that sounds perfectly contemporary.

Boo’s shtick is that life has been vaguely disappointing and perhaps a little unlucky. For example, The Bible’s (Boo’s 80s outfit) big song ‘Graceland’ was released on the same day as Paul Simon’s Graceland. His trousers nearly fall down while playing live on Wogan. A meeting with Elvis Costello leads to an altercation over a cheese sandwich. His laconic, dead pan delivery is perfectly suited to these hilarious misadventures.

The song ‘Joke’ and all time classic ‘Honey Be Good’ are filled with punkish energy, perhaps propelled by talk of Mr Costello and the Sex Pistols. ‘Bible Papers’ meanwhile (nothing to do with his old band) is a lament for the Tommies who rolled their fags in the trenches with the thin pages of a Bible, made all the more impressive by rhyming ‘Deuteronomy’ with ‘they’re out to get me.’ It’s riveting stuff.

The evening is given an added edge by the fact that Boo has never performed some of the new songs live, which leads to an amusing false start and even the appearance of a crib sheet – but they are as muscular and perfectly crafted as the old; ‘Snowglobe’ is a neat trick and the nostalgic and slightly accusative ‘Amazing Robot’ is a wonder – especially with its refrain ‘Spin me, spin me, spin me.’ Heard on record, it gives the eerie impression that the CD is talking – like the bottle in Alice in Wonderland that says ‘Drink Me.’

Perhaps Boo deserved to be massive, playing stadiums and ten straight sold out nights at the O2. But then we wouldn’t have nights like this, at Haverhill Arts Centre, with candlelight flickering from the tables, humour, humility and magical song-writing bringing cheer to the rainy streets of provincial England. There’s nothing funny about that.

State of the Union live – Haverhill, 4 May 2012

On paper, Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams appear to have little in common. Boo, a quintessential English singer songwriter, is famed for a proper burst of eighties’ stardom as front man of The Bible (you’ll know Graceland – the one that isn’t anything to do with the Mississippi Delta). He is now well on the road to national treasure status, having penned hits for Eddi Reader (The Patience of Angels) and with Chris Difford (on his fine set, The Last Temptation of Chris). He has also been notching up brilliant albums of his own – most notably God Bless the Pretty Ones, where tuneful, heartfelt fare like Geography and Muddy Water are grown up songs about life on the road, wondering if this indeed is any job for a grown up.

Perhaps so he doesn’t need to think so hard about these things, he has teamed up with US acoustic gunslinger Brooks Williams for an album and tour as State of the Union. It’s a loose affair and one that isn’t easy to categorise. The song is at the heart of what they do, and they write good ones – both together and alone. They appear simply to concentrate on well played, occasionally harmonised old fashioned songs that venture in and out of pop, country, jazz, folk and blues, which actually doesn’t leave much else.  

Boo is an affable presence and shambling on in crumpled jeans and shirt he immediately ingratiates himself by dispensing hit The Patience of Angels – which is angelic only in the sense Michael the Archangel might still be considered angelic the morning after a session. The affection and respect he is held in is immediately obvious – justifying the slightly self parodying silver BOO stencilled into the neck of his guitar. He soon introduces Williams – a completely different beast – a pencil thin early fifty something with the elegant remains of his long dark hair. His playing is superb – a mix of dextrous finger picking and expert slide guitar that gives a funky sheen to everything he turns his hand to. Brooks it transpires is also something of a mover – snaking his hips as he plays, obviously in sheer delight; Boo is anchored in comparison. The real revelation however is Brooks’ voice, which is an expressive, mellifluous thing, not unlike James Taylor.

As the two finally come together as State of The Union the magic starts to happen. Their voices interlock and they become the sublime musical expression of the cross-Atlantic special relationship. The songs, supposedly written in just a few days, are surprisingly sturdy things, repleat with hooks and the two back each other up like old cowboys. ‘Darkness’ is the missing some from the O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack, a Southern country blues; 23 Skidoo is a melodic delight with some deft picking from Brooks and gentlemanly harmonies. The lyrics are light hearted pokes at mortality (‘All the women and all the men, all you get is three score and ten’). Boo delivers smoky, surprising complex numbers like ‘Distant Memory’ (‘I was listening to Andy Williams all day’) while Brooks’ Union Jack is a delightfully jaunty love letter to London, his wife and his mother-in-law, as it is turns out. Boo’s offer dress up as a pearly queen is declined.

There are substantial, moving songs like Brooks’ Empty House and even a low key gospel sing along in Sweet Honey in the Rocks, where the slightly reluctant audience joins in as gently as a primary school choir. We even get a glimpse of Boo as pop-star as he loses the guitar, clutches the mike on its stand and belts out a dark, slide led version of the Pet Shop Boys’ Rent.    

Boo’s patter is brilliantly surreal throughout (‘This would be our theme song if there was ever a clay-motion film made of State of the Union’ he announces at one point) but Brooks holds his own musically and vocally. The huge difference in their musical DNA is what makes the collaboration so healthy. Whether the Union will dissolve after this album is yet to be seen, but if you simply want great songs, sweetly sung, then seek these guys out while they’re still on the road. Sizzling stuff.