Monday, 6 June 2011

The Finding of Nic Jones

It’s quite possible that my first experience of the Queen Elizabeth Hall was in the summer of 1983 helping (in a small way) my friend Mike Bettison who was directing a production of Peter Bellamy’s folk opera The Transports. Over the previous year I’d been falling among Salami Brothers and spending a lot of time at the Islington Folk Club then at The Empress Of Russia. Presided over by Bob Davenport it introduced me to people like The Watersons and Robin & Barry Dransfield, and took me to festivals big and small; Bampton, Whitchurch, Cleethorpes, and Sidmouth. And while it introduced me to many records the two that remain the soundtrack of that year were Dick Gaughan’s Handful Of Earth and Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs.

Nic Jones already seemed the lost man of English folk. In early 1982 he was involved in a horrendous car accident and was almost literally smashed into pieces. It was understood that the damage was such that he’d never perform again. So in the ‘83 production of The Transports his original role of The Father was taken by Taffy Thomas. Jones’ song on the original recording was to remain one of the few of his performances readily available. Even today it remains legally very hard to obtain his first four albums, originally released on Trailer.

What does remain readily available, on Topic, is Penguin Eggs. It’s an album that remains as fresh and as vivid as it was in 1980, and as essential. But it did seem to stand as his legacy as Jones appeared a shadowy figure living a twilight existence in Yorkshire and then latterly in Devon. That standing was changed irrevocably on Saturday last back at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

When I bought the ticket earlier in the year for In Search Of Nic Jones I was expecting a tribute show from a classy line-up. I thought that perhaps we’d see Jones, as an audience member or possibly briefly as an ensemble singer with the other members of the short-lived folk ‘supergroup’ Bandoggs. It was very moving when at the show’s commencement as the participants took their seats around the stage he joined them, walking with a stick, tentative but with an aura of self-possession, seating himself next to Martin Carthy and adjacent to Pete Coe.

The show did progress as a series of splendid performances. To remark that I was especially struck by Jackie Oates and Belinda O'Hooley’s ‘Isle Of France’ and ‘Annachie Gordon’, Anais Mitchell’s ‘The Drowned Lovers’ and ‘Humpback Whale’, Blair Dunlop’s ‘Canadee-I-O’, and the singing of Damien Barber isn’t to suggest that any of the other artistes, and remember we’re including Carthy here, weren’t also super.

Towards the end of the first half the surviving members of Bandoggs, with Barber taking Tony Rose’s place, stepped forward for a set comprising ‘Adam Was A Poacher’, 'Tailor in the Tea Chest’, and Loudon Wainwright’s ‘Swimming Song’; Lindsay Hutton would have enjoyed Pete Coe’s recollection of a John Peel moment, “ that was Bandoggs in session and now The Cramps”. If it was inspirational to see Nic Jones standing amongst that ensemble, what happened at the finish of the second half had to be one of the most emotionally-charged moments I’ve ever witnessed on a stage .

As Martin Carthy concluded ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ Nic and Belinda O'Hooley moved across to the piano, and proceeded to give us a devastating reading of Rick Lee’s ‘Thanksgiving’. It was a quite extraordinary experience; against all expectations this great singer returned and as he sang, just a few yards away from me, one could still see clearly the face from the Penguin Eggs cover, and could tell that despite all Nic Jones remains vital.

He then joined his son, Joe Jones, centre-stage. Joe, with his purple mohican and otherwise shaved head, is not only a typically dry Yorkshire punk but also a fine guitarist. He began by paying tribute to his mother; “without her he wouldn’t be here...and nor would I”. Then they played one of her favourite songs, allegedly, ‘Oh Dear Rue The Day’ followed by Radiohead’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’: “Everyone’s paying tribute to my dad he wants to pay tribute to Radiohead”, and then, seemingly at Jim Moray’s suggestion ‘Ten Thousand Miles’.

Ten Thousand Miles’ was the cue, no doubt all around the hall, for the tears. The song, in its own standing, is moving enough but hearing it sung in 2011 by the man who sung it best in 1977 on The Noah’s Ark Trap was close to overload. So much of past time, memory, loss, and redemption were all bound up in that one performance and it was carried off so perfectly.

Over the following couple of days I watched the videos and pondered on the show, realising that for me with all my baggage ‘Ten Thousand Miles’ was the killer, but the important song, the deal-breaker, of the night was really ‘Fake Plastic Trees’. What it showed was that Nic Jones didn’t stop in 1982. Last Saturday he wasn’t a museum-piece, an archaeological find, but still a living musician and a performer even if the events of his life may have narrowed the parameters inside which he can practice his art. I would think it’s unlikely he’ll perform live regularly but on this evidence there seems no reason why he and Joe shouldn’t record a few songs and put out an album, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d be intrigued by their choices.

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