The last few years have been pretty good for Steve Tilston. For some time he’s been regarded by those in the know, as one of the English folk scene’s best songwriters, as well as a seriously talented guitarist. With that, however, lay a lingering subtext that he wasn’t quite getting his due, perennially awaiting discovery by a wider audience. Around the release of his last album Happenstance, recorded as The Steve Tilston trio, Steve was happy to laugh that off, joking that he’d rather be underrated then overrated, but by then there’d already seen a shift. A steady flow of critical acclaim injected a renewed vigour just as he hit 60. But then the chance discovery of a letter suddenly made Steve headline news, giving his profile another massive boost. The real story, however, is that he’s on a fabulous creative roll and Truth To Tell is another tour de force from one of the finest songsmiths and guitarists that the English folk scene has produced over the last 40 odd years.
It really started with the album before Happenstance and the widespread critical acclaim that greeted his 2011 release of The Reckoning. Glowing reviews across the media made a nonsense of the ‘underappreciated’ tag, but it was the strength of the songwriting that caught the ear and also led directly to a Later With Jools slot. There was another TV appearance following soon after with Steve featuring in the Songwiters’ Circle series alongside Michael Chapman and Martin Simpson. It therefore came as little surprise when he won the Folk Awards Best Original Song with the album’s title track.
Happenstance, released in 2013, matched the acclaim if not the award winning feats of its predecessor. By then Steve was noticing the positive effects of the extra exposure, with as he puts it, “More bums on seats,” but by then another story had started doing the rounds. It was a strange tale of a letter written to Steve by John Lennon in the early 1970s. It was written after Lennon had read an interview with Steve in ZigZag Magazine in which he was asked how he thought finding fame and fortune would affect him as an artist. Steve responded that he thought it would be a corrupting influence. The letter from Lennon offered encouragement, telling Steve not to give up. Although it included Lennon’s telephone number Steve didn’t become aware of the letter until 2005, 25 years after Lennon’s death. Once out of the bag, the story caught fire and eventually inspired the film Danny Collins, staring Al Pacino in the Steve Tilston role. The knock on effect has been massive (see the One Show clip below).
I catch Steve at the services on his way down to Sidmouth festival and he acknowledges a busy schedule ahead with plenty of gigs. He also admits that the whole thing has been great for his profile, financially rewarding and also given another boost to the bums on seats quotient. There’s something refreshing, however, as he assures me, “It hasn’t changed my ideas of celebrity one bit,” although he qualifies that adding, “Mind you it was good meeting Al Pacino. He asked me a lot of questions about my music, which was really interesting.” But for himself he concludes “If I’d wanted to be famous I’d have joined a rock band. The great thing about being a folk singer is that you can dip back under the radar if it all gets a bit much,” he chuckles.
Whilst not exactly dipping back below the radar, Truth To Tell once again finds Steve working with David Crickmore and recording in the familiar setting of Splid Studios, which, as Steve describes it, is nearby as he tells me, “Yes it’s just over the moor in the Oxenholme area.” It’s the same set up that produced The Reckoning, with producer David Crickmore, a member of The Durbervilles and also a local radio folk show presenter, adding his multi-instrumentalist skills to yet another great and typically literate song collection.
As you’d expect Steve’s exceptional guitar technique is very much to the fore and he plays a range of different instruments including a 10 string, an unusual instrument, as he explains, “It’s actually a cittern, but with a guitar shaped body, so its five pairs of strings are tuned DGDAD.” Hugh Bradley, who Steve describes as a stalwart of the local acoustic music scene, plays double bass on seven songs and Belinda O’Hooley also guests on piano on one.
Familiar themes are explored as Steve reflects on his own journey, but also the wider human condition, the weight of history and the heavy price of our progress and the careless way we interact with our precious environment.
The bright opener Grass Days recalls Steve’s, “Green as the grass,” naïve beginnings, coming down to London, finding a room and joining the folk circuit. It pays tribute in particular to Wizz Jones and Ralph McTell, who provided Steve with valuable support and advice that helped him establish his place on the Soho club scene. The song finishes with Steve heading out West, to Bristol, were his recording career started, before heading further afield to New England. All Around The World, featuring some outstanding guitar work, reflects more generally on that life of a travelling musician, the miles, the sunrises and sunsets, the hard times when, “I’ll play for pennies, I’ll pay my dues.” There’s a lovely flourish from the guitar at the end and the lasting feeling of a life well lived.
There are journeys to in Yo Me Voy, which translates from the Spanish as ‘I am going’, although the destination here seems unimportant. The song appropriately takes on a lovely Latin lilt, with Spanish guitar and the more unusual Arpeggione, an instrument strung and fretted like a guitar, but played with a bow. Belinda O’Hooley plays piano on Pick Up Your Heart, but here it’s life’s course to be travelled. What choices will we make and how will our hearts fare? There’s the path towards a scientific enlightenment in Cup And Lip, but it’s a journey snared by those who would drag us backwards as Steve sings, “There’s many a slip, Betwixt cup and lip, And high from the ramparts of Eden’s walls, There’s many a fall.” It’s a great song that showcases the distinctive 10 string sound.
Equally concerning in our ongoing story, The Riverman Has Gone, reimagines Nick Drakes song, but finds that the position is now vacant, as the floodwaters rise. Steve calls out, “All the politicos and Billy Liars and all the climate change deniers,” who think they can ride roughshod over Mother Nature. In the same breath he makes the point that cuts in public spending will have consequences. The environmentalist’s point is also made forcefully in Running Out Of Road, which sounds almost like a slow ragtime blues (if there is such a thing), with the keening pedal steel echoing the weeping Mother Earth. Our fate is in our own hands. As if to emphasise the point, Steve calls on his love of history and archaeology to remind us of civilisations past that would never have foreseen their own end in Bygone Lands, a song given a slow and mournful feel with the opening piano and the emotional undertow of pedal steel.
Love of course features, although, as we know, its course is rarely smooth and the quest to find our way to Lasting Love far from certain as Steve sings, “And still we wander anyhow, you’d think we’d know our way by now.” Died For Love is even more tragic. Even with this major key melody, it’s a sad tale of a woman finding her husband drawn to anyone younger and prettier. This is the only dip into the traditional folksong canon and the title says it all really. There is a more personal tragedy, however, with Steve writing The Way It Was in tribute to his good friend and erstwhile Trio companion, Stuart Gordon, who tragically died last year.
There is room for beauty too, however, with tumbling, cascading Pecket’s Well allowing the beauty of nature to shine through. The album also finishes with meditations on the Ways Of Man, carrying with it the promise of a new day dawning, and perhaps with it the chance to put things right.
Truth To Tell adds up to a great set of songs, sincere and written through Steve’s trademark wit and wisdom. The personal and even autobiographical recollections have a certain joi de vivre, in recounting the heady days of the late 60s and the first nervous steps into the folk scene. Of course, he wouldn’t have picked up such willing champions if he hadn’t immediately shown some talent. Both Wizz and Ralph would have to acknowledge that the young boy done good. Equally he pulls no punches and his love of our human history informs Steve’s drive to fuel the debate and drive the agenda for responsible political and environmental stewardship. He lands his blows, however, with the gifts of glorious melody and a prodigious guitar technique that is easily the equal of anyone playing today, not to mention the illustrious peers who he followed into the Soho all-nighters some 45 years or so ago. He may once have played for pennies, but he’s also certainly paid his dues and no one can now deny Steve Tilston the right to dine at English folk music’s top table.
Review by: Simon Holland
Truth to Tell is Out Now via Hubris Records
Order Direct via Steve Tilston.
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Photo Credit: Shay Rowan