MATT HILL – Savage Pilgrims (Quiet Loner QLRCD001)

Savage PilgrimsOriginally trading as Quiet Loner, now the name of his label, the politically-driven Nottingham-born singer-songwriter made his album debut in 2004 with Secret Rulers of the World topping the UK Americana charts, Since then,. He’s released a further three albums, played countless gigs, had a year long songwriting residency at the People’s History Museum in Manchester and been a musician-in-residence in a prison. Now, at 50, he’s decided to be Matt Hill again.

But only the nomenclature has changed, the music still filtering Americana and British folk, the songs, stories unfolded by different narrators, still rooted in working class cultural and social issues. Not mention the town of his birth.

Recorded in the attic of a Salford pub where George Orwell used to take a pint or two, using vintage microphones and analogue tape and featuring contributions from co-producer Sam Lench, and Kirsty McGee on flutes and musical saw, it opens with the sparse old school acoustic blues ‘Stone and Bone’, a sprightly shuffling rhythm taking over the worksong-style chant intro on a song written in the historic graveyard at Bunhill fields, among whose residents is William Blake, and about the Masonic financial centre of London built, both literally and metaphorically, over the bones of the “the prostitute, the destitute, those cast aside by institute”. The song images them rising from their graves to hunt down the “landed gentry in wigs and gowns” as “the spectral form of William Blake/Storms into the Stock Exchange”.

Written in the voice of a dying man and an inspired by people he knew facing the end of their lives, jogging along on banjo, bass and electric guitar, ‘Save Your Pity’ deals with the acceptance of approaching mortality (“He’ll be here soon/I can feel his breath on my neck”), not facing it with fear but looking back on a life fully lived, throwing in a swipe at those men of God who, during war, were “Out in the company of widows/while I was burying their dead”.

The first specific reference to Nottingham comes with ‘The Exile of DH Lawrence’, Hill growing up in the author’s birthplace, Eastwood. The song related to the fact that Lawrence was hounded out of his home country and died in Mexico, where his ashes are scattered, the song, opening with a Spaghetti Western motif and featuringbanjo and rattlesnake guitar, imaging him, a “savage pilgrim”, dying of TB alone in the desert while “conjuring cobbles and coal” and remembering “an Erewash sky”.

The second reference follows with ‘Billy’s Prayer, a circling waltzing fingerpicked mandolin melody sung in the voice of ‘Battling’ Billy Marchant, who, born in 1840 in Salford, went from being a fairground boxer to becoming a successful professional fighter in America before enlisting in 1914 and seeing action in France, where the song is set. Epitomising for Hill a generation of tough working class people, he sings “the harder the blows the more I know they will not knock me down/So I turn my face to the bullets and stare the bastards down”.

Marchant’s not the only Nottingham boxer on the album, Last year, on their Victorians album, Harp & A Monkey had a track called ‘Bendigo’ and so does Hill, his based on a 1912 poem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Both songs are about bareknuckle fighter William Abednego Thompson who, in 1839, won the heavyweight championship of England, his nickname coming from his flexibility in the ring, before becoming a travelling Methodist preacher. Hill’s song, featuring organ and with Mike Doward on double bass and styled like a scampering Frankie Laine cowboy ballad, focuses on the latter stage of his career and specifically his pulpit pugilism “Tekin’ on the devil” in Birmingham where he ended up flooring “half a dozen bruisers” with a grudge who called him out, “Till the Ebenezer Chapel looked like a knacker’s yard”.

Another real life figure is the subject of Gary Gilmore’s last request which Hill wrote after reading Norman Mailer book The Executioner’s Song. Taken at a bluesy lope, ‘Gary Gilmore’s Last Request’ recounts the little known fact that Gilmore asked to talk to Johnny Cash who duly rang from his Tennessee home prior to his execution, the lyric having Gilmore say “I killed two Mormon men, for no reason I can give/ Just like the man you shot in Reno, just to watch him die”. In fact, Gilmore actual last request as to be shot rather than hung, but Hill says the song is more about the way people saw Cash as someone they could talk to.

A gentle ballad, featuring McGee on flutes, ‘If Love Should Rise On The Winter Tide’ is a straightforward number about appreciating true worth (“There are treasures in this beaten earth/That are both a blessing and a curse/But you’ ll never know what each is worth/If all you do is count your money”, but then, perfectly chiming with current protests, it’s back so social issues with the uptempo acoustic blues ‘Chains’ which basically says “Wherever men have built their nations you’ ll find prisons and plantations/you’ ll find walls and segregation/And you’ ll always find some chains”, echoing, albeit from a different angle, Rousseau’s assertion that “man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains”.

Opening with a spoken intro before shifting to a soft shoe jugband-blues styled number, ‘Four Corners’ takes us back to Nottingham, the song about a specific crossroads in the Radford area of Nottingham where, near the old Players cigarette factory, once stood a pub, a church, a school and a pawn brokers, “and our Nana used to say at those four destinations/Lay Damnation, Ruination, Education or Salvation/Each corner would lead you to a different fate but the choice? Well that was yours to take”.

Sung in a conspiratorial tone, the penultimate ‘Stand Tall Before The Wagon’ is a banjo shuffling blues apparently inspired by a line from cult TV series Carnivale about a form of rough justice where someone is judged by a mob and punished accordingly, the song unfolding the tale of a man seeking vengeance (“I’ve taken all your sin and everything you did and I’ve put it in a bullet and it’s heading for your eyes”), the album ending on a note of hope as, with hints of James Taylor and McGee on harmonies, the simple picked ‘Roll Me Out (In The Middle Of the Night)’ has him softly singing “For all the lies they tell/Truth will find her way” and “Come the ringing of the bell/We’ ll hear that choir sing”. Hill will be the one at the front.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.quietloner.com

‘If Love Should Rise On The Winter Tide’ – live in 2015:


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