I blogged a few weeks back about the great Nic Jones, one of the most influential figures in the British folk music world over the last 40 or so years. Nic’s public involvement in folk music was tragically curtailed nearly 30 years ago by an appalling car accident, but his style of singing and guitar-playing and his reinvention of countless traditional songs have remained a massive influence over younger folk musicians. Over the last couple of years, he’s made a couple of low-key returns to the recording studio and last year he was involved in a tribute concert, ‘In Search of Nic Jones’ at the Sidmouth Folk Festival. I wasn’t able to make that, but when the comedian Stewart Lee announced that he’d scheduled a further tribute concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, I knew I had to be there (even if it meant braving a train full of Manchester United supporters heading down to Wembley for the Champions’ League final).
I simply wanted to chance to see Nic Jones performing in front of an audience again, in however limited a way. I suppose, on the basis of reports of the Sidmouth concert, I’d expected an emotional evening – a respectful and high quality tribute from a selection of Nic Jones’s peers and proteges with perhaps a little contribution from Nic himself singing along with his former Bandoggs colleagues, the excellent Pete and Chris Coe. Nothing startling, perhaps, but a fitting tribute to Nic Jones and his remarkable contribution to the folk world.
Well, we got that, certainly. The first set was splendid – a series of Nic’s songs performed by a cast ranging from folk luminaries such as Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings through established performers such as Damien Barber, Tony Hall (who played on Nic’s seminal Penguin Eggs record) and Jim Moray, through to new talents such as Hutchings’s son, Blair Dunlop. All terrific stuff – Barber and Hall playing ‘Barrack Street’, Jackie Oates and Belinda O’Hooley performing a stunning version of ‘Annachie Gordon’, the marvellous Anais Mitchell singing ‘The Drowned Lovers’. And the first half ended with the recreated Bandoggs – Nic, Pete and Chris Coe, and Damien Barber and Johnny Adams standing in for the late Tony Rose – performing a fine set of familiar songs.
So far, so good. I hadn’t really expected that Nic himself would perform except as part of the Bandoggs ensemble. But then, remarkably, Nic Jones’s still slightly frail figure made its way forward to the microphone, Belinda O’Hooley sat herself behind the piano, and Nic announced that he was going to sing ‘Thanksgiving’, a strange and moving song by Rick Lee that once formed part of Nic’s live sets. It was an extraordinary moment. I’ve had been happy to hear Nic Jones sing anything, anyhow, even if his performance had been unremarkable. But somehow, despite his frailty, despite everything that had happened to him, his performance surpassed everything else I heard last night. His voice lacks some of its old power, but he’s still an amazing singer – a beautiful tone, perfect phrasing, and a remarkable ability to inhabit the song as if he’d written it. I was left breathless.
And that was only the start. Nic moved centre-stage to perform with his son, Joe, who’s perfected his father’s glorious rhythmic guitar-style. It was a short but brilliant set. They began with ‘Rue the day that ever I married’, claimed as supposedly a favourite song of Nic’s wife, Julia, who has clearly been a massive support and inspiration to father and son. Then, in characteristic Nic Jones style, they subverted the whole evening by performing, quite brilliantly, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, a song by Nic’s favourite band, Radiohead (he was also sporting a Paranoid Android teeshirt). And they concluded with a heart-stopping version of one of Nic’s best-known songs, ‘Ten Thousand Miles’.
I’d have happily sat and listened to anything by Nic Jones. But this was one of the most beautiful and moving live performances I’ve ever witnessed. Against all the odds, Nic Jones remains a truly remarkable singer, his voice and vocal style perhaps even more moving than in his hey-day. He’s unlikely to want to face again the travails of regular performance, but perhaps some enterprising producer could at least persuade him and Joe to make some recordings together. I’d buy it like a shot, and I suspect it would become my CD of whatever year it was released.
The last time I saw Nic Jones perform was more than 30 years ago, a short but superb set at a charity concert in Cambridge, not long before his appalling accident. For me, last night felt like the closing of a circle – another short set, even more brilliant. We’ve both been through a lot in the meantime in our separate lives, but Nic’s glorious music has been a constant in mine. I notice that someone’s now posted a clip of his performance of ‘Ten Thousand Miles’ on YouTube, so you can find a flavour of the night here.