Jez Lowe is one of those musicians who never seems to rest. If he’s not on an overseas tour, Australia, the US, Canada, much of Europe have long fallen under his spell, then he’ll be travelling the length and breadth of the UK, at folk clubs, festivals, village halls, pubs, pretty much anywhere that will put on live music. Friday March 18, I caught up with him at Wessex Acoustic Folk Club. A guest night only club that’s been going for some 14 years, it’s been based since 2010 in Blandford Forum’s British Legion, an imposing early 19th Century Grade II listed building. It regularly packs out the venue’s function room and, true to form, Jez’s gig was another sell out.
Part of the reason for the hectic gig schedule Jez maintains is that he appears in many different guises, as a solo artist, with his regular band The Bad Pennies, as one of The Pitmen Poets, in the (semi-mythical) Broonzies and in the last year teaming up with fellow songwriter Steve Tilston. But on Friday we were treated to one of his rarest incarnations, appearing as a duo with Kate Bramley. Kate, although best known as fiddle player and vocalist with The Bad Pennies, has a full time career as a playwright and director with the Badapple Theatre Company but, somehow, the two of them had engineered to be in the same place at the same time, and the result was a night of superb music and humour.
As is the case with many a folk club, the evening opened with a support slot from a local musician. Rod Jenkins is a Blandford man but his musical repertoire is drawn from much further afield. Ranging from Lyle Lovett’s If I Had a Boat, a song that bizarrely mixes boats, ponies and cowboys, to the Appalachian songs of Diana Jones by way of Ian Matthews’ Christoforo’s Eyes the songs were delivered with skill and a light, self-deprecating humour that nicely set the tone for the evening.
Jez’s roots in the northeast of England have long provided him with source material and he’s become known for songs chronicling the ups and, mainly, downs of life in an area once an industrial powerhouse but with its mines and shipyards long in decline. Rarely as strident as the songs of many who follow a similar path and wherever possible suffused with a gentle humour, Jez’s songs genuinely give voice to the feelings of people faced with changes that shake the foundations of their lives. Nowhere was this better displayed than on his 2007 album, Jack Common’s Anthem, and he chose to open with a track from it, Will of the People. Take the concept of “the will of the people”, alternately so loved and feared by politicians, and give it a personality. Good old Will, it’s said he always used to be around, could move mountains when you needed him but just recently he seems to have disappeared. A song to make you think but with a great chorus that had the room singing right from the outset.
When the BBC planned to celebrate the original radio ballads by commissioning a new series in 2006, Jez was invited to contribute, ultimately producing 22 songs. He’s continued to be involved ever since, currently working on the series of ballads to commemorate the First World War. His set on Friday was peppered with a selection of these songs, starting with Taking on Men from the 2006 Ballad of the Big Ships and later we had Black Trades from the same ballad. Jez’s introduction to Taking on Men, describing it as “a song of hope and despair” for ship building in the North East perfectly summarises his talent for combining contrasting emotions in a single song. The Wrong Bus, from a yet to be broadcast ballad in the World War I series, shows off another facet of his song writing talents. He discovered that London omnibuses had been shipped over to France to be used as troop transports and this knowledge has given birth to a music hall style comic song. The title says enough really, what’s the worst that can happen when you catch the wrong bus?
The Wrong Bus is one of the few songs in which Kate doesn’t take a vocal part, usually she joins in choruses and frequently sings a harmony line. Jez accompanies his songs either on guitar, occasional harmonica, or on one of the larger instruments of the mandolin family that he chooses to call a cittern. As it has 8 strings in 4 courses not 10 in 5, you could quibble about the name but, hey, it’s his instrument and if he wants to call it a cittern, a cittern it is. Kate’s contributions to the arrangements can be on fiddle, mandolin, or cittern. The mix of instruments they use varies with each song, an ever changing musical texture throughout the evening. With their instinct for devising just the right combination of lyrics and arrangement, it’s hard to credit their performances as a duo are such a rarity. Kate is no mean songwriter herself, contributing a couple of songs as well as a joint composition. At some point she must have been faced with a tough career choice, theatre or music? Thankfully, whilst the majority of her time is spent in theatre work, she’s managed to successfully combine the two, to the benefit of us all.
An evening such as this, filled with great songs, excellently performed and linked with chat that’s every bit as entertaining is just what folk club guest nights should be about. There may be far fewer clubs around now than in the heyday of the 60’s folk revival but ones like Wessex Acoustic, providing entertainment of this quality for a bargain price, can surely be confident of a successful future.
Review by: Johnny Whalley