Keith James releases new solo album

Keith James

Keith James has become one of the most active and inventive concert artists currently performing in the UK.

A very accomplished sound man with a BBC Maida Vale background, he worked for more than a decade as a record producer (1991 – 2004), working on albums with many of this country’s profoundly talented musicians and writers.

Realising his definite preference for live performance and following a detailed study, 2001 witnessed Keith begin a UK wide tour of concerts based entirely on his love of the songwriter, Nick Drake. As Nick’s music had never been heard live by today’s music audience (he died in 1974) these concerts soon became a huge success; over the course of 15 years, Keith has played over 2000 of these shows in the UK, Ireland, Holland, Spain, Italy and France, all of Nick’s Colleges and almost every British acoustic music festival including Glastonbury.

On from this, Keith has performed many different concerts over the past 10 years. Each one centres on studies and transcriptions of revered poets and writers and includes a significant amount of biographical material. The most notable of these are two CD Albums and two hugely successful tours featuring the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca set to music – The Gypsy Ballads 1928 and Poet in New York 1930. Other important projects are a CD album and concert tour featuring a collection of poetry by Dylan Thomas and an ongoing busy schedule of bio-doc concerts spanning over 6 years performing interpretive versions of songs by Leonard Cohen.

Keith is fiercely independent and therefore his career has for many years, existed in a parallel universe, almost under wraps, esoteric and secretive. He has enjoyed very little radio exposure, he doesn’t fit easily into any music category, he has never signed a recording or publishing deal. Despite this, he has released 13 CD Albums, all self-produced and self-published. The most recent from 2015 is entitled Always, a collection of his own poetry set to music along with one by Pablo Neruda from the 1930s.

He is about to release a brand new album, Tenderness Claws, all settings of poetry to music including work by Jack Kerouac, Pete Brown (1960s British beat poet) William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Federico Garcia Lorca and some of Keith’s own. This time, and rather unplanned, he has teamed up with the amazing producer / sound artist, Branwen Munn.

Keith lives in a writing retreat, way up in the hills of Powys, Wales and some months of each year in Andalucía. Since the mid ‘70s, his third home has been the Island of Naxos, Greece. He currently performs around 100 concerts per annum in Theatres, Arts Centres and other inspiring boutique spaces such as Galleries and Arts Cafes. He is currently compiling a volume of his own poetry to be published in 2017 along with some sporadic work on a rather surreal and somewhat comedic novel.

Artist’s website:

Not from the new album but we’re not counting. ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ from the Songs Of Leonard Cohen tour:

KEITH JAMES – The Songs Of Leonard Cohen – live at Farnham Maltings

The Songs Of Leonard Cohen

No-one can accuse Keith James of opportunism. He has been touring The Songs Of Leonard Cohen for six years now. The set has changed sometimes and one iteration even included a documentary film but this was the show’s 305th performance. In the immediate aftermath of Cohen’s death one quote emerged above all others: “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in” from ‘Anthem’.

Keith opened his set with ‘Anthem’ and followed it with one of Cohen’s most cynical songs, ‘Everybody Knows’, one of many masterpieces from I’m A Man. The first set was particularly sombre, inevitably I suppose given that Cohen’s death is still an open wound for some. ‘If It Be Your Will’, ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ and ‘It Seemed A Better Way’ from the final album set the tone. Keith skilfully segued into a piece from Cohen’s greatest inspiration, Federico Garcia Lorca, which also gave him the opportunity to stretch out on the guitar. Hearing it in this context you can believe that Cohen could have written ‘The Mask’ and Keith repeated the trick in the second set by following ‘Take This Waltz’ with ‘Going To Santiago’.

While not sounding like Cohen vocally and doing more on the guitar than Cohen did what is most interesting is Keith’s reading of Cohen’s middle period middle when he was using big backings. The early songs such as ‘Suzanne’, ‘Bird On A Wire’ and ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ are too well-known and “simple” to lend themselves to over-interpretation and fans need something to sing along with as Keith proved by asking us to join in raucously with the chorus of ‘So Long, Marianne’: an experience to be cherished. Keith brings a song from that middle period like ‘First We Take Manhattan’, a song of political angst, back to basics.

Having closed with ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ – I was surprised to find that I remembered nearly all the words – Keith encored with ‘Hallelujah’. It always amuses me that Cohen’s original studio recording of the song was actually rather flat and dull and it has been cover versions over the years that have made it what it is.

This was the first date of this leg of Keith’s ongoing Songs Of Leonard Cohen tour and there are many more opportunities to enjoy the show. I left with the feeling that I really ought to get back to the original albums particularly I’m Your Man, Various Positions and The Future. Sometimes you need, not only new ears, but also a different voice to bring a song back.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

KEITH JAMES – Always (Hurdy Gurdy Music HG2925)

KEITH JAMES AlwaysFor the past 15 years, James has been inextricably linked with the music of Nick Drake, performing well over 1000 of his ‘The Songs of Nick Drake’ concerts, and, more recently, ‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen’, a Spanish themed show featuring Classical and Flamenco guitar and the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende and Federico Garcia Lorca, their writing also forming part of ‘Time Let Me Play’, a concert built around the poetry of Dylan Thomas alongside that of Cohen and William Blake.

However, few, especially new admirers, may be aware that he’s also a songwriter in his own right, having released five solo albums of mostly original material as well as one with Rick Foot. This is his first since 2006 and serves to demonstrate that he’s not caught in anyone’s shadow. Written over the course of some thirty years, the earliest, the smokily sung finger-picked ballad ‘As Love Begins’, dating back to a 1986 BBC Session (and rather more optimistic than the desolately sad ‘The Water and the Rain’, written for another session the following year) and sounding reminiscent of Woodstock-era Iain Matthews filtered through an early Harvey Andrews gauze. Indeed, though it’s inevitable that you’ll likely hear the influence of Drake, there’s quite a bit here that reminds me of vintage Andrews in the phrasing and vocal timbre. That said, both the organ-backed opening track, ‘Waiting For A Miracle’, and the bass-heady ‘Melt Away (Post Festival Blues)’ echo the jazzy-blues style of John Martyn. Save for the choppy, itchy electric guitar (courtesy Jerry Playle) and organ blues ‘Imaginary Friends’ (which name checks ‘Come On Eileen’), their late night, mellow, smoke-curling groove pretty much characterises the laid back feel of the album, ranging from the lovely ‘New Face’, an arrangement of a bittersweet poem written for a friend accompanied by richly resonant acoustic guitar, and the flamenco styling of ‘Always’, based on a Neruda poem, to the watery Renbourn/Drake-styled guitar work of ‘Only Occasionally’ and the caustic vision of humanity that is the seven minute ‘Pantomime Horses’.

The album ends on the only cover, a tender reading and arrangement of Ralph McTell’s pastoral love song, ‘Girl from the Hiring Fair’, but it’s James’ own material – and the assured, masterful manner in which he performs it, that emerges as the most evocative. Maybe a concert tour of The Songs of Keith James wouldn’t go amiss.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website:

‘Always’ by Pablo Naruda and Keith James: