Whenever I meet a fan of The Levellers I feel it’s my duty as a Brightonian to point out they were not the best folk rock band to emerge from my seaside hometown during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The best by some distance was McDermott’s 2 Hours. Formed by songwriter and guitarist Nick Burbridge this outfit were passionate, extremely talented and were quite simply the best Brighton live band during my formative years of gig going as a teenager.
Looking back over the history of McDermott’s it is a markedly different tale to that of The Levellers’, who went from strength to strength, adorning festival bills and the charts through much of the 1990s.
Meanwhile, McDermott’s, who were cited as a key influence by The Levellers, vanished from festival bills for much of that period as Burbridge focused on other arts projects, including playwriting. His musical career was also stymied by depression, with Burbridge telling Folk World in 2004 how a relationship split, parenting pressures and attempting to help his disabled brother’s battle with an uncaring care system led to a nervous breakdown.
In a 2012 interview with Brighton.co.uk he gave further hints as to how his life had been shaped by mental illness saying that his music:
“draws on the grit of personal experience: entanglement with mental illness, havoc wreaked by hard drugs and homelessness; sexual thirsts inappropriately met; the search for an abiding faith.”
A year on from that interview I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from The Levellers’ PR man telling me that Burbridge is back recording, releasing this 14 track career retrospective on their On The Fiddle label and with a new album out next year, 25 years since McDermott’s first album The Enemy Within. Burbridge has also signed a publishing deal with On The Fiddle.
I was also pleased to discover that rather than completely dropping off the musical radar he has spent much of the last decade recording albums, often with help from The Levellers, who are clearly still in awe of Burbridge. But although these releases were critically well received by the folk specialist media they were not commercial successes.
So all these years on how do McDermott’s sound? Opener Dirty Davey, from The Enemy Within and covered by The Levellers on their self-titled 1993 album, has taken me straight back to the stages of Brighton of the late 1980s. It’s a classic up-tempo Irish folk track written by Burbridge but sounding like it was penned hundreds of years ago.
The tempo is maintained on second track Fox On the Run, a crowd pleasing sing along in the style of Richard Thompson and is taken up a notch further with Darkness and Sail, another from The Enemy Within.
After a 12 year break from recording , Burbridge return to the studio garnered three McDermott’s albums: World Turned Upside Down (2001), Claws and Wings (2003) and Disorder (2004), all recorded with members of The Levellers and with a schedule that could accomodate his endogenous depression.
The title track from World Turned Upside Down, an album which had the then trendy credit of McDermott’s v The Levellers, is far from contemporary musically and owes a lot to Pentangle and Fairport Convention with its intricate acoustic picking and monkish chants. It also displays more of an English folk feel than McDermott’s first album.
Other highlights on this compilation are the Claw and Wings track Song of a Brother, a powerful and emotional song about his brother and his sense of helplessness regarding a care system wrecked by privitsation.
The Disorder tracks takes Burbridge further into the English folk music mists of times, with fiddle, whistle and concertina on tracks such as Tod the Ranter and Black Sun (In Genoa).
McDermott’s next album, 2007’s Goodbye to the Madhouse was also released via The Levellers label but is more of return to the band’s Enemy Within sound of bass, drums with traditional instruments, with a strong nod to Fairport Convention’s Liege and Leif. Molloy, River and Trickster are the three from this time featured here and are wise choices. They all sound epic, yet intimate and at times musically very inventive, especially the intricate fiddle and lyrical interplay on Trickster.
Finally this compilation ends with two new tracks from McDermott’s forthcoming 2014 release, Besieged. These two tracks, Erin Farewell and In Your Name, take forward the Goodbye to the Madhouse sound but add another, perhaps inevitable, layer of maturity for Burbridge and his band.
It goes without saying that any fan of The Levellers ought to buy this compilation, but its also a worthy album for those who have been dismissive of folk rock in the past but want to add a piece of musical history to their collection. I also urge you to buy his and Tim Cotterill’s excellent 2012 acoustic album, Gathered.
Burbridge deserves a far higher profile in the history of UK folk music than he currently has, but for a variety of reasons I get the impression that is not an ambition he’s ever really aspired to.
by Joe Lepper