John Tams took his time recording a solo album, but of course he was rather busy. Born into a musical family in 1949 in Derbyshire, he learned horn and guitar, leaving school to work in a fairgrounds. He trained as a journalist, writing for a wide variety of outlets, a side career that he has kept up for decades. He taught himself the melodeon, and hooked up with another restless spirit, English folk master Ashley Hutchings, playing on Hutchings’ second morris collection and becoming a member of the often-shifting Albion Band. He co-produced and sang on that group’s brilliant 1978 album; when the Band went on hiatus, Tams took several members and formed Home Service. That eclectic folk unit served as a de facto house band for the National Theatre, and Tams spent many years as the Theatre’s musical director. He also wrote soundtrack music and acted, notably in the ITV series Sharpe. After 30 years in these diverse roles, having played on dozens of albums, he finally entered the studio for his first solo album in 2000. Unity was universally acclaimed, showing off Tams’ strong sense of folk, sensitive vocals, great playing, and solid production skills.
||February 25, 2003
- You Don’t Know Me Anymore
- Another Grey and Grim Old Grimy Day
- Yonder (Down the Winding Road)
- The Ballroom
- Hugh Stenson & Molly Green
- Right On Line
- The Traveller
- Red Gown
- Bound East For Cardiff
- When This Song Is Ended There’s No More
Somehow, he managed to up the ante on his second solo outing. Home is an impressive song cycle, demonstrating everything Tams had mastered in his career while sounding fresh and engaging. While the disc is clearly Tams’ show — he wrote all the tracks but one — he’s a collaborator at heart, and the musicians that join him provide a smart, sympathetic backdrop. Lyrically, the themes connect to the album’s title, whether looking at home as a place, a time, or an attitude. Musically, a critical element to all ten tracks is the use of percussion, with Tams’ crisp production and percussionist Keith Angel’s flexible rhythms providing a varied backbeat to the proceedings.
You Don’t Know Me Anymore is a gorgeous ache of a song, a declaration of independence tinged with regret. Tams’ vocal is flawless, bitter and sad in a smart balance. Angel’s drumming propels the music as the band provide a sympathetic framework. Tams built Another Grey & Grim Old Grimy Day as an improvisation on a marimba line that Angel played him. That marimba line is the dark heart of a bleak, majestic track. In lesser hands it would be simply dark, but the very human essence at the heart of the song makes it work, one of the finest moments in a long career.
Yonder (Down the Winding Road) is a song of hope, a nice lift from the opening pair. The percussion is very subtle, with Angel playing the surdo quietly under Tams’ acoustic guitar and a marvelous organ line from long-time Tams collaborator Barry Coope. A subtle, surging journey of a song, it moves things along just right. In The Ballroom, the listener is treated to a series of vignettes, with the titular location providing a place of hope, solace, and romance. A smart collection of characters, it shows off the singer’s theatrical sense; the use of congas provides a well-chosen beat for the hall and its denizens.
The one traditional folk track on the album is Hugh Stenson and Molly Green, a tale of love and betrayal arranged by Tams to fit the song sequence. He opens with a clarion call of a cappella singing, joined by Angel’s propulsive djembe, fitting Stenson’s military background. The guitar work — by Albion and Home Service veteran Graeme Taylor — is searing, establishing this track as a centerpiece of the album.
Right On Line features Tams alone on vocal and acoustic guitar. A song of need and determination, it provides a nice change of pace. Here, the lack of percussion is a smart move, allowing the song to drive itself with quiet clarity. A wide range of percussion drives The Traveller, moving the song along like its title character. Tams turns in a delightful melodeon line, hearkening back to his Albion days. The vocals don’t show up until half the song has gone by, allowing the music to build and the journey to get underway. Coope provides a marvelous harmony vocal as the track drives the traveller toward home, with all its enticements and complications.
The scene shifts back to the ballroom for Red Gown, a more personal story of romance and joy. It builds slowly, with Tams increasingly exhorting his companion to put on her dancing shoes and celebrate with him. When the drums kick in halfway through, it shifts the band into high gear, providing a delightful honky-tonk backdrop. Bound East for Cardiff is another theatrical number, based on a speech from O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home. A dark reflection on the sailor’s life, it’s a compelling song told in painful fragments. Elegiac keyboards provide an evocative backdrop, while Angel’s drumming rolls like the sea. Coope provides answering vocals, giving the track a nice internal / external monologue feeling.
Tams wraps things up with the apt When This Song is Ended There’s No More, a song of disappointment. Somehow, the sense of lessons learned gives this closing track just the right hint of hope, even as things wind down quietly. Once again, the lack of percussion allows the lyirc to move the song, and Tams turns in a fine, bright vocal.
In his liner notes, Tams calls Home “that difficult second album”. That may be, but the effort more than paid off. He also provides fair credit to “musicians drawn disparately together” for the Unity sessions, now a band in their own right. Angel, Coope, Taylor, Alan Dunn (keyboards), and Andy Seward (bass), certainly deserve credit for providing a tight, cohesive sound that supports Tams’ vision neatly. The result is an amazing album, a wonderful set of songs lovingly crafted and delivered.
FURTHER LISTENING: If John Tams had a hand in it it’s worth a listen. That said, there are a few standouts, including the aforementioned Albion Band treasure Rise Up Like the Sun. Tams has worked on and off with Home Service for over 30 years, in the theatre and on record. Their finest moment is Alright Jack, a powerful blend of traditional and original songs presented with a bright brass section, a solid band, and Tams’ wonderful singing and production.
The man himself has only recorded three solo albums, and all of them are outstanding. Unity set the stage, Home is the bright jewel, and The Reckoning is a stellar follow-up. All three are well represented on The Definitive Collection, a nice overview of Tams’ career including some Home Service tracks and a couple of other well-chosen collaborations.