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Rupert Wates: For The People

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Rupert Wates: For The People

Bite Music – 15 April 2022

A return to his roots in English folk music, the London-born, New York-based Rupert Wates has loosely based most of the songs on his new album ‘For The People‘ around old English folk tales, keeping the arrangements sparse and limiting accompaniment to just his guitars and, one track, Adreana Mateo’s violin, with Rorie Kelly singing second lead.

The dancingly fingerpicked title track opens the album, a musician’s thank you to all who have shown him kindness and hospitality, imparted wisdom and shared joy and laughter along the journey, and singing “For the people in pain/Who are crowding round my door/For the people at war/…For all the wounded ones I’ve met along the way/The many others still to come”,  his voice here conjuring early Tom Paxton while elsewhere you’ll hear notes of Jake Thackray and Nick Drake had he lived to more seasoned years.

Again showcasing his nimble fretwork, To The Sea is set in the ‘where does my true love lie’ tradition, framed as a call and response with the narrator asking, “Did she pass by on her morning ride/Follow the river to the sea/Were there wildflowers in her chestnut hair”, looking to persuade himself she’s not about to make off with sailors returning laden with treasure (“They will show her the pearls in their hands…For no rusty coin she’ll trade her soul”), to be met with the dismissive refrain “What’s that to me/What’s that to me”.

A similar theme of finding the way to a maiden’s heart informs the cascading fingerpicked notes of Medley: All Fair Ladies/Spanish Galleon, where Kelly, responding and harmonising, asks the ladies, “Must I be a pauper or a king/Tell me if you can what I must bring a lady fair/For a lady’s love to win/Will she care for pomp and state?” and, striking a feminist call for independence, they reply “Let your lady have her will/Then your cup of joy shall be filled/If no other gift you bring your lady fair/Then your lady’s heart you’ll win”, the second half turning the tables and switching the gender of the protagonist as Kelly takes up the lead as the poor maid looking to get to Cadiz and track down her true love seduced away by a wealthy lady, declaring “I am worth so much more than signoras of his”.

Naturally, there has to be a murder ballad, thus the dark circling notes of The North Road, which, haunted by his deeds, the narrator relates, “He was twelve years of age in his scarlet uniform/And his face was as fresh as a curse/It’s been six long years of soldiering and seven years at sea/Since I killed the drummer boy for the gold in his purse/You will find his bones at Alconbury in a hollow by the road/Where the wolves and the crows have picked them clean”.

He returns to sea for the jaunty melody of Oh Captain, which draws on the folklore of Devon and Cornwall, where mermaids were said to be a common sight off the coast, the one in the song offering fair sail if the captain weighs anchor and opens up her passage so she can return home. However, it’s hard not to detect a touch of the siren call as she says, “If you like my silvery tail/If you like my bright fishy scales/And my hair much lighter than the breeze/Let me show you how thankful I can be”.

From the West Country, he moves to the Lake District, Mateo on violin for the deceptively gentle and airy Ullswater Cove (“Steep falls the river in turbulent fountains/As it marries the sea at Ullswater Cove/One hundred feet down from the peak of the mountain/It gushes and rushes to meet its betrothed”), which plays out as a happy story of how, after many years away from seeking his fortune, the narrator returns to his true love who’d waited patiently, until that is, he kisses her while she’s out sleepwalking and in her joy she falls into the raging torrents and dies!

It’s back to the briny with Thirty Thousand Guineas (A Smuggler’s Tale) which, fingerpicked and the verses delivered in a swiftly descending semi-spoken vocal, takes its story from how, carrying lucrative cargoes on the smuggling route between England and Europe, the ships’ masters often fell prey to temptation, Captain Jack here offloading the gold before being boarded by a government ship (“and when the soldiers climbed aboard we greeted them with sunny smiles and empty hands as innocent as we could be”), except, that is, when the bankers dredged them up the bags only contained pebbles. What happened to the treasure is a mystery, but, as the tar narrating the tale notes, “The last I saw the captain he looked prosperous as any man he’d bought a handsome property with a fine view of the sea”.

There’s a second song pairing with World War One Medley: A Florin To The Beam/Hills Of Blue Heather, the sprightly first half based around how village pubs often nailed florins to a beam, one for each of its soldiers away fighting (“Drink up and dry your eyes and on the day when I come home/It will buy a high old time for you and me/And if I never see your eyes again/That coin will be the one you never spend”), while the slower swaying second part (subtitled The Nightingale’s Song) is, evocative of Rupert Brooke,  sung in the voice of one such soldier remembering home while “the night’s only music is the prayer of the young men/Waiting and wondering whose blood will flow/For the flowers of England shall wither and die here/As the nightingale offers his breast to the thorn/Killed by alien hands in an alien country/Far from the land where they were born”.

Thoughts of home are at the heart of the penultimate track, the resonantly strummed Justified on which the singer, presumably arrested after fleeing some unnamed act (“I was blinded by pride/And I flew too near the sun”), his time come, asks “Was I justified in what I did?”

It ends on a more upbeat note with friends and family lending their voices to the summery air and circling guitar pattern of The Dance Of Joy (which has a slight hint of  Lord Of The Dance), a vision of a community coming together through music (“A field full of folk I saw/In a waking dream/Young and old and rich and poor/Dancing on the green/Music sounded in the air/And joy was in their eyes”) in a simple celebration of life (“I asked them then why danced they there/And this was their reply/Because we’re here because we’re here/Because we’re here because we’re here”) that echoes the carpe diem sentiments of the opening track  (“Some there were whose cause was lost/Tears their only gain/Some there were whose stars were crossed/Some who loved in vain/All had felt grief’s cruel sting”) in “Summer’s leaves will soon be gone/Winter’s chill is always near/We shall sing a joyful song because we’re here”. Wates says the album is “a love song to humanity”, the music “of the people, by the people, for the people”. Power to the people, indeed.

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