FRIENDS dancing down the roads of the nation
a debut album by Pete Benbow,
reviewed by Norman Warwick
The final Christmas card we received for 2020 (left) didn´t arrive until weeks into 2021, which was ironic because as soon as we looked at the front of the card with its hand drawn Father Christmas, we knew it had come from a former postman friend in the UK. Still, seven weeks in delivery. Postmen, eh? We had also been right to guess that the package contained a CD and what postbag of memories that drew open.
I ought to declare my interest at the outset. The singer and composer of this album has been one of my best friends for all my adult life, although we have seen each other only once in the last twenty years. He was an occasional third member of Lendanear, my duo with Colin Lever, joining us at several live performances and providing guitar and bass for us on some of our own album recordings. He is the godfather of my son, now making his own guitar and banjo music in South Korea that indirectly owes a great debt to this Vito Corleoni of music.
I first met the guy when he turned up at the inaugural night of Folk With The Kings, a weekly club Colin and I were opening (with no credentials whatsoever) at The King´s Head in Heywood and he came and asked me for a floor spot. I probably condescended to consider it, not realising this man was the very doyen of our local folk club scene. I was only just graduating from pop music to study folk music, and that partly because I wanted to ditch the mumsy Alma Cogan and Helen Shapiro for the beautiful Joan Baez and Julie Felix.
These female singer-writers were new to me, as were many of their male contemporaries, but the next couple of years of running that club would be a crash course in the music that has steered my life ever since.
When I finally deemed to call this guy, who had told me his name was Pete Benbow, to the floor he sang two songs: California Bloodlines by John Stewart (an artist I was aware of because The Monkees had covered his song Daydream Believer) and Pancho And Lefty by Townes Van Zandt. In the single-song second-half set he delivered LA Freeway by Guy Clark who, like Townes, I hadn´t then heard of. To say that Pete´s neat finger-picking guitar and soft, sincere voice blew me away is a massive understatement and is surely proven by the fact that there are now over forty albums by these artists alone that, figuratively at least, have ´as first heard from Pete Benbow´ stamped on their covers.
Pete would add a lot of humour and charm to our Lendanear performances over the ensuing years whenever he joined us on stage, and in the recording studio he even contributed a co-write with us on Boats Will Come Home and took lead vocals on the recording we made of it in the BBC Radio Manchester mobile studio on a four song cassette we called Souvenirs.
Nevertheless, we didn´t really think of him as a songwriter, and nor did he claim to be, so it surprised me to see all ten tracks on Friends attributed to Pete. What he has always been, to everyone on the folk scene, is a great player in any musical team, one who brings a calmness and stillness to proceedings.
The opening track on, and by, Friends is A Rain´s Gonna Fall, a beautiful, if doubtful, song and as on all the following tracks it has a hook of a chorus that attaches itself to you and clings forever. There is a neat humming bass here, and Pete delivers a contemplative rendition.
It should be remembered that none of us who know him consider Pete to be any kind of city-slicker Manchester dude, and his song Big Town speaks of the delusions of city life, as we are left reassured that he is happy with his Rochdale, Heywood and Bacup hinterland.
Perhaps one of the most interesting tracks on the album for me is entitled Haul Away, Heave Away which sounds like it should be a seafaring folk song in the traditional or Cyril Tawney style. Softer than such songs usually are, (though I seem to remember Pete giving beautiful renditions of Sammy´s Bar and similar) this Benbow composition is of a heading-for-home nature and as such would perfectly complement songs like Boats Will Come Home, that Benbow Warwick collaboration I mentioned earlier, or one of the latest Lever-Warwick songs, Last Boat Home, recorded on our Two Islands album. Pete so often sings within himself, allowing the song to ´speak´ for itself and that works to beautiful effect here on what is a poignant love song.
Paris And I echoes to me of that great song, Me And The Elephant, recorded initially by Gene Cotton, in a version much loved by Terry Wogan and later covered by my friend Charlie Landsborough. The similarities lie not in the lyrics or melody but in Pete´s personification of the place in the same way as the elephant was personified. Pete delivers this sadness quietly and soulfully and this is a lovely arrangement.
Black Dog is a much faster track as the singer tells of how quickly he is seeking to escape his demons though he gives the impression that to do so he might have to live life at a far quicker pace than is comfortable. His fellow players maintain the tempo of the track without ever losing timing or sounding hurried, a skill we´ll come back to later.
A Country Waltz is another song that immediately fits in to a country-folk genre like Walking On The Moon by Tom Russell and I just Want To Dance With You recorded by John Prine, George Strait and later Daniel O´Donnel. The collection of memories that make up the lyrics lent us the title for this article.
Please Say I Love You is another gentle country ballad, with a lovely, understated backing vocal by Gill, (Mrs. Pete) of the kind you´d hear any night at The Grand Ole Opry or at Miss Amy´s Bluebird Café on audition nights, and the feeling left by all the songs here is that anyone offering any one of them at a guitar-pull would bring the place down.
Another Day On The Farm is a country-rocker and the friends make sure we know it. This is the most band-style, rather than singer and musicians, song on the album and works really well before we slow down again to listen to that Navaho Wind, and as we do so we might even be sitting on Katie´s Old Navajo Rug as written about in song by Tom Russell and Ian Tyson, so comfortably would the two songs lie side by side.
None of any comparisons made above should be taken to suggest that these songs are in some way derivative. Rather the comparisons are made to show how comfortably this collection of songs by Pete Benbow would rest in the pantheons of country music, and how they would lend themselves to being covered by aspirant or leading country musicians alike.
I mentioned at the start of this review that Colin and I never really thought about Pete as a songwriter, because he never proffered himself in that role. Perhaps we thought that Pete, even then, knew so many songs and seemingly had the ability to pick them up and play them at will that he had no need to write his own.
Probably about forty years ago I arrived at his house earlier than expected one night, though, and when he invited me in to the lounge his guitar was propped up against the sofa, and there was a pen and a piece of paper on the table. He picked the paper up and waved it and said he´d just finished a song and he would like me to hear it. The song he played me that night is now, four decades later, the closing song to this album, and apart from that evening I have only ever heard it once more, a couple of weeks later, when he played it in a club.
Nevertheless. I have never forgotten the playfulness and sheer delight of Walkaway Blues with what I have always thought of as a great line about how
´I got home last night to an empty flat,
and a note on the table said your dinner´s in the cat.´
This is a sad lovesick blues lyric that is somehow given a jaunty cheery, whistle-along treatment a bit like some famous recorded versions of I Never Felt More Like Singing The Blues. It also carries the same devil may care what the hell attitude of the brilliant Likes Of Louise by Chip Taylor.
It is a great, upbeat conclusion to a delightful selection of songs written by a musician who is mostly known for playing anonymously in other people´s bands. Pete has always made friends easily along the way and here he gathers his wife Gill, and six others, but typically of his craving for anonymity, leaves his name off the album cover. There is acknowledgement, of course, of tasteful keyboard work by Andy Green and perfect violin contributions from Charles Jenkinson on a violin as at ease with a Country Waltz as with The Walkaway Blues. Dave Woodman plays a sometimes blazing electric guitar with Mark Almond on acoustic guitar and discrete hints of banjo and Mark Langam offers a similarly perfect harmonica. Jonathan Brierley plays percussion and Frank Brierley, extreme right in cover photo, was the George Martin of the proceedings, with a sensitive and gorgeous production of beautiful, distinctive music from each separate instrument. He also brings in his own playing of bass and electric guitars, mandolin and percussion to the lovely, subdued backing vocal harmonies he delivers with Charles Crawley, behind Pete´s guitar and lead vocals. Gill Benbow gives a lovely polish to track seven.
I think all the players and Friends of the album title and band name sound really good and the vocal ensembles are superb. It is really tough to lay your voice at the right volume below somebody else´s and although I know some of that is down to an obviously skilled producer it sounds perfect, and the backing vocalists contribute quietly but very effectively to the overall sound.
These musicians might just be Rossendale´s modern day version of those Nashville Cats of the sixties and seventies country scene referred to by John Sebastian in his song of that tile. They play with class, ease and consummate professionalism.
In fact, some listeners have called the album ´very seventies´ but I would take that as a compliment in that that it sounds like it belongs to that golden age of singer-guitarist-songwriters like John Stewart, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, all of whom Pete introduced me to, and to Tom Paxton, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Julie Felix and Ralph McTell. If the ´very seventies´ comment was in any way intended as a backhanded compliment, (though I´m sure it wasn´t) Pete should be quite proud of it
photo 9 front cover Presentation of the case and cover is spot-on too,…showing .sensible people playing good music without pretending to be kids.
´It was an opportunity, really,´ says Pete. Ä lad I got to know, who became a friend, has a place called Stillwater Studio in Horwich, and it just sort of happened. It was in no way a business venture or any attempt at making an impression on the music world. It was just meant to be snapshot of where I am and what I´m doing now. Its called Friends because everyone on the cover picture were friends and all took part in the recording. We´re all friends, pure and simple. They are a talented bunch and they gave their services for free.´
Jeff As did Pete Benbow for Lendanear on so many occasions in the nineteen seventies and eighties when there was a different folk club held each night of the week, all within ten square miles of home when we were playing. He and I even played together on BBC Radio Merseyside with touring American artist Jeff McDonald (right) who had recorded a Lendanear poem called Old Black Guitar Case for which Pete had laid down a guitar track on our original recording. Pete and I played that and another song of mine called Roll Slowly and then jeff joined us on stage to lead us in John Stewart´s California Bloodlines with Pete joining jeff on guitar and vocals and me mimimg like a goldfish by their side.
Pete tells us that, even as recently as last year ´Rossendale Valley was a vibrant, bubbling are of bands, open mic nights, live pub venues and gigs,… but now, nothing, as if God just pulled out the plug,…a sort of dark, brooding silence,…every pub we pass is dark and shuttered. Music will return, I´ve no doubt,… but when and how far ahead is anyone´s guess. I heard one informed person say of the music scene that it will be two years before we are back to normal.´
Pete is almost 72 now, so he thinks it might be nearly time anyway to hang up his rock and roll shoes,….well it least until the lockdown is lifted.
He updated us on some of the great musicians and folk fans we knew in the Heywood area where we lived until coming here five years ago and Pete talked about a mutual friend Dan Whitworth with whom he is in regular contact still but hasn´t seen since lockdown, and he mentioned, too, his old duo partner in Double Trouble. Graham Price also gave his services for nothing one night for Lendanear as guitarist and singer, putting a great high vocal as we recorded You May Go Dance. Pete also talks quite a bit to Fudge, who if memory serves was a long-haired, rock-god like figure on the local music scene who is still rocking, though he now lives in Scotland.
I wonder what happened to Morgan Lee James a top cabaret act to whom, when asked if he knew any good songwriters, Pete gave my name. Morgan and I worked for about six months together writing an album full of songs including Video Widow, Ain´t Nothing But A Summer Storm and Last To Know.
Pete tells sidetracks & detours that this CD is ´just one of those things on the bucket list, along with sail around the world (which he does via the songs on this album), marry a beautiful, wealthy, young princess (she sings backing vocals on this album), and win the lottery (these songs could earn him the same sort of money). Given that he also recently met and spoke with one his great song-writing heroes, Gordon Lightfoot, who along with all his band members signed a treasured vinyl album sleeve cover of the Canadian´s seminal Don Quixote Pete had from way back in the singer-writer´s career, Mr. Benwow´s bucket list must now be almost entirely ticked off.
Checking my e mails this afternoon and finding Pete´s post, I have also found one from Colin publicising his new book, out now on Amazon, called Open Mic, (left) that is a work of fiction to everyone, except me, Colin and Pete who know who we are !! Actually I´d love to think we really did have all the comic adventures described in the book but Colin perfectly captures all that ´after the raffle´ air of the folk clubs without mentioning a dedicated and socially-conscious folk trio arguing with a club organiser who was about to cancel their second half at Burnley Cricket Club because they were too depressing with all their songs about pit disasters. Even the eloquent arguments of Lendanear´s postman-guitarist, begging him to at least let us do the one about the kid who fell in the bonfire, couldn´t persuade him to change his mind !
Nevertheless, the funny thing is that even though I have a massive collection of singer-writers on my sound tracks that run from A (Arlo Guthrie) to Z (Townes van Zandt) it is the cabinets B (for Benwow) and L (for Lever and, of course Lendanear) that are most frequently opened. There is no Warwick in the W cabinet, though, because all that stuff is filed under P (for poems), and that some of that was later transferred into S (for songs) is almost entirely down to those guys in sections B & L !!