JOHN TAMS – The Reckoning (Topic TTSCD006)

The ReckoningThe Reckoning, John Tams’ third solo album, is the latest deluxe re-issue marking Topic Records’ 80th anniversary. Originally released in 2005, it was the last of a trio of albums that might fall into the singer-songwriter category and the culmination, as far as recording goes, of a career that now stretches back fifty years. Tams has also been an actor, composer and musical director among other roles he’s taken on over the years but is best known for his membership of Muckram Wakes, The Albion Band and Home Service.

The first thing that struck me on listening to The Reckoning again was how gentle it is. Tams is a political thinker but he doesn’t rant in song, preferring to let the ideas enter your mind by a process of osmosis. Take the opening song, ‘Written In The Book’. On the one hand it seems to be a condemnation of the false hopes of the sixties: “Lennon and McCartney have a lot to answer for” and on the other it’s an attack on Thatcherism. ‘Safe House’ is equally complex. It’s clearly about the dispossessed but are they immigrants, Travellers, or the unemployed detritus of industrial decline? Probably all three.

There are several traditional songs here – at least they were once traditional and Tams labels them as such despite the work he’s put into them. ‘Amelia’ is absolutely gorgeous: obviously in shanty form but it leaves us wondering whether it’s ‘Amelia’ who is out on the sea or her sailor who is trying to get back to her. ‘Bitter Withy’ is modernised with Graeme Taylor’s Dobro over Andy Seward’s banjo and ‘A Man Of Constant Sorrow’ is transferred to the Derbyshire and Yorkshire coalfields and 1984.

‘The Sea’ is a song cycle which includes ‘One More Day’, a song that Tams has made his own, and the amalgamation of ‘A Sailor’s Life’ with the chorus of ‘A Sailor’s Alphabet’. The last track on the original release was ‘Including Love’, a decidedly American blues decorated by Steve Dawson’s trumpet. It sounded slightly incongruous then but with the three “postscript” tracks taken from or inspired by productions of John Steinbeck works it seems more appropriate. The first of the three is the cheekily titled ‘Sweet Home Oklahoma’ and the second is ‘No Luck At All’, both featuring Taylor on second guitar. Both of these post-date the first release of The Reckoning but the final track is a gorgeous big band version of Albert E Brumley’s ‘I’ll Fly Away’ from 1990 (remember Plainsong’s version?) and among the familiar names on board you have to single out Trevor Dunford’s lead guitar playing.

If this is the last of Topic’s celebratory reissues, it’s not a bad place to stop but, you know, I can think of a dozen more candidates to continue the series.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Amelia’ – live (from the folking archive):

GRYPHON – ReInvention (own label GRIFCD01)

ReInventionIt has been a long time. Gryphon broke up in 1977 after recording Treason, which a lot of people seem to like but which I don’t particularly care for. Rumours started to emerge some eleven years ago and the band played a one-off gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2009. There followed silence until three years ago when Gryphon played half a dozen dates and announced that they were back. The result of their return is ReInvention, an album of new material with a new(ish) line-up.

Richard Harvey, much in demand as a screen composer, couldn’t commit to the schedule of a rock(ish) band intending to record and tour and his place has been taken, in part, by Andy Findon partnering Brian Gulland on aerophones with multi-instrumentalist Graham Preskett assuming the keyboard role. Rory McFarlane has replaced Jonathan Davie on bass and still present is percussionist Dave Oberlé with Graeme Taylor returning to the fold having, wisely perhaps, avoided Treason. As well as playing guitar Graeme has assumed the job of producer which he has been doing, very successfully, for other people for some time.

I would say that we can dispense with history now but much of the music here takes us back to the 70s which makes me very happy. Of course, the technology is much improved and the players have acquired years of experience but if you were a Gryphon fan back then you’re going to love ReInvention.

‘Pipeup Downsland DerryDellDanko’ is perhaps not the best opening title to convince the uncommitted but Gulland’s merry tune gives Findon a first chance to show off his skills and its one verse makes it a perfect opening or closing song for a live set. Findon moves to krumhorn for Preskett’s ‘Rhubarb Crumhorn’ but it must be emphasised that every track here is an ensemble piece moving between themes and instruments. In the old days Gryphon were noted for long compositions but there is just one here and it’s Taylor’s setting of ‘Haddocks’ Eyes’ from Alice Through The Looking Glass. The words are nonsense, of course, but Graeme treats it a seriously as he can until about six minutes in..

Preskett contributes three more compositions. He describes ‘Hampton Court’ as a cod piece; ‘Dumbe Dum Chit’ is based on a drum pattern and ‘Sailor V’ is an Irish/Scandinavian jig. ‘Hospitality At A Price…’ has a 1920’s feel and Taylor’s ‘Ashes’ is partly inspired by cricket – among other things – before Gulland’s ‘The Euphrates Connection’ brings the album to its close.

It really is impossible to describe in detail everything that happens in ReInventions – it would be much better for you to sit back, close your eyes and listen. Occasionally you may wish to chuckle.

Dai Jeffries

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Live at The Union Chapel, 2015:

Gryphon announce new album – forty-one years on

Gryphon

Would you believe it? Gryphon are releasing an all-new studio album of especially written, previously unheard material – and this comes all of 41 years after their fifth album, way back in 1977. Release date is set for 17th August. Now they really are the oldest and the newest thing – a legendary British band that’s as exhilarating, energetic, unpredictable and addictive now as it ever was.

No-one could ever pigeonhole Gryphon. When the first album came out, the band appeared on BBC Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4, all in the same week. They appeared with Yes at Madison Square Garden and Houston Astrodome, played prog rock festivals, folk clubs and cathedrals. They wrote and played the music for Sir Peter Hall’s National Theatre production of The Tempest at the Old Vic and found a unique place in the hearts of folkies, proggers, Early Music aficionados and anyone with an ear for something creative, fresh and different.

When they split, the members furthered their experience appearing alongside everyone from Kate Bush to Van Morrison, Cher to McCartney, John Williams to Long John Baldry, but after a one-off sell-out show in 2009 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London the band reformed in 2016 as a six-piece with three new members and since then have been back on the road wowing audiences all over again and rapidly gaining a new fanbase.

ReInvention returns in part to their early connection with Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, in which they found their name. Guitarist Graeme Taylor has set the White Knight’s song ‘A-Sitting on a Gate’ into an epic eleven minute extravaganza which takes us on a musical journey from a reflective Brittenesque bassoon, clarinet and violin trio introduction, into a prog-rocky dialogue between the White Knight (Brian Gulland) and an ‘aged, aged man’ (Dave Oberlé), through a heavy-metal riff with a suddenly distorted and harmonised bassoon, and thence to a plaintively tragi-comic conclusion to bring us home with a rousing military march. Something for all the family!

Brian Gulland, as usual, entirely off the wall, provides four new compositions, displaying his wide influences from 20s English humour, through harrowingly massive church organ chordal sequences, and haunting New Age recorder, acoustic guitar and vocal moments, through the gamut to some strident and stirring full-on electric rock riffs.

Relatively new member (of a mere 9 years’ service!) Graham Preskett also contributes four new compositions, very much in a mid-70s Gryphon style, though adding for the first time some Celtic influence, and demonstrating his experience in writing filmic music. Graham is not only invaluable for his writing, but is also a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and employs his talents on violin, mandolin, harmonica and keyboards to great effect.

So what is Gryphon’s music? It’s just as it always was – imaginative, quirky, dazzling yet full of humour. It’s mainly acoustic, featuring a kaleidoscope of instruments. Every gig and album utilises at least 40 instruments, so the textures can be pretty varied and unfamiliar.

Singer Dave Oberlé provides creative percussion, whilst alongside founder member, Brian Gulland on bassoon and bass crumhorn, the extraordinarily virtuosic Andy Findon shines on clarinets, saxes and flutes. Rory McFarlane supports all this with his solid, sensitive bass, and also donates his original composition, ‘Bathsheba’.

Gryphon, as ever, is the antidote to genres. Whatever you expect, you’ll get something different, surprising, and exciting. Whatever you get, it’ll make you wonder why it took these guys so long to crank up the engines and get back in the studio again. But, as ReInvention proves, it will certainly be worth the wait.

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‘Midnight Mushrumps – 3rd Movement’ – live:

GRYPHON – Red Queen To Gryphon Three (Talking Elephant TECD313)

Gryphon ThreeThose fine chaps at Talking Elephant continue their programme of classic re-issues with Red Queen To Gryphon Three, self-evidently the band’s third album. Hot on the success of Midnight Mushrumps, whose glorious title track is still a highlight of the band’s live set, they settled down in Oxfordshire to work on the follow-up. The writing had two foci – the partnership of Brian Gulland and Graeme Taylor on the one hand and Richard Harvey on the other.

The album comprises four long pieces, loosely based around the theme of a chess game. The first, ‘Opening Move’, is delightfully bombastic at first with David Oberlé’s thundering drums before Harvey’s keyboards inject a gentler note and the music moves back and forth in a battle between the two styles. Sometimes bassoon and recorders take the lead and even Philip Nestor’s bass gets an almost-solo before everything is gathered together for the climax. ‘Second Spasm’ begins with a bucolic mediaeval theme led by Harvey before Nestor shoulders him out of the way. Richard responds on keyboards and the two slug it out before giving way to a krumhorn duet – those were the days – and a new melody emerges with keys and military style drumming.

‘Lament’ is the longest track and one can imagine the game settling into a more thoughtful phase as pieces are exchanged. It’s a lovely piece. Finally ‘Checkmate’ picks up its quieter style and moves in for the kill. Many of the musical ideas we’ve heard throughout the album are reprised in new themes – the martial drums, the dancing recorders, the bassoon counter-melody and the electronic keyboard sounds.

In two years Gryphon developed from being hippy-style folkies into full-blown prog-rockers – they toured this album as support for Yes – and Red Queen To Gryphon Three may stand as being their most accomplished work.

Dai Jeffries

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Rare video footage of Gryphon live – ‘Juniper Suite’:

Gryphon live at The Union Chapel, 29th May 2015

Gryphon 1
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

As Richard Harvey pointed out this tour – labelled None The Wiser – was the first time that the core of Gryphon had played together for about forty years and only the second time in London. I last saw them in 1973 or 74 and their performance of ‘Midnight Mushrumps’ that night still lives in my memory.

But here they were, dressed rather more soberly than in bygone years – although Graeme Taylor’s shirt was rather flamboyant – except for Brian Gulland who proved that his seventies’ stage gear still fits him right down to the mismatched shoes. He returned for the second set barefoot, probably because Harvey had changed into a gold suit. Counting Dave Oberlé’s extensive percussion rig as one unit, which probably does it an injustice, I think there were thirty instruments on stage. Bearing in mind that Jon Davie had one bass and Taylor had one guitar, that’s an awful lot for Harvey, Gulland and Graham Preskett to handle. That said, some appeared for only a few bars in a single number.

They began with their early days: ‘The Astrologer’, ‘Kemp’s Jig’ and ‘Estampie’ and ‘The Unquiet Grave’ with its solemn bassoon opening. Taylor soloed ‘Crossing The Styles’ and the set finished with ‘Juniper Suite’ and ‘Dubbel Dutch’ as a fair amount of their debut album was dusted off.

The second set began with the twin keyboards and bassoon that heralded ‘Midnight Mushrumps’ and which received a standing ovation all by itself. It is a stunning piece of shifting foci – there’s a guitar not-quite-solo, lovely interplay between bass and percussion, wind and reeds moving in and out and all the time the keyboards underpin and hold it together. The set continued with ‘Lament’ and a medley of themes from Red Queen To Gryphon Three finishing with a set of early dances. The encore began with ‘Le Cabrioleur Est Dans Le Mouchoir’ and took off into tunes that sounded familiar but whose titles remain elusive.

I was pleasantly surprised at how many people remembered Gryphon from the old days. I was stunned by the affection in which they are still held. Standing ovations were the order of the day and the fact that the hint that there may even be a new album was received rapturously tells its own story.

Dai Jeffries

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Dai Jeffries Interviews Graeme Taylor from Home Service

Graeme Taylor Rehearsals 2011.... Our very own Dai Jeffries caught up with Graeme Taylor last month to talk about his pivotal role in Home Service, the bands history, his accident and his other theater and musical projects.

The band has had quite a journey since the highly successful festival season in the summer of 2011 which put them back at the epicenter of the folk rock map, Home Service was then nominated in two categories for Radio 2’s Annual Folk and Roots Awards, where they secured ‘Best Live Act’ at The Lowry, Manchester in February 2012.

The reunion of this classic band came about after the discovery, in early 2011, of some previously unheard live recordings made by their faithful sound engineer on a couple of cassette tapes that had languished in the back of his wardrobe for the last 25 years. These recordings, made at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1986, exhibited a power and commitment that was never fully captured in the studio, so a live album release immediately became inevitable.

Home Service was originally formed from the creative nucleus of the Albion Band line-up that produced the classic “Rise Up Like the Sun” album, singer-songwriter John Tams feeling the need to explore more contemporary themes in his writing and its musical interpretation. Songs like “Walk my Way”, “Alright Jack” and ”Sorrow” were anthemic observations on the unfairness of Thatcherite Britain and its social inequalities. The crushing irony is that they sound as potent now as they did then, thereby making this band’s work as relevant as ever.

Listen to Part 1 of the Graeme Taylor interview below:

Listen to Part 2 of the Graeme Taylor interview below:

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