I have been a lover of Steve Tilston’s music since I first heard him play at the Blackboy pub, Bristol, in 1982 in his rock days. I like to think I am one of the few people who own and play my vinyl copy of In for a Penny… In for a Pound, and since then we have grown up together, travelling the length and breadth of the kingdom from our humble beginnings in Liverpool, through Grass Days in Bristol, to Hebden Bridge Folk Roots and the joys of The Kitchen Songs on YouTube. And now another pub in Oxford – the sounds and smells were ever so familiar - and as Friday night’s gig centred on his acoustic retrospective CD Distant Days the playlist reminded me that many of Steve’s tunes are part of the soundtrack of my life.
The gig was all wrapped up in the cosy community of the Oxford Folk Club, with members opening each half of the performance with the particular treat of two members on Nickelharpa. Whilst throughout his career Steve has stuck predominately to his trusty guitar, he has played with a number of outstanding musicians too numerous to mention here, bar my favourite saxophonist, Andy Sheppard and their duet Totterdown. And tonight was no exception with the excellent accompaniment of Hugh Bradley on double bass, subtly underpinning and complementing the tunes, most noticeably on Oil and Water.
Of course, Distant Days includes such Tilston classics as The Slip Jigs and Reels and we were treated to the combo’s fresh interpretation of Pretty Penny. For me this is a modern folk classic and embodies the interest and popularity of the modern folk scene - it calls on ancient and treasured musical traditions to make a very pertinent, political point similar to The Imagined Village’s Hard Times of Old England Retold. This is unsurprising given Steve’s knowledge of traditional tunes, evident in his interpretation of King David’s story in the King of the Coiners and The Fisher Lad of Whitby.
Throughout the performance Steve chatted happily with the audience and encouraged their participation with his consummate showmanship and self-deprecating humour, tinged with the sadness of time and friends passing – an adieu to Maggie Boyle and Martin Lamble with such tracks as I Really Wanted You and Rocky Road redolent of the road when I was young and I found last night’s performance, underpinned by the depth of Hugh Bradley’s thrumming bass, of After Summer Rain particularly poignant.
And whilst the audience ran the gamut of musically inspired emotion – joining in choruses, stamping and clapping along, Steve also treated us to flavours of oriental music in Shinjuku and showed the influence of South African music. He also played the blues and showed great prowess on his guitar, notably in Sovereign of Tides. And this musical prowess, knowledge and ultimately enthusiasm, which I so identified with on the road when I was young, has stayed with me now into my in-between year. It is a rare thing and not only do I look forward to Steve’s musical future (may Madame Muse inspire) I heartily recommend exploring Distant Days, our musical past, and if you are new to the folk scene try an ear-opening night at the Oxford Folk Club.