Nic Jones,
Game Set Match
(Topic, 2006)

This album owes its existence to the recovery of fans' tapings of various Nic Jones concerts from the late 1970s. As all serious followers of English folk music know, Jones' career was cut heartbreakingly short in a near-fatal car accident in February 1982. After an agonizing and extended period of recovery, he decided his playing had been sufficiently impaired that he could no longer work at a level meeting his own high standards. He has been living on disability in Yorkshire for years, an observer of, though no longer a participant in, the music scene. In those years he's attained an almost cultic status. Perhaps his most prominent admirer is Bob Dylan, who covered Jones' version of "Canadee-I-O" (while failing to credit him) on Good as I Been to You (1992).

Game Set Match is taken from various club dates at Jones' artistic peak. This is not a "live" album, however. All audience sounds, in other words, have been snipped. At the same time this does not have studio resonance, either; the ear immediately detects audio space more open (or distant) than a studio allows. Even so, the effect is not so imposing as to be bothersome, and as the listener adjusts, it soon goes unnoticed. It helps, of course, that Jones' performances were famously nearly error-free, however demanding his guitar technique may have been.

The mid-century British folk revival produced some noteworthy guitarists: Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Davy Graham and a handful of others. Their influences -- surely Carthy's most of all -- are evident in Jones' playing, but Jones made his own mark and won universal acclaim with an inspired guitar approach that owed almost as big a debt to Appalachian clawhammer banjo as to more conventionally conceived guitar arrangements. Still, Jones is incontestably a very English musician. Put another way: anticipate no blues chords here.

Except for one instrumental, this set (a generous 15 cuts in all, comprising more than an hour's worth of music) consists of ballads, incidentally reminding us of just how violent and morbid many of the British story songs were and are. Nearly every one features a death, typically delivered by hanging, war, drowning, suicide, shooting or beating. Yet none of this intimidates or depresses. Jones is a warm and open-hearted singer, and he is a master at teasing out the magnificent melodies that undergird these grand, blood-soaked tales.

A diligent student of the tradition, he was never content simply to rearrange songs he picked up from fellow folk-circuit artists; he built a repertoire out of his own archival searches for obscure material or fresh takes on the familiar. On occasion, when he couldn't find a melody that satisfied him, he composed his own (on Game, it's for "Billy, Don't You Weep for Me"). Only three ballads -- "Seven Yellow Gypsies," "Dives & Lazarus" and "Demon Lover" ("House Carpenter" on this side of the water) -- are standard revival pieces, and in each case Jones finds a distinctive variant.

This is a brilliant and thrilling recording, one of those rare albums one expects to return to again and again over the years and to hear something new and surprising each time. The very fact that we have it at all is a miracle in itself, and an occasion for real gratitude. Pass it by at your loss.

by Jerome Clark
10 March 2007

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