Kitchen Garden Café, Birmingham. June 9, 2019
Now based near Winchester, but making a welcome return to his hometown of Birmingham, opening with his reading of the Incredible String Band’s ‘October Song’, Jon Wilks made an all too rare live outing in support of his album, Midlife. It’s a collection of traditional folk songs from in and around Birmingham, most of them pretty obscure, but it’s testimony to his passion for the English folk tradition that he’s not only tracked them down to record and perform, but he’s learnt about their origins and the singers from whom they were collected.
That passion informs his live shows, the songs liberally sprinkled with anecdotes (‘babysitting’ Martin Carthy being a particular gem), humour and history, his singing and personality hugely engaging. Here were tales of, among others, a somewhat corporeal randy spectre (‘Colin’s Ghost’), of night visiting in your work shoes (‘Navvy Boots’), a 19th century Dudley protest about animal cruelty (‘The Trial Of Bill Burn Under Martin’s Act’), star crossed lovers (‘Birmingham Sally’), wife selling (‘John Hobbs’), forced marriage (‘There Was An Old Man Who Came Over The Sea’) and the particularly pertinent ‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’, about a chap returning home to find the city changed beyond all recognition. Not only Birmingham, and the Black Country, his set took a tour around the Midlands, from Newbold to Staffordshire, even cajoling the audience into joining in with the slavery-themed shanty ‘Shallow Brown’, originally collected in Dartmouth. You also got to learn what trepanning actually means (ensnaring rather than brain surgery) and that there are some twenty-three references to it in the Cecil Sharp archives!
Encoring with ‘Holly Ho’, collected in the 50s from long gone Halesowen pub The Cross Guns, new verses apparently added every week by the customers and quite possibly the only song to ever mention Phil Drabble, the original presenter of BBC’s One Man and His Dog, Jon Wilks is the sort of performer folk circles mean when they talk of the living tradition.
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‘I Can’t Find Brummagem’ – live:
Read Mike Davies’ review of Midlife here