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Just in case you were worried at your ignorance, the Famous Jug Band's name is claimed to be ironic. It consists of Henry Bartlett (who died of a heart attack shortly after this recording was made), Pete Berryman, Jill Johnson and Clive Palmer. The band (hereafter FJB) recorded two moderately successful LPs in 1969 and 1970 before the four members went their separate ways. This was a period in music -- at least in Britain, where the FJB hails from -- when all kinds of original, quirky, esoteric and bizarre musical experiments saw the light of day and attracted their particular public. This band, which pretty much fits all of those adjectives, was a sort of spin-off from another eccentric group, the legendary (if this is not an exaggeration) Incredible String Band (hereafter ISB), of which FJB's Palmer was a founder member; he played on the ISB's first album in 1966, but left before the band's later, more successful recordings and live performances.
The FJB's musicians emerged from the highly heterogeneous scene that flourished in Britain in the wake of the skiffle boom in the early 60s, outside the mainstream of conventional popular music, in which folk, blues, bluegrass, country and indeterminate acoustic music of all kinds were lumped together fairly indiscriminately before gradually settling down into their respective boxes and becoming distinct genres. I have touched on some of this varied activity in a review of some 60s English bluegrass that appeared in Green Man Review in 2001.
In 2000, Clive Palmer returned from his current home in France for a British tour by a revived ISB, and this tour provided one of the necessary conditions for the genesis of this reunion CD from the FJB. Another, rather more difficult, challenge for the two members who had remained in Britain was bringing back Jill Johnson, since she decamped long ago to California (which appears, incidentally, to have affected the accent in which she sings). She, too, was persuaded to revisit the FJB's eclectic musical world by spending long enough in England to lay down the basic tracks, although the booklet informs us that some of the overdubs were done in California.
Jill Johnson (here called Jillian Johnson-Sharp) plays autoharp and percussion; Peter Berryman (the really outstanding musician of the quartet) performs on a wide range of string instruments, as well as on portative organ; Clive Palmer contributes banjo; and Henry Bartlett provides the obviously indispensable jug. All four of them sing (pretty well too), and they are joined occasionally by other musicians whose instruments fit the folksy, acoustic atmosphere, especially the plaintive-sounding harmonica of Stu Porter. All the songs and instrumentals were penned by members of the group, with the exception of the brief instrumental play-out track, the traditional "Danse des Matelots."
The pieces presented on this CD are about as varied as possible, given the constraints that the limited instrumentation imposes. There are songs that sound like escapees from the ISB's repertoire. Johnson and Bartlett's "The Waiting Game," Berryman's "Where Have You Been So Long" and Johnson's "Out of the Blue" are musically of this type, although the lyrics are more predictable than the offbeat words generally favored by the ISB. There are also numbers written in a blues style, such as Berryman's "Hole in the Ground" and Bartlett's "Baby Please Come Home," and melodic ballads, including Berryman's "Winter Sunshine" and Johnson's jazzlike "Time and Momentum." The songs are not outstandingly strong, especially lyrically, but provide opportunities for the four musicians to display their vocal and instrumental talents. Johnson's voice is used to particularly good effect, both as lead on her own compositions and as backing on other tracks -- the songs are mainly sung by their respective composers. Indeed, Johnson's voice is attractively multi-tracked on her composition "Gone with the Light," which, if the lyrics are once again fairly banal, has one of the most interesting structures and arrangements on the disc.
For me, the most distinctive style both of writing and of singing (in a wonderfully world-weary voice) is Clive Palmer's. Regrettably, he contributes only two songs out of sixteen numbers: the wistful, minor-key title track and the similarly moody "In the Night." However, after the numerous listenings to which a conscientious reviewer exposes himself, I began to find the rather monotonous clanking of Palmer's banjo on his two songs and on Bartlett's "Sitting Alone" rather irksome. Surprisingly, for a man regarded in the 60s as a virtuoso banjoist, he does not display the musical variety and inventiveness that I mentally associate with his erstwhile companions in the ISB. I am reminded, unfairly perhaps, of the old adage that says that a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo but doesn't.
As I have hinted, Berryman, mainly on guitar, is the musician whose presence one really notices. Indeed, Bartlett's jug, which one might have expected, given the name of the band, to dominate the sound, seems almost inaudible for much of the time, at least on my hifi equipment. Berryman contributes a series of excellent accompaniments and solos and one highly evocative instrumental, entitled "Davy's Signal," which is presumably intended as a tribute to one of the greatest musicians of the era in which these four artists cut their musical teeth. The marvellous Davy Graham Graham influenced a whole generation of British folk and acoustic guitarists, and in the mid 1960s every budding guitarist on the British folk scene just had to learn to play Davy's extremely tricky "Angie" (even Paul Simon picked it up and recorded it during his sojourn in London). The vaguely Celtic-sounding Berryman number here echoes some of the technical tricks and effects of Graham's playing.
Reuniting a group of musicians who have not worked together for thirty years is a risky enterprise. In this case, the four of them seem to play and sing well together, but The Whole thing inevitably looks a little like a calculated exercise in nostalgia. There are no doubt former fans of the FJB who will get a buzz from re-hearing four people who entertained them in those distant days, but there are probably few uninitiated ears waiting to hear this quaintly dated music. This might have been an opportunity to revisit some songs from the old days, even to perform some stronger material by other composers, or possibly the odd traditional song in a fresh and distinctive way. In the event, I have to conclude that if this CD had been made by a group of new and unknown musicians, I would probably judge it as a faintly promising first recording by a bunch of people who are clearly talented, but still have some way to go to find a distinctive voice and cook up some songs and arrangements more likely to stick in the memory.