So that was 2011 then…

It’s been a an odd old year for many reasons, personal and professional.  The professional highlight was, of course, the publication of ‘Trust No One’, my first book as my mysterious alter ago, Alex Walters, by those good people at Avon/HarperCollins.  It seems to have done pretty well to date, as far as I can judge, including a slightly heady couple of weeks as the best selling book in the iTunes store.  I finished the sequel just before Christmas.  Delivering a new manuscript is always a rather nerve-wracking process for me, as I’m usually still too close to the book to judge it with any real objectivity.  This time, I was more nervous than usual as I’d tried, with perhaps more ambition than good sense, to write a genuine sequel rather than simply another book in a series.  In other words, while I hope that ‘Trust No One’ is entirely readable on its own, the new book not only continues the story but also casts some new light (or perhaps shadows) on characters and events in the previous book. It was fun to write, but I didn’t feel able to judge properly whether I’d pulled it off, so I was relieved when my editor, the terrific Sammia Rafique, called to say she was delighted with it.  The sequel’s likely to be called ‘Nowhere to Hide’ and is due out in October next year, and I hope it’s as enjoyable to read as it was to write.

At a personal level, it’s been a more uneven year.  Just over a year ago, for reasons that will be evident to anyone who’s read the interview tucked away in the back of ‘Trust No One’, my life changed dramatically (having already been changing fairly quickly for the last couple of years for related reasons).  It’s now slightly back on an even keel, but this year has been one of stepping into what feels like unknown territory.  At the same time, I’ve probably been out more in the last 12 months than for a good few years, in the company of both my sons and some good friends.  There were some memorable evenings of music – the Decemberists at the Manchester Academy and Half Man Half Biscuit at the Ritz, for example.  But the best two evenings were both in London.  The most remarkable was the Nic Jones tribute concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, featuring a short but stunning set from Nic himself, very ably supported by his son Joe.  That was Nic’s first solo performance for around 30 years, and I’m delighted to see that he and Joe are now playing at next year’s Warwick and Towersey Folk Festivals.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he and Joe might consider making some recordings as well.

The other very different remarkable evening was the one off performance by Jerry Seinfeld at the O2.  I went partly because No 2 son is a massive ‘Seinfeld’ fan, and partly because I thought it might be my one chance to see arguably the greatest stand-up comedian of his generation (more of that in a minute).  Observational comedy has become a rather tiresome genre these days, but Seinfeld was not only the best live comedy craftsman I’ve seen (with the possible exception of the worlds-apart Frankie Howerd, many years ago) he was also consistently interesting and thought-provoking.  A terrific evening.

My reading experiences have been rather more muted this year, maybe because I’ve spent so much of it writing (I tend to prefer not to read too much crime fiction while I’m trying to write it).  The books that have stuck in my head are a fairly diverse bunch – Greil Marcus’s astonishing collection of writings on Bob Dylan, Michelle Paver’s atmospheric ghost story ‘Dark Matter’, Ted Lewis’s 1970s Northern noir, ‘Jacks’ Return Home’, Allan Brown’s exhaustive and often hilarious account of the making of the film, ‘The Wicker Man’, and – currently – a re-discovering after many years of  Robert Aickman’s short stories.

The new year promises – well, work on the edits of the new book, thoughts about a next book (including possibly getting back to the unfinished Nergui book that’s been languishing while Alex Walters possessed me), and a whole series of interesting domestic and logistical challenges.  Shouldn’t be boring, anyway.  Hope it’s good for the rest of you.

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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.

Jones the voice

I’ve been a little quiet on here for the last few weeks as I’ve been working on the edits for the new book and a stack of other things.  But the edits are now done, so I’ve got no excuses for not posting more frequently.  And I’m here with what for some of us is remarkable news, even though it happened a couple of months ago and I’ve only recently learned about it.
I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for the music of Nic Jones.  For those who haven’t come across the great Mr Jones, he’s arguably the most influential figure in the world of English folk music even though, until very recently, he hadn’t recorded or performed for some 30 years.  During the 1970s, though, he was a well-known folk performer, with a distinctive voice, a pioneering guitar style and an extraordinary selection of largely traditional songs (I say largely traditional, but Jones also had a genius for adapting and rewriting traditional material to the point where he made it entirely his own).  Sadly, in 1982, on his way back from performing at a folk club in Glossop, just a few miles from where I’m writing this, he was involved in a serious car accident.  The resulting injuries effectively brought an end to his performing career, but, despite his physical absence from the folk scene (and the fact that, for unfathomable legal reasons, most of his 1970s recordings are unavailable), his influence has grown year by year.  There seem to be very few young British folk guitarists or singers who don’t owe a debt to Nic Jones – and many have sought to repay the debt in part by recording their own versions of his most famous songs.  The songwriter John Wesley Harding (who is also the novelist Wesley Stace) even produced a whole CD, ‘Trad Arr Jones’, as a tribute.
I was fortunate enough to see Nic Jones perform once – a short set at a charity concert in Cambridge in the early 1980s in which he performed largely contemporary songs (including one, ‘The jukebox as she turned’, which haunted me for years until Nic Jones finally released it on a CD of live recordings from the time) – but assumed I’d never get another chance.  Then, last year, he made a short appearance at a concert organised in his honour at the Sidmouth Folk Festival.  I wasn’t able to get to that, so thought I might have missed my chance.  But now, as part of a sequence of events organised by the comedian Stewart Lee at the Royal Festival Hall in London, another version of that concert has been organised, with Nic Jones again making an appearance with members of his former band, Bandoggs.  This time, I’ve made sure I’ve secured tickets.  If you’d like to do the same, the details are here.  And if you just want to know more about Nic Jones and his music, his own website is here.
But that’s not the most remarkable news.  It appears that, unheralded, Nic Jones has also made a brief re-visit to the recording studio (Abbey Road, no less).  In putting together the soundtrack for the recent documentary about autism, Wretches and Jabberers, the musician  J Ralph apparently came to the UK and persuaded Nic Jones to record a track for him.  You can hear the recording, with Jones singing  and Ralph playing Jonesesque guitar on his own composition, here, and if you’re so minded you can purchase it from iTunes for a mere 79p.  A bargain, I’d say.  I’m just hoping that, with this recording and his forthcoming performance, Nic Jones gets a taste for performing a little more.
EDIT: Well, it just goes to show.  After posting this, I had another look at Nic Jones’s website and realised that his Mollie Music had released a ‘new’ CD by the Halliard, The Last Goodnight, which turns out to be material drawn from a demo tape recorded by the band in the 1960s (and which, incidentally, is quite excellent).  As well as that material, however, the CD also includes three newly recorded tracks, including one, ‘Rakish Young Fellow’, which features a splendid vocal from one Nic Jones.  So it turns out he has sneaked back into the studio at least once before J Ralph lured him back (the previous Halliard CD release also contained some newly-recorded material, but, as far as I can judge, no new vocals from Nic – but I’d be happy to be proved wrong on that).
As an aside, the credits on the Halliard CDs (and in the accompanying songbook) reveal that the majority of the Halliard’s melodies were actually written by Dave Moran and Nic Jones, although many such as ‘Boys of Bedlam’, ‘Miles Weatherill’, ‘The Calico Printer’s Clerk’ and ‘Ladies Go A-Thieving’ seem now to be widely accepted as entirely traditional.  For a band who released very little material in their prime (if one discounts their record company’s ill-judged idea for the band to emulate the Dubliners with an album of, um, Irish songs), they’ve had quite an impact on the English folk world.

Watching the Decemberists

I’ve been a fan of the Decemberists’s splendid music since their first album, Castaways and Cutouts.  At the time, their music was pretty much like nothing else, other than, perhaps, Neutral Milk Hotel’s seminal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (incidentally, I’m pleased to see that NMH’s Jeff Mangum appears to be making something of a comeback).  Their lead singer and songwriter, Colin Meloy, wrote quirky little song-fables and performed them in a uniquely pleasing voice.  John Peel once said that the Smiths were remarkable because you couldn’t tell what was in their record collection.  Something of the same is true of the Decemberists, though it turned out that Meloy’s record collection included both the Smiths and a panoply (a very Meloy word) of English folk artists.

Over their last couple of CDs, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists have been exploring some of those English folk roots and moving in what some might characterise as a ‘progressive’ direction.  Both are thoroughly fine records and include some great individual songs, but the quasi-prog ambitions tended, for me at least, to make them a harder listen than their earlier work.  Their new CD, The King is Dead, therefore, is both a surprise and a delight.  They’ve moved in yet another direction – this time supposedly drawing on US folk traditions – and produced a relatively straightforward set of standalone songs.  And it’s quite stunning.  The songs seem simpler and more direct than anything Meloy’s done before, with melodies that lock into your head so quickly that it feels as if you’ve known them for years.  The words are as intriguing as ever, if sounding more personal, and Meloy’s singing is just as distinctive but a little less mannered than on earlier records.  And the band sound terrific, with a new rocky edge mingled with snatches of folk-song and rousing harmonica from Meloy than sounds as if it might have been borrowed from a Neil Young or Springsteen record.

Despite loving their music for years, I’d somehow never contrived to see the Decemberists live, so I was particularly pleased to follow up my first listens to the new record with their performance in Manchester last week.  Smiths fan Meloy said that, as a teenager, he’d always thought of Manchester as a mythical place, like Oz or Narnia (this impression probably doesn’t survive too long a walk up Oxford Road), and the place certainly seemed to bring out the best in him and the band.  My first thought was how versatile the band was – shifting effortlessly from folk to prog to semi-psychedelic to music hall while always remaining distinctively the Decemberists.  My second thought was not to think, but just to bathe in the music and a theatrical performance from Meloy that remained just the right side of cheesy.  The band ended with a splendidly over-the-top performance of their song ‘The Mariner’s Revenge’ (with the audience being asked to impersonate the sound of a large number of people being eaten by a whale.  You probably had to be there), a beautiful reading of the delicate ‘June Hymn’ from the new album, and, fittingly, a nicely low-key rendition of the Smiths’s ‘Ask’.  A rather wonderful evening, all told.

Exceedingly good music

In the dear dead departed days before folk music meant Mumford & Sons (don’t get me started), the coolest folk singer on the planet was Peter Bellamy.   And even if that isn’t the most hotly contested title, Bellamy did his best to make it mean something.  He dressed like a rock star, sang like a dissolute angel, and – in the memorable words of Raymond Greenoaken, of whom more in a moment  – he was ‘the only man who made playing the concertina look dangerous’.  I was fortunate enough to see him live in his hey-day and he was electrifying, taking the too-often staid world of folk music by the scruff of the neck and dragging it wherever he wanted.  Better still, Bellamy was never interested in the type of bland fusion that too often passes for modernity in the folk scene (hey, let’s see what happens when we blend folk with hip-hop!  Not much, usually).  He kept his roots firmly in the tradition (even, or especially, when not performing traditional songs), and illuminated new directions through sheet force of talent.

Bellamy tragically committed suicide in 1991 at the age of only 47.  No-one really knows why, and it’s pointless to speculate.  For a while after his death, his reputation seemed to dim, except among the faithful, perhaps because his relatively uncompromising style of folk music didn’t really resonate with much else that was happening in the field.  Gradually, though, interest in Bellamy’s work has begun revive, not least because of the passionate proselytising of Jon Boden.

Bellamy was never one to bow to political fashion.  I’ve heard him described as ‘right wing’, but Dick Gaughan, who could never be described as right-wing, was a good friend.  The more common view is that Bellamy seemed to be largely uninterested in politics or, for that matter, much of the modern world.  It’s perhaps significant, therefore, that Bellamy’s most lasting legacy has been the series of superb albums he made based on the poems of Rudyard Kipling, another artist who is often described, albeit only with criminal over-simplicity, as ‘right-wing’ or jingoistic.  Some of Bellamy’s later settings of Kipling’s poems are available on CD, but his first two Kipling albums, Oak, Ash and Thorn and Merlin’s Island Of Gramarye have never been re-released.  As partial compensation, a new Manchester-based label, Folk Police, has just released a terrific tribute CD, Oak Ash Thorn, which comprises songs from those two original albums reinterpreted by an array of some of the best young folk performers (oddly enough, no Mumfords).  It’s quite excellent.  It kicks off with a direct tribute to Bellamy from, fittingly enough, Jon Boden, but then veers off in countless musical directions, aiming to be true to Bellamy’s spirit rather than his performing style.  There are tracks from many of my favourite younger folkies – the brilliantly bonkers Trembling Bells, the glorious The Owl Service and countless others.  Highly recommended, even if you haven’t a clue who Peter Bellamy was, and it makes me think that just maybe we are in the middle of a new folk revival after all.

I should also add that it’s a beautifully produced CD, with excellent sleevenotes by the aforementioned Raymond Greenoaken (which can be read, in longer form, here).  Folk Police looks like a label to watch.  They’ve got some interesting stuff up and coming, including, astonishingly, the first CD in over 15 years from the great Bob Pegg.  Can’t wait for that.