Home Service, London Half Moon, 21 July 2011

It’s not often I travel 1500km to see a concert, but then again it’s not often that a group like Home Service make the unlikely decision to play live again 25 years after releasing their last album. In my earlier posting (Home Service reunite, world says “Who?”), I tried to say something about why this group means so much to me; in the end it was a no-brainer to go to London for their second reunion gig, effectively a warm-up for a slew of festival appearances around the UK this summer. Was it worth it, then? Of course it was.

There seems to be a sense of unfinished business around Home Service in 2011, a feeling that wherever it was they ended up in the 1980s, there remains more to be said and done. The group’s frequent work at the National Theatre meant that they never really functioned properly as a live act, and in the end they more or less fell apart following the release of the epochal Alright Jack album in 1986. That record showcased many things, from John Tams’ deeply humanistic, socially committed songwriting to Graeme Taylor’s miraculous lead guitar, via the way the brass and horn sections reached deep inside the songs and exposed their hidden seam of melancholy and principle. As the freshest and most modern expression of English electric folk, it was a hugely significant album; but it also left hanging in the air the tantalising possibility of more to come – a promise that was never quite fulfilled by Tams’ three subsequent solo albums, as warm and generous as they were. (It’s always bothered me, by the way, that Rob Young’s Electric Eden, an otherwise magisterial survey of English folk and folk rock, has nothing at all to say about Tams or Home Service.)

Last Thursday at the Half Moon, then, Home Service delivered a set that was abundant in everything I have come to love about electric folk music: the irrepressible melodic force, the searing eloquence of the guitar, the sense of a rich tradition tellingly updated. It was a special pleasure and privilege to see John Tams again, for the first time since I saw him and his longstanding collaborator Barry Coope play a warmly received set at the Towersey Festival some years ago. On that occasion the impish Tams decided to phone his daughter, whose birthday it was, from the stage; the resulting singalong of ‘Happy Birthday’ was one of many fine moments on that sunny August evening. Away from the comfort of an acoustic guitar and a high stool, though, Tams becomes one of the most driven and charismatic frontmen I’ve seen. Expressing himself with his body as much as with his voice, he draws symbolic gestures in the air and drives clenched fist into open palm through sheer force of unreason. Between songs he ushers in a mood of inclusiveness and shared experience with his witty introductions, calls for the audience to join in and statements of outraged, dignified protest. As a singer, he’s never sounded better.

But Home Service are very far, of course, from being John Tams’ backing group. Whether they’re addressing Tams’ own songs or the traditional English tunes that pepper the set, they evoke an ineffable sense of joy, longing and secular promise. Paul Archibald on trumpet and Roger Williams on trombone make a formidable brass section, the radiant timbre of their instruments interlocking with Andy Findon’s soaring flights on alto and tenor sax. Jon Davie augments his bass lines with razor-sharp backing vocals, while Michael Gregory is an unassuming but rock-solid presence behind the drums. As for Taylor, his guitar playing is heady stuff: precise, flowing and spacious, it provides the bedrock of sustained lyricism on which the group depends.

Over the course of two hour-long sets, Home Service performed most of Alright Jack plus a couple of songs from their first album, one or two from Tams’ solo records and, as a rousing finale, a new instrumental called “Parting Shot”. (My only complaint: nothing from The Mysteries.) As a new tune by an old band, this Taylor-penned tune defined the pivotal position of the group today and indeed of electric folk as a genre. Looking back at a troubled history, and forward into a future of optimism coloured by uncertainty, Home Service stand once again as the passionate conscience of English music.

Home Service reunite, world says “Who?”

The news that Home Service are the latest group to hit the reunion trail has not exactly set the blogosphere on fire as yet. In fact, apart from a couple of mentions on the websites of those involved and the festivals where they’ve already announced they’ll be playing this summer, there’s been practically no reaction at all, which makes a brief note here all the more imperative.

Why do Home Service matter? Simply because they are one of the finest folk rock groups England has ever produced, right up there with Fairport Convention and the Albion Band. Their slim recorded output may not stack up against those groups’ in terms of quantity, but in Alright Jack and their music for The Mysteries they produced two of the key texts of the genre. And the history and line-up of Home Service is completely tangled up with those of Fairport and the Albion Band in any event. Thankfully, that history is recounted in useful detail here, so I don’t need to go over it again. The point is that Home Service represent the continuation and full flowering of the best record the Albion Band ever made, 1978’s Rise Up Like The Sun. The creative mind mostly responsible for that masterpiece was not Albion Band mainman Ashley Hutchings but Derby singer-songwriter John Tams, one of the unheralded geniuses of English music. Without wishing to devalue the contributions of anyone else, it was Tams’ work as singer and musical director, plus the superbly eloquent electric guitar of Graeme Taylor, that made Rise Up Like The Sun such a massively ambitious yet successful record.

And, needless to say, it was Tams and Taylor who carried that success into their next group, Home Service. The only occasions on which I ever saw them were three visits to the National Theatre in 2000, when they were the house band for Bill Bryden’s The Mysteries. I am so, so glad I made the effort to go to all three of those mystery plays (albeit in the wrong order, and not all on the same day – which would have been completely overwhelming). Together, they represent by far the most memorable and powerful experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre. These were promenade performances, with actors and audience mingling together on the floor of the theatre, and by the end of each play everyone was dancing together to the joyous sound of Home Service, who were playing somewhere above on the balcony.

I wish I could give more of a flavour of those three wonderful evenings, but there is hardly anything to prove that they ever really took place. The plays were never filmed, but the original 1985 production, of which the 2000 production was a revival, was filmed in its entirety and broadcast on Channel 4. Those precious tapes have, however, disappeared somewhere into corporate limbo. Never commercially released on VHS or DVD, they may once have been traded among enthusiasts, but the arthouse film website of which I’m a member currently has no copies circulating. There is also, or at any rate there used to be, a CD available of Home Service’s music for the trilogy.  It’s well worth getting hold of, but it comes nowhere near capturing the ecstatic beauty of Home Service at full tilt.

At any rate, the reunion of Home Service has to be one of my most anticipated musical events of 2011. I can’t see them coming to play in Vienna, nor anywhere else in continental Europe for that matter, so a trip to England is definitely on the cards for sometime this year.