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ALEX GLASGOW - Northern Drift / Joe Lives!

ALEX GLASGOW - Northern Drift / Joe Lives!
Mawson & Wareham Music MWMCDSP97

This double CD is a reissue of two vinyl albums that have been unavailable for years and have now undergone remastering by Newcastle-based MWM Records. This 2011 release coincides with three notable anniversaries: 10 years since Alex Glasgow died, 170 years since the birth of the Tyneside bard Joe Wilson, and 40 years since the first staging of Joe Lives!    

And how I welcome its arrival.  I’ve particularly missed Alex Glasgow: indeed, ever since he emigrated to Western Australia in 1981, his brand of trenchant wit, and lyrical singing voice has never been replaced on the UK scene.  As for his partner here – the actor/playwright Henry Livings - I confess to being a bit ashamed at having largely forgotten his name (even though he originally shared joint-billing on the Northern Drift vinyl album).

So, after three decades having passed since I last heard this album, how did it stand up to a re-appraisal in these far less certain times of 2011?  Would it seem dated agitprop, or would it come up fresh as a daisy?

In truth, probably neither.  But what is incontrovertible is that its ups far exceed its downs, and also, that it feels less “northern” than it did 30 years ago: I promise you that it is as relevant to an audience south of Watford Gap as it is to folk in England north of The Humber.

I am far from sure though that Time has been equally fair to the two artistes.   Glasgow’s self-written songs, beautifully sung in that plaintive tenor voice of his, grab me as much today as they did back then.  Somehow, even though one knows they are good rather than great songs, they still go straight to your heart.

By contrast, the humorous, non-musical sketches written and delivered by Henry Livings, do not fare so well.  And I am not sure that this is due to any intrinsic weakness of script, and certainly Livings delivers his lines superbly.  But somehow, most of these sketches fall a little flat.  And I wondered why.

And then I sussed the reason.  The sketches demonstrate real wit, but not real funny humour (i.e. Billy Connolly / Omid Djalili type, laugh–fit-to-burst stuff).  Yet the audience at the recording here at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1978, probably want to make up for their relatively small number, by laughing immoderately at lines that would otherwise normally raise just a smile, or - at most - a sotto voce chuckle.  But then, this is the inevitable result when one sets out to record a live performance of this type of material. 

And the “problem” is magnified by the fact that most theatre audiences are so darned nice: the very antithesis of the lynch mob.  And they want to urge the performers on.   So they end up laughing more and more, at less and less.

But that said, the album has travelled the thirty years a good deal better than I have!   And I congratulate recording engineer Ken McKenzie on the marvellously crisp and clean sound he’s managed to produce.

And now to the second disc on this double CD.   Let me tell you something: this was by far less-known nationally than the first album, but were these not two old LPs but instead two movies on the same bill, I have no hesitation in saying that this would be the “main feature” and Northern Drift the B movie!   This is really vibrant stuff, and the performance of John Woodvine as Joe Wilson, is - as they say – the real deal.

It is astonishing to think that Wilson died at just 33.  But in a short life battling poverty, alcoholism and (eventually) consumption, he managed to leave us a decent body of work.   His best known song is of course Keep Yor Feet Still Geordie Hinny.   But Bonny Sally Wheatley runs it close. You get both of those great songs here: the former has the most magnificent, slightly demented, piano accompaniment from musical director and arranger Bill Southgate.  Indeed, Southgate seriously competes with Woodvine throughout for the right to wear the laurel: his piano playing is a real tour-de-force.

And whereas the audience in the first album slightly intrude and get in the way: here they don’t.  Au contraire: here they are joyously caught up in events, as Woodvine and Southgate deliver Glasgow’s script and these fine songs (some with new melodies by Glasgow).

They recreate the atmosphere of the Victorian music hall, Joe’s modest home, the public houses Joe adored, and the temperance halls he eventually frequented when he signed the pledge.  With no other actors on stage, John’s masterly presentation sweeps all before him.  And whilst Alex may have no other actors to accompany John, he does have a secret weapon up his sleeve: the audience.

Armed with lyric sheets, they join in several of the songs with a passion.  They sing Keep Yor Feet Still Geordie Hinny like their lives depended on it, and it fair warms the cockles of your heart.  They restore my faith in the live audience: a faith that had been tested somewhat in the first CD.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 89 of The Living Tradition magazine.