Jez Hellard

St Michael on the Mount Without (Bristol)

It would be unfair to say that the star of last night's show was the venue. A redundant, derelict church in the process of being repurposed as an arts venue; a mix of a decaying spirituality and English junk. Two Victorian stained glass windows; a distinctly modern Christ-in-glory behind the stage. Hernry Hoovers nesting by rotting service books. A photo-art project from a nearby school; plastic shrubs in pots. Proper Job Cornish Ale in the crypt and (sorry to mention this) rather snazzy black porcelain in the men's loo. 

It was a last minute gig; Jez was offered a number of venues but didn't want to turn down the chance to play in a church. Only about 30 people show up (none of whom I recognise from the Brizzle folkie circuit.) In keeping with the ecclesiastical atmosphere, Jez greets everyone individually at the door. (No tickets are checked, but he does ask anyone without one to put a tenner in the box.) He greets me by name, which is impressive: he seems to know absolutely everyone. (We mention that we enjoyed a band called Truckstop Honeymoon at Shrewsbury folk festival. They turn out to be great friends of his.) He let's us buy him a Proper Job. I think he lets everyone buy him a Proper Job. It's a huge space but it's a wonderfully intimate show.

If you haven't heard of Jez Hellard, look him up. He is the authentic modern incarnation of the folk troubadour; he talks of living in his van and driving a thousand mile to the UK from the Algarve to attend a festival (which was cancelled). There is no showmanship; he chats to the audience while he sets up his own sound rig. We're at a house concert in a church; a pub gig in a gothic stage set.

But oh, god, the music!

He calls himself Jez Hellard and the Djukella orchestra. As you probably know, Djukella is Serbo-Croat for mongrel ("Bastard" says  Nye Parsons, the double bassist, under his breath.) The conceit being that they play music from many musical traditions. Jez doesn't write a lot of his own songs, but his taste in folk music, his choice of material to cover is eclectic and impeccable. The Undercover Hippy's lilting reggae-tinged lament about borders rubs shoulders with Robert Burns' Westlin' Winds. Jez is an impressive guitarist and and an astonishing harmonica wrangler and his voice positively drips conviction. These are songs which mean something to him. Dick Gaughan, Si Kahn, and Rory McCleod are all represented in the first half. There are many embarrassed chuckles of recognition when he does his gloriously daft self-written rap about smart phones: 

walking around with your head down
You don’t even know the way around your own hometown 
If you misplace it for a minute
Have you seen the way you fidget?
Just like Gollum after losing his ring

He feels the pressure of time as the evening races towards curfew (the half-time trip to the bar expands from ten minutes to twenty) but he squeezes in a remarkable late Mermaid Avenue Woody Guthrie lyric which I hadn't heard before . One forgets how lyrical Guthrie could be: 

"my loneliness healed, my emptiness filled, I walk above all pain, 
back to the breast of my woman and child to scatter my seeds again". 

There's also a stunning Bob Marley cover, and finally Ewan MacColl's agonising Joy of Living. I can't help thinking that Jez unwound and relaxed in the second half; his singing on the last numbers was expressive, emotional, pushing heartfelt emotion into every line and pretty much destroying the audience. This member of the audience at any rate.  

"Take me to some high place of heather, rock and ling
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind..."

There's a long wait for CDs because he chats to every punter. "If you enjoyed it half as much as we did", says Nye, "then we enjoyed it twice as much as you." Evenings like this are the whole reason I listen to live folk: an intimate personal connection with a fine musician in a wacky venue. I wouldn't have been up on the Downs listening to Love Save the Day for all the ale in Cornwall. 

"A twenty year career in folk music cam earn you literally hundreds of pounds" says Jez, twice. Why isn't he fifty times more famous? I suspect the answer is that he doesn't want to be: this kind of music, this kind of connection with the audience, can only happen in obscure venues and after-hours Glastonbury cafes. 

So keep it a little bit secret. But if his van stops by a church near you, don't miss him.

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