The name Home Service is more than just a folk-rock institution. The original Home Service band was formed in the early 1980s out of the creative nucleus of the Albion Band lineup that had produced its classic 1978 album Rise Up Like The Sun, ostensibly with the dual, linked purpose of providing a vehicle for John Tams to explore contemporary themes in his songwriting and to provide further gravitas for the musical expression of these topics by incorporating a brass section into the trusty folk-rock mix. Three albums and a slew of theatre work later, in 1987, the band split. In 2011, however, the discovery and release of some stupendous live recordings from 1986 provided the stimulus for a reunion of the band (all members bar Howard Evans, who had tragically died of cancer in 2006); this rapidly led to the accolade of Best Live Act at 2012’s Radio 2 Folk Awards.
The renaissance of Home Service then continued in earnest over the next couple of years; John Tams survived a throat operation, and he and the band developed some crucial new repertoire. Sadly, though, its projected new studio album was not to materialise, for, in the autumn of 2015, Messrs. Tams and Davie both departed the band. The remaining five members (Graeme Taylor, Andy Findon, Michael Gregory, Roger Williams and Steve King) took the difficult decision to soldier on. As they admit on their website, “replacing Tam would never be an easy task, but with John K joining our ranks we have found exactly the calibre of character and musicianship required” – John K being of course who else but the renowned, and seriously irrepressible, John Kirkpatrick, singer and squeezer extraordinaire. The two remaining additions to the complement are versatile and well-regarded bassist Rory McFarlane and trumpet/flugelhorn supremo Paul Archibald. (Messrs. Kirkpatrick and Archibald were already working together, alongside Roger Williams, in the reunited incarnation of Brass Monkey, who themselves had brought out a stonking live CD-and-DVD set back in 2013). However, and even more recently, Roger has unfortunately had to resign from the band due to deteriorating health, with Nigel Barr now filling the vacant trombone chair. Thankfully, Roger was able to contribute in full (and how!) to the sessions for A New Ground, so that album will stand proud to represent the lone studio artefact from the mighty octopus that was the newly-revitalised Home Service before Roger’s departure.
A New Ground admirably follows the acknowledged Home Service practice (nay, tradition) of complementing keen philosophical and politically aware commentaries in song, generally both stirring and moving in nature, with a clutch of diverse and creatively scored instrumental showpieces. The latter prove as diverse as the band’s musical personalities, ranging from bold, rousing and majestic (The King’s Hunt, by 17th century composer John Bull, which moves magisterially from Strawhead to Early Music Consort to Morris On and Mike Oldfield, with fanfare-full presence aplenty) to gleefully eccentric (the fun circus-band klezmer of Papa Joe’s Polka, and Andy’s delectably nutty-boys-fuelled Cheeky Capers). Also, on occasion, a tune arises in conjunction with a song (the Playford tune Ten Pound Lass forms a stentorian prelude to Issy Emeney’s bleak foot-and-mouth-themed opus The Skies Turned Grey, whereas Graeme’s early composition Chaconne is used as coda to a sturdy new arrangement of the traditional Arthur McBride).
The disc’s quotient of (seven) songs proves an interesting bunch, mostly contemporary compositions with something to say and a passionate way of saying it and unified by John Kirkpatrick’s trademark vital, forthright vocal delivery. One of the best, for sure, is The Last Tommy, Issy Emeney’s powerful reflection that takes a perhaps unexpected viewpoint on the purpose of war. This is almost matched by disc opener Kellingley, one of two items taken from the writing of Derek Pearce (in this instance his original words are adapted by John and set to music by Graeme); following the closure of Britain’s last deep coal mine, Derek celebrates the ethos of the miners while at the same time sounding a note of reservation in recognising the pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Derek’s second song, Melting, originally written for his own album Paradox, voices desperate, justified concerns regarding the effect of global warming; the weary sentiment and somewhat repetitive mantra of its refrain is redeemed by Home Service’s gorgeous, sonorous brass arrangement. I’ve the obverse kind of slight reservation regarding Wallbreaker, a thought-provoking piece by John’s son Benji, whereupon the bite of its lyric doesn’t to my mind quite justify its cheery, light, almost flippant musical setting. Tucked away almost casually in the midst of it all is Dirt, Dust, Lorries And Noise, a chirpy little protest song that John wrote for a North Staffordshire community play in 1990, set to an infectious rude-boys ska rhythm. Finally, as a kind of centrepiece, we find the disc’s title number, which brings us John’s skilful and knowing adaptation of a Henry Purcell lyric from 1683.
The original Home Service boasted a strong, nay indelible sense of identity, and it’s to his fellow musicians’ immense credit that their choice of John Kirkpatrick as vocal front-man has been amply vindicated. His ebullient personality, unbridled enthusiasm, vocal passion and musical intelligence provide the ideal binding and galvanising thread for the contributions of the rest of the band. It’s a fearsome unit for sure, and it makes a thrilling sound. All the musicians blow their socks off in a true spirit of equality, both unafraid of and comfortable with their individual talents and keeping a sympathetic grip on the spotlight, while exercising due restraint when necessary. Tribute must be paid to the production skills of Graeme Taylor, who knows the band dynamic inside out and displays an unerring sense of correct balance, bringing out those “stepping up to the mic” moments with due care and perspective. Breath-catching solos like Andy’s flute on Kellingley, Steve’s tenor sax on A New Ground, the subtle and sensitive touches of the various brass instruments weaving in and out (less a wall of sound than a choir), and of course Graeme’s own blistering electric guitar salvos. All executed, organised and managed with exceptional responsiveness by those concerned, with not a note or fill wasted. So what’s the verdict on A New Ground? A magnificent team effort!
Upcoming Live Dates: Wednesday 21st December – Half Moon, Putney
A New Ground is Out Now
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Photo Credit: Andy Holdsworth