Second generation Irish singer-songwriter, Nick Burbridge, has been playing Irish-influenced acoustic music since his teens influencing countless others, including in their own words, The Levellers. His band McDermott’s 2 Hours were among the first to ever think of combining punk and Irish folk and his new album Besieged sees him accompanied by members of both The Levellers and the Oysterband and showcases his work as not just a musician but also, in the best Irish tradition, as a poet, playwright and novelist as well.
When writers wax lyrical about the rugged Celtic beauty that came to fruition with The Pogues and Shane MacGowan, they often seem to suggest that time has stood still and that Irish music had been sitting,waiting, since the mid-sixties ballad boom of The Dubliners et al for something suddenly to connect the urgency of punk with the heart and soul of traditional music. But out in the rough and ready bars of Hamburg and a hundred other German hostelries a band was carving out and whittling its own take on the beauty of Irish folk music; adding fire, vitality and punk-style energy while handling the travails of fights and frolics, women, dark streets and drink. The band morphed into McDermott’s 2 Hours in 1986 (named after a wonderfully unexpected happening on pirate radio during the Battle Of The Bogside as recalled in Eamonn McCann’s War And An Irish Town) ‘being Irish and in the wrong place and at the wrong time’ – to paraphrase MacGowan. In the pubs and clubs of Brighton and London they built a reputation for their incendiary live performances that have become legend. Among their wild and youthful admirers were a gaggle of friends who, a few years down the line, influenced by the spirit, fire and camaraderie of Nick Burbridge and McDermott’s 2 Hours, would strap on guitars and call themselves The Levellers. Those in the know realise that Nick Burbridge has been, and continues to be one of the best songwriters in the Anglo-Irish tradition. He fashions songs that, as well as perfectly capturing the gritty underbelly of the Irish experience in 60s/70s mainland UK, beautifully capture the longing for home and reality of the Troubles with all the evocative magnificence of Beckett or Joyce.
But that was then and this is now.
Besieged is not so much a final curtain as a magnificent encore, serving as the last instalment of a magnificent career. Singer, songwriter, poet, playwright and frontman with folk, rock, roots and punk outfit McDermott’s 2 Hours, Nick Burbridge has released his final album with the band. Besieged sees Nick again team up with members of The Levellers (Jeremy Cunningham and Simon Friend), Oysterband (Dil Davies and Al Scott), Ben Paley (son of the late folk music giant Tom Paley), plus Tim Cotterell and friends, for the album’s twelve tracks. Released via The Levellers On the Fiddle Recordings. Given the artists involved in this album it is of no surprise to hear contemporary folk music of the itinerant outsider, travelling through Europe delivering great tunes and hard hitting poetical lyrics that stand out and are clear. All this amongst the traditional melodies expertly delivered . Fans of the artists will be delighted with the blood sweat and tears gone into this production, but this is no compilation of hits gone by, but something new and fresh, so even if you come to’Besieged’ as an innocent abroad, looking for an anecdote to the monotony of apolitical electronica or a die hard folkster extending their collection, listen up and be inspired.
This album has everything you’d want from a folk album, laments of the itchy footed; murder ballads; the loss of young lives; drinking songs; anti establishment reeling and railing and a call to join the march of protest. Yet while the tunes are heavily rooted in tradition the lyrical content oft recounts tales of modern society, forgotten tales of the tragic loss of young life in contemporary Ireland. This theme is particularly stark in ‘This Child’, ‘Forlorn Hope’ and ‘All That Fall’.
‘This Child’ like so many a folk song laments the loss of young life, gunned down for being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” But this is not a song of 17th century highway robbery or even a tune of the innocent Irish during the troubles. This is a song of South Manchester’s Moss Side in the 80s. The time is emphasised by electric jarring chords that blend so well with the rest of the strings, that, incidentally, give us a haunting solo in the middle eight, and a good old fashioned punky 4×4 drum beat. This is a song of a time when the press dubbed the area ‘Gunchester’ a killing field on our doorstep when young Jesse James, the lads rightly don’t dwell on the irony of this young kids name, was shot while innocently riding his bicycle across a piece of wasteland. All this told clearly and melodically with enough rock guitar to bring on a crescendo end of the echoing tones of feedback. ‘Forlorn Hope’ rocks us to Portadown and asks us to jig to the tale of a town divided by sectarian violence, where a night on the gear may be followed by a morning of throwing rocks at the Orange drumming bands, where any attempt at peace was thwarted by those whose interest it was to keep communities apart. The female protagonist of the piece seems to survive but could have easily met the fate of Alice McLoughlin, shot in the back of a Portadown police car or poor Catholic Bernadette Martin shot down while sleeping in bed with reformed Protestant Gordon Green. No wonder our song’s heroine here ends up high in Camden town. All this to growling guitars across the verses with singing violin instrumentals.
It is the first side of the album that is particularly steeped in modern day tales of tragedy and track 6 is no exception. ‘ All That Fall’ is an uplifting ballad told from the perspective of the victims of abuse that have risen to have a life now “looking back in hope, not in anger”. These “daughters of Mayo” stride history and geography and could be many a farm girl or boy abused in a barn with a sack upon their head or even daughter of Mayo, Mary Ann, kidnapped and abused with a pillowcase on her head in Reading 2005. The tune is acoustic and clear like a Christy Moore ballad that leads us to hum along, the chorus strong that anybody shaking the dust from their feet to live again will feel and the female vocals at the end soft on our ears and full of hope.
The opener of side one ‘Firebird’ gets us in a great mood and sets the tone with fiddle and guitar delivering a folk rock and reel of a Phoenix rising from the ashes with a strong vocal and sing along chorus. This is quickly, it seems, followed by ‘Erin Farewell’ a swaying anthem for the inevitability of the natural roamer leaving behind the toil of the fields of home and the bed of his marriage under the pretence of chasing a better life in the big smoke. It reminds us of many a navvie or brickie’s song whether that come from Ian Campbell, The Fureys or indeed The Pogues. The worker here admits that it is not just the money but the excitement and camaraderie of like minded men in a strange land he seeks. Like so many of us his yearning ping pongs him from ‘over there’ to the warmth of home, it is a lucky man who has an understanding wife. Side one also includes a rallying call to protest, ‘The Last Mile’ “Lets take it in the old style, that’s your arm through mine” they cry to an Anglo folk rhythm that has uplifting strings and drums that send a tingle right through you.
Side two content eases us into historical ground. ‘Warrior Monk’ with strong bass, marching guitar riff and somewhat Arabic strings, walks us to the time of Crusades from the fall of Jerusalem in the 12th century to its’ Moorish reinstatement under Saladin. The song has a crusader’s bastard Moor son of the east ending in battle with his other Christian son of the west. A timely reminder of the futility of war when many a brother fights with another, we are, after all, Christian, Jew or Muslim, sons of Abraham! The jarring electric chord at the end reminds us that this is a song of now as well as then. The songwriters knowledge of history and how it weaves its way through our DNA and indeed a curse upon all our houses continues with title track, ‘Besieged’ . A wonderful trip from fortresses of 17th century Rheinfels to monastery walls, Irish tenement houses right up to date through Cornish fisherman’s houses to the so easily kicked over castles in the Sand. A lyrical metaphorical trip through the history of life and love like Bob Dylan gave Al Stewart a large dram and they wrote a song together. ‘Crossed lovers’ brings us into a timeless familiar territory of a familiar lovers quarrel “How can you hear me if you won’t listen” brought to us by two voices in a slow melodical ballad. This is juxtaposed by the raucous drinking song of ‘Damned Man Polka’ backed with reels and military marching drums.
This wonderful album’s penultimate song is a kick in the teeth to the abuse that taints the Church with hard hitting ‘All in your Name’ a duel tempo choppy guitar with bouncing verse and drawled accusational chorus before once again calming us down with the final track, ‘ The Ring’. A traditional sound, a beautiful song of love, land and nationhood with string, flute and voice as crisp as snow underfoot reminding us who we are, “here, now and always”.
Every listen of ‘Besieged’ is indeed time well spent.
Limited edition two CD set released 8 February includes the Best of compilation, Anticlimactic but you can buy several versions including the download direct from Nick here
Also available from all streaming services inc. Spotify, Amazon etc here