Saturday, September 22, 2012

Nic Jones

Cecil Sharp House

Nic Jones stands at a sort of music stand, possibly to lean on it, possibly because he has the words of the songs written on sheets of paper. He shows no particular signs of needing either, although someone helps him up and down the steps onto the stage. I don't think I would have recognised him; but then my only mental picture of him is the cover of Penguin Eggs. He greets the audience with a Carthyesque nonchalence: “Hello. How are you?” He starts out speaking -- almost whispering -- the songs, with the endearingly dated habit of cupping his hand over his ear. His son Joe plays guitar; people who know says his technique is just like his father's was. The redoubtable and not at all depressing Belinda O’Hooley provides keyboard, squeezebox and quips. (”You should go on Britain’s Got Talent.")

There is an atmosphere of irreverence of the kind that only happens in the presence of someone who is universally venerated. Joe says that he knows that everyone regards his father has a hero and an icon, but that he thinks of him as a man who got stuck in the revolving doors. Later, he seems about to choke up when saying what an inspiration his father has been to him, but Nic chips in "Oh...I never meant to be.”

I've probably been a little inclined to over-work the term "legend" in the past. Maybe I've even applied words like "great" and "mighty" to any three men with a fiddle and an accordion between them. I fell in love with songs like Humpbacked Whale and the Drowned Lovers simply as songs, when I was first listening to folk music. Before that, actually, since Bob's version of Canadee-i-o is generally regarded as a homage to Nic's version. My I-Pod would claim that The Little Pot Stove is one of my two or three favourite songs. As I started to learn a little more I found out that Penguin Eggs is pretty widely regarded as the greatest folk album of all time (second only to Fairport's Liege and Lief). And that Nic Jones is a legend in every possible sense of the word. So forgive me if I find it a little hard to maintain any critical distance. A review which summed up my feelings would have to go something like this:


Saturday night's concert, at Cecil Sharp House was very much a "Nic Jones and friends" event, and billed as such. It was a funny, messy affectionate, exasperating gig. Belinda and Heidi tweeted straight afterwards that they were disappointed; that they felt the evening lost its focus on Nic. I certainly wished he'd started earlier: he didn't begin his set until around 10.30. Maybe his state of health doesn't allow him to perform for more than half an hour or so?

There’s no getting away from it. In a strange way The Accident almost seems to be one of the friends who is sharing a stage with him; not so much the elephant in the room, more a family ghost who’s no longer scary or even particularly embarrassing. In a horrible way it’s part of what makes him legend: in 1982 Nic’s car collided with a lorry, and for 30 years he didn't perform. But then he made a public appearance at a tribute show at festival in 2011. People referred to that his final live performance; but he appeared a few festivals this summer. So picking up last minute tickets to see this concert felt a bit like discovering that there were one or two spare seat to see James Dean doing a cameo at the National Theatre.

I don't know my way around the Jones discography beyond owning the currently available CDs, so I admit to rather loosing track of who all the friends and associates who queued up to pay tribute to Nic, sometimes at considerable length, for the first three hours of the concert actually were. His first band, in the 60s, was called Halliard; they split up in 1968, so getting them to appear together tonight was a considerable coup. They described searching libraries for obscure broadside ballads and composing cod-traditional tunes for them. ("Bedlam lads are bonny" was one of theirs.)

A big tip of my folk hat, incidentally, to Jim Moray who came onto the stage; sang exquisite versions of his three best songs (Long Lankin, Jenny of the Moor, and Lord Douglas), said how privileged he felt to be present, and got off the stage. That's exactly the right way for the current Biggest Thing In Folk to behave when paying tribute to a legend.

Nic is present on the stage during Halliard set, and with his old friends from Bandoggs, but he isn't doing much more than singing along. Some of us became nervous. Is this all the Nic we are going to get?

But at about 10.30, after he had been awarded his gold lifetime achievement badge by Shirley Collins (current president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society), his turn finally came around. Belinda says that she hopes we brought sleeping bags, and claims that Shirley has missed the last train back to Brighton. I myself am becoming resigned to spending the night on Paddington Station.

It's cliche, I suppose, to say that when he started sining the years seemed to roll away, but there is something in the voice, in the delivery, in the way in phrases the lines, in the atmosphere, in the storytelling — the little laugh in his voice at the punch line of Barrack Street (I HAVE HEARD NIC JONES SING BARRACK STREET) which is unmistakable. Magical. I have him filed in my head as a traditional sing of the Carthy school (or, in fact, vice versa), but he’s a very fine song writer in his own right. “The Ruins on the Shore” is a strange ballad about the end of the world ("It was inspired by Planet of the Apes" quips Belinda.)"Now" is a quiet philosophical piece which seems to sum the story up pretty well. "The past is gone / the future will come / the soul shows us how / to live in the now."

Of course, there is only one song to finish on. I hate to think how many professional and amateur folkies must have been in the audience, so the singing along is of an exceptionally high standard. We’re only meant to be joining in the chorus, but when we get to the bit in verse 3 which goes….

We live it seven days a week, cold hands and frozen feet
Bitter days and lonely nights, making grog and having fights
There's swordfish and whale meat sausage and fresh penguin eggs a treat...

…we can’t help calling out the name of that famous album, and there’s a ripple of applause. Nic’s been conducting the audience throughout, but now he seems to clench his fist in a triumphant salute. And why not?


(I cannot speak for Shirley Collins, but I got to the station in time to catch the midnight coach. In case you were worrying.)

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