Songwriting partnerships are nothing new in folk music. By dint of its innate openness and a strong sense of democracy amongst its practitioners, the genre lends itself to collaboration. But when two artists as singular and well-respected as Steve Tilston and Jez Lowe get together to co-write after forty-odd years of ploughing their own distinctive furrows, it is definitely worth sitting up and listening.
Lowe is known as a writer of socially conscious folk songs. He grew up in Easington Colliery and witnessed first-hand the closure of the pits in his town and others like it, and the subsequent economic malaise that still affects the area to this day. He was also acutely aware of the Easington pit disaster that occurred four years before he was born and which cost the community eighty-three lives. Social injustice has been the driving force behind his songwriting and remains so to this day.
Tilston’s career has been perhaps more varied – he ran a folk club with Bert Jansch for a short period and has dabbled in rock, jazz and even music for ballet, whilst always anchoring himself within the folk idiom. Perhaps as well-known for his fleet-fingered guitar playing as for his singing, he has contributed his compositions or his musicianship to Peter Bellamy, Fairport Convention and John Renbourn, amongst many others.
The Janus Game is a true collaboration in the sense that both musicians sat down and wrote the songs together, and while their subject matter may be varied, their approach is balanced and entirely coherent. The title track, which opens the album, is something of a mission statement: the vocals are shared pretty much fifty-fifty, and Lowe’s bouzouki mirrors Tilston’s understated guitar while the lyrics deal with the way in which music – and a lot else besides – exists and thrives by looking to the future as well as to the past. The title is a reference to the Roman god of beginnings and endings, whose binary nature is reflected in lyrics throughout the album.
Lucky Sami places us very much in the present – in particular, the horrific present of a stranded child refugee. Tilston takes the lead here, and his playing is subtle and evocative: there is a downbeat jazziness to it, but also a nod to the classic sound of Donovan, Nick Drake or even Tilston’s old friend Jansch. The Wagga Moon is a jauntier affair and is very much a Lowe song, its title coming from a local name for Hartlepool’s skyline, illuminated by the steelworks, another of the North-East’s industries to have disappeared. Kate Bramley – a member of Lowe’s band The Bad Pennies – provides a lithe skilful fiddle backdrop. Indeed Bramley’s playing and the fluid double bass of Hugh Bradley are among The Janus Game’s many highlights.
While Lowe’s songs are by and large universal, Tilston prefers to concentrate on the individual. Leaving For Spain gives voice to one woman’s despair at the circumstances in her country and her quest for fulfilment in sunnier climes. Even on its own it is a poignant piece of songwriting – leant some local colour by Lowe’s mandolin and accordion flourishes – but when considered in light of songs like Lucky Sami it takes on an unsettling irony that is deeper than satire. It is round about this point in the album that you realise just how relevant Tilston and Lowe’s concerns are. Those concerns move into even clearer focus with Crosses, Crescents And Stars, an even-handed dig at the futility and contradictory nature of religious war.
Lightening the atmosphere somewhat, The Strings That Wizz Once Strummed is a Donovan-quoting, pleasantly loping nod to Wizz Jones, a stalwart of the British folk scene from the sixties to the present day, while Shiney Row is a slice of north-eastern realism tinged with just the right amount of witty nostalgia: Auf Wiedersehen Pet meets One Foot In The Grave. At this point it is interesting to note that both men came to the music business relatively late on, after earning their livings in presumably more prosaic ways – Tilston was a graphic designer in the early 1970s – and this grounding in the real world may be a contributing factor to the earthiness of their songs, which are emotional without being overly sentimental.
The album’s themes of past and present, and the inescapable duality inherent in human existence – and in particular in war and peace – are perhaps most keenly felt in Tattered And Torn, a song that upends the old ballad The Bonnie Bunch Of Roses (essentially a song celebrating the unified spirit of the British Isles in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars) to create a sad but scathing portrait of this country’s place in the world today.
Elsewhere there is a refuge in humour – Mrs Einstein is a brisk, funny rewrite of history’s battle of the sexes, borne along on Lowe’s chirpy mandolin and Tilston’s trademark guitar. And On Beacon Hill is a tender piece of social history that takes in both musicians’ childhoods. It is a tale of warmth and longing in which the two distinct voices meet and somehow subtly bond over a shared needs and a universal sense of belonging, and as such it is as quietly powerful as anything on the album.
The closing track Goodbye Johnny D’s/Hey Frankie is a direct tribute to the spirit of inclusivity in which The Janus Game came to be made, a personal note of thanks that doubles as an insight into the workings of touring musicians, like the Mamas & the Papas Creeque Alley without the drugs or the in-jokes. It caps an album that, like the deity that gives it its name, has two very distinct faces: one that is warm, whimsical and comforting, and another spikier, angrier side. These two well-travelled veterans of the folk music scene have still got a great deal to say and can still say it with style. That they have chosen to say it together, for this album at least, is something we should all be grateful for.
You can catch Steve Tilston and Jez Lowe at Celtic Connections as part of the Fairport Convention at 50 on 24 January 2017 at The Old Fruit Market, Glasgow.
The Janus Game is out now on Tantobie