Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RAVES!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 09/09/07

Life In A Box

I've mentioned before my admiration for Steve Tilston as a musician, as a songwriter and as a man.

With a thirty-six-year recording career behind him (with many more years to come, one hopes), Free Reed Records have now made him the subject of one of their famous box sets.

Picture of the front of the Steve Tilston box set 'Reaching Back'

Entitled Reaching Back - The Life And Music Of Steve Tilston, it contains four full-length CDs (and I mean full-length - the shortest disc clocks in at just a few seconds under 75 minutes), plus (if you're quick about it) a bonus disc (of which more anon), making a total of nearly six and a half hours of recordings.

So, what do you get for your money here, then?

Well, there's a general theme to each disc. The first one, Who Made Up The Rules? (the four discs are indivdually titled after lines in Steve's songs), kicks off with Lifescape With Guitar, an instrumental which weaves together a number of melodies from his songs, which is followed by a line-up of tracks from his first twenty years of recording. Most of these are the original versions, but some (like Reaching Out, one of his most anthologised numbers) are re-recordings done specially for this album. Rest assured, though, that throughout the set these reworkings stand tall in their own right. Some of the singing on the earliest songs is a shade too near to Donovanian whimsy for comfort, but the lad was just starting out and could be forgiven an awful lot, especially in the context of what he has done since.

Highlight track: Reaching Out

Disc two, He Took Most Delight..., concentrates mostly on Steve's nineties output, starting with the ground-breaking Of Moor And Mesa (1992), and taking in his solo work, his collaboration with his then-wife Maggie Boyle, and his work in the trio WAZ. So here we have The Naked Highwayman (not the only one of his songs to be mistaken for a traditional one), a reworking of another classic, Slip Jigs And Reels, and two of his longer songs, both telling stories of the Americas, Coronado And The Turk (about the Conquistadores) and The Turncoat (So Far Away) (about the War Of Independence).

Highlight track: Let Your Banjo Ring

The third disc, Staring At The Time, brings us more-or-less up to date, comprising largely of material from his Solorubato (1998), Such And Such (2003) and Of Many Hands (2005) albums. So we have the contrast between, for example, To Bits And Back (Black Dog), which dates from a time of great upheaval in his private life, to the celebratory Rare Thing, plus the driving (in both senses) I Need A Cup Of Coffee, the Greek-flavoured The Dewy Ones and the jazzy Totterdown.

Highlight track: Willow Creek

Disc four, Do What You Please, consists largely of Steve Tilston doing cover versions - something he's often done in concert, but seldom if ever in the studio. The effects are, to be honest, mixed: there's his successful rescue of The Leaving Of Liverpool from the Spinners singalong fate it had previously had to endure, and two collaborations with the poetic genius Les Barker: the superbly sardonic War Horse Town, which describes an attitude of blue-collar middle America in times of war abroad in a way which Springsteen might envy; and the very different Dipsticks And Seals, where Our Hero - ever averse to taking himself too seriously - sings Barker's parody of Slip Jigs with all the commitment he shows to his original. Much of the rest of this disc is worthy enough, but fails to enthrall in the way that Tilston's own material would (although he makes that sneering bore Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall tolerable, even at a length of over seven minutes).

Highlight track: Rhapsody

The bonus disc does not get its title from any of Steve's songs: however, as they called it Bringing In The Steves, perhaps it should have done. What it contains is a selection of cover versions of his songs by other people. As with the fourth disc, the result is patchy: the veteran Americans Steve Gillett and Cindy Mangsen's version of Waterhole is superbly atmospheric; the equally legendary Jez Lowe's version of All In A Dream is lively in a different way to the original; Chris Smither's take on Can't Shake The Blues sounds like the real deal; and the version of Tilston's tribute to his friend Peter Bellamy Down Falls The Day by Grace Notes (which includes Maggie Boyle) is beautifully moving. Unfortunately, the disc also contains a version of These Days by Pete Morton which makes that uplifting song of hope sound like a cry for help; a leaden version of The Naked Highwayman by Fairport Convention; and the final two tracks of the set are Dolores Keane's overwrought version of The Night Owl Homeward Turns and a take on The Proud Man by Robin Williamson and his wife which is, frankly, just bizarre.

Highlight track: Down Falls The Day

There are a few niggles about the packaging: the otherwise magnificent 100-page book included could have done with some more astute proof-reading (some avoidable typos, and the obvious omission of part of the paragraph referring to Brook Williams), and some of the credits information is inconsistent between the book and the disc inserts themselves (this is especially true of the bonus disc, although to be fair they were racing like mad to finalise the track listing on that, what with so many people wishing to contribute their own cover versions). Apart from that, the book (by Nigel Schofield) is a fascinating read, tracking Tilston's long career, his influences and subsequent influence in turn, together with insightful and revealing quotes from the artist himself and from others.

So, is it worth splashing out 40 or more for this box set?

For all the quibbles, I can give an emphatic "Yes" to that question. Steve Tilston is a major talent, and has been for a long time without ever really getting the wider exposure that talent has deserved. Although this box set will appeal mostly to the cognoscenti (even those who us who already have much of the material contained in it), it should also interest anyone interested in fine songwriting, performed with great skill and charm.

Reaching Back can be bought from a number of sources, but why not cut out as many middlemen as possible and order it directly from Steve Tilston's own website?