General Ludd Folk Club Golcar, Huddersfield. 21st May 2004
Sometimes you enjoy a gig so much you want to tell people about it. I had long been an admirer of Tom Bliss and Tom Napper separately, the former I had originally seen in Slide, a Leeds-based band, Tom Napper in various incarnations and permutations over the years. When I heard that they had joined forces it didn't strike me as the likeliest of combinations: until I first saw them perform together. If they were good then (and they were, even with a few edges to smooth out), they are brilliant now, a fusing of two exceptional talents, with a honed performance that wants for nothing.
There is an easy camaraderie between them which transmits itself immediately to their audience. Banter flows freely and they spark off each other like an established comedy act. But the main strength of these performers is of course in their musicianship: they complement each other perfectly, each able to take control, yet able and willing to stand back and enhance the other's playing or singing when required: Bliss's wonderfully understated and subtle accompaniments on guitar(s) and mandocello to Napper's playing or singing, and the latter's exquisite backing on mandolin and octave mandolin to the songs of Tom Bliss.
And what songs! To say that Tom Bliss is a gifted songwriter is an understatement. His songs are powerful, usually about real people, places, historical events or situations, strong on imagery, personalized to add depth to the images created. A striking example of this is "The Silverlode", a song about mining in Sark – the title track of the duo's as yet only CD (CDSLIP006). The songs have a traditional feel about them, yet there is a freshness that marks them out as original. He obviously researches his subjects thoroughly, and takes pains to introduce them in enough detail to ensure that the listener understands the content and is able to appreciate the song and how it came to be written. Tom hails from the Channel Islands, several of his songs are of that comer of the kingdom, a part we hear too little about: we learn a lot about life there from the songs and his obvious love and enthusiasm for the place.
Tom Napper is widely known for his playing, probably fair to say mainly on the tenor banjo. But a Napper/Bliss evening is almost a banjo-free zone. Only one set of tunes on the instrument; the rest of the night he plays mandolin and octave mandolin, and sings lead or backing vocals. The tunes are played at the perfect speed, jigs with the lilt they are meant to have. He features his first self-penned tune "The Cold Coast of Catterick" - surely one for the next CD. Slightly offbeat songs, such as "The Salt" and "Campbell the Rover" (sung to a similar but different tune from the usual one) add to the variety. Like Tom B, his introductions are part of the entertainment: with both of them you feel you are being informed, rather than talked at. Most off-beat, but it works perfectly, believe it or not, a Billy Joel song "The Down Easter Alexa" preceded by Bliss's superb rendering of "Ciel D'Autumn" (from La Boutine Souriante ) on duet concertina (yes, he plays that too).
There is a sprinkling of traditional songs in the set, e.g. "The Newry Highwayman" and "The Blue Cockade " again with a freshness in the arrangements that make you feel as though you haven't heard them umpteen times before. But highlights of the evening for me were the original songs: in particular "The Kelping (another one for the next CD), and none better than the emotive "Turn and Face the Wind" (which I could write pages about on its own, but you'll just have to hear it for yourself) and the beautiful "Violin" the story of Tom's own fiddle, told by the fiddle itself. A masterpiece.
So there you have it: the evening finished late, after a deserved second encore, yet you felt that it was only the end of the first half, indeed you wanted it to be only the end of the first half. But don't just take my word for it: go and see this hugely talented duo the next time they come anywhere remotely near you. You won't be disappointed.
Tony Charnock The Living Tradition