Review - Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies
Only a Northern
Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies-
Old Songs, Sept. 12
It’s one thing to write a new song that sounds like one, but composing something that could pass for a traditional ballad of the British Isles is far trickier. Such tunes are the stock in trade of Jez Lowe, whom Richard Thompson hailed as ‘the best songwriter to come out of England in a long time,” and whose band, the Bad Pennies, were named by the BBC as the best British folk group of 2007. Lowe’s delightful ditties, which largely dwell on themes of working-class life in Lowe’s native northern England, have been covered by Fairport Convention, the Tanahill Weavers, Cherish the Ladies, and others. Last Friday it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear a sampling from his 15 albums at Old Songs’ 90-seat Voorheesville concert hall.
Lowe, 53, who accompanies his nimble tenor voice with acoustic guitar
and cittern, the Bad Pennies consist of Kate Branley on fiddle,
mandolin, and vocals, electric bassist Dave De La Haye, and Andy May on
Northumbrian bagpipes, keyboards, tin whistle, and piano accordion. They
painted a lightly textured backdrop for Lowe’s songs, which have
melodies reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s in that they are clearly the fruits
of a longtime folkie. The frequent, graceful upward leaps in Lowe’s
singing also recalled fellow English northerner Paul McCartney, which
might sound odd until you consider that both Lennon and McCartney
started out playing skiffle, which also had its roots in folk music.
Resembling a 19th-century sailor in one of his trademark horizontally striped jerseys, Lowe led off his first of two sets with “A Call for the North Country,” a song of hopefulness he wrote around the chorus of “Some day, some say, we’ll all be green in the north country.” The Northumbrian pipes and the fiddle wove a unison counterpoint to the verses, making it plain why listeners often assume these tunes to be traditional.
Lowe’s second offering, “Hard Life for a Rover,” was a departure from the folk mold, though. Although the lyrics, which described the hardscrabble existence of manual laborers in Lowe’s native region, showed no traces of modernity, a pop chord progression belied its recent origins.
Except for a single reference to eBay in “Fancy Goods,” a conversational vocal duet with Branley about a husband’s disgust with his wife’s large collection of knickknacks and her corresponding antipathy for his trove of records and musical instruments, Lowe’s musical wayback machine hummed on for the rest of the night. Drunkards, coal miners, mariners, street urchins and lovers peopled the air around the stage, and by the time the Bad Pennies were done I was a fan.
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