Sunday, 5 July 2015

"Shoeless In The Desert" reviewed by Caught In The Act...

Many thanks to Brian Banks for this generous and detailed appraisal of "Shoeless In The Desert" which has recently appeared in the on-line magazine, "Caught In The Act".

“Shoeless In The Desert”
Cherry Red BEAUSITD1 – DL-only – (46:27)
by Brian R. Banks

The inaugural release of Dandelion was Beau’s single ‘1917 Revolution’ which reached not only Lebanon but also its top ten chart. It was recorded in his first session at CBS Studio in New Bond Street in mid-April 1969 – exactly forty six years later and a new 14-track release conjures up a similar feel. Shoeless In The Desert is a fourth download by Cherry Red, hot on the heels of Guerssen’s vinyl reissue of Creation, his second Dandelion LP which sold 7000 in three months in 1971. These new songs were also produced by Trevor Midgley aka Beau at TM Studios in his local Norfolk.

Like another Dandelioner Bridget St John, his home had no record player or radio pop, but his view of music changed when he heard Elvis Presley’s EP Jailhouse Rock at a family friend’s house during Christmas 1957. ‘It wasn’t just exciting,’ he recalled recently, ‘it was visceral.’ He paid homage on Creation when asked his bassist to open ‘Ferris Street’ with the riff of ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ from that EP. After first performing with Yorkshire-based The Raiders in the early sixties (a track of this school band appears on Fruits de Mer’s 2014 Annual), he heard the immortal bluesman Lead Belly and decided on a solo career with his own 12-string. It is in his tradition, with Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton (he also cites Roy Harper), that this singer-songwriter has been crafting atmospheric ballads and social commentary ever since. The atmosphere is consistent throughout his long career, the protest here is probably his most bitingly truthful so far.

‘Storm In The Eye Of God’ opens with one of his many favourite themes, mariners and voyages. Here it is about migration to the west, a current aftermath of historical imperialism, while references to Eskimaux and peasants add a psych-feel. There is a sense of the epic about ‘The Oyster And The Pearl,’ conjuring several strands simultaneously about relationships (‘a half-frozen hourglass that once was a girl’), the voted-in ones who affect and decimate lives, that history consists of fables agreed by committees but certain relationships (or links) can’t so easily be broken and transcend compartmentalisation. The four minutes reminds this listener vaguely of ‘Spider’ on Creation. Mood then shifts in his typical way with advice on how to avoid the physical consequences of a bad lifestyle when ‘veins go harder because of the cholesterol in your larder’ (‘Don’t Let Them Take You Away’, a nice play on words I’m guessing about fast-food).

‘Masquerade’ is pretty with hypnotically repeated lyrics, like Mick Softley or Bridget St. John when she takes up the 12-string. It’s the album’s promo video and shortest on the release. The personal is metaphored with Shakespeare references in ‘Theatre Song,’ perhaps the singer’s recent bedside reading as my favourite ‘Music Mountain’ nods to Puck and Titania, a bewitched and bewitching fairy-like place with nymphs peeping out from the 12-string’s waterfall. ‘Tree Of Life’, said to be a variation of Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’, wonders if atrocities read about in far-away lands might be echoed soon after in the land we live, with wisdom on how modern times (mis) treats its inheritance. For ‘This ls Your Dream’ the songwriter feels a link to his eponymous debuts ‘Rain’, an up-tempo piece on dreams.

The equivalent second side builds up with some right-minded social insights. ‘America For Sale’, in appropriate mock banjo-style, flags the hookers on Broadway with what is learnt at Harvard and Yale, the main street McDonalds et al in their dubious obsession with commerce (see YouTube’s Five Secrets About.... series). President Coolidge said in 1925, cited by Beau in the press leaflet, ‘The chief business of the American people is business,’ but at what world cost? I can’t help thinking that history will view that country of excessive consumption and world imperialism far less kindly than today’s generations. The British model since Thatcher seems a related variant, whereby governments behind their so-called Party masks see it as business for themselves and friends only. ‘It is said that every people has the government it deserves,’ wrote G. B. Shaw, ‘it is more to the point that every government has the electorate it deserves.... Thus our democracy moves in a vicious circle of reciprocal unworthiness." And that was 1919! Trevor Midgley is Shavian in his perspective, as relevant then as now. Lyrics are as caustically sharp as a musical Mac the Knife. Not as street-personal as Kevin Coyne but wider canvases rather than momentary yet immortalised scenes, and both disseminate the currency of truth in their own individual ways.

‘Guardians Of Their Own Truth,’ on the roots of faith down the ages, starts as if ‘1917 Revolution’ reprised. Organised religions prefer dogma and superstition to reason, whether synagogue, mosque or the church of Jesus Christ the Entrepreneur according to his press-release. Certainly those faith systems are closed to outside (‘heretical’) interpretation, to facts of history such as archaeological evidence or suppression of now-unpalatable activities (the Inquisition; Borgia corruption; Mohammed resorting to banditry when forced out of Mecca; that Jewry wasn’t homogenised before the Holocaust but undertook even murder among the different warring denominations etc). It is in the same vein as the recent Italian international best-seller portraying the Vatican church as a modem marketing agency phenomenon. Again a link to Shaw recurs: his Will states that no memorial ‘should take the form of a cross, or any other instrument of torture or symbol of blood sacrifice.’

The closer is clearly a credo. ‘The Atheist Hymn,’ reminiscent of Dandelion-era ‘Blind Faith’ and ‘A Reason To Be,’ weighs the spoon-fed approach of doctrine with non-acceptance, ‘I am free to disbelieve’ runs the free-thinker’s chorus. The power of number one might be believers’ subconscious association for self-esteem, dare I say like male youth’s preference for foreign but rich sport teams and ‘stars.’ Beau’s songs have this ability to open debate and claw away what others prefer to cloak or veil. He sees himself as a ‘political junkie but without affiliation’: he is a Tom Paine or William Cobbett with a 12-string, used like a skein to support ideas which never sags with the weight of what is conveyed.

Like his mentors, he is now a ‘veteran of good stock’ for one of his most political statements, sympathising with the downtrodden and pauperised by those in political and economic power. His recent vinyls on the labels Ritual Echo and Sound of Salvation, and the CD Edge Of The Dark (Angel Air, 2009), featured this more than his early albums that included haunting and beguiling songs about relationships – think Marc Brierley’s classic Hello (1969, CBS) with its ‘A Presence (I Am Seeking)’. Here there is sharper focus on one element from his Dandelion work brought forward through the intervening mist. It even features neatly on one side of a cassette.

One might expect an added instrument subtly applied in the background (I hear a mellotron, a Jew’s Harp, wailing harmonica or sighing violin....) but they are as absent as the keys he can also play. It would be interesting too if a band co-operated again as on the now prolific song-writer’s second album. But the words are the essence, their depth always thought-provoking, as erudition combines with acute observation of the world around.

It is the sheer breadth of diversity of themes that anchor the listening experience, in true troubadour fashion. These are more exposed when not hiding behind a band, with the intricate guitar work providing its own melodic beat. Shoeless In The Desert adds to a fine body of work that deserves far more notice, especially as many of the era now seem burnt out. If the acclaimed Creation was the sound of silence, the current material is the articulated protest-call of the silent majority.

Brian R. Banks

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