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Rev Hammer - Freeborn John Live

  by Helen Tipping

published: 20 / 4 / 2008

Rev Hammer - Freeborn John Live


Originally commissioned for the 2005 'Beautiful Days' festival, Red Sky Coven founder Freeborn John has since played other gigs of his theatrical 'Freeborn John' album, which tells the story of England's first radical, John Lilburne. Helen Tipping finds much to recommend in the new DVD of it.

Rev Hammer has been around on the alternative folk scene since before the phrase alt.folk was ever invented. He started out busking, before performing in venues and recorded his first album in 1991 - his backing band being the Levellers. He was also one of the founder members of Red Sky Coven along with Justin Sullivan and Joolz Denby. In 1995 he started work on the Freeborn John album, which tells the story of England's first radical, John Lilburne the leader of the Levellers, through music. Okay, I suppose you could call it a concept album, or the soundtrack to a musical, even although at the stage where the album had been recorded I'm not sure there was an intention to stage it live. The album took two years to record, and had guest performances by Maddy Prior as Lilburne's wife, the Levellers (the band), Rory McLeod, Eddi Reader and Justin Sullivan amongst others. Not all the songs were written by Rev. Some are collaborations, one is by Justin Sullivan and there are some classical / choral works used as well. In 2005 Rev was commissioned to put on the show at the 'Beautiful Days' festival by Dave Farrow the organiser, and I was amongst many to see it there. It, however, suffered from being outside and from me not really knowing the history of the period. There were a lot of people there to see it, I was way up on a hillside and the sound was swept away from the small stage where it was being performed, which led to me getting frustrated. Luckily I got a chance to see the show in Leeds earlier this year, which gave me the opportunity to watch in more detail. This DVD is the live recording of the version put on at 'Beautiful Days'. It benefits from having a synopsis of the plot at the beginning of each song, as well as a brief history in the booklet that accompanies it This is pretty useful, as my studies of the English Civil War rather neglected John Lilburne and concentrated more on the Royal family vs Oliver Cromwell. This helped to make the whole story more understandable to me and helped to bring this interesting character alive - and perhaps this is where the live performance falls down. Whilst the songs relate to the story, with some poetic license, they do not form a narrated tale of his life, and nor should they as they need to be able to stand alone as songs outside of the play. There could have been a bit more narrative between songs to fill out the plot. The downside to this is that the performers are rock and folk musicians rather than actors and this could bring its own set of problems. The use of the Civil War re-enactments interspersed with the video worked well, although where it was overlaid with the music I think the re-enacters could have been a bit more forward in the mix. You don't get any extras with the DVD. It does come with a CD and the leaflet, but it might have been good to have an interview with Rev Hammer talking about how it came about and other performers discussing how they got involved and what it meant to them. I think it's an important story to be told, especially as Lilburne and the Levellers' (that's the political movement not the band) Agreement of the People is what today's parliamentary and judicial system is based upon. I don't know if this would get many younger people interested. The live performances I went to were mainly populated by fans of New Model Army, the Levellers, Rev and various folkies wanting to see Maddy Prior and Rory McLeod - but they still sold out so there's definitely a reasonable audience out there. The songs stand alone and the performances are excellent. If you're going to watch a music DVD you may as well watch one with a message behind it.

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