Back in 1997, Robb Johnson’s seminal song-suite Gentle Men delivered a determinedly non-jingoistic, unsentimental commentary on the First World War and its consequences, filtered largely through the experiences of his two grandfathers, in memory of whom the work was written. However, Robb has subsequently felt that the writing would have benefited from more time for reflec- tion, and that the attempt to convey a sense of closure through reconciliation didn’t quite succeed. He therefore decided to take a fresh look at the suite, and in the course of so doing, three new songs were written giving a wider historical perspective; the incorporation of these within the sequence, along with the ditching of four of the original songs and some judicious re-ordering, has the effect of sharpening the work’s focus to reflect the current (and unanticipated back in 1997) political situation.
Read more …
Importantly, the 2013 version also possesses a distinctive new musical ambience which stems principally from the deployment of completely different accompanists (here Jenny Carr’s piano, Jude Abbott’s euphonium and John Forrester’s double bass together replacing Koen de Cauter’s Golden Serenaders band in the earlier version). Equally crucial though, is that Robb has now engaged the brilliantly versatile Barb Jungr to take on Vera Coomans’ role, and Barb brings an exceptional degree of insight, perception and intelligence to her contributions (I might especially single out Empty Chair and the re- constituted Dead Man’s Pennies). However, arguably even more pronounced an element in the 2013 Gentle Men is the painful intensity and gravitas which Roy Bailey (who, with Robb himself, forms a bridge between the two versions) brings to his role, both through the recognisable continuity of his actual voice and his unbelievably powerful and chokingly touching portrayal of the wholly inevitable toll that fifteen years of reflection and harsh experience has brought.
Gentle Men Mark 2 makes sense in so many respects, and the new songs are pertinent in the extreme: the two-part Home By Christmas is both economic and poignant in expression, while An English Heaven’s verse sung in German makes its point more tellingly than the now-expunged The German Exchange could in Mark 1. I’m not entirely convinced that the two biographical sketches now dropped from the suite deserved that fate, but all other 2013 changes, including vital structural and textual alterations, feel absolutely right. For instance, the message of Deeper Than Dugouts is now reinforced with its spare, funereal chordal accompaniment setting into relief the unmatched passion of Barb’s standout performance. Making The Gardens Grow, now placed as penultimate number, has been recast by communally involving all three singers, while Nobody’s Enemy has been shifted to form the closing song in what now seems a perfectly logical resolution to Robb’s earlier self-confessed doubts about the conclusion of the work.
1997’s Gentle Men was abundantly valid, and will remain so, both as a creative artefact and a meaningful commentary on WW1, but the current revision provides an even more stunning experience that through the benefit of considered hindsight has been trans- formed into a more sharply-focused artistic statement. It comes in two variants: double- CD-set with booklet, and limited-edition book containing memoir and lyrics and enclosing the same two discs.
For those who are not already aware of subject matter, ‘Gentle Men’ is Robb’s tribute to his grandfathers who fought in, and survived, the First World War. The first thing that is evident about the new edition is the style of the musical accompaniment to the songs. Whilst the 1997 suite was set in a Belgian inflected jazz context the current issue has a more small scale chamber / cabaret feel to it. It would be entirely invidious to pronounce on the respective qualities of each of the musical settings – they are simply different and both, most emphatically, work to support the lyric in their contrasting ways. If I had to discriminate I would say the current edition is slightly easier to assimilate due to its reduced complexity and stridency (though it is by no means unemotional) whilst the original better captures the passion and the co-operative nature of the overarching Vredesconcerten Passendale venture.Read more …
As in 1997 Roy Bailey’s vocals add authority and pathos as appropriate and Robb’s voice is, of course, as fine as ever, whilst Barb Jungr replaces Vera Coomans as the female counterpoint. The musical ensemble comprises guitar, banjo, piano, double bass and euphonium. I am not even going to attempt to describe the differences between the sets of songs in the original and new versions of the suite – suffice it to say that the additions and changes have maintained the work’s integrity whilst, as suggested above, also responded to the 21st century context of the current release.
The booklet with the original version was exemplary with high quality paper, photographs, full lyrics and background to the songs. I understand there will be a couple of packaging options with the latest version – the CDs with either a 32 page booklet or a limited edition book. Although the review copy came without either of these, I have no hesitation in predicting that both will be of at least as high a standard as the original.
I am sure that any of the legion of Robb Johnson enthusiasts out there would be happy to have both the original and the new and spend hours comparing the two in detail (as I intend to when time permits). For anyone who does not have the original then rejoice (in the true not debased meaning of the word) at this welcome opportunity to acquire both a superb work of art and an important testament to the futility of war.