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JOHN WRIGHT Empty Chairs

JOHN WRIGHT Empty Chairs
Twirtle Music Recordings TWCD110  

As I sat down to write this review, I said to myself that I was going to studiously avoid stating the obvious.  There was going to be none of the “achingly pure voice/gloriously intense awareness/absolutely sincere delivery/great diction” stuff from me.  Not because it is not true.  Au contraire.  But it has all already been said about this remarkable former member of the Household Cavalry/turned Border shepherd/turned successful troubadour, who died far-too-early aged 60 in 2008.  And no reviewer wants to re-hash other reviewers’ thoughts.

But I got to thinking, that no review of this truly great artiste would be complete without the reviewer at least trying to figure out what it was that provided the USP of this performer.  The qualities mentioned in my opening paragraph, are all very well, and it is quite a feat to bag all four qualities listed, but hey, many folk artistes can claim at least a trio, and a few can clinch all four.

So it has to be something else.  But what exactly?   And more importantly, is this a CD that can help me illustrate it?

Fair question.  And guess what?  At first, I wasn’t sure that this album was going to yield up an affirmative answer.  For, it has to be said, that for newcomers to his work, this CD is perhaps not the place to start. 

At just 43 minutes playing time, one would have liked it to have given us more of a lengthy feast.  (But then, in fairness, the whole raison d’être for this album is that it is the release of previously unreleased – often lost or undiscovered - material, and presumably there was no more to add.)   And with posthumous releases, one always wonders, if a track is that good, then why wasn’t it released in its day?

For instance, here there is a 1997 Fellside recording of Matty Groves which is a decent enough version, but golly, John Wright was way-too-good for the “passing muster”.  I note from his discography that the track was never released: and I suspect I know why.  He had the savvy to figure that this was not the song for him: his uptempo delivery had been done before – definitively - by Fairport, and had he instead chosen a slower pace, he’d have come up slap bang against a definitive version there too – albeit, of the ballad’s first cousin! – by Nic Jones (The Little Musgrave). 

There are versions of Donovan’s Catch The Wind and Don McLean’s Empty Chairs, which again are perfectly respectable, but don’t seem to be his songs: songs that he can stamp his DNA all over.

A song that of course he made unforgettably his, is the traditional Dumbarton’s Drums.  (Eh?  Didn’t I just say that these were songs previously never released?  No, I said they were material  - i.e. tracks - not songs.)   And this previously recorded number of his has the difference here of having him joined in voice by Rolling Home, a 38 strong male chorus from Sneek in Friesland.  They also join him for Allan Taylor’s Roll On The Day.

But the standout number on the album for me, is his version of that oft-forgotten traditional song When This Old Hat Was New.  Not for nothing is it the opening track: it sets down a massively authoritative marker (alas one that I am not sure that the rest of the album can quite match).  The sheer integrity and authority of that vocal strikes you from the get-go: and the accompaniment from Steven Lawrence, Fraser Speirs (spelt wrongly on the liner notes) and Wendy Weatherby, really add to the pleasure.

That said, I still have not answered my own question.  Would this CD provide evidence of the truly unique quality that John Wright had?  And thus it might seem that enjoyable though the album is, I had somewhat drawn a blank. 

But no, worry not.  Track #7, provides the “eureka” moment!

It features John singing Don’t Go.  It is a song written by the Australian C&W artiste Kasey Chambers, which she released about 12 years ago.  In itself, it is a perfectly ordinary, even clichéd song, bordering on the forgettable.  A song with just a couple of rather good internal rhymes to mark it out from the mass.

But helped by some fine piano from Angus Lyon, John helps make this song SOAR.   He applies all his usual formidable artistry, and - something I have not mentioned – his extraordinary intelligence with a lyric.  And this was his hallmark: he could extract maximum meaning from a song that often exhibited fairly minimal skills from its lyricist.

All John Wright fans will want to buy this album.  Correction: such is their devotion, they’ll have already bought it on the day of release!

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 91 of The Living Tradition magazine.