Finding Nic Jones

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.

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Crimefest 2011

Had a thoroughly enjoyable time at the Crimefest convention in Bristol last week.  The formal sessions became something of a blur, not least because I’d somehow managed to organise a conflicting commitment in the Midlands on Friday, so I spent too much of that day trekking up and down the M5.  Probably the most memorable moments were a fascinating interview with Peter James, who seems more in touch with the detail of policing than many Chief Constables, and a hilarious discussion with the great Christopher Brookmyre.  For me, though, the greatest pleasure of the weekend was catching up with old acquaintance and making new ones.  I enjoyed a couple of lengthy chats with Martin Edwards and Paul Johnston, possibly the two most erudite men in crime fiction (Paul deservedly succeeded to Martin’s crown as Criminal Mastermind in the final session of the weekend), and felt very privileged to enjoy dinner on Friday with Martin, Kate Ellis and Ann Cleeves.  I chatted to countless people over the weekend, readers and writers, sometimes through a red-wine haze (mine, but in fairness often theirs as well) and won’t try to name them all, but no-one was less than completely charming.  Writing can sometimes be a lonely business, with only an iMac and your own characters for company, so it’s fun to share some conviviality with readers and fellow practitioners.  I’ve already booked for next year and I’d urge anyone who’s an enthusiast for crime fiction to do the same.

Two sides of Mongolia

It occurs to me that I haven’t posted much about Mongolia for a while (and, yes, I know I haven’t posted about much else either in the last few weeks.  I’ve had every good intention, but a shortage of time.  I’ll try to rectify that…).  I thought I ought to draw your attention to this excellent piece in today’s Guardian which focuses mainly on the extraordinary ger encampment to the north of Ulaan Bataar.  I was aware of the growing size of the camp, but I hadn’t realised that it’s now home to around a quarter of the country’s population.  The article brings home the dramatic impact of climate change and challenging economic conditions for many Mongolians.

When travel writers can’t think what else to say about a country, they usually resort to the cliche ‘land of contrasts’ (if you doubt this, try Googling the phrase – you’ll find it applied to everywhere from Germany to Namibia).  I think it’s probably an apposite description, though, when one compares the piece from the Guardian with  this article.