published: 22 /
Upliftinga and beautiful collection of songs from Jez Hellard and the Djukella Orchestra that resonate with the mood of the times
Sometimes serendipity strikes when curiosity leads me to take a chance on reviewing an album by an artist who is new to me.
I hadn’t seen or heard Jez Hellard and The Djukella Orchestra before and I don’t know how I have missed them. We have been listening to and appreciating the same musicians and songwriters over many years. But having discovered them through this latest album, I can now make up for lost time.
Our paths may not have crossed because of his usually busy touring schedule and time spent working in Taiwan. Apparently in the past decade they have played over one thousand gigs in this country and abroad. The restrictions of COVID and lockdown have put a stop to this way of life.
Jez Hellard is a storyteller singer with a rich and distinctive voice which brings something fresh to the songs he has chosen to cover. Folk singer Roy Bailey is a source of encouragement to this approach.
"I was struck that one of the greatest singers of our time made no bones about not writing songs of his own. The important thing is the ability to choose the songs that will communicate with this particular audience, right now, and to mean every word you say. This remains one of my greatest lessons to date, and continues to inspire me, whether I’m singing my own songs, or anyone else’s."
There are fourteen songs on the album and Jez has chosen gems that represent the best songwriters of the last fifty years or so. Some explore the current state of politics and the world we live in, including Jez’s own composition, 'Black Mirror’s Got You', a dystopian exploration of surveillance. 'McDonalds for the Mind' (Nathan Ball) and 'Foodbanks and Ferrari' (on the rise) by Sally Ironmonger and Brian Carter are powerful comments on society today, not afraid to tell it like it is.
There are songs that are created by setting poems to music too, with great effect - 'Robbie Burns Now Westlin Winds', made famous by Dick Gaughan; Robin Williamson’s song for Dylan Thomas, 'For Mr Thomas' and the final track, Richard Farina’s wonderful setting of his poem 'The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood' to the traditional tune of 'My Lagan Love'. A poem by Rudyard Kipling 'Big Steamers' could have been written for all the delivery drivers and key workers who kept us going through lockdown. It has been given a sea shanty arrangement. I hadn’t come across it before and was amazed at how relevant the lyrics are.
There’s a lovely version of Ewan MacColl’s 'The Joy of Living' with all its poignant awareness of what is lost as age overtakes us, but what has been gained in achieving that age.
Robin Williamson’s first song, 'October Song' also appears, as does Richard Thompson’s upbeat and realistic 'The Sights and Sounds of London Town'.
'Spring Wind; by Greg Brown is dedicated to all those musicians ‘arrested by lockdown’.
There’s a powerful song by Robb Johnson, 'Home by Christmas', written to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Paschendaele.
These are songs to make you think, to bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your face. By turn these songs are evocative, heartbreaking, poignant and life affirming. The mood is sometimes sombre and thoughtful, sometimes angry and frustrated. Each song is beautifully expressed though the music and arrangements so ultimately there’s a sense of love and hopefulness. The accompanying booklet tells the story and the inspiration behind the choices, and shares some of the lyrics.
Jez Hellard first met Mike West of the 9th Ward Pickin Parlor in Machynlleth at Broadstairs Folk Week. Mike West’s story of his progress from Manchester, Australia, New Orleans and Kansas to setting up a recording studio in rural Wales is a fascinating tale in itself. The process of recording the album was both hindered and helped by lockdown, but eventually all the parts were in place to make the whole which is 'The Fruitful Fells'.
Working variously with Ewan Bleach on clarinet, violin players Piotr Jordan, James Patrick Gavin and Alistair Caplin, Dominic Henderson on low whistle, percussionist Mathew ‘Maticongas’ Pharoah and Tommie Black-Roff on accordion, the arrangements are anchored by Jez on guitar and vocals and the incredible Nye Parsons on double bass.
Jez Hellard has achieved what he set out to do. He has chosen songs that communicate with his audience, right now.
It is worth considering the order in which the songs appear on the album too, always important in the process of production, but often lost in the shuffle.
Ending with the haunting 'The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood' is perfect because that is what this album offers us.
And Jez promises that the next album will be rip-roaring dance tunes and a chance to do some booty shaking. I look forward to it.
Gonna Rise Again
McDonalds for the Mind
Black Mirror's Got You
The Joy of Living
Foodbanks & Ferraris
Home By Christmas
Now Westlin Winds
For the Sake of Day
The Sights & Sounds of London Town
For Mr. Thomas
The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood
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