christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: folk

‘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.

In the Bleak Midwinter – Review of Clive Carroll, 11 January 2017

To the Apex, Bury St. Edmunds to witness a remarkable performance from Clive Carroll performing songs from his album, The Furthest Tree and beyond. Mixing influences of early music (the kind of folk baroque made popular by John Renbourn, more of whom later) with huge, almost prog-like bass-lines and complex patterns, he transfixed a packed house on this freezing winter night.

With his clean lines and superb technique, Clive’s compositions resonated powerfully inside the wooden cathedral of the Apex – a new and usually beautiful venue, both ancient and modern at the same time, much like Clive’s music. At one point it felt as if we were all contained within the body of an enormous acoustic guitar, and it certainly sounded that way.

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Taking a few moments to gather himself, an insight perhaps into his classical training and level headed temperament, he began with The Abbot’s Hymn, a beguiling tune, named after both the local Abbot ale and much missed John Renbourn, who acquired the nickname ‘The Abbot’ while touring with Clive in the early 2000s. Mention of John got a cheer of its own and the local reference was appreciated by the Suffolk crowd; they gave the piece their rapt-attention. It brought back memories of John playing on the Old Grey Whistle Test, a glass of red wine perched on his amp while he picked out the tunes.

Next up was In the Deep, a swampy, lugubrious piece that floated high into the rafters, before being grounded by a thunderous bass line that seemed to shake the building to its very core. The portentous mood was dispelled when Clive chatted to the crowd; with his head-boyish demeanour, he is as far removed from a rock and roll stereotype as you are likely to find, but his patter is hilarious, both learned and irreverent. He mentioned that he had recently played for both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York before confessing they were pubs not people…

Establishing a bond with an audience both musically and emotionally are Clive’s key strengths and we certainly invested in the music. He later acknowledged a debt to Shostakovich in an astonishing waltz, giving us a lesson in three-four time and its various permutations for good measure. Only once did he seem to lose the audience: mention of his Essex roots drew an element of unbecoming inter-County nose-holding, although he put paid to any stereotypes by reminding them that Holst himself made his home in Thaxted, the subject of a mind bogglingly pretty tune, Thaxted Town. It somehow managed to accommodate both Morris dancing and the melodic theme to Holst’s I Vow to Thee, My Country and was played with great affection.    

The centre piece of the set was a performance of Clive’s Renaissance Suite, based thematically on the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. The difficulty that the piece was written for two guitars (second guitar on the record played by John Williams, no less) was surmounted by a ‘second Clive,’ previously recorded. The melodic intricacy of the piece and the fact that he had to both add a capo and retune mid performance without stopping the recorded part made for a thrilling bit of theatre. Suffice to say, he made it through without mishap. The Green Knight, a galloping tune was a superbly dramatic climax to this piece and was greeted with some open-mouthed astonishment. The poet, Simon Armitage has recently translated the 14th century poem to great effect and a collaboration between him and Clive would hold some wonderful possibilities.   

Perhaps the highlight of the evening however, was the final piece, inspired by a trip to northern Canada. With its icy, haunting melody and unpredictable dynamics, it was perfectly suited to this bleakly cold evening, full of talk of thunder-snow (that in the event would fail to materialise.) It would make for a fitting theme to a Nordic detective TV series. Has Clive explored such avenues you wonder?

With his wonderful poise, generous spirit and boundless musicality, Clive eventually made way for the swashbuckling Tommy Emmanuel, who was reliably astonishing. It would be too much to try and cover Tommy’s vivacious set here (perhaps another time) but Clive left a lasting impression, filling this dark, midwinter night with an ancient kind of magic.  

The Uke of Wellington – My second ukulele LP

In October last year, I released my first ukulele LP, In the Plink. (Q****) Since then, U2 and I have been in secret talks to ensure that the release dates of our new albums do not clash. I’m pleased to say that these talks have ended happily and I will be releasing The Uke of Wellington today.

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To access the tricks, simply click on the links below. All songs by Chris James.

Side 1 

Lighter Than Air

Old Fashioned Things Called Love

The Hot Club of Bohemia  

Rainy Days 

The Scarecrow in the Rain 

Side 2 

The Golden Age 

Allotted Time 

Neither Here Nor There 

Heaven Farm 

If you like what you hear, tell your friends and perhaps even buy a copy of my latest book, The Fool. Be good, be kind, have fun, eat plums.

It’s a little known fact that the Duke liked to unwind by playing the greatest hits of J.S.Bach on his humble uke to sing his dear horse Copenhagen to sleep each night. The ukulele is now kept in the Tower of London. His famous pastime is remembered each year by the players at the Uke at the Duke on the second Tuesday of every month in Shoreham on Sea.

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The Bee’s Knees

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I found myself uttering this wonderful phrase the other day without having the least idea what it meant or where it came from. Research has proved inconclusive; some believe it relates to the fact that bees carry pollen back to the hive in little sacs in their legs (what a great evolutionary development; do you think we will eventually evolve built-in Sainsbury’s carrier bags?). Others say the phrase was part of a general trend of ‘flapper talk’ denoting something good. Eg. ‘The cat’s whiskers’, or ‘the dog’s proverbials’. Regardless, it immediately sounded like it needed to be the title of a song. So here it is! Thank you to Joe (and Roberta) for the fantastic Matisse-inspired bee image.

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?

Bob Dylan on the Isle of Wight

31 August 1969

A bearded phantom,
he does not come for the festival,
but to walk with the island’s ghosts:
King Stuf, Tennyson, Victoria
in her counting house. Like a farmer
in Sunday best, or a chalk man,
he arrives on the isle in white.

He sits with Swinburne
in the Olde Look Out Tower Tea Room
and trades couplets over Darjeeling.
In the ruins of a villa he compares scars
with Vespagian the Roman.
He tries his hand at the lyre,
and sinks old world wine.

In Osborne House, he plays
Albert’s ghost in the billiard room
and flicks ash into the porcelain vase
given by the Tsar. From the top
of the Beledere Tower he can hear
himself singing love songs to Liz Taylor
as the moon rises over Woodside Bay.

 

Bob Isle of Wight

Far Away Friend

So here’s another song. I was trying to learn For My Father by Andy McKee,  the king of finger-style guitar playing. It’s a beautiful song and I set myself the goal of learning it by Father’s Day. I quickly discovered that this was a little like reading the complete works of Shakespeare by Tuesday. So instead I improvised in the distinctive ECDGAD tuning that McKee uses and came up with this song instead. It takes a while to find chord shapes that work, but when you find them, beautiful sounds are suddenly conjured from your fingertips without you realising quite how.

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Of course none of this noodling is helping me write 69 poems about 1969, but then you can’t work all the time. Happy listening.

Martha’s Song

A bit of a first for the blog – an attempt at a recording of an original acoustic guitar instrumental, called Martha’s Song.

For added authenticity, Martha joins me as recording engineer and makes an (audible) guest appearance towards the end). It all ends in chaos but it’s the closest we came to a complete recording.