Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Rabbit in the Moon

The rabbit in the moon appears in Bengali folk tales as well as the Buddhist story I've written about before.

I have seen it, as anyone who listens to my inconsequential ramblings will know. But I won't tell anyone else where it is, because each person must find the rabbit in the moon by him-/herself; it's a test of spiritual perception.

When I saw it, I stood alone on Kettering Road in Northampton and laughed out loud. I must have looked at the moon 100,000 times without noticing it.

As the Buddhist saying goes, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears."

That night a young East-European couple had stopped at the kerb on Churchill Avenue looking up at the sky. The man was pointing at something above their heads and the woman was laughing.

Perhaps he had just seen the rabbit in the moon as well. It must have been a night of magic.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Meet Lew Bear

Lew Bear is a folksinger (at least, that's what I'd call him) making albums and appearing live, when work allows, in and around Northamptonshire. He probably goes further afield, but in keeping with SP's usual commitment to high quality investigative journalism, I don't have that information for you. Have a look at Lew's website and I'm sure there'll be information on gigs.

Like all artists, I imagine Lew has been practising and refining his craft since he was old enough to pick up a guitar; I know I wrote my first novel, a revenge Western called 'Blood Lust', when I was 10 or 11. But the three albums he sent me, which cover 2011 to 2014, show that the process of critical self-appraisal necessary to the creation of good work in any medium, continues with Lew even though he has found the space in which he wants to work.

How is that evidenced? Not necessarily in quantum leaps of improvement, because the first album, 'Done in the Dark', is by no means a bad album; and it's certainly not as bad as Lew told me it was, before he admitted it wasn't wholly atrocious but might have been better as an ep. I like it. It lacks polish, perhaps--at times the songs sound like demos rather than finished recordings--but that's what Springsteen calls, 'not just the sound of music being played, but music being made', and it can be fascinating, like peering undetected through the window at a band rehearsal.

Elements that will feature in the two subsequent albums are already present on 'Done in the Dark', like an intelligent appreciation of the folk tradition, which is to say true folk, the old songs and stories;  tthe wonderful 'Mad Ole Girl' and 'All Roads Meet' lope along like horses loose in a field, and it's not hard to imagine Jack the Bastard getting drunk to either of them by a crackling fire after robbing a coach on the Daventry Road.

The congeniality of Lew's more mature style is present here too. His rich, round voice tells us just to enjoy life's journey on 'All Roads Meet'; and he advises us to greet the world with a friendly 'Hey Ja' on the song of the same name. This year's 'Ripples' opens with an eponymous track reminding us that if we give love we spread love; our actions are our only true heritage. He writes it better and sings it better in 'Ripples'--that song's exquisite--but the seed is there early. I can't think of anyone else who ploughs that sweet, generous, open-hearted furrow (can a furrow be open-hearted?) without sounding trite. But with Lew you can tell that the evenness of his spirit is hard won. 'Echoes of the Past' and 'No Return' on the 'Ripples' album are filled with sharp regret.

Politics shows itself in all three of the albums Lew's recorded since 2011, though you might say the version of Kipling's 'If' on 'Ripples', combined with the title song's call for love, gradually draws politics into something more existential. (What is it with Kipling by the way? That old imperialist seems really popular right now. The Scrumpy Bastards have set one of his to music as well.) 'Land of Hope and Glory' on 'Done in the Dark' is a recession-era call for collective resistance. 'My Son John', I suspect, is another version of the traditional anti-war song 'Mrs McGrath'. But don't quote me on that. Seeing Martin Carthy perform something similar was one of the high points of my gigging life.

If I could only take one of Lew Bear's three albums with me on a rocket ship out of the galaxy, I have to admit it would be the second, 'Down by the Riverside'. It's not necessarily any better than 'Ripples', but it was recorded, as the sleeve states, 'completely live, without overdubs or fx, by the rivers and in the forests and fields of Northamptonshire'. The opening track, 'Slow Lane', a hymn to unhurried, quiet living (that congenial vision again), has wild birds accompanying Lew's vocals, and rushing water for an intro and an outro. I would want that, in space, to remind me how much I loved the county I'd left behind.

Some of Lew's original compositions here appear on the first and third albums, demonstrating what I said before about how committed he is to refining his art.  And the choice of traditionals has clearly been made by an aesthete. 'Cancha Line Em Track' sounds like a very English version of an Alan Lomax field recording; and 'Wild Mountain Thyme' is restored to its original folk beauty after being transformed into a slice of psychedelic pop a few decades ago. Ken Nash has done 'In the Pines' live, or at least during his soundchecks, and everybody remembers the version by Nirvana from their MTV Unplugged. It remains one of the weirdest, greatest, most sinister songs I've ever heard. Strangely, an artist as gentle as Lew has no trouble making its strangeness convincing.

Perhaps there's something more twisted about the affable, extremely gifted Lew Bear than meets the eye.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Kenneth J Nash & Friends at the Pomfret Arms

The Kenneth J Nash & Friends concert tour, which I'm proud to be a part of, landed at the Pomfret Arms in Northampton on Sunday. Playing out in the barn at the back of the building on a windy afternoon, several musicians , one band and two poets performed to a modest but approving audience--which included my friend Martyna's daughter, who can be seen running in and out of shot on at least one of the videos filmed at the show. This tour is growing in style and confidence already, and we've only done two gigs.

I can't single out star performers because I genuinely liked them all. Star moments? Ken Nash performing 'Like A River', the chorus dreamed Coleridge-like by his mother Carol. Jay Jones' song 'White Feathers', which all of us were impressed by. Jono Bell's beautiful ukulele song for lost friends. Chris Browne's exceptional guitar playing. Curtis E. Johnson generally. Sheila Mosley's self-penned song in defence of the NHS (she said she doesn't write many, but if that's any measure of her talent she should). And Bridged, the three-piece rock band from Thrapston. I cadged a free ep from them at the end of their set; I'll write about it here when I have time.

The only poet on the bill this time, other than yours truly, was the Bard of Northampton, Nathan Jones. I invited Nathan to top the bill when I curated the spoken word stage at Woodfest this year because he's a very good performer. His poems mix light and shade in a way that's perfect for performance, and he never strains for the laughs, even though he's funny. The judges at the Picnic made a good choice when he was awarded the big blue cape of Bardage.

Next stop on the tour is the Carpenter's Arms in Irchester on Saturday night. In a month this fabulous band of travelling musicians and poets return to the Pomfret, and between there's a gig at Market Harborough. The line-up varies from time to time so even if you've seen it once, come out again and have another look. Some of the greatest talent locally will be playing for you.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Chris Browne BrowneProject

This is 'Silver Sun' by Chris Browne. He's from Rushden in Northamptonshire and usually he busks on the streets around the county (although lately he's played indoors a few times with the 'Kenneth J. Nash and Friends' travelling show).

Chris has an album out called 'Busker Rhyme', which you can get on iTunes (I think that's how you spell it). And next weekend he's auditioning for 'Britain's Got Talent'. I hope he does well. If there's any justice he should blow the competition out of the room--although he's far too nice a bloke to want to blow anybody anywhere.

Watch this for proof of what I'm saying. He's a hell of a guitar player. And he's singing this one at the audition.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Songs of Experience: 'the fall of Eden' by Kenneth J. Nash

There's not much that satisfies more than getting an album as good as Kenneth J. Nash's 'the fall of Eden' in the mail for review. His last, 'the brewer and the dealer' (I think that was in lower case too), was a sophisticated pleasure indeed; nothing I heard in 2013 surpassed it, although anyone who knows me will be aware of the enthusiasm I have for Dubvocaliza and the Scrumpy Bastards. But if anything, 'the fall of Eden' is an advance on Ken's last outing, with mesmerising production (by Mr. Nash himself) matching quietly dramatic songs of love, loss, memory, death and renewal. Here is an artist who has been through several circles of Hell and come out on the other side a better, because more humble, man.

Instrumentation is one of the keys to the beauty of this album. Mandolin, Irish whistle, cello and double bass give songs a full, luscious sound that recalls (to this poet) the aesthetic joys of the Island folk output of the early 70s, as well as nodding towards contemporary Americana; and to seduce you even further, Ken adds to these church bells and the sea. The waves, seemingly recorded at Brighton by Ken's cohort JM Jones (a considerable musician in his own right) come at the end of 'the way that she moved', a song in which Ken's gifts as a poet also show themselves. He describes an old lover (we presume) who 'just couldn't dance' but moved wonderfully anyway, guided by some inner grace. In the first verse she's listening to bad music, 'singing along out of tune with her long hair falling about'. How great is that? Then she's dancing under fairy lights in the night. I've had that image in my head all day now.

Lyrical marvels are everywhere, though, not least in 'Strong', probably the most naked song on the album musically, vocally and emotionally. We can guess at the story behind this from the dedications on the sleeve; no need to go into it too pruriently. But we all have loved ones who are 'sleeping on the other side', and some of them left in such a way that it's a fair question to ask, 'Would you be born again if you could?' Ken Nash reads William Blake and hangs out with poets as well as guitar players; but he can hold his own with the best of us.

The musicians playing on 'the fall of Eden' are too numerous to mention. Let it suffice that as a unit and individually there's no finer bunch on the circuit. One note should be added: Fran Taylor sings with Ken again and weaves her lovely voice around his in a way that she now owns completely. Busking these songs, the two of them might stop traffic on Abington Street--if the borough council ever finish the roadworks to make their benighted de-pedestrianisation something more than a massively unpopular dream.

'the fall of Eden' is available from or--I believe--at Ken's gigs. And you're bound to see him somewhere, sooner or later. This is an artist who works so hard he makes Bob Dylan's tour itinerary look positively lazy.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


The highlight of the first day of this year's Summer Retreat in Northampton was a great set by Dubvocaliza, from London. Returning for another appearance after storming the festival in 2013, they took to the stage (newly situated in the woods) late in the afternoon and played for what seemed like only ten or fifteen minutes--although it was really much longer than that. When Barrington and the band are at the mic, the vibes are so good you forget time, and yourself as well.

I love Dubvocaliza, if that's not obvious already. So does everybody else who sees them (everybody I've spoken to anyway). It's those classic reggae sounds, the interplay between vocalists, and the sheer stagecraft; Barrington doesn't stand still for a moment, and between songs he talks to the crowd, offering pithy inspirational messages connected to the music. Dubvocaliza are all about positivity, keeping the faith in a world ravaged by 'pirates and vultures' (the title of one of their songs); as another one says, 'the sun will shine again'--and who doesn't need to hear that with war raging all around the globe this year?

The area around the stage rapidly filled with festival goers when Dubvocaliza started their set, and despite the drop in temperature and the lack of booze, many of the audience danced all the way through the show. Even I moved a little bit, and I am the worst, most self-conscious dancer on Earth. I couldn't help it; the reggae spirit moved me. Three hours later, back at home in poetry headquarters, I'm still wondering how it's possible to have so much entertainment without even paying an entrance fee.

This is a good band, my friends. Very, very good. Find them online or go to a show when they visit your town. You'll see I'm not wrong.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

“We knew about the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte and their hordes of squeaky-clean imitators, but we felt like that was a different world that had nothing to do with us. Most of those people couldn’t play worth a damn and were indifferent singers, and as far as material was concerned they were scraping the top of the barrel, singing songs that we had all learned and dropped already. It was Sing Along with Mitch and the Fireside Book of Folk Songs, performed by sophomores in paisley shirts, and it was a one hundred percent rip-off: they were ripping off the material, they were ripping off the authors, composers, collectors, and sources, and they were ripping off the public.”

“We had so much opportunity to try out our stuff in public, get clobbered, figure out what was wrong, and go back and try it again. It was brutally hard work, because these crowds of tourists usually started out at the bars and by the time they got around to us they were completely loaded. So we would be playing for audiences of fifty or a hundred drunken suburbanites who really could not have cared less about the music—they were there to see the freaks and raise some hell. In that kind of situation, you either learn how to handle yourself onstage or you go into some other line of work, and the people who stuck it out became thoroughly seasoned pros.”

Both quotes from Dave Van Ronk.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a melancholy minor masterpiece about a passing era, specifically the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the late 1950s-early 1960s. Loosely based on events in the life of folk legend Dave Van Ronk, it follows the eponymous hero (played by Oscar Isaac) through one turbulent week—a week in which beatings and setbacks force him to confront the reality of his life and the apparent futility of his convictions about the music he plays.

Davis sleeps on other people’s couches and lives from hand to mouth; he thinks that the ambition of his former lover Jean (played by Carey Mulligan) to make enough money from performing to move out to the suburbs is square. For Llewyn, at the beginning, there is a higher motive for his gigging. It’s the purity, the authenticity, Van Ronk refers to in the opening quote. America in the 1950s was, by all accounts I rely on, an oppressively conservative society. The few folksingers who made money did so by removing any element in their music that hinted at the rural or proletarian origins of the material. Listening to the commercial recording artists who claimed folk connections back then, you hear music so syrupy or parodic you wonder how it was ever considered to be anything more than pop.

Uninformed critics have suggested that the dullness and naivete of the music before Bob Dylan landed in the Village in 1961 is the fundamental problem of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” In a sense, so these people would have it, the movie is an elegy for something that didn’t deserve to be saved.

I’m appalled and mystified by that view. Anyone who reads my stuff will know Bob Dylan has been the most important artist of my life. But to suggest that his music is intrinsically valuable and the music of those who came before him has none makes two mistakes. One is ignoring the fact that Dylan’s music grew out of the stuff he heard around him; without the scene as it was prior to his arrival, there would have been no Bob. The second mistake is confusing the authentic folk with the commercial rubbish. Yes, the Kingston Trio look and sound ridiculous now, but I’d rather listen to the New Lost City Ramblers than almost all of the things I hear on my radio these days when I tune in to the wrong station by accident in the mornings. Their version of “Tom Dooley” is one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard.

Dylan didn’t make folk music great by mixing it with surreal poetry. He made great music by mixing surreal poetry with folk. Van Ronk, Joan Baez and Karen Dalton were better singers and musicians. He just had that extra something, including a whole heap of luck: what would have happened, after all, if Robert Shelton of the Times hadn’t turned up to see the show he was support act for on that famous New York night? Or if he’d been a year older, a year more tired, a year less hungry, when it happened and Shelton had seen just another jobbing folkie instead of an embryonic star? Would the call have come from Columbia and John Hammond then? Maybe not.

More intelligent detractors have said that if “Inside Llewyn Davis” misses something, it’s only that it doesn’t show explicitly the ideological grounding of the Greenwich Village scene. Traditional folk music was played and listened to by people on the Left before Dylan’s infamous “betrayal” of protest songs on “Another Side Of…” and “Bringing It All Back Home.” Intense political debate—often, according to Van Ronk, violent in nature—fuelled the ideas and ideals of the artists. Maybe a bit of that in the movie would have deepened the characterisations of Llewyn and those whose paths he crosses; and shown to those who didn’t get it that the world of the movie is a serious one, not just a laughably quaint moment of long-ago history which our hero trudges through being offensive to everyone and hitting on all comers for favours.

This is a work of fiction, though, not a documentary, and a Coen Brothers movie at that. Character is the focus and it’s through Llewyn that the truths of the piece are revealed. The sharp contrast between his working class trade union background and the comfort of his middle class admirers should tell us something about politics; and with the exception of one speech in the CafĂ© Reggio, when Llewyn outlines his ideas to Jean, integrity is barely discussed—instead, it’s marvellously symbolised in a ginger cat which Llewyn loses and then pursues around New York. If only the screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave” had seen this before creating the careless exposition of the Brad Pitt scene in that movie.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” has sent me not to my Dylan albums today, but back to the work of all the artists who were eclipsed by the brilliant light of his fame. I’ve had a wonderful time revisiting Van Ronk, the aforementioned Karen Dalton, Mark Spoelstra, Mimi and Richard Farina. Dylan’s success was artistic as well as material, but it made fame and money the goal rather than the love of the great tradition; and there’s a sadness to that, for me. It buried something that we needed to keep alive in this world, or risk abandoning everyone to the slowly spreading, culturally homogenising capitalist nightmare.

Yes, that’s right. The one we’re in now. Would Van Ronk, even if he’d been producing great work still, as Dylan is, have advertised cars at the Superbowl? I don’t think so somehow. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” in that respect, remembers an age when we were not yet smart enough to stop resisting.