There's something so wonderful about listening to someone who just knows stuff. Just hanging out while they spin stories, digress, mine fact-y nuggets. While they find truths in the everyday and fashion magic from mere words. It's just the greatest thing.
JON WILKS knows stuff and hanging out with him brings you more stories than you can count, more stuff than you could ever imagine.
He is a polymath; a singer of traditional songs, a songwriter, a lyrical guitarist, a podcast host (THE OLD SONGS PODCAST), the curator of a fine and folk-y website (TRADFOLK). He's a master of digression and an opener of worlds.
Again and again, he tells us a story before singing a song. One is about a pub, The Fox in Birmingham. He tells us where it would have been (on the site of a Primark, naturally) and who drank there. He tells us of street hawkers, of ballad sellers, of Broadsides and the reasons they were written. He does it with love, wonder and a sense of fun. He brings the whole scene to life. And then he sings the song - The Boatswain - and adds further layers. It's an old, old song, it's a little bit rude (Cecil Sharp described it as "putrid") and packed full of characters. Each slightly more despicable than the last but each as real as you or I.
Characters are the currency that Wilks deals in. Whether they are murderous wives, cheating tailors, thoughtful down-and-outs or strolling dandies, his songs are a parade of real life. A flickering cine film of black and white lives, painstakingly hand coloured to bring out every striking detail. Pretty Girls of Brummagem is rich in humanity and Wilks clearly finds the people he's singing about as fascinating as we do.
Many of the songs sung were collected hundreds of years ago - he describes them as "authorless songs" - and Wilks is a wonderful interpreter of these corners of the folk canon. His voice is strong and honest, the odd flattened vowel peeking through reminding you of his Midlands upbringing. The Fowler is a song, he tells us, that shares its root origin with Swan Lake. It's a song that tells the age-old tale of a man who mistakes his girlfriend for a swan and shoots her. Of course. Johnny Sands is taken from a book called The Funniest Songs in the World and is, in fact, a nasty little thing about a tired marriage. Wilks delivers it unaccompanied and holds the audience in amused raptures.
For all of the ancient characters, the Broadsides and the old, Midlands-centric songs it is when Wilks sings his own songs that you cherish his company. Greek Street, taken from his brilliant new album Before I Knew What Had Begun I Had Already Lost, is wide-eyed with the transience of love during a teenage summer. It's awash with the romanticism of a Soho sunrise after a debauched night out and is, very simply, a great London song. Tape Machine is equally gorgeous. A song of love and luck, of surreptitious recordings and the joy of a new city early in the morning. It's warm, affectionate and very beautiful. Durham Fayre, another of his own, unfurls the lives of real people, hard work and honest lives. In contrast to songs about shooting swans this is what a proper folk song should do, it reveals something about all of us and the everyday, interesting things that make us up.
Before Wilks there is another fine interpreter of old songs. JENNIE HIGGINS is from around these parts and is, quite clearly, a little bit giggly-nervous. Not that she has any cause. Most of her set is a cappella, augmented now and again by a shruti box. She has a sweet, clear voice and, on trad favourites Let No Man Steal Your Thyme and The Cutty Wren, she sings with the gift of a natural storyteller. It is on the slightly bawdy My Husband's Got No Courage in Him that she really allows her voice off the leash though, the nerves all gone and a sing-along inspired.
If being in the presence of someone that revels in just knowing stuff is a wonderful thing, then an evening with Jon Wilks is easily as good as it gets.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell
We begin our Summer Programme on Friday 19 May, when JON WILKS, a prominent fingerpicking guitarist and singer who performs traditional English folk songs and broadside ballads, headlines the monthly concert.
With his background as a former editor of Time Out magazine and contributor to Dazed & Confused, The Guardian and other publications, Jon has a keen eye and ear for storytelling. During his live shows, he mixes entertaining folk song performances with fascinating tidbits about the original singers and collectors that he has unearthed during his extensive research on traditional folk music in the UK.
Aside from being a talented musician and performer, Jon is also the founder and editor of TRADFOLK.CO, a website dedicated to the traditional music and ritualistic culture of England. He has released three solo albums, three albums and two EPs with The Grizzly Folk, and an album and EP with Japan-based indie band, Cut Flowers. He co-arranged and performed tracks on Jackie Oates’s Gracious Wings album and was a part of Slow Jane, the quartet that created videos of Nick Drake songs during lockdown.
In addition to his music career, Jon is the presenter of THE OLD SONGS PODCAST and gigs whenever he can. His talent has been recognized by Guitarist, one of the world’s biggest guitar magazines, which featured him as one-to-watch in July 2022. Jon’s new album, Before I Knew What Had Begun I Had Already Lost, is released this month.
Joining Jon on the bill will be JENNIE HIGGINS, a traditional folk singer and historian known for her a cappella traditional arrangements of folk songs that tell women’s stories. She released her debut album Where Are All The Women?, which explores the plethora of womanhood presented in traditional folk song, earlier this year.
Tickets for the concert, which takes place at CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND on Friday 19 May 2023, are available online HERE and from MELANIE'S KITCHEN in Downend (cash only). They are priced at £14 each in advance or £16 on the door. Doors open at 7.30pm and the entertainment starts around 7.45pm. You can also buy a season ticket, which covers this concert as well as June’s Bella Hardy gig and the visit of Owen Spafford & Louis Campbell in July, and saves you a few quid! These are only available online.
There will be a bar, stocking cider, soft drinks, wine, hot drinks and real ale from locally-based HOP UNION BREWERY. Audience members are encouraged to bring their own glass/mug/tankard, as well as reusable bottles for water, as part of the drive to be more environmentally aware; there is a 50p discount for those that do. There will also be sweet treats available at the bar courtesy of Radstock-based THE GREAT CAKE COMPANY, as well as a prize draw, which helps to fund the support artists for each concert.
"What a great space this is'', says Dave Harbottle. "It's like the perfect combination of the old and the new." He's right too, CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND is looking at its very best tonight. The sunset streams through the open doors, blue lights gently uplight the mullioned windows, the woodwork painted subtle shades. It's an old place cast in a different light.
In Devon duo HARBOTTLE & JONAS, the church has found a band with whom it might have a spiritual bond. They're a combination of the old and the new too. Starting with Was It You, a Ewan Carruthers song about Scott of the Antarctic's last moments, they are delightfully hushed, wonderfully gentle. The harmonies that they weave fall as lightly as spring rain. Freya Jonas has a voice of rare beauty, but it's not flash; it very softly calls our names, an honest humility not a rafter raising roar.
Hall Sands is more upbeat. A song remembering a village washed away on the South Coast of Devon, it's filled with the echoes of an old place but bounces along with the fondest of memories. Harbottle's acoustic guitar captures the crash of waves while the harmonium (that Jonas plays with her leg!) bottles the voices drifting on the sea air. Jonas wonders, at one stage, whether they've lived around Totnes for too long because so many of their songs are steeped in sea water. Hall Sands is certainly not the only one.
Mingulay Boat Song is instantly recognisable, a bit of Scottish trad arr, but here it is very, very lovely indeed. Harbottle plays cittern with a harp-like delicacy whilst keeping time with a simple kick drum. Jonas exhorts us to raise our voices - "where better place to do that than here?" - but none of us can get close to her. By the time these two break the song down to an acapella conclusion any hopes of singing along are in the past. Their harmonies are glorious.
In a move that's, surely, guaranteed to bait their Devonian neighbours, Cornwall My Home is a sea shanty slowed to the pace of a spiritual. There's no rabble rousing or beating on tables here, this is Americana-tinged and filled with yearning. Not so much a celebration, more a heartsick remembering. Many of the sea related songs come from an album made a few years ago and the title track, The Sea Is My Brother, is another where the waves threaten to pull you away, into another world. This one is Kerouac-ean and ocean deep.
Of the non-seafaring songs, perhaps, Whenever You See A Robin is the one that is most affecting. Taken from their last physical release, The Beacon, it's another song stuffed with memories. Written in response to the death of the father of a friend, it's unbearably tender, funny and honest. Just like all the best eulogies. Harbottle takes the lead and sings with all of the care that is needed, Jonas adds sweetness as well as harmonium and concertina. It's the sort of song that you'd hope someone would sing for you, when you're gone.
All that's left are a couple of rousing shanties, a bit of down-home crude comedy, with Peggy Seeger's It's A Free World, and a hymn. Now The Green Blade Riseth, taken from their current digital-only release Saving The Good Stuff vol 1, is a song of resurrection. It takes the old and makes it new. As does the final song in the evening, a gorgeous, slowed version of Black Is The Colour. Harbottle & Jonas find the timeless and paint it with different colours.
The support act this evening has been to Downend before. Way back in 2015 ROBERT LANE supported the magnificent O'Hooley & Tidow. "It's lovely to be back so soon," he jokes. Lane mixes blues-y acoustic guitar, snatches of indie-folk and a wry sense of storytelling, poking at odd little corners just as all the best singer-songwriters do. Sick Of Me is gently self-effacing while Bill Frost's Flying Machine is whimsical, telling of the first, proper, aeroplane built in Wales. On his last visit to Downend, Lane covered the Bee Gees in a folkified style, this time he has a tilt at disco folk with My Love's In Deep. It's neither particularly folk nor especially disco but it's still a great tune.
This "great space" continues to give us the very best evenings. Long may it last.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell
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