John Tams is not your typical seventy year old folkie – yes he has a great voice and a fine repertoire of songs both traditional and self-penned, and naturally – like many of his contemporaries – he served time in The Albion Band amongst other musical outlets. However, his musical career has also seen him on stage at the National Theatre as musical director for shows like Warhorse, or updating the Radio Ballads concept for modern times or acting (and singing) alongside Sean Bean in the historical drama series Sharpe. So not surprisingly alongside the excellent music there are anecdotes – a lot of anecdotes – about people he’s known. These are typically apposite to his song topic, so when Brian Glover introduces him to the cantankerous old gent who drinks alone most nights in their local it turns out it’s Laurie Lee, which leads into Tams’ song Cider with Rosie. Everything connects – eventually. There’s often a political slant to the songs as well.
With John Tams on guitar, harmonica and (briefly) ukulele, the big sounds for the songs come from Barry Coope’s keyboards – adding lush textures of synthesised strings for example. He also harmonises on vocals, and occasionally takes the lead as on Lay Me Low – the Shaker hymnal that Tams recorded many years ago with The Albion Band. It’s simple and moving – a plaintive plea for humility and salvation that is enhanced by a good deal of singing from the floor. Tams admires Shaker furniture but comments that their’s was always destined to be a short lived church since they “were against procreation”. An insight into the far end of industrial experience is given in Steelos, about the one time ease of getting a job -coupled with the many dangers – of the Steel Industry. It touches on a theme of disappeared employment – steel, coal, fishing. John Tams is on the side of those who undertook the labour in the past – and those who find unemployment in a time of austerity.
There’s a change of direction with a lovely version of Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds, a song that’s been covered by just about everyone, but John Tams’ version takes it at about the same slow speed that Johnny Cash did on American V, although the vocal here is far sweeter. Another frequent theme which also arises is the soldiers lot – whether it’s the BEF in World War I naively expecting to be home by Christmas or the Napoleonic Wars “joining up song” Over the Hills and Far Away which promises money, adventure and the distinct possibility of an unpleasant death. It’s the fate of the cannon fodder that interests Tams, the safe at the rear Generals get the same short shrift as the nobility living off the backs of the poor’s labours of the evening’s closing song Rolling Home : “The gentry in their fine array, they prosper night and morn / While we unto the fields must go to plough and sow the corn / The rich they steal the power, but the glory’s ours alone / When we go rolling home, when we go rolling home”. And if that sounds too much like jam tomorrow and the promise of heaven there’s a sting in the last verse “Pass the bottle round and let the toast go free / Here’s a health to every labourer wherever they may be / Fair wages are now or never, let’s reap what we have sown”. Roll on John.