This month, journalist Colin Irwin takes a look at the cult of Nic Jones, ahead of Nic’s appearance at the In Search of Nic Jones concert at London’s QEH on 28th May 2011. Click on the following links to read our previous in-depth features: Legend of The Watersons and Mary Gauthier in Song.
** LATEST ** The documentary ‘The Enigma Of Nic Jones – The Return Of Britain’s Lost Folk Hero’ will be shown on Friday 27th Sept on BBC Four at 10PM, find out more here.
August, 2010: a bright Thursday afternoon in the seaside town of Sidmouth, Devon, England…
A tall, thin, slightly lopsided figure of 63 summers beams broadly, acknowledging the greetings of people he’s never met before and surveys the enormous queue that’s been assembling around the large marquee for a couple of hours and is now snaking out towards the seafront.
“What are those daft buggers all waiting for?” says Nic Jones, with a mischievous twinkle. Erm, they’ve come to see you, Nic…
He chuckles infectiously. Nic Jones has a chuckle like no-one else. “Daft buggers,” he repeats. “They’d be better off going to see Radiohead…”
He talks a lot about Radiohead, does Nic Jones – his favourite band. One of his party-pieces is to don a hat shaped like a radio and announce that he’s joined Radiohead. Presented with a ‘Good Tradition’ gong at the BBC Folk Awards in 2007, he memorably mounted the stage to a long and deeply emotional standing ovation, graciously accepted the gong thrust into his hands by an adoring Kate Rusby (who’d delayed her holiday just so that she could do the honours) and thanked his wife Julia for transforming him from “sub-human to paranormal”. Yet when it was all over, all he could talk about was meeting Radiohead drummer Phil Selway, who was at the event to present Bellowhead with their ‘Best Group’ award.
Back at Sidmouth, when the huge queue is all somehow miraculously levered inside the venue, there’s not a dry eye in the house (well, the Ham marquee to be precise) when Nic Jones wanders on in a stripey T-shirt and mischievous grin to take his place centre stage at the ‘In Search Of Nic Jones’ concert in his honour. The new breed of Brit folk stars are out in force to pay homage to one of their ultimate heroes – Jim Moray, Sam Carter, Jackie Oates, Ruth Notman, Nancy Kerr & James Fagan and Jon Boden are all there, as well as a few from a slightly older vintage, like Martin Simpson, Chris Wood, Lester Simpson and Pete and Chris Coe – performing the greatest hits of Nic Jones. The twist is that Nic is also there in the middle of them awaiting his turn at the microphone to sing on stage for the first time in 29 years.
It’s an extraordinary atmosphere… joyful celebration blending with hushed reverence… with the various guest artists offering a mixture of sheepish grins, glances of abject terror and wry one-liners as they deliver their party pieces from the Nic Jones songbook: Annachie Gordon, The Taoist Tale, Billy Don’t Weep For Me, Bonnie Banks Of Fordie, Canadee-i-o, Farewell To The Gold, Barrack Street, Fare You Well My Own True Love, Little Pot Stove et al.
If they are daunted by the prospect of singing some of the classics of the folk revival with the man who mostly made them famous and gave them common currency sitting directly behind them (and yep, they are), the grinning star guest is totally oblivious to their nervousness. Nic Jones claps furiously after each act, catches their eye, smiles, winks or gives them the thumbs-up as they return to their seats. It may not be Radiohead, but Nic is clearly enjoying himself.
And then comes the moment of truth – a reunion of sorts. Briefly in the late 1970s, Nic had toured and recorded with Pete and Chris Coe and the late Tony Rose in a group called Bandoggs. With Paul Sartin and Jon Loomes in Rose’s place, Nic braces himself for his return to public performance with Bandoggs. “You’ll get some real rubbish now,” he says, eyes twinkling, before stepping up to sing his first note in public for nearly three decades.
Taking his cue from Pete Coe who he watches like a hawk throughout the short set, he makes a palpable vocal contribution to a hugely enjoyable cameo, which includes crowd-pleasers The Tailor & The Tea-Chest and the group’s biggest stage hit back in the day, Loudon Wainwright’s Swimming Song.
When it’s all over, the audience queues again as Nic contentedly signs CDs and happily interacts with curious journalists who want to know if the gig will mark a more formal return to live performance. The answer to that question, of course, is a big fat no, but his inquisitors get a lot more than they bargained for as, between ruminations on Radiohead, Elton John, Bob Marley and chess, Nic goes off on one of his gently rambling tangents, offering entertaining homespun philosophies on life, death, the universe and atoms.
Then again, Nic Jones always was wilfully contrary, if not a tad eccentric. This is the man, after all, who played Chatanooga Choo-Choo at the Nottingham Traditional Musical Club in defiance of its rigid trad policy. Faced with an inattentive audience, he once sang the long ballad Bonnie Bunch Of Roses twice in succession and felt vindicated that no-one noticed. On another occasion when the audience didn’t seem terribly interested in what he was singing, he turned round and sang to the wall. One time he was halfway through a lousy gig and asked the promoter how long he wanted him to play for. “As long as you like,” said the promoter. “In that case,” said Nic, “I’m off” and he packed up and went home.
See, Nic never really conformed to any of the popular conceptions about folk music. He just didn’t accept the notion of being a ‘folkie’. It’s probably one of the reasons why he became such an imaginative, ground-breaking and enduringly influential guitarist, arranger and singer. It’s for a reason that Penguin Eggs, Nic’s last and most celebrated album, continues to be loved and re-discovered at regular intervals, constantly inspiring new young singers throughout the 30 years since it was made. In The Observer newspaper a couple of years ago, Penguin Eggs was named 79th best album of all time, sandwiched between the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed at 78 and David Bowie’s Station To Station at 80. Nic chuckles at the memory of that accolade, but recoils in horror when reminded that the accompanying words about the album described him as a “folk genius”. The most glowing thing you can get him to say about Penguin Eggs is “it was ok” (later amended to “not bad”). “I was just an average singer and an OK guitarist,” he says now, “if I came back they’d all hate me.”
All complete piffle, of course. Nic Jones was brilliant. He was never in a folk-rock band, but he was perhaps the first solo acoustic artist to tackle traditional songs with the mentality of a rock performer. Slapping the back of his guitar with his hand to keep the rhythm (a technique he attributes to being inspired by Ian Dury’s Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick), singing across the beat, bending the unwritten rules of how to sing and play folk music, he was a complete original who took the music to a new level and where so many of the other albums made during the same era sound hopelessly rooted in the 1970s, his stuff still sounds fresh, alive and timeless. He’s inspired a complete tribute album (by John Wesley Harding) and his repertoire has been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Marianne Faithfull to Kate Rusby, who will tell anyone who’ll listen that Penguin Eggs is her favourite album of all time.
Essentially he’d like to have been in The Shadows, dance steps and all. Hank Marvin – that was his first guitar idol; him and Duane Eddy. And he still loves Buddy Holly. Wandering across Dartmoor with him one day eating an ice cream, he suddenly launches into a word perfect Raining In My Heart. It sounds pretty good too…
He was born in Orpington in Kent, but the family moved to Essex when he was two to run newsagent shops and he spent most of his childhood in Brentwood, attending the redoubtable Brentwood School, where contemporaries included TV presenter Noel Edmonds, politician Jack Straw and comedian Griff Rhys Jones and was sufficiently posh to require students to wear boaters. It was there Nic had his first musical misadventure, being manhandled off the school’s grand piano by appalled masters while attempting to play a crude version of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say.
By the time he left school at 16, Nic had taught himself to play guitar, but the idea of a career as a professional musician was far beyond the horizon. Instead he went off to become a trainee accountant in London and when that – inevitably – didn’t work out, he switched to working in an insurance office. It was enough to convince him that office life wasn’t for him and he instead became a petrol pump attendant before winding up as a lifeguard at Chelmsford. He knew what he was singing about when he performed Swimming Song many years later…
This was the mid-1960s when Alf Ramsey was king of England, Bobby Moore was the crown prince, The Beatles were inventing teenagers, Bob Dylan was the spokesman for a generation, Martin Luther King marched for civil rights, Vietnam was going up in flames, Star Trek was launched and The Sound Of Music cleaned up on the big screen.
In folk music terms, we’d apparently never had it so good. Greenwich Village was heaving with earnest singer-songwriters, with a knock-on effect in the UK, where the legacy of the Bert Lloyd-Ewan MacColl-fuelled blueprint for a new folk music revival based on left-wing ideology as the “music of the people”, found many willing conscripts in the would-be guitarists and singers with a burgeoning interest in American folk and blues, who’d been cut adrift as the brief skiffle boom of the late 1950s swiftly shrivelled with the first sight of the 1960s.
Much of which was lost on the Shadows-loving, Ray Charles-impersonating young Nicolas Paul Jones. Two of his school friends, diminutive mandolin player Nigel Paterson and guitarist Geoff Harris had run a folk club at school and went on to form a group called The Halliard (the name refers to the line used to hoist a sail), with Dave Moran on lead vocals. Nic would go and see them play and became a regular at Dave Moran’s folk club in Chelmsford. It was there he saw and was enthralled by many of the leading figures of the folk scene of the day… the incorrigible Alex Campbell, the brilliant, acoustic guitar innovator Davy Graham, the English rose of revival singing Shirley Collins, the enigmatic Scots guitarist Bert Jansch and the fast-rising young singer-guitarist, Martin Carthy among them.
The Halliard started to become remarkably popular. So popular, in fact, that Nigel Paterson and Dave Moran wanted to turn professional. Geoff Harris, however, did not. When he quit, Paterson and Moran didn’t have to look far for his replacement – the guitarist who’d been at school with Nigel Paterson and was a regular at Dave Moran’s folk club, one Nic Jones.
Nic cut his teeth with The Halliard, learning fast in the ways of guitar accompaniment, singing, arranging and researching, quickly playing a full role in the development of The Halliard as they wrote their own tunes and arrangements of old broadside ballads, many of which had last seen the light of day in the 18th and 19th centuries. Performing them with rare ebullience and energy, they toured the country, bringing songs like Lancashire Lads, Captain Grant, Calico Printer’s Clerk and Boys Of Bedlam (later famously recorded by Steeleye Span) into popular circulation. He also took up playing fiddle, starting running his own folk club at Brentwood and got to make his first recording in 1967 when, in the wake of the Dubliners’ unlikely chart triumph with Seven Drunken Nights, The Halliard were signed up by the Saga label to make an album of Irish songs.
It was called It’s The Irish In Me, and unashamedly plundered the populist barnstorming Irish repertoire much beloved of bar-room bands and indeed the Dubliners… Spanish Lady, Wild Rover, Mountain Dew, The Kerry Recruit and even Seven Drunken Nights itself with Nic and the other two members of The Halliard looking slightly uncomfortable on the cover in smart jacket and ties. Not surprisingly it’s an album Nic came to feel rather sheepish about – although it apparently became very popular in Spain and now sells for a small fortune on the rare occasion a copy surfaces on eBay.
The same year they recorded another album for Saga of their broadside songs, though record company shenanigans delayed its release and it was over 35 years before most of the tracks got a proper release as part of The Halliard: Broadside Songs songbook collection issued by Mollie Music in 2005, which also included ten fresh recordings. The emergence of further tracks recorded but never released by Saga back in the day subsequently resulted in the 2006 release of The Last Goodnight, showing another side to The Halliard, including a cover of The Ballad Of Timothy Evans, Ewan MacColl’s deeply emotional lament for a Welshman unjustly hanged for murder in 1950; another equally mournful saga about a convicted murderer awaiting the scaffold in The Sad Lamentation Of John Kington; and an intricate setting of an old ballad on The Death Of Nelson, an early example of Nic’s intrinsic talent for reinventing old ballads with new tunes and arrangements.
With Dave Moran intent on pursuing a career as a social worker and Nigel Paterson becoming a teacher, The Halliard split in 1968, triggering the launch of Nic Jones’ solo career.
It was a big step for such a self-effacing character who could just about cope with hiding behind Dave Moran and Nigel Paterson in The Halliard, but who had little faith he could hold an audience in his own hands. In fact, he was so dismayed by his early experiences as a solo artist, he was convinced he was completely hopeless and determined to abandon music and become a lifeguard again or do something relatively simple like brain surgery or nuclear physics.
Those who’d actually seen him in action, however, reached a very different conclusion about his talents and, swayed by the urging of fellow singers like Dave Burland, he decided to stick at it. He was… well… different in both attitude and performance… but it was precisely these differences that made him so appealing. And the more Nic followed his own nose the better he became. He was always open-minded, listened to a lot of pop and rock music, did his own thing and had little time for anybody who tried to tell him folk song should be delivered in any certain way. But if he was a free spirit and musical rebel, he was a benign one, blessed with consummate taste with a seductive elegance to almost everything he touched.
He would cheerfully utilise elements of anything that caught his ear – flamenco, classical, West Coast rock, American old time – and his imaginative use of tunings added to the liveliness and originality of his arrangements which quickly won him respect as one of the scene’s best and most thoughtful guitarists. Yet it was his relaxed and easy vocal delivery that captured audiences in the first place and transcended genre – a style that moved his great friend and contemporary Peter Bellamy to describe him as “the Perry Como of the folk world”.
He released his first solo album Ballads & Songs on Bill Leader’s Trailer label in 1970, with some enticing sleeve notes from one of the folk scene’s top duos, Dave and Toni Arthur. “A singer,” they wrote with some prescience, “destined to be emulated by aspiring young singers all over the country, a person whose singing style, instrumental work, is instantly recognisable. Around the revival there seems to be an increase in complicated arrangement. When this happens the words usually suffer. Nic is one of that small band of folk schizophrenics who can play the most complex rhythms and sing in another rhythm across this without loss of interpretation or legibility of lyrics.”
They weren’t wrong. Ballads & Songs involved Jones pursuing the theme of updating old broadsides (as in The Butcher & The Tailor’s Wife) with some serious research at the Cecil Sharp House library in London. This resulted in some formidable performances of heavyweight songs which became a popular part of his repertoire, like Reynard The Fox, The Outlandish Knight, Sir Patrick Spens and, biggest of the lot, Musgrave, a variant on the great beast of traditional balladry, Matty Groves. Nic’s adapted tune and compelling telling of the dramatic story of class, adultery and royal retribution set a benchmark for such things and his epic version was subsequently used as the template for other powerful interpretations of the song, from Christy Moore to Martin Simpson.
Annan Water, famously later covered by Kate Rusby, also marked his card early as a radical reinventor of the tradition routinely discarding anything he didn’t like about the original lyric or tune and replacing it with something he did like. And once he took it out on the road it would quite often take on a life of its own and change again until the element that remained of the original traditional song was marginal (not that he claimed any writing credits at the time). He’d try to memorise new songs by reading and re-reading the lyrics late at night and if they were still in his head in the morning he’d go with it, although he happily admits his memory was fallible and lyrics would often change by osmosis. If he couldn’t remember the proper words he’d make up new ones.
“It was common practice to change things,” he says. “I based the first part of Annan Water on a traditional tune, but the rest I wrote myself. And I’d get bored singing the same thing every night so I’d keep changing it to make it more interesting and in the end it bore no resemblance to the original. You’d get the odd person saying I wasn’t doing it the correct way but that’s just silly. Songs change over passing time. It’s the oral process.”
It may not have had enough light and shade, the production was primitive, the material uniformly dark, and Nic’s voice was stilted and stylised in places, lacking the control of his later records, while his characteristic strengths as both singer and guitarist were still in their relative infancy. He wasn’t unaffected, either, by the exaggerated, droney ‘faux folk’ delivery that afflicted so many of the revivalists from that period. Yet Ballads & Songs was still an impressive work, which elevated him to the elite of solo singers working the British folk club scene. Oh that new generations would be able to enjoy and learn from it now but, as with his next three albums, Nic Jones (1971), Noah’s Ark Trap (1977) and From The Devil To A Stranger (1978), copyright was to fall into the hands of a company that has inexplicably been disinclined to do anything with it and, in common with many other important Leader recordings from the 1970s, there has been no CD reissue (though Annan Water did surface on the compilation album Never The Same, released by Honest Jon’s Records in 2005).
A year later, Jones was back in the studio recording the Nic Jones album, very much a continuation of Ballads & Songs, including a revisit to The Outlandish Knight and which also had a decidedly Napoleonic theme, with the inclusion of Napoleon’s Lamentation and The Bonny Bunch Of Roses. He tackles another of the big ones, Lord Bateman here, while the album also includes a boldly modal version of Dance To Your Daddy. It didn’t take long to record because he didn’t hang around in the studio. Constant takes and overdubs were alien to Nic’s world. If he didn’t nail a track in three takes he abandoned it and tried something else.
Married to his beloved and resilient wife Julia and living in the Cambridgeshire fenlands of Doddington near March, Nic’s music took on a discernibly deeper hue as his confidence grew. His guitar playing became ever more fiery without sacrificing its stylish elegance, becoming ever more exciting the more risks and liberties he took in the concoction of his own self-styled one-man wall of sound, rewriting old songs, adding new bits to them along the way and inventing percussive accompaniments that strayed so far off the beaten track it sometimes felt like he was singing a completely different song to the tune he was playing. More than one person seeing him for the first time assumed he must have an invisible accomplice on stage with him as he fulfilled the role of two or even three musicians as his uniquely powerful rhythmic style kicked in.
By the late 1970s he was one of the few stars of a British folk movement already starting to ail. He played fiddle on the 1976 June Tabor-Maddy Prior album Silly Sisters, also touring with them and working with Tabor on her solo gigs, while in big demand as an accompanist for a wide range of artists from Shirley Collins to Barbara Dickson. In Peter Bellamy’s fabled 1977 folk opera The Transports he was given the role of the father, enabling him to sing one of Bellamy’s best songs in the set, the heart-rending Us Poor Fellows.
Nic took everything up a notch with his 1977 album The Noah’s Ark Trap, his arrangements deeper and more challenging, his vocals far more mature and intimate. His earliest efforts as a singer had betrayed a heavy debt to Ewan MacColl and the great Shropshire traditional singer Fred Jordan, but now he’s really found his own voice at last. I defy you to check out his plaintive version of Ten Thousand Miles (yes, it’s on YouTube, see below) and not be enraptured.
“I thought ‘I’m an Essex boy’ so I tried to sing more normally. After a while I stopped believing in all those songs about Napoleon Bonaparte. I never met him, I didn’t know what he was like and I began to want to sing songs that were more relevant to me. So I tried to be more realistic. I changed my outlook. I moved from being a fake traditional singer to a fake rock guitarist.”
The Noah’s Ark Trap (so named after a demon opening gambit in chess – one of Nic’s passions) features cameo performances from Dave Burland, Chris Coe (playing bodhran) and Helen Watson (of Muckram Wakes on harmonium) and is innovatively sequenced as a continuous piece with no breaks between tracks. Deliberately exploring unfamiliar songs, it is also home to several Jones classics – The Wanton Seed, Miles Weatherhill and, best of all, Annachie Gordon. One of the least known of the huge Child ballad collection, Jones put his own indelible stamp on the tragic story of Annachie Gordon, again rewriting lyrics and setting the story in the fictional location of Harking (Child’s version has it in Buchan, Aberdeenshire) and the sorrow and crushed loyalty Jones injects into the song has seduced subsequent generations of singers drawn to its heartbreaking sense of injustice. Mary Black was one of the first and others who’ve tackled it include Loreena McKennitt (1989), John Wesley Harding (1999), Sharon Shannon (2004), Sinead O’Connor (2005), The Unthanks (2009) and Jackie Oates (2010) who has yet to record it but memorably sang it at the Sidmouth In Search Of Nic Jones gig.
It heralded a flurry of activity that included his fourth Trailer album From The Devil To A Stranger (a collection of love songs that includes a couple more solid gold Jones tracks, The Lakes Of Shilin, Master Kilby and the driving Billy Don’t You Weep For Me, with one of his most audacious and very best guitar accompaniments.
Firing on all cylinders, this was the period in which he also formed the, ahem, folk supergroup Bandoggs, with Tony Rose and Pete and Chris Coe. They lived at different ends of the country and it didn’t last long – just one self-titled album and one tour – but it was a joyous project for all involved – especially audiences. Disappointingly the album didn’t include their big stage hit – Loudon Wainwright’s Swimming Song – but Jones took the opportunity to revisit and rejig one of his favourite Halliard songs Ladies Don’t Go A-Thieving and the album also included a terrific version of the great parlour song Rose Of Allendale, which had previously found its way into the repertoire of the Copper Family.
Bandoggs was always designed as a brief adventure and the constituent artists quickly returned to their regular careers, but the experience seemed to spur Jones to yet new heights. These exploded in extraordinary fashion on his 1980 masterpiece, Penguin Eggs. From the iconic guitar intro of opening track Canadee-i-o to the final beautiful, melancholic chorus of Paul Metsers’ closing song Farewell To The Gold, it doesn’t put a foot wrong. It still sounds fantastic, sustaining Nic’s legend in the continuing absence of most of his previously recorded Trailer material.
Canadee-i-o (Penguin Eggs Topic TSCD411)
Nic will try to tell you his enduring popularity is purely down to the fact that absence makes the heart grow fonder and people are fascinated by Penguin Eggs purely because it was his last album and he has been largely invisible ever since – which, again, is hogwash. Penguin Eggs is rare not only in its timelessness, constantly reaching out to new generations, but also appealing across the great divide of genres. Many of those discovering it for the first time won’t even consider it as a folk album and perhaps they’re right. It has strong themes of sea and adventure, as well as a potent Australian influence on tracks like Little Pot Stove and The Humpback Whale, the whaling song about which he’s had so much flak he feels compelled to qualify with an explanation that he disapproves of all killing, be it people, whales or ants.
The Little Pot Stove (Penguin Eggs Topic TSCD411)
Penguin Eggs also marked his move to the Topic label and the improved production values were immediately evident in the polished sound that leapt out of the speakers. Nic had never worked with a proper studio engineer before and the cleanliness and clarity of the sound is a tribute to both engineer Nic Kinsey and producer Tony Engle. “I wanted to make a good record so Topic would let me make another one,” he says. “I tried to find good songs that fitted the LP. I didn’t want to sing another version of Barbara Ellen, so I went out to look for songs that were unknown and more interesting.”
Impress Topic he did… and continues to do so. Penguin Eggs is the label’s best-selling album, its sales seemingly regenerating every few years or so (most recently in a deluxe vinyl reissue on the Three Black Feathers label), always getting mentioned in dispatches when ‘greatest albums of all time’ lists are compiled.
And then it happened – one desperate February night in 1982. He’d been playing at Glossop Folk Club in Derbyshire and was almost back home in Cambridgeshire when his car was involved in a headlong collision with an articulated lorry. The theory is that Nic fell asleep at the wheel but nobody knows for sure, least of all Nic, who remembers nothing about the accident or any of the horrors that followed.
His injuries were massive and his career was in tatters, but against the odds the hospital slowly stuck him back together again and the unswerving support and loyalty of his wife Julia and their two children gave him the incentive to start functioning again.
Nic is now remarkably sanguine about events. He and Julia live quietly in Devon now and Nic seems remarkably contented, all things considered. His guitar was the one thing that remained unbroken in the crash and he still plays it regularly, albeit in restricted fashion due to limited use of his right hand, while writing little songs for his own amusement. In the years following the crash, the family moved to York and from time to time he’d turn up to see the local turn at York Folk Club. Now he’s relatively detached from it all, but expresses admiration for the likes of Jim Moray, Lau and Karine Polwart (but not as much admiration as he expresses for Bob Marley and Radiohead).
At the In Search Of Nic Jones concert at Sidmouth, Nic honed in on Jim Moray, who was wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt and, when quizzed about the style of music he’d be playing now had that argument with the articulated lorry not interfered, he unequivocally says he’d be playing reggae. Certainly the evidence of his live sets both before and immediately after the release of Penguin Eggs suggests radical new directions were afoot.
When Nic was in a coma following the accident, Julia appealed for people to send her bootleg recordings of Nic’s gigs so she could play them to him to try and induce him back into consciousness. Not only did it work, many of the recordings were of such a good quality that she eventually got to release two albums of the stuff, In Search Of Nic Jones (1998) and Unearthed (2001) on the family’s own Mollie Music label. These offer some interesting clues to the tangents he was taking… on In Search Of Nic Jones, the guitar arrangement to Seven Yellow Gypsies is almost hardcore jazz in its richness, while there’s an instrumental version of Teddy Bear’s Picnic and an intriguing cover of Randy Newman’s Texas Girl At The Funeral Of Her Father. A couple of the tracks, Ruins By The Shore and Green To Grey, are even credited as original Jones songs and there’s little doubt that original song writing was very much on the agenda.
The double-CD Unearthed, too, has its surprises, including a cracking contemporary song called The Jukebox As She Turned, a thunderous Warlike Lads Of Russia, a sublime arrangement of Dylan’s Boots Of Spanish Leather and an astonishingly frenetic Rufford Park Poachers. Topic’s own ‘odds ‘n’ ends’ compilation Game, Set & Match (2006) offers further evidence of an artist with the bit between his teeth and an aversion to anything approaching a comfort zone. If he’d reached a new plateau with Penguin Eggs, there’s little doubt he was off on a quest to find new peaks after it.
Rufford Park Poachers (Game Set Match Topic TSCD566)
“I might have done a Bob Marley version of a folk ballad after Penguin Eggs,” he says. “That would have been quite an advance, wouldn’t it? I was certainly interested in a more modern sound and I think I could have come up with a more interesting record than Penguin Eggs. Me having the smash-up made that record popular.”
Again… humbug, Mr Jones, but while it’s interesting to conjecture the course of his post-Penguin Eggs career, be it reggae, heavy metal or Tibetan bowl music, the cruelty of fate makes it pointless. Yet, despite the frustrating absence of such a large chunk of his catalogue, the cult of Nic Jones marches proudly on. Quite right too – that music is just too damn good to be buried for long… whatever the unassuming man himself thinks about it as he happily sings Buddy Holly songs on a hilltop in Devon.
The In Search Of Nic Jones concert is repeated at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 28th May with a slightly different line-up to the one at Sidmouth FolkWeek (Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, Penguin Eggs melodeon player Tony Hall, Anaïs Mitchell, Jim Causley and Damien Barber are all on board this time round) and will almost certainly be Nic’s last appearance on stage.
For those of us who remember Nic Jones in his pomp – a man with an engaging stage presence and likeable demeanour who combined exceptional power and virtuosity with unusual grace – we can only stand and applaud and marvel at the influence still wielded by one of British folk music’s true greats.
Even if his advice to us is to go and listen to Radiohead instead…
Words: Colin Irwin
Photos: Liz Evans Photography, Dave Peabody, Derek Schofield