Something of a labour of love, The Wanderer is a two disc tribute to the late Jackie Leven, curated by Michael Weston King on the tenth anniversary of his friend’s passing. Calling on a wide range of Leven admirers, Weston King has compiled 22 songs, all Leven covers bar his own self-penned tribute to the man along with songs by Levi Henriksen & Babylon Badlands and Liam Carson with Knut Buen.
As with most tribute albums there’s a wide variety of takes on Leven’s styles on show and some are more successful than others while we reckon it’s fair to say that what the album is really missing is Leven himself, given that he was such a unique and powerful character. Weston King is perhaps (and somewhat ironically) the one who gets closest to Leven on The Final Reel which captures some of his Celtic vagabond ways. Meanwhile it’s Scots crime writer Ian Rankin (who collaborated with Leven on several projects), accompanied by Dean Owens, who sounds most like Leven on the spoken word Edinburgh Winter Blues, one of our favourite moments on the album.
The two discs are subtitled Gentle Man and Hard Man, reflecting the conflicting dual personality which most folk attribute to Leven, but aside from a couple of more raucous numbers on disc 2, there’s little to distinguish them from each other. What they do portray is what a fine songwriter Leven was. Leven’s partner, Deborah Greenwood, offers a beautiful version of Universal Blue, and is quite touching on this extremely tender and aching song. Almost as touching is Boo Hewerdine’s plaintive delivery of A Little Voice In Space and Kathryn Williams proffers an ethereal and dreamlike version of The Crazy Song. Two sublime songwriters offer up sublime readings of Leven in quick succession as Arksong (Marc Pilley) and then James Yorkston delicately pick their way through Honeymoon Hill and Empty Square In Soho respectively. Meanwhile the other half of My Darling Clementine, Lou Dalgleish is quite majestic on her solo piano delivery of One Long Cold Morning.
The Hard Man disc opens with Andy White’s rocked up Standing In Another Man’s Rain which wrestles with fuzzed guitar and bagpipe like squirls, emerging sounding like The Go-Betweens on amphetamine. That said it does recall Leven’s version of “the big music” trumpeted by The Waterboys, that widescreen Celtic sound. Tom Robinson tries something similar but with less success on his version of Classic Northern Diversions but for a truly left field take on Leven it’s hard to beat Johnny Dowd’s unhinged robotic Farfisa fuelled romp through Farm Boy – it’s classic Dowd and one reckons that this might have been Leven’s favourite number here were he to have heard it. The Membranes hark back to Doll By Doll days on their splenetic delivery of More Than Human but Henry Priestman calms the waters with his boho delivery of Paris Blues which sounds like a beatified busker on a Paris Boulevard. There’s a theatrical heft to Eliza Carthy’s Brechtian take on The Garden but several of the artists simply take a song and deliver it in their own style. Jeb Loy Nichols’ laid back Caribbean vibes on The Working Man’s Love Song is a joy to hear while fellow Fifer, Rab Noakes, drills into Leven’s roots on the docudrama which is Poortoun with Noakes handing in a gloriously handmade performance, fleshed out with acres of acoustic guitar and double tracked vocals. Another Scottish act, Dogtown Roses are in excellent form on the banjo driven Elegy For Johnny Cash which seems to have been hewn from Appalachian rock with flashes of dark Americana Gothic.
Weston King has certainly honoured the memory of Jackie Leven well with this tribute which serves in its own right as a highly enjoyable listen. If it inspires folk to explore Leven’s own albums then all the better, and with a “best of” collection, Straight Outta Caledonia, recently released along with a forthcoming reissue of his first solo album, The Mystery Of Love Is Greater Than The Mystery Of Death, due in November from Cooking Vinyl there’s no better time to do so. In addition, proceeds from this album will benefit the Westminster Drug Project (WDP) a charity that continues the work of Jackie’s own charity, The CORE Trust.