Live From Old York: Tom Lewis, Bryan Ferry, Blockheads, Brass Monkey & 4square
The Black Swan
November 7, 2013
It was easy to identify Tom Lewis whilst he was sitting amongst the audience at the Black Swan Folk Club, checking out the floor singers at the evening's beginning. This was a man sporting an anchor earring and an anchor amulet, with his hair intricately woven at the back of his head in a manner which might easily support an extra, imaginary, anchor. Lewis is a veteran interpreter and sometime author of sea shanties, even though his 23 years of nautical experience were on a submarine rather than a sailing ship. It's been 14 years since his last visit to this York club-in-a-pub, but his valid excuse is that he and his wife Lyn have been living in British Columbia for the last three decades. Only this year have they moved back to Bournemouth, England, to care for Lyn's nonagenarian mother. Lewis was born in Belfast, but grew up in Gloucester. This is apparently his 70th year, but he looks around two decades younger.
It's not so often that we have the chance to drink in an evening of sea shanties. This rare musical guzzle turned out to be a revelatory experience. Despite a recent upsurge of interest within the mainstream firmament with the Rogue's Gallery Hal Willner project, these shanties remain curiously individual beasts. Straight away, the performance turned into a communal event, as many of the club members were familiar with the words of the old traditional material, and even with much of the original Lewis songbook. The two sets were divided between solo singing and numbers with Lewis accompanying himself on either ukulele or button accordion. These might be basic means, but his rousing interpretations, bolstered by the vigorous audience participation, resulted in a fulsome roar as these twinkle-eyed tales were spunsometimes melancholic, oft-times rollicking.
He sang "Bully In The Alley," which deals with steering compensation for an insecure mast, meaning a drunken sailor, looking for his ship. This was followed by his own "Landlocked Sailor" and then "Northwest Passage," by the Canadian singer Stan Rogers. Lewis noted that when Rogers died, right at the start of his Canadian sojourn, this was given prominence on the six-o-clock news, unlike the underground media-whispering that would have greeted a similar loss in the UK. His merry version was delivered a cappella, with frothing pint in hand. "All At Sea" was written and dedicated to those who haven't been, many of these permanently grounded types revealing themselves to Lewis in the deepest dry heartlands of the USA. Another song dealt with rock'n'roll and its place as an influence on the sea shanty scene, at least in its composer's eyes. "New York Girls" took polka to salacious heights"You love us for our money," he sang as he sharply clipped his uke.
Lewis possesses an odd similarity to Jonathan Richman, if we can imagine the latter turning his hand to tales of the ocean. Lewis can certainly compete with the rock'n'rollin' Modern Lover in terms of charismatic emanations. His rich voice is perfectly suited to an authoritative spinning of yarns, his storytelling between the songs being equally expressive. Even with his own minimal accompaniment, Lewis creates an age-old canvas of salty spraying, barnacle weathering and, er, submarine claustrophobia.
November 14, 2013
This was an epic show, with hardly a lax moment. The Bryan Ferry Orchestra took to the stage first, delivering reinterpretations of old Roxy Music and solo works, as found on the recent album, The Jazz Age (BMG, 2013). Ferry himself wasn't at the keyboards, that position taken by the project's arranger Colin Good. The idea was to deliver Ferry's songs as if they'd been penned during the 1920s, performed after the fashion of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson or King Oliver.
Sometimes the tunes emerged in a barely recognizable state, and at others they sounded oddly mutated, as with "Avalon," which ended up sounding preferable to its original incarnation. The Orchestra also skewed towards latter-day songbird Lana Del Ray, as re-invented for The Great Gatsby (Water Tower Music, 2013). One thing that wasn't apparent in advance was the impressive way that the band metamorphosed gradually into Ferry's core combo for the evening.