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PHIL HARE - The Twilight Tone

PHIL HARE - The Twilight Tone
March Hare Productions MHPCD01

Phil Hare has been around the block of Folksville UK for so many years now that he knows his way blindfolded. He has a considerable body of work behind him, and this album recorded by the well-known Yorkshire songwriter Jon Harvison, is the ninth album to come from this talented singer songwriter, who hails from the Wirral Peninsula in North West England.

First thing to say when reviewing the album is this: it sure helps if you like listening to solo acoustic guitar music, since this is what makes up half the album. And for me, it is the best half of the album by far.

Phil is a guitar teacher of considerable repute, and if you ever wondered if teachers can put into practice exactly what they teach, then wonder no more. This guy exudes true mastery of his instrument, and dazzles in various styles from blues to ragtime, via slide, emulating be-bop piano with Horace Silver’s The Piano, and really nailing Nic Jones’ version of Planxty Davis so as to sound more like Nic Jones than Nic himself. What a musical virtuoso Phil Hare is! There is gold in them thar fingers. Not for nothing does he cite his influences as the late Davy/Davey Graham and the late Bert Jansch...and were both those magicians here today, I am sure they would say that they are happy that a man as talented as Phil has picked up the torch that they had run so far with.

So take it as a given then that the guitar instrumentals are of a phenomenally high standard. The self penned songs however, are a different matter. Nowhere near as formidable. And I tried to work out why.

One of the best ways of testing the quality of a song is to imagine it sung by a range of singers. Could it be that it was his vocals that were getting in the way of it possessing the necessary memorability to have one singing snatches of it in one’s head after a few repeated listenings?

Answer: no. His vocals are fine, albeit a shade husky at times, making the occasional word evade me, and thus making me wish there was a liner booklet with lyrics and notes on the songs, in the otherwise very attractive Digipak. And it is not that the lyrics are not well crafted: au contraire, the lyrics are always relevant, and rhyme and scansion never desert him.

So why were these songs just falling short for me? If I look at one in particular, it is because in a way it is indicative of the general feeling I have here.

The Day Thatcher Passed Away is the longest song on the album, and is in some ways the most passionate. He tells us in each chorus that he was “in Boston USA” the day Mrs Thatcher died.

You may wonder how relevant that fact was, but pretty soon you realise that he sees the Atlantic Ocean as “The Great Divide” which suits his purposes as he needs the double entendre. After all, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, whatever her strengths, emphatically failed to follow through on her claim made on the steps of Downing Street on the day of her first election victory (those fine words of Saint Francis of Assisi, about bringing harmony, etc.). She left the nation totally divided.

So one can forgive him for misapplying the term The Great Divide, and using it for the Atlantic rather than its correct use, viz. for the Rocky Mountains of the USA, where the Continental Divide sees rivers running west to the Pacific and east to the Atlantic.

The song progresses in the way that one might expect. Mrs Thatcher’s shortcomings are listed, and he points out the irony that the nation was divided even with her death. (Some like Tony Blair saw her as a giant and arranged a quasi State Funeral, whilst in former mining communities, folk had street parties on that very day.) But that said, the song lacks that telling line that makes you sit up and take notice. It is decent and worthy, but unlikely to be covered even by floor singers.

And as I say, it speaks for the other songs in this collection. Very decently crafted but lacking that oomph. However that said, even when a song misses its mark like his opener The Pound Man (a song about the Pound shops culture), you still have his delicious guitar in the background, here very blues orientated.

Similarly, his ballad-style Catherine Conway does not quite do it for me lyrics wise, but golly, his authoritative guitar playing and fine melody are redolent of the best traditional ballad performer...maybe a Sean Cannon or a Dave Burland.

And talking of the latter: Benefit Street is set to the tune of Here’s The Tender Coming, and is none the worse for that.

Funeral Blues (Stop All The Clocks) is his setting of Auden’s famous poem. Poems very rarely work when put to music. Why? Because they are poems and not song lyrics, I would guess. And this effort alas, also joined the majority.

I think the song I enjoyed the most was his Paxton-esque Lines In The Sand. He delivered it with a superbly controlled vocal and insistent guitar style that made me think of the late Rick Keeling at his best: a name now largely forgotten, but not by anyone who ever saw him.

So then to sum up. A big thank you to Phil for giving us great value with 58 minutes of music. But a mixed bag, I fear. However, when Phil is good here, boy oh boy, he is very, very good.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 114 of The Living Tradition magazine.