Inspired collection of powerful songs and virtuoso musicianship from Jez Hellard and the Djukella Orchestra
Release Date: 16th July 2021
Label: Djukella Records
Formats: CD, Download
Now here’s an album that has been long-awaited. Jez Hellard, singer, guitarist, raconteur and harmonica player of great distinction has been quiet, as far as recorded output is concerned, since his acclaimed Heavy Wood album in 2016.
As the extensive cover notes to this wonderful package explain, a follow-up album was planned for 2017 but, in Jez’s words, “The machinations of time and circumstances didn’t quite do it.” But a momentous meeting between Jez and Mike West, owner of the 9th Ward Pickin Parlor Studio in Machynlleth, Powys, has resulted, finally, in the release of this long-overdue follow-up. A collection of powerful, often politically observational, songs from a wide range of Jez’s favourite writers, all exquisitely played by an inspired selection of virtuoso musicians, and wrapped in a fold-out case. Along with the disc, it includes informative notes that describe the album’s inception and recording and a 24-page booklet packed with lyrics, stories about the songs and loads of beautiful photographs by Yasmine Zarrouk. The Fruitful Fells is a package that scores 10/10 on all fronts.
Of course, it’s really about the music, and it’s clear that no effort has been spared to get that particular detail absolutely right. The Djukella Orchestra is a fluid concept. Violinists Alistair Caplin and James Patrick Galvin, percussionist Mathew “MatiCongas” Pharaoh, clarinetist Ewan Bleach, accordionist Tommie Black-Roff, woodwind man Dominic Henderson and vocalists Mike West, Ben Coulthard and Rupert Hellard all share moments of real distinction throughout this consistently excellent album, but it’s the mainstay trio of Jez on vocals, guitar and harmonica, Nye Parsons on double bass and Piotr Jordan on violin that provide the bedrock and most of the drive behind this wonderful music.
And the choice of material is absolutely inspired. There really is something here for anyone who’s ever been inclined to explore the more philosophical extremes of the folk genre – a few old favourites, lots of food for thought and several welcoming doorways to the work of songwriters that may, until now, have been unfamiliar. Each song is performed with a respect that is tangible and it’s no exaggeration to say that the overall impact is life-affirming.
Jez is, of course, no stranger to political observation (indeed, his website is worth a visit if only for the observational rants about the antics of our comedy PM and his mates…) and there’s plenty of that in these songs, but at no stage is there any temptation to stray into the realms of sloganeering or polemic – these are songs that encourage thought.
Surprisingly – or, perhaps, not so, given the quality of the songs that have been chosen – Jez makes room only for one of his own compositions, but it’s a cracker. Black Mirror’s Got You is a scary commentary on the power that our mobiles hold over us and, more disturbingly, what they know about us and who they’re capable of sharing that knowledge with. The song also includes some sobering observations on the misuse of social media and includes a bleak reminder that “Mr Orwell tried to warn us.”
In the booklet notes, Jez describes Nathan Bell, writer of the excellent MacDonalds for the Mind, as an effortless crafter of enduring images and his is a name that I’ll certainly be following up on. The song is a biting swipe at the quality and content of the popular press in which lies, pipe dreams, red herrings and white elephants all merit a scathing mention in a jazzy number that features some wonderful Gypsy violin and lovely harmonica touches.
The Joy Of Living is a beautiful take on Ewan McColl’s song that reflects on the fleeting nature of life, the pleasures to be had within it and the regret of the passing of those pleasures, and Nye Parsons’ bowed double bass is sublime. Food and Ferraris is a jazzy rag with some awesome clarinet from Ewan Bleach and Now Westlin Winds is a wonderfully sympathetic take on one of Robert Burns’ best love sonnets.
Elsewhere, the treatments of Si Kahn’s Gonna Rise Again, Richard Thompson’s The Sights and Sounds of London Town, Richard Fariña’s The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood and the Robin Williamson pair, For Mr Thomas and October Song, all breathe fresh life into songs that are, to a greater or lesser degree, familiar and well-loved. In Particular, the version of The Sights and Sounds… rattles along like a Northern Line train (as the sleeve notes so eloquently put it) and the Celtic flavouring given to October Song was enough to urge me to dig out my copy of The Incredible String Band’s first album to give the original version a refreshed listen.
But if I had to pick one single highlight of this excellent album, it would be the version of Robb Johnson’s poignant Home by Christmas. The song itself is part of a song cycle, written to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Paschendale, and it is, quite simply, one of the strongest responses to anyone who believes that war is glorious or that blind nationalism is in any way virtuous that you’re ever likely to hear. A fantastic song.
The Fruitful Fells is a work of passion and great beauty. Jez’s vocal delivery is warm and sincere (if possibly, a little overpowering at first, but that’s an impression that soon fades) and, once you’ve settled in to these marvelous songs, you’ll want to hear them over and over again.
Watch Jez Hellard and the Djukella Orchestra perform MacDonalds For The Mind, a track from the album, LIVE at Falkirk Folk Club, here: