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

Artist’s website:

‘Always’ by Pablo Naruda and Keith James: