‘Well, I said hello to the spirit of 1956,
Who was stationed in the bushes next to ’57….’
Thus sang Jonathan Richman on one of the dozen best songs ever recorded, “Roadrunner”.
I encountered the same spirits on a soggy Thursday night in Leek. It’s not what you expect, really and I would have appreciated fair warning but there it is.
A modest but politely enthusiastic audience was more a reflection of the night rather than ‘the turn’. Leek, one of the highest towns in England – ‘Queen of the Moorlands’, baby – was sloshing about in the remains of the tropical storm which had brought a well-morphed spirit of the Caribbean many miles away from source. This exotic and fantastical weather ‘bomb’ was well named by the time it reached these climes.
Doris. Queen of the wet and windy.
So one for the hardy, very local or true believers.
First up, support from a local musician and leading light in the Leek Blues Fest – end of last week in September 2017 for those of you young enough to believe in the idea of forward planning – Mike Gledhill, an affable singer-songwriter who played an amiable bunch of self-penned songs, one of which he entertainingly claimed he wrote with J.J. Cale….”he just doesn’t know it yet…!” all of which amounted to a pleasant enough starter-upper.
John Lewis is, in his solo incarnation, a revelation from the second he hits the strings. Within the first four songs it is pretty obvious we’re in the presence of something a bit special here. His repertoire wanders with total comfort between 1956 rockabilly skeletons, Hank Williams-esque country painfests, straight-ahead four on the floor R’n’B – tinged rock ‘n’ roll that Chuck Berry made his own, and the prehistoric pop sensibilities of Buddy Holly. How does he manage this?
Well, for a start, this guy has A Voice. And it’s usually the voice which lets down a perfectly acceptable ‘Americana’ (hate the term – but bear with me) act, especially the blues. But this guy has got the whole thing going on. I find it incredible that one bloke’s voice can capture the essence of the pained ache of the aforementioned Hank Williams (done badly it just sounds like mawkish sentimentality – and John Lewis doesn’t appear to do mawkish sentimentality), the tremulous, vulnerable majesty of Roy Orbison, the mean, gritty swagger of some of the other Sun-era originals like Sonny Burgess, Charlie Feathers et al, and the popped-up sweetness of Buddy and yes, at one point, Elvis and of course, Johnny Cash. Not only that, he is positively expert on a range of guitars that look like they really ought to be nailed to the wall in a museum in Nashville or used as agricultural instruments.
Here is a man who is on top of his game, big style. You don’t have the likes of Imelda May helping out on his beautiful celebration of dadness, “Waltz Around the Kitchen”, or The Jets providing back-up on some of his recordings without knowing your chops. What I find similarly astonishing is the authenticity which having a ‘stamping board’ – which looks like a heavily-modified pallet – as your rhythm section. And to keep that going with metronome precision throughout a set which requires a variety of pace changes mid-song can’t be easy, not to mention physically exhausting.
What is it about the Welsh? Why do they produce such brilliant rock ‘n’ rollers? Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers; the much-maligned Shakin’ Stevens; Geraint Watkins; Ricky Valance (first Welshman to have a UK number 1 hit; ask your grandma.) Even Sir Thomas The Jones started out with beat-group derivatives of old-school r and r. And John Lewis sits fairly and squarely in the middle of this tradition. Already. And you feel there’s still plenty to come.
Perhaps the best compliment you can pay an artist who features a number of ‘covers’ in their set is that the originals are not fillers you sit through politely before he chucks in a crackling, impatient “Help Me” or an incendiary “Baby Please Don’t Go”. By focussing on the fundamentals, family relationships (“Waltz”) paying the bills or not (“Money Troubles”) or social exclusion (“Not Quite the Not”) his own stuff sits in perfect context with a whole range of classics which span early skiffle, work songs, blues and country. Modern sensibilities, mark you; “Money Troubles” is a beaut, naming the beast in a direct and modern setting. I mean, if he was writing ‘baby left me and mah mule got lame, lost mah money in a poker game’ you’d wonder quite what the point was. So he doesn’t.
And that quite stunning voice enables him to interpret an old and well-worn song with vision and flexibility. I mean, “Always on My Mind” sung by Elvis always sounds to me like ‘I may not be perfect but regarding our relationship I’m always Elvis Presley.’ Sung by Willie Nelson, it sounds like ‘I’m nowhere near perfect but regarding our relationship, this is the about the best I can manage.’ Here is an interpreter of other people’s songs who thinks about what they mean to him, not just his own material, and that isn’t necessarily a given.
Note to self; go and see The Real John Lewis, as the microphone stand proclaims, as a trio and see how that changes the dynamic of things. I’d imagine that freed from having to be his own personalised rhythm section there’d be some real pyrotechnics then. And also, must go see him in an over-full, sweaty cave somewhere filled with the drunk and the raucous rather than the sparsely-populated but admittedly lovely high-ceilinged Victoriana of the Foxlowe Centre.
I stop mid-gush to voice two slight concerns. Firstly, regards old rockabilly and rock n roll, (I flatly refuse to use the term Americana as I hate it with a vengeance) virtually the entire world is looking in a direction away from the original source of music as we know it at the moment. How is this phenomenal talent to break out of the limitations of the genre? And secondly, what exactly IS the genre? And DON’T say Americana, I will not be held responsible for my actions. Sooner or later, a ‘breakthrough’ airplay track may well compel The Real John Lewis to define himself a little more precisely than his talent would probably feel comfortable with. At that point The Real John Lewis – or a version of – might be forced to stand up. (At which point the rhythm section will fall silent, ‘cos you can’t do the stomp rhythm thing unless you’re sitting down.)
But neither of these things are the artist’s problem and neither are they particularly within his control, either.
And the latter might be a nice problem to have. It would be no more or less than he deserves.
New acoustic album “His Other Side” comes out on February 26th, I’m told. Website www.therealjohnlewis.com