Band.

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(Copyright for this photo belongs to Simon Bray, who has given his permission to use it on the blog)

It’s definitely about time I devoted a blog entry to a rather superb band called Story Books. They’re a Kent based fivesome, making moody, loud music, and this year saw the release of their EP Too Much A Hunter, along with a crazy UK tour supporting King Charles at some sizeable venues.

The band didn’t disappoint. I was lucky enough to go and see the boys play at three of the gigs on the tour, and the progress made my the band between the first and third shows I saw was astonishing. Armed with the Jedi-like skills of Rob and Kris in the studio, they’ve never had a problem recording and mixing music that sounds awesome. But this year they’ve really started to find their groove live, and the tour was a massive part of that transition.

The band could have been accused of lacking live energy and togetherness in the early days, and a lack of consistent, regular gigs was probably the cause of this. They were starting to get there when I saw them a few days into the UK tour, at the Leicester O2 Academy. But at the next gig I saw, in Oxford, they absolutely nailed it. Everything they’d lacked was there. Energy. Togetherness. Spot on backing vocals. And Joe, of all people, came out and really went for it from the start.

Great things are round the corner for Story Books. They’ve been noticed by some very big, very influential people. Amazingly they’ve secured a slot at the Rolling Stones gig in Hyde Park in July, which is pretty big news!

I strongly recommend you go and see the boys play if you get the chance, before too many people hear about them… And at the very least, download a couple of songs and have a listen. You might like what you hear. Or it might not be your kind of thing. What have you got to lose?

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Harmonica.

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Prior to July 2012, I had no knowledge of the music of Nic Jones. In fact, I had no idea the man even existed. In the run-up to the 2012 Cambridge Folk Festival all that changed.

If, like me, you’re not all that familiar with the folk scene, it’s pretty likely you won’t have heard of at least half the acts on the line-up in any given year. So a great way to build the excitement in the run-up to the festival is to pluck a few unknowns from the list, fire up the computer, and get trigger happy on Spotify.

I did exactly that last July, discovering such delights as Lau, JuJu, and The Pine Leaf Boys. And I discovered Nic Jones.

I discovered Nic Jones.

Worth repeating, and italicising while we’re at it, because the moment I discovered Nic Jones will ultimately go down as being one of the defining moments of my life. Life before I discovered Nic Jones, and life since, are two very separate things. His music has had an immeasurable effect on me, and since last year’s Folk Festival I’ve taken great delight in gradually tracking down his albums, one by one, and becoming totally obsessed with each and every one.

Anyway. I was meant to be explaining how it was that I came to discover Nic Jones, courtesy of the festival line-up and Spotify. I logged on, typed his name into the search bar, and found an album called Penguin Eggs. ‘Odd name for an album…’ was my initial thought, which was reasonable. Until I listened to the album and realised why, at which point it became a brilliant name for an album.

I clicked play, Canadee-I-O hit me like a freight train, and  my life entered the stage I now refer to as After I Discovered Nic Jones. Even today, approaching a year since I first heard the opening track on Penguin Eggs, the first note instantly sends shivers through my entire body. In fact, just sitting writing this is having precisely that effect.

There are some truly incredible albums very close to my heart, all of which have had a huge influence on my musical tastes. But Penguin Eggs immediately surpassed anything I’d heard before, and I now regard it as my favourite album of all time. And I’m pretty sure it won’t ever have that title taken from it.

And so to the Folk Festival. Given that Penguin Eggs had moved me as seismically as I’ve hopefully managed to convey above, you can probably imagine how much I was looking forward to seeing Nic play at Cambridge. It also happened to be his first full performance since the car crash which cut his career tragically short in February 1982.

As I was strolling round the festival the day before his performance, I suddenly walked past the man himself. It didn’t require a double take. Nic Jones looks unmistakably like Nic Jones. I plucked up the courage to turn round and go and say hello, and asked if I could have a photo taken with him. To which, brilliantly, he replied ‘Why…? Are you famous?’. I got my photo, and chatted with him for a couple of minutes. He was one of the nicest, funniest, warm people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet.

The following evening I was on the front row of the audience to see the great man himself sing. As a result of his accident in 1982, Nic is now quite frail, his voice very different, and he can’t play the guitar. None of this was of any significance, and I witnessed the best performance I’ve ever been lucky enough to see at Cambridge.

Fast forward 10 months or so to yesterday, June 6th 2013 (not my actual birthday). My dear friend Catherine presented me with the most incredible birthday present I’ve ever been given. She had contacted Nic and his wife Julia before my birthday to tell them how much of a fan I was, and what Nic’s music meant to me. She was also cheeky enough to ask whether they would send something for my birthday, such as some old guitar strings. She expected nothing. But Nic sent a wonderful Hohner ‘Marine Band’ harmonica, and a lovely hand-written note addressed to me.

I was completely blown away, both by the fact that a friend would go to such lengths to try to get hold of such a priceless and meaningful birthday present, and that Nic and Julia were willing to make such a kind and thoughtful gesture towards an unknown fan.

Penguin Eggs will forever have the ability to send shivers through my body from the very first note. Nic’s harmonica will forever be one of my most treasured and valued possessions. And I’ll forever go on and on and on about how great Nic Jones is to anyone who will listen.

Check him out. You won’t regret it. If the word folk puts you off, have a listen to what Stewart Lee said on the subject, and feel free to thank me when you find yourself looking back on the day you discovered Nic Jones. 

http://www.nicjones.net/home

Sweden.

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Johanna and Klara Söderberg certainly know how to write a song. The first half of The Lion’s Roar is pretty close to perfection in my eyes. Ears? And for all I know the second half might be just as good. I never seem to get there because the first five songs send me somewhere I don’t want to come down from and I find myself going right back to the start to hear them again. And again. And again.

Those who know me will know that I’m a bit of a John Prine fan. I don’t like to harp on about it though, and once I’ve told you I’m into his music I won’t labour the point. Total lies. Everyone I know has to endure an almost daily barrage of gushing praise, and the inevitable claim that ‘seriously, he’s the most underrated songwriter there’s ever been. On a par with Dylan’. Kris Kristofferson famously said of Prine ‘he writes songs so good we’ll have to break his thumbs’. But you already knew that didn’t you? Because I’ve told you every time we’ve met. And if we haven’t yet met, I was probably planning on using it within the first couple of minutes of our first conversation.

Anyway. I am trying to make a point about the songwriting abilities of the aforementioned Söderbergs here. This Old Routine, the fifth offering on The Lion’s Roar (and the point after which I inevitably find myself going back to the beginning of the album) is absolutely stunningly written. And given what you now know about my love of John Prine, my comparison of this song to some of Prine’s most brilliant writing should go some way towards demonstrating how highly I regard it.

Have a listen to Far From Me and Hello In There on Prine’s 1971 debut. That’s about as good as songwriting gets. Simplicity, tenderness, humour. Then have a listen to This Old Routine. If you told me Prine had inhaled a couple of balloons of helium, moved to Scandinavia, and rediscovered the very best of his writing, I might actually believe you.

The structure of the song is unavoidably Prine-like, as is the subject matter. They’ve achieved what so many find so difficult – beautiful simplicity combined with total complexity. Prine often wrote about couples, and in particular couples who had grown old together. His songs are often sung from the perspective of an aging man, recalling the events that have shaped their lives. The similarities between some of these songs and This Old Routine are striking.

In the second verse of Hello In There, Prine sings;

Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more,
She sits and stares through the back door screen.
And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.

He’s watching his wife staring aimlessly out of the back door, while the same news repeats itself over and over, as it has done all their lives.

Now have a look at the opening verse from This Old Routine;

So you come on home, walk through the door. 
She’s in the kitchen searching through the drawers. 
So you stop and watch her and ask what she’s looking for. 
She says she’s not sure.

I’d surely be patronising you by pointing out the similarities.

Both writers talk of sons who have gone away to fight in meaningless wars, Prine singing ‘we lost Davy in the Korean war, and I still don’t know what for, don’t matter any more’, and Söderberg echoes this with ‘and your youngest is out fighting a war, but he won’t say what he’s fighting for’. 

Either Klara Söderberg is a huge fan of John Prine’s music, and has taken inspiration from his style of writing and subject matter, or she’s accidentally stumbled upon songwriting gold. I’d put a significant sum of money on it being the former. Either way, in an age of disgusting, image-obsessed ‘talent’ shows vomiting out one-hit-wonders, and lining the pockets of Simon Cowell, at least we can take reassurance from the fact that there’s a Swedish girl out there capable of writing songs that rival the very greatest.

https://twitter.com/FirstAidKitBand

http://thisisfirstaidkit.com/