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.