Sweet Flowers That Sway In The Sunlight
John Head was just sixteen years old when he was drafted by his older brother to join his band The Pale Fountains in 1982. His first appearance was actually as bongo player at Pickwick’s/Plato’s Ballroom but it was John’s prodigious talent with the guitar that Mick spotted early on. The group’s delicate arrangements and intricate structures would have tested an accomplished player twice his age but John’s natural ability quickly caught the admiration of the band, his raw skills being reputedly sharpened further by guitar lessons paid for by his big brother out of The Pale Fountains’ infamous advance from Virgin.
Undaunted by record company pressure for the band to “deliver the goods”, and assuming the mysterious moniker of John Schneider in order to wrong-foot truant officers, John’s electric guitar effectively re-defined the old acoustic/trumpet sound of the band on their second and final album …From Across The Kitchen Table. Legend has it that John steadfastly refused to play an acoustic guitar.
The Pale Fountains’ planned third album morphed into Zilch, Shack’s first album, with John’s 12-string Rickenbacker forming the spine to the songs. It was also around this time that John began to find his voice as he and Mick reportedly hit the streets to busk and work on their vocal harmonies. Here lay the roots to what followed with John’s contributions and arrangements, his fluid and intricate guitar sound forming the bedrock of Shack’s flawless back catalogue.
John’s first songwriting credit came in 1996 with six minutes of plaintive concentric circles of sadness and grief that is “Loaded Man”. This was clearly not the work of an occasional songwriter but the fruits of a man who was well versed in his craft. In 1999 he contributed two songs to HMS Fable, the epic “Cornish Town” and the under-rated “Beautiful”.
With each subsequent Shack record came a larger slice of the song writing spoils for John – no mean feat when competing for track space with the über-penmanship of his elder brother.
A John Head solo venture always seemed inevitable but it was difficult to envisage how this would ever come about amidst his established and pivotal role within Shack. So when rehearsals and recording of the band’s follow up album to 2006’s The Corner of Miles & Gil stalled, the time was suddenly right for John to get out there and make it happen.
In early 2008 John recorded demos of a handful of songs originally planned for the Shack record together with some newer ideas that varied from the Shack mould. These demos found their way to Jeff Barrett at Heavenly Records, a longstanding admirer, who agreed to fund the recording of a solo record. The album was recorded and mixed but unfortunately events conspired which de-railed plans for its release. Significantly John had hooked up with a group of new musicians who inspired him to create an altogether different and better record. Uncomfortable with compromise, John scrapped the recorded album to explore these possibilities with his new collaborators. Only a solitary song from the initial recorded sessions surfaced into the public domain: “Find Me a River” for Jeff Barrett’s Caught By The River fishing themed compilation. Since early 2009, John has performed with this band called The Stream (since pluralised) honing their sound with each successive outing.
In October 2010 John Head & The Streams entered the studio under the watch of producer Mark Coyle to, at last, commit their songs to tape (or whatever they record on these days). Last Saturday’s sell-out show at the Rodewald Suite at The Philharmonic would serve as a good opportunity to catch the band in full flow.
The room at The Rodewald is an intimate, modern, stark-white, upstairs annexe to the old hall with cabaret (pub-quiz) style seating and bright lighting. At around 9pm the house lights dim, the low chatter ceases and a big cheer goes up as John steps alone onto the tiny stage and into the spotlight. The cheers subside to deathly silence as John strikes up the opening chords to “Carnival”. The audience listen intently to every syllable and strum. It’s immediately clear that the well-behaved intimacy of the venue perfectly serves the performance: no divs chatting shit, no mobiles and nobody even dared shift from their seat for fear of disturbing the enjoyment of others or the performer on stage. John closes the first song and follows it with a sparse, slowed-version of “Carousel” from Here’s Tom With The Weather.
John is then joined on stage by his band and the wisdom of John’s decision to delay the record becomes immediately clear. On stage they play with a shared belief in the spirit of these songs and how they are to be performed. Each player effortlessly knows his role, their musicianship is measured and perfectly understated, complementing the others and supporting the songs.
Tim O’Shea plays these perfect little flourishes and gentle counter melodies to John’s beautiful arpeggio. He plays out his role as John’s right hand man in a way that is as pivotal as it is unassuming.
The rhythm section works as its own little unit passing strategies via glances between songs. Andy Frizzell plays double bass with intensity and the enjoyment of a man who is loving the sound coming from the stage as much as the audience. Telo keeps it minimal on drums, perfectly intertwining his beats with the bass and the just beneath the melodies.
Much of the magic comes from the accompaniment, embellishments and superfluities of the wind and horn section played by Simon James and Martin Smith. There were these flashing glimpses reminiscent of Miles Davis, Coltrane or Benny Goodman underpinned by the rock-steady subtext they play to John’s vocals.
The band has this blend that seems so comfortable even though they are crammed together on this tiny stage. It is tight and yet it drifts and flows, the performance never falling below John’s infamously exacting standards. And armed with songs brimming with glorious melodies, it is unsurprising that John’s confidence as a front man is there for all to see.
John leads song after song and the band follow. The ebb and flow of melody and harmony combine with the plaintive and indefinable rural feel. Songs with the sun on their backs and the wind in their hair contrasted by those of darkness and yearning.
More shows are planned for December with the record expected to be released in early 2011.
Setlist : Carnival, Carousel, Find a Place, Metro, Falling Leaves, Butterfly, Miles Apart (Interval) The River, Seven Kinds of Sin, 1967, Loaded Man, Lost and Found, Half Sleep, Savage Brew, 1976, Weeping Willow, Cornish Town (Encore) Too Late For Me Now, Miles Apart
John Head – Find Me A River (2009)
Taken from Heavenly Recordings’ free, limited edition Caught By The River compilation