Review: The Devil's Ground (CD)
The Devil's Ground
I always thought that Billy Mitchell was somehow unfairly constrained by who he was and, rather perversely, by who he wasn't. It's not that he suffered, he's hugely respected, it's just that it's taken this album to seal his place among the very best and gain him the respect he richly deserves.
As a member of Jack the Lad, Maxie and Mitch and, most notably, Lindisfarne he was the 'larger than life' dynamo at the front, which wrongly suggested he lacked a little gravitas.
When he joined Lindisfarne after the death of Alan Hull, they were mighty boots to fill and, although it could be argued that it was his energy and passion that kept the band alive and galvanized them into recording two great albums, he was never the icon that Ray Laidlaw and Rod Clements were.
Strangely, much of that may be down to the sheer 'normality' of the man. It's a normality that serves him so well here, the songs demand to be sung in the clear tones of the working man and you can imagine Billy Mitchell looking up from his pint and captivating a crowd of fellow drinkers with any of the songs from The Devil's Ground. The songs are upright, rugged and honest and Billy Mitchell does them proud. That could be because he could, quite easily, have joined four generations of his own family and gone down the West Wylam pit which serves as the backdrop for this homage.
Whatever has gone on before, The Devil's Ground has been a lifetime in the maturing and is Billy Mitchell's legacy. He can now rank himself alongside the chroniclers and curators of the region's heritage and history and, in the care of men like Billy Mitchell, that heritage and history is in the safest of hands.
It is only when you look through the writing credits that you realize just how much of the material is original and contemporary. Any one of these songs could have come straight from the beginning of the 20th century, written by a man who was there and expereinced it all. It is testament to Mitchell's skills as a composer and lyricist that the timeline between then and now is seamless.
To the untutored outsider, the folk music of the north east is probably defined by one song but that song had a strength, warmth and joy that survived its prostitution to TV. Billy Mitchell has captured and nurtured those self same qualities here.
The 10 songs of The Devil's Ground epitomize what a folk song should be and the power it wields whenit comes from the heart. The title track acts as the prologue to an 'everyday epic', essentially the story of the family Mitchell.
The Pitman And the Blackin', words by Bobby Nunn, music by Mitchell, celebrates the wonderful ordinariness that is folk music's lifeblood. Life is a series of 'every days' ruptured by great events.
1915-1972 starts with perhaps the 'greatest event' of them all, however its scope doesn't stop there because it goes on to tell the story of Mitchell's father and the sacrifices he made for his family. Heroes are not always found in the midst of battle.
The Newcastle Lad, again a combination of Nunn and Mitchell, and Mitchell's own composition Shiftin' To The Toon will, quite naturally, have a greater resonance in the land which gave them birth but The Tyne Exile's Lament and the instrumental As I Watched The Tyne Go By capture universal sentiments.
Everyone away from home is an exile from somewhere, this is their song, while As I Watched The Tyne Go By evokes the wild romanticism that we all think is the preserve of our own beloved home.
Perhaps The Devil's Ground's greatest gifts are the haunting The Collier Laddie's Wife and The Bogs Bank Disaster.
The Collier Laddie's wife smashes the rose-tinted glasses that history likes to wear. It graphically portrays the daily grind but it is also a hymn to hope. No-one chooses to be poor but the strength of the people portrayed in the song means they are never beaten or bowed by poverty.
The Bogs Bank disaster which fittingly closes the album, is a poem written by Billy Mitchell's cousin Joe Ridley with music by the man himself. Its story needs little explanation but its simple, poignant telling brings into sharp relief the nobility and unfairness of life, sentiments still relevant.
The Devil's Ground is a son of Northumbria's gift to the land with whom he shares an eternal love affair. Nowhere and no-one will have received a gift more precious.
“Billy can now rank himself alongside the chroniclers and curators of the region's heritage and history and, in the care of men like him, that heritage and history is in the safest of hands.”
— Michael Mee