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Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings, Purcell Rooms, London, May 21st 2010

May 25, 2010

We’ve seen Jon Boden as lead-man and singer for folk megagroup Bellowhead and fiddle-playing partner of Jon Spiers in the folk duo Spiers and Boden, but his solo outings and those with the Remnant Kings are quite different. They feel more… well, serious. He’s still good-natured and bantering on stage, but the music seems to dig a bit deeper. There are fewer humorous numbers and more songs which explore more serious themes.

Songs From The Floodplain, the ‘concept’ album he released last year, is an intriguing, fractured look at a post-apocalyptic Britain where the oil has run out and people have gone (willingly or not) ‘back to the land’. Don’t be put off by that ‘concept’ tag – it’s an excellent and thoughtful collection of well-written songs, with a firm footing in the folk tradition. Why it wasn’t even nominated for ‘Best Album’ in the Radio 2 Folk Awards is baffling – though Jon did win the ‘Singer Of The Year’ award.

The concert started with two members of the band playing two Edison phonographs with delicate wax cylinders. There were military tunes, solo popular songs and folk songs, all spookily crackly and faint. These phonographs were played intermittently throughout the evening, giving a dreamlike ‘olde worlde’ feel to the futureworld numbers from the Floodplain album.

The band played expertly all evening and include fellow Bellowheader Sam Sweeney on percussion and fiddle (sometimes almost at the same time, impressively) and David Angel on electric guitar, while Boden himself plays fiddle and concertina. The Floodplain songs are quite oblique and require careful listening, but the listener is rewarded by an emerging picture of a very different world, despite some familiar landmarks:
   From the fool to the wise man,
   From the floodplain to the dam,
   When hard times come knocking,
   We do what we can.

References to ‘Up beyond the bypass, overgrown with weeds’ and ‘I cut the grass again today, the diesel’s getting low’ reminded of Talking Heads’ (Nothing But) Flowers:
   There was a factory,
   Now there are mountains and rivers…
   There was a shopping mall,
   Now it’s all covered with flowers…
   If this is paradise,
   I wish I had a lawnmower…

This is much lighter than Boden’s songs, but similarly summons up a future dystopia. In fact, that’s not quite accurate, as it’s unclear from Boden’s songs if this future world really is a terrible place, or if the human upheaval of going ‘back to the land’ is significantly worse than the adjustments and compromises we have to make in modern life anyway. His post-apocalypse is no pastoral idyll, but it’s not Mad Max either, and this uncertainty makes the whole project more compelling.

The Floodplain songs were mixed in with both songs from Boden’s previous album, Painted LadyBlue Dress and Josephine (the latter nicely followed a Napoleon song but not, I think, The Bonny Bunch of Roses, though it did feature a dialogue between young Bonaparte Jr. and his mother) – as well as standards including Hard Times Of Old England (the Copper family’s ‘state of the nation number’) and Danny Deever, one of Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads:
   For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play,
   The regiment’s in ‘ollow square — they’re hangin’ him to-day;
   They’ve taken of his buttons off an’ cut his stripes away,
   An’ they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

It was a fine show, although The Suit was unimpressed, particularly by the gig finishing before ten o’clock. I pointed out that they started at 7.45 and had no support – and that the pub would still be open for a couple of liveners, so The Suit, Astral and I went to the Hole In The Wall to see off the rest of the evening.

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