“Ready now? Just keep it simple.” So says Jeb Loy Nichols to his band on the very brief opening Intro to June Is Short, July Is Long, an album which is a sun dappled slice of blue eyed soul and a balm to the ears. Nichols, a southern American expat who has made his home in the rolling hills of Wales, certainly believes in this mantra. There are no bells and whistles on the 11 songs gathered here as they were originally recorded as demos by him and his local band of All-Stars, all local Welsh chaps. Listening back to the songs, Nichols realised they were perfect just as they were and so, with some horn section overdubs added, here they are for our delectation.
While Nichols has had a longstanding association with UK reggae and dub his first love was soul music from the southern American states and many of the songs here reflect this. However he works from a broad palette and as such the album throws up comparisons to artists such as The Rascals, Ry Cooder, The Meters and Ben Sidran. Ultimately, the groove is the essence as the band, keeping it simple, vary from laid back funk, jazzy licks and blissful country vibes as Nichols’ engagingly wearied voice slips comfortably into the songs.
Mellow is the watchword as the album slips along. You Got It Wrong opens with a slight rumble before settling into a classy, almost lounge like, horn fuelled slice of soul adorned with a female chorus. Think I’m Going To Fall In Love Today is funkier in a honeysuckle sort of way sounding like a deep soul cut from the early sixties while Matter Of Fact is stripped down somewhat reminding one of Curtis Mayfield’s work with The Impressions. There are some more energetic moments here as on Last Train Home which rides on a zippy rhythm guitar riff while Black Rooster has the sort of loose limbed blend of funk and country exemplified by Little Feat. Best of all is the excellent How Can A Man (Live Without his Mother). Set to a lonesome harmonica wailing over a shimmering wave of guitar and percussion it’s a song which could easily have sat on a Ry Cooder album. Simply superb.
It’s a rock’n’roll cliché, getting it together in the country. Generally speaking it seems to be when a band or artist wants to escape the hurly burly and pressures of the city and decamps to some bucolic idyll where the hope is the muse will descend. Traffic did it in Berkshire, The Dead in Marin County and Led Zeppelin in Bron-y-Aur in Wales. Usually the temptations of the city soon beckon and album written or recorded it’s back to the treadmill. However for Andrew Hawkey, getting it together in the country has been a forty-year labour of love as this Cornish born veteran has nestled in the hills of Mid-Wales since 1973. In his potted biography (available here) Hawkey mentions living in a variety of dilapidated properties including one that was accessible only by foot and which had been previously occupied by Albert Lee’s Heads Hands and Feet (presumably getting it together in the country at the time). Variously employed as an editor, label owner and promoter he’s been making music since the late seventies (releasing two solo efforts in the eighties) and played with various bands. As he tells it What Did I Come Up Here For was a dream of sorts, a long time wish to gather his songs in one place, a wish fulfilled when a neighbour, Stuart Maman Bolton declared himself willing to handle the recording and engineering side of things and to contribute his various instrumental skills. Reckoning that 32 years was long enough to wait before releasing his third record Hawkey and Bolton got to work and with the addition of some friends recorded this fine meditation on life.
Recorded mostly at Hawkey’s home along with two older cuts retrieved from ’80’s cassette only releases and a live recording of Hawkey with Pat Grover’s Blues Zeros ( a band he’s played in for over 20 years) What Did I Come Up Here For is a fine listen with a few moments that are actually quite sublime. Hawkey himself plays 6 and 12 string guitars, piano, organ harmonica and percussion with Bolton adding bass, percussion and lead guitar. David Cornelius Eger adds mandolin on two songs and Wale’s premier folk harpist, Sian James appears on Wild Flowers. Not playing but credited with support (and artwork design) is Jeb Loy Nichols. Despite Hawkey’s long time involvement with blues bands the only blues here is the live cut of I Had A Fight With My Heart from 2004. Written and sung by Hawkey it comes towards the end of the album and weirdly enough doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. A slow burn (with some fierce guitar from Will Davies) it’s in the style of Otis Rush and the recording actually sounds like vintage John Mayall with Peter Green. Two recordings rescued from Hawkey’s 1980’s cassette recordings offer a glimpse into his past and an introduction to his very fine way with a lyric. Forgiveness is a truly solo effort with Hawkey on piano and guitar exploring the angular waywardness of folk like Jack Bruce or Peter Hammill. Invitation (For N.T.) finds him in a wistful mood buoyed by fine backing vocals on a low key song that recalls Clifford T Ward or Donovan.
As for the bulk of the songs Hawkey is able to reflect on life with a grace and wisdom that at times recalls the poetry of WB Yeats while his music is akin to the work of Christy Moore or Jackie Leven. There’s an indeterminate Celtic feel to several of the songs as they waft from the speakers along with some Southern soul. The album opens with a lonesome organ and 12-string guitar before Hawkey weighs in with the Zen like advice of Hold On, Let Go. Apple Green is an uplifting breeze of a song disguising the bitter reminiscence of a love gone wrong with Bolton adding some inspired Knopfleresque guitar flourishes. No Shadow is one of the sublime moments we mentioned earlier. Dark and moody, reminiscent of David Crosby’s ruminations with a hint of the dark side of Peter Green it creeps along with a powerful undertow provided by electric piano and sinewy slide guitar. Hawkey goes on to provide some superb songs that are stuffed full of fine lyrics as on Treasure Of Time’s
“Well time is the currency, nobody knows where it goes. We hide it in old storage boxes and nobody knows..For some it increases in value while others invest in thin air”
and on The Land Beyond Compare
“Listen let me tell you about a place that I once knew. About a million miles behind beyond those mountains blue. You can only find it through the kindness of the moon and I do believe that I shall see it soon.”
As we said Hawkey does wax poetic and the settings for the songs are for the most part exquisite, lilting mandolin, sly guitar and Hawkey’s fine keyboard work knitting together. The gem of the album is the immense tone poem of Wild Flowers that is graced with the harp playing of Sian James and which might have been plucked from the Child Ballads as Hawkey relates the tale sounding like a male counterpart of Sandy Denny. Wonderful.