A recent post on Jim Moray’s Instagram underlines the journey he’s been on over the past two decades. There he is: sprightly, wide-jeaned, and (surprisingly) thicker-haired than the person he’s standing next to – in itself quite a feat, given that he’s sharing the photo with the famously coiffed Amy Winehouse. They’re pictured together because, back in 2003, they were “the young guns” – not just the new faces of folk music and jazz, respectively, but cutting edge musicians dragging their genres into the 21st century.
We all know the tragic direction Amy’s journey took. Dead at 27, back in July 2011, some eight years after that photo was taken. Jim, in the same space of time, had recorded a brace of albums, and was preparing the release of a third. More prolific than Winehouse, but never any less keen to push the envelope, his reputation was built on intricate productions that demonstrated how far traditional folk could be stretched. Always with a nod to his influences, but woe betide any listener who thought his influences should be limited to the folk revival’s back catalogue.
The slight problem with having such a wide-ranging sound – and I’m sure Jim would be the first to say this himself – is that it’s pretty hard to translate to a live setting. So, unless you caught him playing festivals with a bigger band, the Jim Moray you got on record was often pretty different to the one you got live. If you went to see him in recent years expecting the pounding keyboards and glorious production of “Fair Margaret and Sweet William”, you might find yourself wondering where he’d hidden the orchestra.
But here’s the thing: that’s fine. Like any musician who has been recording for some 20 years, Jim Moray has changed. He’s changed a lot. He’s changed many times over. Nobody stays the same. In that amount of time, many of us will have been through as many jobs as Jim has made albums. It’s how we develop. The man in the photo with Amy Winehouse has grown from bedroom studio whizz kid to something of a polymath. What you got if you went to see Jim Moray in 2019, or perhaps squeezed in a concert in early 2020, or even logged on to watch the brilliant Live at St George’s, is a musician who (I reckon) is at his best when alone under the spotlight exploring the intimacies of songs he has seemingly turned inside out.
I organised Jim’s gig at Whitchurch Folk Club in October, 2019, and while the setlists were different, the feeling of Live at St George’s is much the same. What really gets me about these solo performances is the power in his voice. I rarely get tearful watching gigs, but something about his version of “Leaving Of Liverpool”, both in the club last year and here online, hits me in a way that I don’t really understand. There’s an aching and yearning to it that makes me miss people that are no longer with us; a loneliness and longing that I’ve never heard in other versions. I simply don’t believe Jim would’ve achieved that in a bigger, more produced version. This is the joy of Jim Moray, one man and a guitar. It’s something to be savoured before he heads off in his next direction.
And it’s not just that song, either. The same sentiment is there in “Jock O’Hazeldean”, and of course in “Lord Douglas” (which, by now, is surely one of the great folk guitar must-learns – you can do so here, if you fancy it). It’s there again in “The Isle of St Helena”, and “When This Old Hat Was New”. He’s got the vocal range and timbre that allows those top, pure notes to hang in gorgeous contrast above the rasping notes of a low-tuned acoustic guitar. It’s a unique sound, and one I hope we continue to hear more of in future.
Aside from those killer performances, Live at St George’s is a poignant document of the situation we found ourselves in during Pandemic Year. Filmed in front of an empty St George’s Hall (Bristol), but given the full HD treatment, Jim talks us through his set as though we were right there with him. From the initial staircase climb to the stage, right through to the thank-yous before the final song, it’s everything you’d want from your typical live DVD release… but for the fact that nobody’s there. When the camera cuts to those long shots, with not a soul to be seen, you’re reminded of what we lost in 2020, and you long for this year to end and the music-loving crowds to return.
In creating Live at St George’s, Jim Moray has managed to produce both a truly unique gem and a powerful historical document. Steam yourself a copy of it here.