Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bard at the Beeb

A week or so ago, I went down to Radio Northampton to do an interview about the old Railway Club in Wellingborough. A researcher at the station is putting together something about the history of music and youth culture in the county (I think that's the focus), and after seeing something I wrote here on Suffolk Punch, he invited me to participate.

We could have done it over the phone, or via Skype, if I'd had Skype, but I wanted to have a look inside the station. I'd been passing it every day for years, whenever I was in town, and latterly I'd known several people who'd been in there to talk about poetry, or charity. I don't like to admit it, but I'm occasionally very competitive. I want adventure; and I don't want you to have more adventure than me.

The experience was brief, but I loved it. And hated it. I went into a studio just vacated by the guy on the afternoon show and spoke into a microphone like Willie Nelson on a tour date promo. The young researcher asked me about the club, the bands who'd played there, and the attractions of the rock 'n' roll and rockabilly culture. I said that it was my first experience of anything vaguely adult, and that even the stories about the violence the club attracted were compelling reasons to be there for a naïve kid. I theorised that back then everybody wanted to belong to a gang, and mine was just a nostalgia gang with greasy hair, tight trousers and fluorescent socks. Was it the same these days, I wondered? I didn't know.

Occasionally my voice trembled. His attentive gaze made me nervous. I was afraid I was talking crap, or worse, sounding as old and irrelevant as reminiscing about these things was making me feel. It was a club that had been demolished at least a year ago. And the school I attended when I went there had been turned into a housing estate in the Nineties.

I don't want to go into the archives of history as an ex-Ted, I thought, absurdly, even as I romanticised for my interviewer. But in some way the idea that something, at least, might outlast me for a while was curiously comforting. And it sure as shit won't be my poetry. Those were good times. And the music was excellent.

After about fifteen minutes, the researcher concluded the interview. Is that it? I thought, Geldof-like. I wanted to go on for another half an hour, expanding into new areas, inspiring other programmes.

"That's great," he said. "I can use more of that than I thought."

Are you just being professional, saying that? I wondered, while feeling simultaneously flattered, like a child who'd been praised for cleaning up his toys. Public appearances of any sort open me up like a wound, letting out all of my insecurities. But I have to take him at his word. We'll see when the show airs on February 7th at midday how much of my interview made the cut.

Not that I'll be listening. I'll be out walking in the park while Michelle listens for me and prepares all the reassurances I will, and won't, believe.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Lazy Boy Checking In

It's now ten years since I started SUFFOLK PUNCH. It's also, shamefully, ten months since I wrote anything on it. I didn't realise this until I logged in half an hour ago.

MARCH 2015? How the hell can it be nearly a year since I wrote anything on this blog? It seems only...wait, nearly a year, actually, since my whimsical Buddha rabbit experience (see last post).

And what has happened in the last 10 months? (Not much.) Is there any justification for this slovenly keyboard performance?

Well, not having a keyboard is a good justification. I still don't have any internet either, not at home. I post from home to social media, but from my phone. My epilepsy doesn't respond well to more prolonged sessions on my mobile, though, so blog posts aren't a good idea.

Plus I'm still working nights, 5 nights a week, and sleeping most of the day. It's kind of hard to make time to get up between sleep and work and bus into town to go to an internet café.

But all these are excuses. I have enough money to respond to the avalanche of broadband offers I get through the mail every day. And some of the ones I've chucked in the bin would have given me a free tablet. I just haven't worked hard enough, and now we've reached the 10th anniversary of SUFFOLK PUNCH, I've decided that has to change.

We'll see how long the resolution sticks.

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.