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Rev Hammer is a modern day minstrel, a permanently travelling troubadour. Raised on the sounds of Irish folk music, Delta blues, and Johnny Cash, Rev started singing at the age of eleven; 'Big Bad John' at an agricultural show, and started wandering not too many years later. Fuelled by the sounds of his youth, and driven feverishly by the inspiration of The Clash, Rev took to the road in the early eighties, and has been gigging constantly ever since. He has performed at five Glastonbury Festivals, two Edinburgh Festivals, and the Voessa Jazz Festival in Norway. He has also toured with The Levellers, New Model Army, The Oysterband, Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, and Hank Wangford. A chance meeting with The Levellers in the heartland of England, has led to a lasting friendship, and the collaboration on this album. Drawn together by the similarity of their nomadic lifestyles, when Rev came to record there was only one group of musicians he could possibly work with. This debut album was recorded in a cow shed in Essex on a budget of nothing but, given that that the backing band (which gave its services for free) was The Levellers, this offbeat album has opened up intriguing windows of opportunity. The result of which is 'Industrial Sound and Magic'.
The opening track, Down by the River O, almost sounds like a Levellers number with a new singer, simple beats and violin led, and the sentimentality and feeling of the Levellers classic single One Way. This however is the only song that they seem to dominate, from here on in it is Rev Hammer all the way, stripped back acoustic, folk ballads, working men's back street anthems, and a blend of romance, beauty, dirt and social comment. True Blue is a contrast to the opener; this is a raw blues number, a white John Lee Hooker spreading his own message, complete with blues guitar solo. The ballad of a failed boxer comes next in the form of Punch-drunk, the urban downbeat tales springing from Hammer as easily as the windswept folk tunes that he is known for, and one of his finest, 'Ole Welsh Soul follows. Just a voice and a guitar lead the track leaving plenty of space for the glorious sentiment of the lyrics, an anthem to the beauty and spirit of Wales, a place that seems close to Hammers heart. His ability to blend soul and history, social concerns and the beauty of a land that he feels part of makes this song a highlight of the album.
Where water paints the mountainsides,
gliding down in silver tides,
reflecting many things we need to know.
We drank our drinks when Harlech drank,
Sang its song and left our thanks,
Saying, "Oh, God, bless the valley below."
Its a song about coming home, if your life was a film, this would be the part of the sound track that would build in the background as you reached the crest of that final hill and the lights of home came into the view.
California Bound sees the backing band return with force to provide sweeping and majestic violin and spine-tickling mandolin accompaniment. The song gently sweeps you away with the travellers in the tale. By contrast, Raise That Lion written with Bryony Moore would not sound too out of place on a Clash album, both in sentiment and musically as would the following track Johnny Reggae. Caledonia Rain is a return to what I think Hammer does best and a Pogues style acoustic ballad carries the listener into the stark landscapes of the Scottish highlands. Less frantic than the Pogues, this lilts along until it hits a very Celtic violin middle eight which flavours the song nicely before returning back to the song proper, the rain falls from a tumbling sky, you can smell the heather and taste the malt whiskey. Shutting The Old Dirt Down, is one of the few songs to feature an electric guitar and the most rocky of all the numbers, heavily flavoured by the familiar style of the backing band, nonetheless this is a Rev Hammer rant about the demise of industry. The final song is a laid back dark tale of social stations and the class system that Jimmy Flanagan is born into, mournful harmonica adds a new dimension to the music, and poignant lyrics are again on parade.
Hammer has the ability to write songs about ordinary people and ordinary places and make the story somehow romantic or wistful, windswept or heroic. From back street sweat to the cool rains of the Scottish uplands, from the urban tenements to a Welsh waterfall, the stories cover a vast range of backgrounds, but are always about you and me and the people like us. No generals, kings or rock stars populate his world, no fast cars or lavish lifestyles, just the rough and tumble of society that he has rubbed shoulders with all his life, historys dispossessed and downtrodden sit cheek by jowl with modern day sleazy characters and romantic idealists.
The music is for the most part straightforward, allowing the words to take centre stage, but when required The Levellers, in the guise of backing band, add just enough to enhance the songs. From solo voice and acoustic guitar efforts to tracks that take the simple but subtle lines of the violin and mandolin and wrap it around the guitars to create a musical tapestry that says more for its restraint than the brash and over produced albums that are normally offered up these days. But amongst these beautiful flowing numbers is the occasional raw delivery that re-establishes Hammers punk credentials.All in all a fantastic debut album and the sound track from a nomadic lifestyle.