Tom Lewis

TOM LEWIS - 360° - All Points of the Compass
Borealis Records BCD156

If reviewers like me are lucky, an album can arrive within the first couple of months of the year to set a benchmark for all those that follow it. I fancy that this is one such lucky year for me.

Northern Ireland born Tom Lewis, is an artist I have long rated. His 24 years in the same branch of the military as the great Cyril Tawney – the British Submarine Service – provides him with that vitally authentic stance with which to tackle nautical song. Thus it was that Tom was the inaugural winner of the first Stan Hugill International Shanty Trophy in 2000 in Douarnenez in France .

But somehow, although I always knew he was good, I was not quite prepared for HOW good. For the fact is that he has here come up with a CD that really delivers. Delivers from the first note.

He is joined by a stellar cast of session people, including Tanglefoot. He kicks off with a wondrous song that is surely destined to become a cornerstone of the singaround repertoire. ‘Radio Times’ is written by Tom, and in four and a half minutes he succeeds in giving us a brilliantly compressed potted history of the (largely UK) Folk Scene and its (largely American) Pop influences down the past half century. Heck of a chorus, and really clever verses.

‘Nassau Bound’ gives you the traditional song before the Beach Boys got hold of it and turned it into the ‘Sloop John B’. But Steve Lalor, Barry Curtiss and Don Wilhelm’s harmonies are every bit as inventive as anything thought up by Brian Wilson, without trying to emulate that great Beach Boys sound.

‘St Patrick’s Song’ is another from Lewis’s pen, and trust me that this too is destined to become part-and-parcel of the Folk singaround canon. One fine track follows another: some familiar like Shep Woolley’s evergreen ‘Down By The Dockyard Wall’, and Lyle Lovett’s ‘If I Had A Boat’; some obscure like the arresting ‘The Bos’n, The Gunner And Me’ (a song he found in Gosport Public Library); and one, just brilliant…Peter Bellamy’s majestic setting of Rudyard Kipling’s glorious poem, ‘The Land’.

Lewis performs this with immense authority and passion. Golly, it is now over 30 years since Peter had such problems with the Kipling Society just getting their permission to set the great man’s words to music. One hopes that any of the Society’s then committee still alive, are now red-faced at their attempts to stall Bellamy in his quest. (For if ever a Gilbert was found by his Sullivan, then this was such a case. Mr. Kipling made exceedingly good poems; and Peter Bellamy made those same poems even better with his setting of them to music.)

Tom Lewis says in his notes that he finds singing this song literally hair-raising. Absolutely! The verse near the end that starts “His dead are in the churchyard – thirty generations laid” would bring a lump to the throat of anyone with an even remote sense of British history. It is a tour-de-force, and should be followed by John Cage’s ‘4.33’… just to help us reflect on such profundity.

At the end he throws in an unlisted bonus track, but it was like a Boxing Day bash after a Christmas Dinner to remember. Not necessary: we were well sated as it was!

Don’t ask whether you should buy this album. Just decide on how many copies.

Dai Woosnam.

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This album was reviewed in Issue 62 of The Living Tradition magazine.