Wednesday 12 November 2014


CD Review

The Ballad Beyond

Let's get the downside out of the way first, since Wotcheor! this is the first album from mellow-voiced Geordie Jez Lowe for four years, on the upside he has put together 15 tracks which more than make up for it. 

Jez Lowe has released his first album in four years
What's even more incredible is the list of songs have been almost 10 years in the making.
If you have ever seen Lowe live then you will have enjoyed his observations, anecdotes and insights and while there are none of the stories he tells on stage between the songs what you do have with these tracks are 15 musical narratives which are witty, thoughtful, poignant and relevant.
They are all executed with Lowe's signature laid-back and gentle intent where his skill as a singer/songwriter and musician are evident but what comes through clearly are the lyrics which make this album such a delight.
The songs are categorised into five chapters which give an insight as to their origins and inspirations.
Under the first heading of the Greats and Good the album kicks off with the Lazarus dance and just like the eponymous Biblical character the dead come back to life in a scenario akin to the Danse Macabre. This time instead of Lazarus answering the call of Jesus he hears the music and starts the dance before calling others to join him.
The slow slip jig-style music complete with Lowe on harmonica, Maggie Holland on banjo and Andy May on pipes starts to build the dance with a Who's who? of those heroes who have shuffled off this mortal coil, an illustrious list which includes Jimi Hendrix and Nelson Mandela.
As Lowe's gentle hypnotic voice keeps the rhythm you get the bizarre picture building of all these famous figures coming together for the dance for no other reason than the music is playing.
If they have a crossroads in the North East where you can trade your soul to the devil for the mojo then it seems Lowe may have just discovered it.
Tether's End is slightly tongue in cheek about the old blues fable but in the soothing ballad with its subtle blues rift Lowe also seems to be saying there are no easy fixes but it goes out on a pretty cynical strand where he compares politicians to the devil with the scathing lyrics: "There stood a posh politician with a heart as black as coal, a long silver tongue wrapped around a pot of gold. He said "I don't want your votes son, I'm coming for your soul!"
The new album from Jez Lowe
This is such a mellow album and Lowe has such a lyrical lilt to his singing it's a bit like getting a musical massage as you listen to him.
With The Pitmen Poets this is a tribute to the men who worked the coalfaces and mines and put their experiences down in word and song. It's a very simple but effective tune which relies almost entirely on the lyrics with the understated sax gently carrying the words along. The cadence is such that you could probably swap Jez for Ralph McTell and there would be very little to choose between them.
The second part Tracks and Field are all built around the Olympics and the politics of sport which are pretty obvious from the titles Berlin 36. Jesse Owen's Shoes and The Ballad of Dorando and Johnny.
Berlin 36 is almost spiritual and has a tune very similar to Brazil and with Lowe's voice there is almost a playfulness to his singing and it does have that slightly feeling of parody as you find in Monty Python songs.
But don't be fooled its lyrics once again are barbed, pointing out the hypocrisy and politics behind the infamous Berlin Olympics. Cleverly it anchors back to its origins with the Greek chorus, provided with the help of fellow raconteur George Papavgeris.
Intricately linked to those historic games where it was to be a showcase for the superiority of the Aryan race is the story of black athlete Jesse Owens who singlehandedly humiliated and infuriated Adolf Hitler.
This is what folk music is all about ,there is everything in this song, narrative, human interest, humour, poignancy, political statement and of course great execution in the singing and music which has both a blues feel to it but also the hammering sound you would associate with a shoemaker.
Ballad of Dorando and Johnny again exposes the ridiculous link between politics and sport. Once again Lowe is the storyteller, this time focusing on the 1908 London Olympics.
The tune on this one is very refined and almost has a calypso/samba undertone as Lowe tells the story of the unfairness of nations spitting their global dummies out.
Last in the quartet is The Morpeth Olympics. Lowe this time producing the unmistakably tinny sound of the mandolin.
The tune has a definite Ikley Moor tint to it and Lowe exercises his funny bone with gusto not just in the light tune but in the cheeky lyrics, if this doesn't make you smile then you need a humour implant.
The late Judy Dinning
Moving on to part three Writes and Wrongs this opens with Unprotected which gives its age away when you realise it's about the scourge of AIDS which is no longer a sexy topic for the media but is still out there affecting people's lives.
This is a thoughtful and morose tune which never gets heavy even though it's about such a serious topic.
Candles is a ponderous and thought-provoking song which again is strong on the lyrics and could almost be a poem. It's never certain whether the words allude to lost innocence or to the man looking back and wondering where his youth went or if it's dealing with the actual loss of someone loved. This in a way is the beauty of this simple, effective and smooth ballad; it will speak to people in different ways.
The final song in this part is the Austerity Alphabet which has more of a rock feel to it. The song does exactly what it says on the tin each letter is linked to a part of society and life in which we need to hold our hands up and admit out responsibility or collusion to the mess we have made of the world we live in.
Billys and Tommys is the title of part four and opens with Names and is another thought-provoking gentle ballad which is accentuated by the gentle strumming of Lowe's guitar. The song is a wonderfully simple tribute to those who died in wars and was inspired by the blank headstones at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Ypres, Belgium.
In complete contrast is the jaunty The Wrong Bus, which has that feel of those jingoistic songs of the First World War which sound all happy and full of bluster but scratch the service and the truth of the young men never going to return, is exposed
Finishing off this part is The Town Hall Yard which again is very much akin to McTell's style of singing and telling stories. The song is about those who until a few years ago were ignored, those who were branded deserters or cowards. Many were suffering from what, until recently, was called shell shock and is now recognised as post traumatic stress disorder.
The tribute to those who were shot as "cowards"
at The National Arboretum War Memorial
The yard referred to is where more than 300 British servicemen were shot, it's not known how many were suffering from shell shock.
Lowe's final part opens with the jug band beat of Bother at the Hoppins. This is a much happier tune and comes from the artist's own memories of the Tyneside fairground which is the Hoppins of the title.
This is a real foot tapper and gives Lowe a chance to show off a little on the gob iron which gives it that right feel of a day out and enjoying the liveliness and hustle and bustle of a fairground.
The last part of the last part is Lass of Hexamshire which Lowe has adapted from a traditional tune and added his own lyrics as tribute to Judy Dinning who was a member of Lowe's band The Bad Pennies.
It's a soft ballad which is given a suitably lamentable sound through May's pipe playing.
On this album, most of which was originally written for the Radio Two series of programmes, The Radio Ballads, Lowe shows what an extraordinary storyteller he is. The music, as good as it is, is almost secondary to the cutting, evocative, provocative, thoughtful, witty and insightful words.
Lowe is often copied but never equalled and after three decades of performing is a great observer of life. He portrays an innate sense of doing what's right and has the wonderful talent of being able to entertain in his trademark gentle way while at the same time making people think about the world around them.

The Ballad Beyond is on the Tantobie Label and will be released November 17 you can buy it through Lowe's website or Proper Music.

The Mike Harding Folk Show

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