Reviews 2006

Woodman Folk Club - Reviews

Jez Lowe
Malcolm Jeffrey 27 January 2006
Friday evening rolls around, and Bob, Shirley, Stewart and I turn up at "The Woodman" in good time to get seats and beer before the room fills up with the turnout Jez Lowe traditionally attracts. The room is soon filled with voices of Jez fans, friends and visitors alike, time is soon eaten away with chats and catching up, and the atmosphere's good-natured and expectant : when the lights go down, there's an audible "Ooooh !" from the punters as if it's a Saturday morning picture club.

Taking the Graveyard Spot tonight is Bryn Phillips, whose rousing opener, "That Ain't No Way To Stop A Train", has the Naughty Corner scrabbling for percussive devices. When the lyrics demand a train whistle, the best that can be produced from this usually legendary rhythm section is a rather squeaky, almost ring-tone-digital effort, pathetic enough to have Bryn laughing while he's playing : after well-earned applause at the end he advises "You shouldn't blow whistles while eating crisps !" His second number is his epic vignette of supermarket misbehaviour, "Around And Around", which is equally well received.

Barry Priest is the next to be called to the stage, who lends his fine, sensitive voice to Richard Thompson's "Keep Your Distance". Following this hls fellow members of the BICA Band join him for Yazoo's "Only You", which they tell us was the first song they learned together (aaah) : the a cappella ending is particularly tight and earns warm applause. To finish their spot, they decide to play for us - and for the composer of the song at the back ! - Jez Lowe's own "Armstrong's Army" : in my book, it takes a certain amount of bravery to play a song in the presence of an author of such prominence as Mr Lowe, and they pull the task off well.

Finally, it's left to your humble reviewer to find the level with theoretically more risible renditions of Fred Wedlock's "Breathalysed'' and Jake Thackray's "Isabella". 'Hilarious', 'Uplifting', 'Magnificent' : all of these words and more can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary... As I retake my seat, Ian announces "If you've not seen Malcolm before, he usually has an evening to himself around November-ish." "Yes... nobody else comes." intones the voice of Trevor Durden from the Naughty Corner...

Then Jez Lowe takes the stage, sporting a "New stripey t-shirt - nothing's too good for Kingswinford." Strapping on his guitar and checking the tuning, he describes himself as a singer/songwriter of "songs from the North-East. I hope that's what you were expecting - 'cos it's all I do !" Continuing this theme into the introduction to his opening number, he says "If you come from the North-East, they expect you to be big, tough and hairy.", to which Trev Durden replies "...and that's just the women." "Thank you, madam." says Jez, not missing a beat. The opening song is "Skin Too Thin" (seemingly, Jez' Bad Pennies call it "Soft As Shite"!) and the Woodman chorus gets its first chance to join in : it's a song with beautiful, deceptively simple internal rhymes and features some tasty movable chord solo work to boot, so a fine set-opener. While we're in good voice, Jez keeps the momentum going with "Old Bones", another splendid favourite from his back catalogue, and we all sing along in the chorus with gusto, applauding just as enthusiastically at the end.

Jez is involved with a new musical project, he reveals. A new revival of the old "Radio Ballads" format is underway, and Jez and other folk songwriters are taking up Ewan MacColl's original mantle of documenting regional life in song. While he's telling us this, two lady punters walk right up to the apron of the stage just in front of Mr Lowe, look around (presumably for empty seats), and turn their backs to him and walk off again : Jez waves them a good-natured bye-bye with a smile and a shrug, all the while continuing with his introduction ! For his next song is one of his contributions to the show, a song of the return of the boom time to a steel town, called "Taking On Men''. It's typical of Jez' work - succinct, catchy, literate - but no mere point song : a last, sadder verse reflecting on the steelworks of today, once more in decline, is subtly reworked with a clever minor bass run down within the chords, and the whole is well received.

Next up is one of Jez' finest ballads, "London Danny" : he builds up initial pathos by reciting the pleading words of the chorus and pulling a desolate face, then comically debunks it by labelling the song "a Geordie version of Dolly Parton's 'Jolene'" with a mischievous grin ! The song, however, is beautifully played and sensitively recounted, and earns enthusiastic acclaim from the appreciative Woodman audience, while Jez switches to his cittern and dons a shiny black harmonica rack. After briefly cautioning us about the perils of malfunctioning, sticking harmonica racks ("better than safe sex..."), Jez launches into a bouncy and merry "Latch-Key Lover", still apparently referred to by the Bad Pennies as "The Ballad Of The Pathetic Git". On cue when the lyrics mention doorbells, a triangle rings out from Naughty Corner : "It's like playing for the Goons...!" quips Jez in between verses, fighting back involuntary smirks. As the song progresses, becoming further embellished by percussive effects, the audience get full entertainment value, and after a prolonged show of appreciation at the end, Mr Lowe returns to the subject of audience sound-effects with "I'm getting worried about the song I have planned for the second half - it's about a flatulent horse !" Then, after announcing that the next song is "Spitting Cousins", he adds "the potential in this one is enormous !" with a sly Geordie grin : "Spitting Cousins", a bitter and yet fiercely cheerful tale of the return of a prodigal Aussie, is another corker of a song and an definite crowd-pleaser.

We're treated to another new one next, called "The Fan-Dancer's Daughter" and loosely based on a true story of a lady's discovery of her mother's secret past : a concise, subtle number, picked-out in waltz time with an overall air of a period piece. Next, switching to mandolin, Jez plays us a further newie, "Vikings", which is, on the surface, a light-hearted, comical tale of Vikings living in Jez' shed - they all look like Robert Plant, and "we always maim to please" is their motto ! However, there's a subtext of comparing standards of behaviour old and new - the song's criticism of Viking-like invasions was, for some reason, not popular in the USA when Jez played it there... :) Have 21st Century humans progressed beyond Viking morals ? At one point Jez' observations of everyday behaviour comprising "laughing, drinking, cursing, picking on the little people" is oddly and unsettlingly familiar, striking much closer to home than Denmark...

It's the break now, quotes from the first half are delivered to Pete on the back of a beermat, and on the way to the bar, suddenly there's Jez and I sneak in a crafty request for "Tom-Tom". There's a clear example of the adage "money comes to money" with the winning of the raffle by the club's former host, Mick Harrington, and then Mr Lowe returns to the stage.

Jez opens the second half with an erudite, allegorical number called "Will Of The People", in which absent public spirit is embodied in an imaginary, missing folk hero, and he follows this thought-provoking song with the more familiar "Greek Lightning", which triggers mass harmony singing in the chorus. Jez keeps the momentum going with a splendid "Black Diamonds", and then tries another new "Radio Ballads" song out for us : it's a tragic, true tale of the Miami Showband, musicians touring Northern Ireland during 'the troubles', who find themselves fatally at the wrong place at the wrong time. Then Jez lightens the mood with a jocular lesson in Geordie vernacular, "Haddaway Gan On" (Bob seemed particularly fluent singing along to this one), and an epic comic "my dad's bigger than your dad" tale of ''The Night Of The Fight Between Davis And Golightly", based, says Jez, on a factual event in which "the names have been changed to protect... me" !

While the applause is subsiding, Jez checks his tunings : he's not happy with his new tuner, which he says is like tuning by satellite navigation - "according to this, I'm in Solihull", he says with a wry smile ! But the guitar's soon back in and he introduces the next song, "The Song Of The Indian Lass", a bittersweet, gentle song of a short-lived relationship which Bob's requested, and which proves to be the most moving part of the evening. He follows this with my request,"Tom-Tom", a fine song warning of the evils of drum machines and mp3 files, and after a quick swap to his cittern, brings the main set to a close with a jaunty, infectious "Can't Take It With You When You Go", with his audience joining enthusiastically in the chorus and in his well-deserved appreciation at the end.

Luckily, it's only ten past eleven, so Ian calls Jez back to the mike for a parting number, and he duly obliges with an infectious 'Tenterhooks", bringing the evening's entertainment to a close.

Verdict time then, and it's always easy at the end of a Jez Lowe review : once again, we at The Woodman were entertained by a songwriter of rare quality and a consummate performer with a healthy Geordie sense of humour. I'll certainly be back to see Jez Lowe again, and I'm sure that's true for all who were there.