Pete Coe is one of the old guard, one of the last. He’s been in this business for more than forty-five years and still has all the moves. I expected The Man In The Red Van to be something of a political work, akin to It’s A Mean Old Scene. It would be appropriate but even Pete couldn’t have known what is lying in wait for us in June. This album is a collection of songs, most of which will be familiar in some form. And that’s the key – halfway through the second track I was hooked.
That track is ‘The Spanish Lady’. Pete learned it from Al Donnell, was given extra verses by Mary O’Connor and added the chorus from Frank Harte, so this is a combination of at least three versions, but it is Pete’s treatment of the song that lands the killer punch. Forget the rollicking folk club chorus version; Pete slows it down, plays it on acoustic guitar and includes more verses than I’ve seen in a single text before. There’s an odd, noirish feel about the finished product and I’d be prepared to say that this is what Pete does best.
The opener is ‘King Henry’, a variant of the ‘Lord Randall’ story with poisonous toads instead of eels, and I’ve heard versions of the song many times but not this one. The same is true of ‘World Of Misery (Shenandoah)’, a song I wouldn’t mind not hearing again. Except that Pete’s version comes from Saint Vincent and includes lines I’ve never heard before. It’s nice to be surprised.
Pete includes two of his older songs. The first is ‘Joseph Baker’, which he has been performing live recently, and the second is the song that flagged him as a songwriter, ‘Farewell To The Brine’, about his home town of Northwich, and two covers; Terry Conway’s ‘The Walls Of Troy’ and Vic Gammon’s ‘Ash And Alder’ which come the closest to making political points.
Musically, the album is deceptively simple. Pete plays most of the music with sparing support from Andy Peacock and producer David Crickmore plus a chorus of colleagues and friends. He doesn’t need any more than that.
Although he’s just turned 65, has been making music for 44 years and released over 20 albums, the Liverpool-born folk singer-songwriter, now based in Hebden Bridge, has never had quite as high a public profile as this year. The release (and disappointingly quick disappearance) of Danny Collins, an Al Pacino starrer inspired by a letter written to Tilston by John Lennon in 1971, but not received for a further forty years, has seen Steve featured in several major newspapers as well promoting radio interviews looking back across his lengthy career.
A propitious time, then, for the release of his latest album, a reflective affair that opens on an appropriately autobiographical note with ‘Grass Days’, a lively song tracing his early days as a wet-behind-the-ears folkie getting a foothold in the London folk scene of the 70s, referencing the likes of McTell and Wizz Jones who offered him a helping hand and ending with his move to Bristol and his signing to Village Thing records.
Coming up to date, a very personal note is also struck on ‘The Way It Was’ which, featuring David Crickmore on melodeon and Hugh Bradley on double bass, is a touching tribute to his late friend, violinist Stuart Gordon, formerly of The Korgis and, most recently, one third of the Steve Tilston Trio.
The other songs don’t have quite the same personal connections, although the piano-backed late night jazz-blues ballad ‘Bygone Lands’ reflects his interest in history and archaeology in its contemplation of past civilisations while the fingerpicked ‘All Around This World’, a celebration of the travelling musician, clearly has resonances with his own chosen career.
Likewise, Tilston’s concerns with time and place, the march of history and the impact of sociopolitics are firmly in evidence. Etched on 10 string acoustic, the waltzing ‘Cup And Lip’ concerns the way closed minds, religion in particular, seek to limit the progress of science and reason, while, referencing Nick Drake’s song, the jazzy-folk ‘The Riverman Has Gone’ uses the devastating floods of a few years back to comment on climate change deniers and the effect of government’s cutbacks and, Crickmore on pedal steel, the slinky, bluesy ‘Running Out Of Road’ (which shows the Wizz Jones influences are still strong) extends the theme to talk about how, blinded by greed, mankind’s blindly heading for global destruction. Wrapping things up, the album ends with the personal and universal notes of ‘Ways Of A Man’, a piano-backed hope-tinted reflection on things passed come and new beginnings.
Elsewhere, ‘Died For Love’ is a major key arrangement of the traditional downbeat ballad, ‘Yo Me Voy’ is a leaving song, the Spanish guitar elements underscoring the language of the title (which translates as “I Am Going”), ‘Lasting Love’ is a straightforward number that still retains a rhythmic flavour of its original African-like instrumental origins while, showcasing his guitar virtuosity, ‘Pecket’s Well’ is an intricate baroque instrumental designed to evoke running streams
Worth special mention, not least since the sleeve credits forgot to list Belinda O’Hooley’s piano contribution, is ‘Pick Up Your Heart’, a rhythmically shuffling encouragement to get back up on your feet should what’s been lost exceed what’s been gained that I could almost hear being rocked up into something Richard Thompson.
Truth to tell, even with the Danny Collins exposure, this isn’t going to suddenly make Tilston a household name, but his devotees will certainly welcome it as another jewel in an illustrious discography while curious newcomers may well find themselves keen to further explore that back catalogue.
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