The Merchant City in Glasgow is a place hoaching with bars, restaurants, and miles of glittering fairy lights. It was also memorably, for one night during Celtic Connections 2013 at the City Halls, a place to hear folk music legend Nic Jones sing as only he still can.
The City Halls is an startling venue, looking as it does like some cross between the Scottish Parliament and a super fancy wedding cake, all lighted by a large modernistic UFO -shaped chandelier.
As such it lends itself perfectly to the musically unexpected, which is handy as Celtic Connections definitely guides one along roads less traveled, putting explorers in the path of talents not yet personally discovered: talents like John Smith, ‘the guitar man from Devon’.
John Smith is not a run-of-the-mill folk singer, as he clearly showed when he opened up for Nic Jones, despite as he admitted, dressing like one - being, as he said, waist-coated, be-jeaned and enjoying the possibility of dubious hygiene.
“My right hand wouldn’t do what it does if it wasn’t for Nic Jones,” he said, strumming his guitar. “It’s an honour to open for him.”
Nic Jones must be a hard act to open up for, enjoying as he does such a heart-felt following from both music-lovers and music-makers of all ages despite being folk-scene MIA for almost three decades due that well known and savage 1982 car crash. However, John Smith was up for the challenge.
Self possessed, with an intricate guitar playing style in which the influence of Jones could clearly be heard, and an authentic way with words Smith warmed up the already eager crowd well. He then also proved himself to be a man of many surprises when he flipped his guitar on its back, and casually played it dobro-style for a pop-and strum finale.
“Now,” he said. “Nic Jones.”
The man himself walked carefully onto the stage with his son guitarist Joseph Jones, and fellow member of the Trio, pianist Belinda O’Hooley. He smiled and pointed to his t-shirt, on which was the proud proclamation in big white letters ‘Paranoid Android’. And the crowd cheered before he sang a single note.
“Paranoid Android. That’s me,” he said, pointing to words. “And I love nurses. Nurses, to me, are angels. I don’t like doctors as much - they have saws and chisels and things- but nurses are lovely.”
It is inevitable that the knowledge of Nic Jones’ accident remains an unwelcome spectre at his shows, but while there was undeniably a certain fragility to the man as he stood before his music stand reading the words to his songs, there was also an indomitability. And when he started to sing that spectre was quite simply banished, as that instantly recognizable voice grew ever stronger and more assured throughout the show, seeming to draw its energy from the crowd’s obvious enjoyment.
Jones sang old classics like ‘Barrack Street’, ‘Master Kilby’ and ‘Rapunzel’ as well as some of his own personal current favourites, such as Radiohead's 'Fake Plastic Trees'.
“My sister used to make him tell that story over, and over again,” Joseph bantered, explaining the reworked version of the well-known fairy tale. “And Dad got a bit bored with it, well, I suppose because it had a happy ending. He decided that he would rewrite it, and it’s not going to end well, now is it?”
Nic Jones is a funny man, and despite the fact he is accorded so much adulation by many people, he is touchingly unpretentious, not at all self-pitying, and in fact comes over as more than a little bemused by all the fuss.
“In a folk club you would go on stage in front of 50 people,” he said. “You would stand up and sing a song, and there wasn’t a big stage or a microphone or any of that, but here is like something out of London Palladium.”
The good-natured back and forth between father and son lightened the sombre nature of many of Jones' songs. His son’s complex guitar style might be a modern mirror of his father’s famous guitar playing , but with Joseph’s dark choral chords and flickering melodic leads backing up Jones’ soaring harmonies and lash-like phrasing, they both made something new out of the past. Nic Jones' musical legacy is still here, still strong, still unique, and still instantly recognizable, but not bound by what has gone before. It is alive and well, in the here and now.
“Our only experience of life is now,” Jones said. “The past is a dream, and the future is a dream. Now is what we have.”
Three standing ovations from the crowd agreed with him, going to show that while Jones might indeed be a slightly battered version of that intense black-browed singer from the 60’s and 80’s, he is in no way a pale reflection: he is still very much the very real deal. Whether he knows it or not.
“Thank you for all turning up and spending the night with us,” he said after the Trio ended the concert with an acapella version of ‘The Swimming Song’ and the cheers died down.
“It’s very nice of you. Thank you.”