Josh Okeefe, Water Rats, London, 10th January 2019

The Water Rats was hosting the roving folk club that is Folk on Monday (yes, this was a Thursday). It’s a venue that is also particularly appropriate seeing as its former incarnation,’The Pindar of Wakefield,’ was the site where Dylan made his first UK folk club appearance. There’s even a Blue Plaque by way of commemoration. Josh Okeefe has modelled himself closely on that early Dylan persona – which means that he has actually based himself overtly on Woody Guthrie, and, indirectly, on Ramblin’ Jack Elliot – Dylan saw and was influenced by Jack, but Woody was already long off the gig circuit.

Descending the stairs into the performance room is something like stepping back into some Greenwich Village coffee house (albeit that beer is available). In the dimmed lights there are clusters of chairs around tables illumined by tea-light candles, and there’s a similarly low-key start to the gig as Josh Okeefe wanders onto the stage and just starts playing. With perched jauntily on his head, plaid work-shirt, ripped jeans, dusty boots, a cheap guitar on a thin leather strap and a homemade harmonica holder, he’s every inch the dustbowl troubadour who has seen ‘some hard travelin‘ – and luckily he’s got the songs to go with it.

The opener is a topical political song that states obvious truths and asks why those who could do somethin’ did nothin’: “Grenfell Tower is burning down / The council spent a million pounds / the fire alarm it made no sound.” Following straight after is another story lifted out of the newspapers. ‘Big Bad Dude‘ documents how a break-down in Oklahoma can turn into death by cop when assistance is asked for from the police – over strident strumming Okeefe lays out a series of events that led to a tragic end “they fired a gun / put a bullet in his lungs / and they called him the big bad dude“. It’s akin to one of Dylan’s early protest songs – and similarly begs the question: “shouldn’t this have stopped by now?

Lightening the mood somewhat is the country ballad ‘Cigarettes‘ – it’s a bleak break up song but it has some Hank Williams witticisms about it, including the immortal couplet “she went out for some cigarettes / and she never came back” but it’s a heavy blow as “my whole world is in ashes / like they say smoking kills“.

An attempt is made to get the audience to participate in a short run of traditional songs – there’s a whoopin’ ‘Darling Cora‘ and a slow and mournful ‘Leaving of Liverpool‘ which gets little by way of response, but this is a London crowd and singing choruses ain’t their way. ‘Talkin’ Josh Okeefe‘ is, naturally enough, a talking blues, ruefully introduced by Okeefe – it tells his musical story and of moving from Derbyshire to Nashville, but it seems, he suggests, immodest to sing about himself. ‘I been a moonshiner‘ shows off Okeefe’s high and lonesome sound, and he follows it up with what is his most Guthrie-ish song so far. ‘We’re all the same‘ sets out the paradoxes of human personality such as “we’re saints but we sin” and “we’re proud and we’re meek” to a steady folk accompaniment. Over the applause Okeefe decides that it’s time that we should all hit the bar – not a bad idea.

Suitably refreshed, the second set follows a similar path to the first half with a couple of Okeefe originals, followed up with a nice cover of Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right‘ which gives another opportunity to show off an early Dylan tic – the fiddling with the harmonicas, trying to find the one in the right key. It’s a good cover, perfectly suiting Josh Okeefe’s playing and vocals. Things slow down on ‘I Got A Woman On My Mind,’ which has a spartan accompaniment and features a holler of a vocal, whilst ‘Belle of Dublin City‘ – a song which Okeefe says he learnt just recently in Ireland – throws a curved ball to any potential sing-a-longers who learnt it as ‘Belfast City’ in primary school.   The set closes with two songs that are graced with the vocals of Okeefe’s pal Cora who joins him on stage for a spirited and ever appropriate ‘This land Is Your Land,’ Woody Guthrie’s alternative national anthem of the USA.

Rambling back onto the stage for the encore, Josh Okeefe is prompted by some in the audience to sing ‘Jackson‘, again with accompaniment from Cora, which is a well-received Johnny Cash cover, whilst the last of the encores is Josh Okeefe alone again and singing as if his heart was breaking on ‘Betty‘. It’s a sad and mournful bad-love song shot through with regret and the expectation of things just getting worse, embodied in a simple pleading question “Betty – what you going to do to me now? ” It’s a song of carefully observed lyrics which bring to mind a folky Beautiful South.

Josh Okeefe has an engaging stage presence, his songs are good, and he’s willing to perform some folk chestnuts that are, through their one-time ubiquity, now pretty rarely heard live. Somewhere along the way it also became unpopular to cop the Woody Guthrie image and sing Guthrie-like songs – probably ‘cos Dylan and Paxton (and, yeah, Donovan) did it so well that by the Seventies it became cliche – but this is 2019 and there’s no reason, if one can do it well, not to do it today. It’s as valid a folk-style as any other in the Internet Age.  And Josj Okeefe does it well. So, if the chance arises then go and see Okeefe – he’s got something to say.

Set List (some titles conjectural)

Grenfell Tower Fire
Big Bad Dude
Cigarettes
Darlin’ Cora
Leaving of Liverpool
Talkin’ Josh Okeefe blues
I Been a Moonshiner
We’re All the Same

<Interval>

You’re The Only Thing
Soldier
Don’t Think Twice (It’s All Right)
I Got a Woman on My Mind
Belle of Dublin City
Barbara Allen
I Won’t Let You Down
This Land is Your Land

<encore>

Jackson
Betty

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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