Rebellion (Lies)

Having seen this band twice last year – once in the Jug & Jester, once at the Leamington Peace Festival – I was eager to see whether the magic of those performances still remained. They say you should never meet your heroes, but I jumped at the chance and caught up with vocalist and guitarist Lewis Garland a couple of hours before the gig.

We met upstairs in the Arts Centre, and I asked him about this change of venue. He quickly shrugged off any fears of bigger crowds; for him, the size of the audience is unimportant compared to the connection between them and the performer. This is both modest and reassuring, considering that Lewis is now a Glastonbury veteran.

“We loved it,” he told me, “even though we were billed as Louise Garden by the organisers”. Embarrassing enough, but not quite as embarrassing as what happened on the way home. “In the first place, Drew [Coleman] forgot to bring the tent poles, so we had nowhere to sleep. But then, Ben [Wiffen] went home early on the train – with the keys to the van in his pocket”.

We both creased up, a sign that there is a shred of humour beneath Lewis’ rather sombre exterior. As I interviewed him, I was conscious of his rocking back and forth on his sofa, and on stage he stamps his feet and dances strangely as the music takes a hold on him. This is a man who takes his music seriously, and who will go to any lengths to achieve something pure.

The rest of the band, thankfully, is a lot more laid back. Drew Coleman is a shrinking violet on the surface, but plays just about everything with un-measureable skill. He is the Steve Hackett to Lewis’ Peter Gabriel, content to take a back seat and get on with the complicated parts while someone else takes the limelight.

Bradley Blackwell is a gaunt, stoical figure, who was taught double bass by Nizlopi and plays his instrument with brio, injecting every track with the smoky pulse of the jazz club. And, on percussion, there is Ben Wiffen. A dead ringer for Beck – albeit with whistles and bells attached to his body – he both anchors the group and serves as its clown. In addition to this, a fleet of part-time members pop up depending on the gig, each bringing their own idiosyncratic instruments and vocals.

Why such an eclectic choice of instruments? The band grew out of Lewis’ need for inspiration and variety in his solo work. He has always searched for a raw sound, whether in his reluctance to use PAs or his choice of instruments, they are all a means to getting right to the heart of the sound.

The name of the band derives from the rebellion of 1549, in which Norfolk peasants, led by Robert Kett, rose up against their landowners and took the city of Norwich in protest at enclosure. It is a reflection both of Lewis’ hometown and his current residence in Coventry: the rebellion was put down by the Earl of Warwick.

More than that, though, it reflects Lewis’ genuine love of the mediaeval. He described it as an “obsession” (a word he uses often), which he has held since the age of five. “I think I spent three years of my life dressed as Robin Hood”, he quipped, with an embarrassed laugh. That love has not entirely disappeared; with his grey-green get-up and unkempt beard, he could easily pass as Jonas Armstrong, star of the recent BBC adaptation. Child’s play aside, we move on to the music itself. Genres are deceptive creatures at the best of times, and I was expecting a long-winded answer when I asked how Lewis would describe his music.

Instead, he was surprisingly candid and said that he saw himself very much as a part of traditional British folk. He described his “epiphany” at the Cambridge Folk Festival when, aged seventeen or eighteen, he was first exposed to klezner, a form of Eastern European folk. Not one to “steal things”, his influences manifest themselves in very nuanced ways; it takes a while to notice them. Elsewhere in the band, Bradley lists his admiration for Tom Waits and Ben is something of a beatboxer.

As I sat in on their lengthy sound check, I got an insight into the band’s dynamics. I asked if there was anything they hated about performing live. Drew took the opportunity to rant against – surprise, surprise – sound engineers, tersely remarking: “normally we’re not miked up so we don’t have to fuck around”.

An hour or so later, it was show time. With the place very nearly packed, Lewis shuffled on stage, strapped on his guitar and launched straight into ‘Someday’. Before long the whole audience was bathed in beautiful minor chords that tumbled forth from Lewis’ guitar in seamless abandon. On the surface, the lyrics are rather simplistic, but his voice more than compensates, breathing the refrain “We go down” like a mourner at a great man’s funeral.

After an emotive opener, Messrs. Blackwell & Coleman joined Lewis for ‘Roots’. With perfect timing, they struck up in the wrong key, and under normal circumstances this would be followed by much awkwardness and retuning, to the irritation of all. Instead, we got a decent bit of banter and a more dynamic result second time round.

It is here, among his band mates for the first time that you begin to realise just how hard Lewis pushes himself. He had to cancel most of the season’s gigs due to a serious throat infection, and yet he still insisted on singing with power and yearning.

If it’s yearning you want, then ‘Life Drawing’ fits the bill perfectly. Drew swapped the mandolin for a squeeze box and filled up the breaks with bittersweet beauty. It is very easy to get a ‘box to sing, but Drew made it weep, moan, and bleed. The a cappella sections are just as tear-jerking, making it the best song of the set.

As I said before, it takes a while for Lewis’ influences to come out. It is only on ‘Blackboards’, the fourth song in the set, that the mediaeval enters the mix. This is a good old-fashioned madrigal, spiced up by a potent, symbol-laden set of lyrics. No-one could fail to raise an eyebrow (or a smile) at “We go together like Herod and babysitting” in the second verse.

‘Long Way Down’ began with more banter, including a joke about curry so bad that I hesitate to print it here. The song almost didn’t start at all because Lewis’ guitar was playing up, and when he and Drew finally swapped, the result was rather underwhelming.

No matter, though, because ‘Is This War?’ made up for it in spades. Once again, we got some wonderful finger-picking from Lewis, and Drew was on hand on concertina to draw a veil of tears over proceedings. The female backing vocalists gel very well with Lewis, murmuring quietly to soothe his bleeding heart in what is a very powerful love song.

The final two songs were a great way to round off, showcasing both sides of the band. On the one hand, we have ‘Run To Ground’, a dark, political piece full of complex chords and image-laden lyrics. Lewis rails against champagne anarchists and the like with ornate wit and self-effacing charm. It is a brilliant modern protest song.

‘Ball & Chain’, on the other hand, is just plain fun. The riff may be from the fourteenth century, but the lyrics are bang up-to-date, poking fun at those who blame their problems on ‘society’. The only downer was that we didn’t get the four-part harmonies that echoed around the Jug & Jester; maybe the more formal surroundings prevented people from letting go.

Passing mention should be made for The Bellows, who played the second half of the great gig. They are Lewis’ favourite band, combining solid Americana touches with a sprinkling of post-punk modesty. With eight members, they are even more sprawling than the Kett Rebellion, but in listening to them you don’t feel lost for one second. From gritty opener ‘The Dirtiest Mile’ to the megaphone-filled ‘My Belle’, your gaze is held, as the vocalists and guitarists endlessly rotate in a merry dance, leaving you with a huge grin on your face.

Really though, there can be no question as to whose show this was. Too many musicians have been hailed as a “modern Dylan” for the title to carry any weight. But there can be no doubt that Lewis Garland & The Kett Rebellion are among the brightest, cleverest and most talented musicians on the folk scene today. When the album Places We Neglect finally arrives, it will doubtless be hailed as a masterpiece. In the meantime, we have to be content with a live act which is, pretty much, as good as it gets.


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