Intriguing, confusing and confounding in turns, the real Jon Wilks stands up and out convincingly.
Release Date: 5th May 2023
Label: Self-Released (Bandcamp)
Format: CD / Digital
One of the good guys, Wilks is an all round dude with fingers aplenty in the worlds of both writing and performing, adding now the extra trick of combining the two, with this recording showing off newly unfurled feathers as a singer-songwriter, gaining many new friends along the way. This is his 4th solo record, the 3 before this tending to specialise on his nuanced takes on the traditional folk canon of his beloved West Midlands. A peripatetic childhood led to a peripatetic adult life, so it unsurprising that it was his Solihull schooldays that imprinted upon him his sense of belonging to Birmingham and its environs. After uni in Wales, he relocated to Japan, via Abu Dhabi, becoming editor of Time Out in the former and then editorial director of the Tokyo version of the same magazine. Later, back in the UK he founded Tradfolk.co , a website dedicated to all that its name suggests. In his spare time (ha!), he also hosts and produces the Old Songs Podcast. For completeness, I may not have mentioned that, quite apart his solo career as a traditionally inspired singer and guitarist, he has also been part of Japan based duo, Grizzly Folk, with Jon Nice, where he honed some of the songwriting skills until so recently set aside, with a handful of recordings under that name.
The majority of material on this release remains of traditional origin, as ever his penchant being to seek out those lesser known songs, unmarred by ubiquity. But there are now three of his own compositions included. Furthermore, rather than on any reliance solely on his own voice and (very good) guitar picking, this time he has called upon a plethora of chums he has made along the way. So we get Nice, his old mucker from Grizzly Folk, on keyboards, we get Lukas Drinkwater (of Jacob & Drinkwater), and we get Jackie Oates, who adds her vocals and viola to a number of the tracks. Wilks produced and mixed the recordings himself, but had expert advice from Oates’ brother and fellow midlands lad, Jim Moray.
Opening with one of his own, Tape Machine, a brief historical narrative of his life thus far, with picked acoustic guitar and Nice’s electric piano, to which some bubbling electric bass, Wilks again, is added. His voice is a light instrument, with some distant hints of his hometown, the overall ambience a little akin to long forgotten ’60s band, Sweet Thursday, the collaboration of Alun Davies, later Cat Steven’s guitar lieutenant, with Jon Mark and Nicky Hopkins. Johnny Sands, which follows, could come from a completely different record, Wilks voice now transformed from sensitive songwriter to a cross between John Kirkpatrick and Martin Carthy. Handclaps and more bass give it a heft of propulsion, and it is a joy, with Oates joining in for the chorus. Greek Street is his second self-written, smacking again that same opening vibe, the guitar play especially affecting, with some slide double tracked. The bass is Drinkwater this time. Possibly autobiographical, it is in the style, if not lyrically, of something much older. Oates voice adds some some sumptuous harmonies, and the tale is his own Summer Of ’42, with maybe a little touch of Beeswing.
Gallons Of Brandy/Fox Tell was brought to the party, presumably, care of Oates and her version with John Spiers. Wilks’ guitar positively skips, bass and handclap percussion reprised. Background vocals baa baa intermittently in the background, together with the background hint of a steel drum; the mood is now of mid summer frolics, bucolia mixed with bacchanalia. Lovely, although I may have given the extraneous vocals the heave ho. Haymaking Song is a glorious duet, Oates and Wilks again, with his bass and acoustic guitar continuing to be a match made in heaven, if hard to replicate live. Oates’ viola is a soothing presence between verses. The eagle eyed will see the name Sartin in the arrangement credit, the late Bellowhead man another good friend. Lofty Tall Ship is just Jon Wilks and his guitar, unadorned and unembellished, where the more Carthy aspects of his whole get a further channelling, especially in the phrasing of the lyric.
Will Watch goes the full folk rock, with cittern, electric guitars, Hammond, bass and (programmed) drums, all by Wilks, and this record is busy nailing itself a presence, such is the infectious enthusiasm offered. The textures between the competing instrumentation are a delight to behold, as it winds to an anthemic close. As if to keep no sideways drift from convention out sight, Old Miner brings in some tribal percussion, bubbling synth and, according to the credits, even some mellotron. A rhythmic chant, it belies its origin as a miner’s prayer to those who will come after him, the arrangement, he says, the fault of listening to Massive Attack! So, if the idea of a guitar, double bass and congas, arrangement for the next song, The Boatswain, sounds overly orthodox, forget it, it’s not. Taken at a lick, with Drinkwater back on bass and Tom Gregory on percussion, it has a helter-skelter arrangement, and an almost raga like feel, as the conga becomes ever more tabla. Are you getting the feel that Wilks has more than fair few preconceptions to sway on this disc, as each song takes a further swerve from the mainstream of expectation?
Erin, Sad Erin sounds and starts a step back to orthodoxy, unless you pick up on the slow drone of cello and violin in the background, both courtesy Akito Goto, who offers one splendid burst of melancholic fiddle in a brief middle eight. The Fowler (aka Polly Vaughan) is one of those folk staples around shooting your lover by mistake, given the clear and understandable resemblance there is between human and swan. I’m sure we have all been caught out similarly. A rousing version, sung in tandem with Oates and with her viola joining Wilks’ sturdy picking and Drinkwater’s bass, along with Will Watch, it is a highlight. Finally, now for something completely different. In the run up to this album, Wilks had been ill, and one visitor who arrived to cheer him up was Martin Simpson. He prescribed banjo therapy, gifting him with a 5 string to start the ball rolling. This required learning to play; he taught himself, and, closing track, Banjo Therapy, the final Wilks composition, is the result. Starting just with solo banjo, gradually Nice, Oates and Drinkwater all join in, the hint of a bluebeat backdrop lurking behind the overall Appalachian old timey flow. Oates adds a glorious solo, before the handclaps are back, along with some wordless vocalising, here a lot more apposite and welcome. Altogether a great end to a record full of unexpected surprises, twists and turns.
Here’s the instrumental flourish of Gallops of Brandy/Fox Tell from Jon Wilks.