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.