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ROBB JOHNSON - Gentle Men  A Solo Performance

ROBB JOHNSON - Gentle Men A Solo Performance
Irregular Records IRR099

Since the 2013 release of the revised double CD recording of Johnson’s “family history of the First World War and its consequences”, Robb has been performing the songs with various friends at a variety of venues, and in those performances, had developed a spoken word narrative that links the songs.

What better then, than to immortalise his spoken introductions with a new live (2 CD) recording, with those words included? And just him and his guitar?

The songs here are performed to a small invited audience in the most intimate of settings: Wigan Parish Church in May 2015. As promoter David Cartlidge says in the CD booklet notes: “The spoken word sections added immeasurably to the story and strengthened its universal nature...the overall performance was visceral, totally engaging and a privilege to witness.”

Do I agree with that? Probably, though it is over-egging the pudding a little, methinks. Whilst I can see that the spoken links are indeed well constructed, to say they “added immeasurably to the story” is a trifle hyperbolic, given – and this is the crucial point – that the songs are strong songs in themselves, and songs that tell the story very well indeed. In a very real sense they needed no words of explanation or introduction.

That said however, Robb does not waste a word with those spoken introductions, and yes, I’m darn sure I would rather have them, than not!

So the songs are now quite differently presented to the way they appeared in their first incarnation. I well recall hearing the 1997 original version, commissioned and recorded for the Passchendaele Peace Concert in 1997 (revived in 2013 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War). These previous versions had their individual qualities, but neither had the pared-down simplicity of this latest approach.

Robb’s voice is as warm as ever, and his guitar works a treat to complement it. Obviously one misses the voice of the great Roy Bailey, but hey, every album ever produced would benefit from a Roy Bailey input on it! And I guess my “stating of the obvious” apart, the other big plus in Robb appearing on his tod here, is that these hymns of praise to the memory of his two grandfathers who fought in that “war to end war”, make up a very personal song suite: so what better than for us to listen to these by contrast sad/funny, savage/kind songs sung by the grandson... and the grandson alone?

His delivery of When You’re Seven Years Old is this album’s high water mark, but all 22 tracks are delivered with aplomb. Should you buy it? An emphatic yes if you are a massive Robb Johnson fan: a more tentative yes, if you aren’t a paid-up member of the fan club, but have a previous version of Gentle Men in your collection, and wonder whether you should add to it.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 112 of The Living Tradition magazine.