Damien: 20.7.11

A few weeks ago I had one of the most roller-coasting weekends since becoming a professional folk singer 22 years ago. The logistics were complicated enough but it was the variety of shows that really threw me. On Friday 27th May The Demon Barber Roadshow was booked at Knockengorroch Folk Festival in SW Scotland, not a huge distance from our base in Yorkshire but far enough to warrant a stopover, which the majority of our members did. I on the other hand had to be in London by 4pm the following day for what was to become one of the highlights of my career to date. Google maps suggested that Knockengorroch to London was about a 7 hour drive, add an hour or 2 for delays and the realities began to sink in. Rather than sleep in a tent and suffer an early morning I plumped for a split journey and leaving a muddy Roadshow in a field in Scotland I headed off around midnight for a Travel Lodge near Warrington.

Damien & Tony Hall © Alan Cole

Fortunately Nicola Lyons, one of our clog dancers, was also going to London which gave me some much appreciated company.  At 3am we arrived at what appeared to be an abandoned Travel Lodge and after 20 mins of ringing bells and banging doors we finally woke the sleeping attendant. 7 hours later we were on our way again and another 5 hours more saw us pulling in to The South Bank Centre, London, just in time for  me to miss my sound check with one of the most iconic, if short lived , folk supergroups of the late 1970s, Bandoggs. This was where things started getting interesting for me. Bandoggs were Nic Jones, Tony Rose, Pete Coe and Chris Coe all of whom loomed extremely large as major inspirations to my early career. I’d met Pete and Chris Coe a number of times and I was also fortunate to have known Tony reasonably well too. As Tony was no longer with us, since his untimely death in 2002, I was asked to take his place in the band, an honour that will probably never truly settle.

Then there was the man that all the fuss was being made about, Nic Jones. I can honestly say that Nic was one of my major influences and inspirations in my late teens and early 20s, coming second only to Peter Bellamy and equal to Martin Carthy. I’ve been lucky over the years and have been friends with the majority of my heroes including the likes of Peter Bellamy, Walter Pardon and Tony Rose. There are of course a number of singers who I’ve never met because they were long gone before I stepped out of Norfolk.  Nic was different though due to his accident in 1981. Like many things in my life I discovered Nic later than most and I’d actually heard most of his iconic songs through Graham Moore of ‘Tolpuddle Man’ fame, long before I heard Nic sing them. As soon as I heard the album Penguin Eggs I realised where Graham had got a large part of his repertoire from!

I’ve always found it odd that my dad also came across Nic so late as we all shared a close friend, Tony Hall, who lived a couple of villages away and was resident at our local folk club in the Orchard Gardens, North Walsham.  At the time we didn’t go much further afield than the local club so unless Nic performed there I guess we wouldn’t have come across him. In hindsight we were also quite busy moving to the Isle of Arran and back again between 1978 – 81.

Once I had discovered Nic I couldn’t get enough and I hunted down every recording I could get my hands on. I was particularly chuffed to get hold of a whole load of bootlegs of his live recordings  in the mid 90s, courtesy of a friend who worked for an infamous charlatan in Yorkshire, most of which have since been re-released on Nic’s 1998 album ‘In Search of Nic Jones’.

Which brings me back to The South Bank Centre!

The concert I was part of was also entitled ‘In Search Of Nic Jones’ and was essentially made up of young and seasoned performers who had been inspired by Nic. Although there was no way on earth I was going to miss this opportunity to perform with so many of my heroes I was nervous of the fact that I wasn’t going to have any of my current musical partners with me. The Demon Barbers were too unwieldy for such an event and Mike was already booked at Chippenham Festival with his brothers. That left me with the reality of doing my first solo gig in 7 years in front of a potential audience of 2000 and one of the biggest folk legends ever. I wasn’t over confident about the way this was going and while I was going through Nics old albums, looking for inspiration, it hit me…Tony!

Nic once described Tony as a genius, although most of us who know him well know he’s much much more than that, and I started getting very excited about the idea and gave Tony a ring to sound him out. I’ve known Tony since I was very young, I idolised his playing and as a teenager and went through a phase of trying to emulate his style, needless to say I gave up. No one plays like Tony Hall because no one thinks like Tony Hall. Tony agreed to accompany me to the ball and after much discussion as to whether rehearsing was ‘cheating’ or not I finally arrived at his cottage in NE Norfolk a couple of days before Knockengorroch.  After a 6 hour rehearsal which consisted of around five and a half hours of pipe stoking, tea making, sandwich eating and Rayburn riddling, I finally headed back to Yorkshire, much reassured.

Tony played on Nic’s most revered album ‘Penguin Eggs’ and so we decided to play Barrack Street, Little Pot Stove and Farewell To The Gold (although Tony never performed on the latter).

I’d seen Nic and Joe Jones perform many years before at the Black Swan FC in York. They, along with Pete Coe, Chris Coe and John Adams and I, had stepped in to cover for Tony Rose who had to cancel due to illness. That must have been in late 2001/early 2002 and as far as I know was the first time Nic had performed since his accident. He didn’t take a lead but I think everyone there that night were just astonished that he was even standing on stage with a guitar let alone picking a few notes out of one.  As the shy retiring type that I am I never introduced myself to him that night and so the South Bank meeting was all the more exciting for me.

The Bandoggs sound check was to be sometime between 4pm and 5pm and I miraculously arrived sometime around 4.01pm. By the time I’d unloaded and found my way through the concrete  labyrinth that is the Southbank Centre I was just in time to watch Pete Coe, Chris Coe and John Adams come off stage from our soundcheck.

Not the best start but I went into pro-mode and searched out the sound crew to see what could be done. Nic was on the stage sound checking with Belinda and so I hung back and watched for a while. I had no idea that Nic was taking a lead on songs and was taken aback by what was coming out of the speakers. After a while Nic came over to where I was standing and being of a nervous disposition I decided to be positive by taking the lead and offering my hand while announcing who I was. Tripping over a guitar case on the floor and stumbling into the hero of my youth was not really what I had in mind but he took it well and replied ’Are you the one who was late?’

The concert was terrifying, I was singing songs that I barely knew (I.e. ones that I haven’t been singing for at least 2 years) with an accompanist who I’d never played with outside of a pub and in front of an audience who undoubtedly had high expectations. Tony and I got though Barrack Street with the help of some Norfolk humour and then Bandoggs were up. I’d rehearsed with Pete, Chris and John Adams (John standing in for Nic’s fiddle) back home and they in turn had rehearsed with Nic. This meant that in the grand scheme of things we had rehearsed together. The set went OK and we were into the interval after which we all sang and played some more and then the big moment arrived, Nic Jones was about to take the lead on stage for the first time in 30 years. This was what everyone was here for and what everyone had been wanting for so so long. What came out of the speakers that night was just incredible. It was Nic Jones in all his former glory live on stage in 2011.Watching Nic sing 10000 miles is something I never thought I would ever see and it was utterly inspiring.

Then the reality dawned on me that Tony and I had to finish of the entire evening with Little Pot Stove, which I’m happy to say went OK too.

Later that night I bumped into Stewart Lee who told me his 4 year old’s favourite song was ‘Captain Ward’ by The Demon Barbers, after which I couldn’t take any more and headed back up the M1 to the sanctuary of my Travel Lodge near Nuneaton where I happily crawled into the familiar emotional void that I expect from a room at £19 per night. The next day I had a rendezvous with Mike at Chester Folk Festival and again I was happily back in familiar territory.

Rumours abound as to whether Nic will do more and I guess we’ll all know soon enough.I hope he does as he is an inspiration to us all and now he’s proved he doesn’t need the rest of the cast!


Videos courtesy of Maureen Musson and Tim Chipping