Song of the Day, August 4: Yonder (Down the Winding Road) by John Tams

TamsYonderToday’s song is a stirring mission statement from a great folk talent. John Tams’ long career has included work as a singer, actor, musical director, and bandleader. After recording with the Albion Band and Home Service, he finally began releasing solo albums in 2000. His second foray, 2003’s Home, is a masterpiece. Centered on ideas of travel and rest, it’s a great song cycle, and the third track sums up the disc nicely.

Yonder (Down the Winding Road) has a simple folk structure, repeating the chorus around a series of hopes and observations. Cautiously optimistic, it reaches for the solace that comes at the end of a journey. The path may be short or long, simple or arduous, but the knowledge that something worthwhile is at the end keeps the traveller going.

Percussionist Keith Angel — the disc’s secret weapon — provides quiet support with an uncluttered surdo line. Longtime Tams friend and collaborator Barry Coope turns in a fine organ line, adding brightness to the journey. Tams supplies a nice acoustic guitar figure and turns out one of his finest vocals. His strong voice is low, almost restrained, saving itself for the many steps ahead, but clearly ready to take them.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, May 13: Ampleforth / Lay Me Low by the Albion Band

AlbionLayMeLowThe Albion Band was a ever-changing group whose only constants were founder Ashley Hutchings and a mission to present the best of traditional English music. Their finest hour is their fourth album, Rise Up Like the Sun, on which Hutchings surrendered musical direction duties to John Tams so he could focus on being part of the band. The disc’s standout is a smart medley.

Ampleforth is a traditional fiddle tune that Tams and keyboard player Pete Bullock arranged over a synth line. The blend is delightful, creating a modern moment in the midst of old music. The instrumental segues into an amazing vocal arrangement.

Tams found Lay Me Low in a Shaker hymnal, intrigued by the book’s title, The Gift to Be Simple. The lyric is a repetition of the title with three short verses seeking shelter. The simplicity is elegant, and the gorgeous harmonies that Tams arranged are magical. Besides Albion regular Simon Nicol, Tams is joined by an impressive international folk chorale: Julie Covington, Pat Donaldson, Kate McGarrigle, Linda Thompson, and Richard Thompson. With fiddle and synth matching the intro and a tasty guitar solo, the whole package is amazing.

Enjoy this amazing medley today.

Song of the Day, March 9: Alright Jack by Home Service

HomeServiceAlrightJackToday’s song introduced a strong new chapter from a group with deep roots together. When the Albion Band dissolved after their brilliant Rise Up Like the Sun, John Tams made the most of his experience co-producing that album and brought many of the musicians together for a new project. With old friend Bill Caddick added to the mix, the large group chose the name Home Service and began a long, sporadic career providing music for the BBC and the National Theatre. After a couple of recordings, Caddick departed. Tams and company regrouped for one of the band’s few studio albums — their finest moment — Alright Jack.

The title track kicks things off in fine style. It’s a stern rebuke of the Thatcherite “I’ve got mine” mentality, anchored by the warning “the higher you climb, the further you fall.” Tams is in fine voice, delivering his lyrics with building passion. The assembled company, with years of collaboration behind them, are a fine band, providing compelling harmonies and a flawless framework.

Enjoy this compelling song today.

Song of the Day, January 1: Amelia by John Tams

TamsReckAmeliaToday’s song is a lovely ballad from John Tams. Amelia appears on his third solo album, The Reckoning. It’s a quiet song of separation. The narrator is left behind, working hard to earn his keep, while the title character wanders far “across the western ocean”. It conjures the independent spirit of Amelia Earhart, pondering the efforts of those left behind when pioneers strike forth. A longtime fan favorite, Tams frequently performs it solo or with regular collaborator Barry Coope. Enjoy the pair’s stirring rendition in this live performance today.

Song of the Day, November 19: You Don’t Know Me Anymore by John Tams

TamsDon'tKnowToday’s song is the glorious opener to John Tams’ finest album. By the time he recorded Home, Tams had a long career working with others and leading bands. He put together a sterling band for his first solo album, and they were a well-honed unit when he made the second. They provide a perfect musical setting for You Don’t Know Me Anymore, the first track on the disc. Tams is in fine voice, delivering a country-folk ache of a vocal as he looks at the end of a relationship. He simultaneously declares his independence and laments the loss of something fine. Straightforward but far from simple, it’s a wonderful musical statement and a standout in an impressive career.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, October 5: Sorrow / Babylon by Home Service

HomeServiceBabylonToday’s song is a potent fusion of modern and traditional folk. Home Service came together as a joint project of singer, bandleader, and melodeon player John Tams  and singer /guitarist Bill Caddick. It was a large group, built around many players who had been part of the Albion Band for the Rise Up Like the Sun sessions helmed by Tams. With many busy musicians, numerous side projects, and frequent theatre work, the band recorded as unit only sporadically. Their finest album is the luminous Alright Jack.

Blending traditional themes and tunes, talented electric folk players, and stirring brass elements, it’s a fine album from start to finish. While the heart of the album is the magnificent Percy Grainger medley A Lincolnshire Posy, its call to arms is another medley. Tams wrote Sorrow, a bracing indictment of political indifference and greed. It features a fine vocal, delivering trademark Tams incisiveness. As that song fades, a traditional anthem rises. Babylon is one of Tams’ most compelling vocals, bolstered by vigorous horns and expertly martial playing. The combination is unbeatable, a highlight in Tams’ long, illustrious career and a fine moment from all the talent assembled.

Enjoy this stirring song today.

Album of the Week, October 4: Home by John Tams

TamsHomeJohn 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.

Album Home
Act John Tams
Label Topic Release Date February 25, 2003
Producer John Tams
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. You Don’t Know Me Anymore
  2. Another Grey and Grim Old Grimy Day
  3. Yonder (Down the Winding Road)
  4. The Ballroom
  5. Hugh Stenson & Molly Green
  6. Right On Line
  7. The Traveller
  8. Red Gown
  9. Bound East For Cardiff
  10. 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.

Song of the Day, August 25: Ragged Heroes by the Albion Band

AlbionRiseToday’s song is a stirring album opener from the Albion Band. When band leader Ashley Hutchings collected the newest incarnation of the group for Rise Up Like the Sun, their fourth album (under their third name, dropping the word “Country” or “Dance” from the middle), he asked legendary producer Joe Boyd to helm the sessions and  singer and melodeon player John Tams to arrange the tracks. The pair worked well together — resulting in a shared production credit for Tams — and inspired the players to turn out a highlight of electric folk.

Tams wrote Ragged Heroes to launch the album. A brilliant anthem, it’s an ode to the musical history that drives the album. Filled with spirited invocations and a call to action from the listeners, it is the perfect way to get things rolling. Tams turns in a great vocal as the dozen talented men behind him surge with musical energy.

Songs of hope and tunes of glory
Half remembered Albion hymns
Rise up Saint George and tell the story
This is where your song begins

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Album of the Week, July 26: Albion Bookends – No Roses and Rise Up Like the Sun

Ashley Hutchings is a restless spirit with a singular vision. He co-founded Fairport Convention in 1967, his distinctive bass work providing the steady pulse beneath the rapid evolution of the band. After a tragic accident nearly derailed the band, he immersed himself in research into traditional music, helping craft the band’s watershed, pioneering electric folk. Wishing to pursue that vein while his bandmates pushed to include original songs, he departed, founding another bastion of plugged-in traditional music, Steeleye Span. After three albums, he decided to pursue distinctly English folk and quit the band, retiring to the country to consider his next steps. He met established folk singer Shirley Collins, fell in love, and found his new course. The pair married and collaborated on an album that stands as a highlight in both impressive careers.

Title No Roses
Rise Up Like the Sun
Act Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band The Albion Band
Label Pegasus Harvest
Release Date October 1971 March 1978
Producer Ashley Hutchings and Sandy Robertson Joe Boyd and John Tams
Chart Peak U.S. n/c U.K. n/c U.S. n/c U.K. n/c
Tracks
  1. Claudy Banks
  2. The Little Gypsy Girl
  3. Banks of the Bann
  4. Murder of Maria Marten
  5. Van Dieman’s Land
  6. Just As the Tide Was A’Flowing
  7. The White Hare
  8. Hal-An-Tow
  9. Poor Murdered Woman
  1. Ragged Heroes
  2. Poor Old Horse
  3. Afro Blue / Danse Royale
  4. Ampleforth / Lay Me Low
  5. Time to Ring Some Changes
  6. House In the Country
  7. The Primrose
  8. Gresford Disaster
  9. The Postman’s Knock [single]
  10. Pain and Paradise [single]
  11. Lay Me Low [re-mix / b-side]
  12. Rainbow Over the Hill [outtake]

Collins has an impressive musical resume. While considering a teaching career in England, she met American folk collector Alan Lomax in London. He sparked her growing interest in folk music and the pair toured the southern U.S. collecting songs. She built on that experience after returning home, recording a series of impressive thematic albums. Most were arranged by her sister, Dolly, whose ear for early music and unusual instruments set a distinctive backdrop for Shirley’s clean, pure vocals. She also recorded an album with jazz-folk guitarist Davy Graham, displaying her adventurous, collaborative spirit.

Collins and Hutchings inspired each other: their shared knowledge of traditional music, his intense desire to craft the finest modern vehicle for it, and her distinctive, straightforward singing set up a lesser-known but magnificent hallmark in English electric folk. No Roses features over two dozen performers. Hutchings’ infectious spirit and many connections helped him bring in an array of singers and musicians. Fairporters Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks play on most of the tracks; members of the Watersons and Young Tradition join in the fun, as do numerous other folk luminaries.

Claudy Banks, collected by the legendary Copper family, starts things off just right. It’s a solid declaration of purpose and a lovely song enhanced by Collins’ delivery. Over the course of the next eight tracks, mostly first-person narratives, Collins and Hutchings work with their talented friends to serve up a delightful array of songs. The Little Gypsy Girl is a wink-and-nod lark; Banks of the Bann and Just As the Tide are delightful discoveries; Van Diemen’s Land is a perfectly dark transportation ballad that they give a clever twist. On The White Hare, Lal and Mike Waterson join in, managing to craft an even finer version of the song than the one their family recorded a few years earlier. A jolly chorus of singers provide heft to Hal-An-Tow, another staple of the folk circuit that shines with special energy here.

The two highlights of the album are the murder songs — each based on real events — that close each side. Hutchings builds a powerfully theatrical version of the Murder of Maria Marten, a retelling of the famous red barn murder. Sung from the perspective of the killer, the song alternates between his straightforward narration of the harrowing events and his pleas on the way to the gallows. It’s an amazing song, demonstrating Hutchings’ singular genius and Collins’ inspired singing while the band give them everything they need. Poor Murdered Woman is a perfect closer to the album, a quietly powerful song of sympathy and grief. It’s one of Collins’ finest vocal performances and an enduring example of Hutchings’ matchless art for framing a great song.

The assembled talent on No Roses was dubbed the Albion Country Band by Hutchings. These men and women would work together in a dizzying array of formal and informal groups for decades, often at Hutchings’ behest and inspiration. He created a slightly more formal Albion Country Band for one album, pursued some fascinating side projects, renamed the group Albion Dance Band to celebrate the Morris and other traditional dances that intrigued him, recorded an album, then rethought the band again.

The group’s fourth album featured the simpler name the Albion Band. Hutchings also decided to take a less active role, gathering the talent and providing bass and vocals but not producing or arranging. For those roles, he chose long-time Fairport producer Joe Boyd and rising talent and band member John Tams respectively. Tams rose to the challenge, demonstrating his powerful musical vision and crafting an amazingly diverse but eerily cohesive song cycle. In the end, Boyd shared the production credit with him.

With nine official members and a supporting cast that rivals No Roses, Rise Up Like the Sun has a solid core and dazzling spirit. Ragged Heroes is a Tams original, a stirring calling-on song that welcomes the listener to the proceedings. Invoking “half-remembered Albion hymns”, it hints at the treasures to come while showing off a great Tams vocal. Poor Old Horse is an adapted sea shanty that Tams intended to channel a country blues vibe. It’s a great song with an amazing sing-along chorus featuring Martin Carthy, Richard & Linda Thompson, Kate McGarrigle, and many others.

The instrumental pair Afro Blue / Danse Royale fuses John Coltrane and medieval courtliness with an energetic folk-rock adhesive. Inspired and unexpected, it’s typical of this fine album. Ampleforth is an old fiddle tune that bridges the instrumental with the next vocal piece. Lay Me Low is one of the album’s highlights, a stirring Shaker hymn painstakingly adapted to fit the tone of the disc. Richard Thompson’s Time to Ring Some Changes came from a demo that Hutchings heard — Thompson himself wouldn’t record it for another decade — and brought to the party. It’s a great political song and another invocation to action. House In the Country is a touching Travellers song featuring delightful vocals by Tams and Kate McGarrigle. The Primrose is another nice instrumental, a fun combination of two variants of the song. The original album ends with the grim, majestic Gresford Disaster, a tragic mining tale intoned by guest vocalist Martin Carthy. It’s a dark, stunning closer to a powerful album.

Later releases of Rise Up Like the Sun feature four bonus tracks that enhance the listening experience and round out the picture. Postman’s Knock is a fun dance tune that Hutchings had included on an earlier Morris album, here featuring a sly Tams vocal. Pain and Paradise is another Tams adaptation, a brilliant song of optimism and effort, and a rare Albion Band single; Tams remixed Lay Me Low as its b-side. The final track is another discarded Thompson song, Rainbow Over the Hill. Sung by Linda Thompson, its hopeful spirit brings the enhanced disc to a charming close.

Most of Rise Up Like the Sun was recorded live in the studio, a daunting task for the varied sounds and large assembly. Tams and Boyd inspired the group, creating a highlight of electric folk that shines with a charmingly different light than its peers.

FURTHER LISTENING: Given the complex array of talents on these discs, let’s look at four different catalogs.

ASHLEY HUTCHINGS – The bassist, vocalist, and inspirational band leader has an amazing, complicated set of recordings, ranging from his straightforward work with Fairport to one-off gatherings for a variety of musical purposes. His finest project outside of the various bands is 1972’s Morris On, a fun dance-folk collection co-starring Richard Thompson, Barry Dransfield, Dave Mattacks, and John Kirkpatrick. Hutchings has curated a number of discs that collect his many musical projects, all bearing the title The Guv’nor. The box set of these discs is a perfect, if necessarily incomplete, overview of his career.

SHIRLEY COLLINS – Despite her long career, Collins has a fairly small catalog. Her collaboration with Davy Graham, 1967’s Folk Roots, New Routes, is an inspired blending of seemingly irreconcilable talents and helped set the stage for electric folk. The lovingly crafted themed albums she created with sister Dolly are beautiful and complex. I find the careful arrangements a bit difficult to penetrate, but the passion and brilliance behind them are clear. The best of these is Love, Death and the Lady.

THE ALBION BAND – The group’s first official album after backing Collins is Battle of the Field, an amazing disc that compares well to these two seminal recordings. The lone Albion Dance Band album, The Prospect Before Us, is a fine romp but lacks the cohesion of Hutchings’ best projects. After Rise Up, the band became a more predictable, slightly less inspired enterprise but continued to offer fine traditional and modern folk songs with a changing array of talented members.

JOHN TAMS – As the Albion Band splintered into side projects, Tams poached some of the best talent for Home Service, a group he co-founded with Bill Caddick. Their work as a band and as musical support for the National Theatre helped establish him as a force to be reckoned with and set the stage for a small but impressive solo catalog in the 21st Century. More on that another week.

Song of the Day, July 15: Including Love by John Tams

TamsReckIncludingToday’s song is the charming closer to John Tams’ third solo disc, The Reckoning. After three decades as a member of numerous bands, exploring traditional folk, providing accompaniment for theatre, and working in television, Tams began releasing solo material. He brought together everything he had mastered, crafting a stunning trio of discs.

Including Love is classic Tams. Smart and wry, it features a simple acoustic band providing support to his meditations. A bright trumpet figure underscores the points nicely. The singer ponders everything he doesn’t need, reflecting on the material trappings that might indicate success. There may be only one thing he really needs, but he knows it has its cost as well.

One thing is certain as heaven’s above
Everything goes up in price, including love.

Enjoy this fun song today.

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