Bryn Haworth, slide guitarist par excellence – no, just great guitarist, full stop – has had a stellar recording career with his own albums and as a session musician for the likes of Chris de Burgh, Joan Armatrading, Cliff Richard and Gerry Rafferty. As well as jamming in the 60s with Jimi Hendrix, he has toured extensively with bands like Traffic, Bad Company, Gallagher & Lyle and Fairport Convention.
His career started in the late sixties with “Les Fleur de Lys” a Motown/soul band which became house band for Atlantic Records in England. After moving to California, he became a founder member of Wolfgang, a band put together and managed by the legendary Bill Graham, and appeared on bills with Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Taj Mahal and others.
In 1973 he returned to England and was signed to Island Records where he made his first LP, Let The Days Go By and followed this up by Sunny Side Of The Street. These are both excellent albums which I bought on vinyl at the time and, on listening to again recently, have stood the test of time. You know how when you put on a record you listened to as a youngster, you know every line and what song follows what? – that’s me with these two albums.
I talked to Bryn a wee while ago and he told me his moving and powerful story about finding faith around this time and then a little of his work over subsequent years, taking his music into prisons around the country. [you can find this here]
He’s got a terrific new album just released, called Ready or Not and I got chatting to him about it. First of all, I asked him about the prison work which is so dear to his heart and which he’s been involved in for a long time, but which had been interrupted by the pandemic. He told me he’d continued sending talks and music videos for prisons to play on their community radio stations, but that recently he’d begun to go back in both women’s and men’s prisons in Surrey and London for their Sunday services, where prisoners are entitled by right to an hour of religious service.
“It’s coming back, but you can’t do big gatherings. I basically take the Anglican service for the hour, but you get people just coming along because they want to get out of their cells and don’t have any particular beliefs, but they’re just wanting to see something, a visitor, see something different, hear some music. And that’s been really creative, in that it starts them off thinking about God and about their lives.
“We have a Post Office box and prisoners can write to us through that. So we’re in communication with various prisoners, and then sometimes, when they get out, if we feel it’s appropriate, we can see them. We’ve seen some really good turnarounds in people’s lives. It’s not big numbers, but people can genuinely turn around in a major way in prison. What we do is a drop in the ocean, but I think it’s like what Jesus said about the woman who gave her offering to him, “she did what she could.” So we just do what we can. We feel particularly called to this work. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but we’ve always felt called to it.”
The new album, Ready or Not is a really fine collection of eleven songs, a couple of rerecorded older songs, some new songs, a great cover of Let’s Stick Together and two nice guitar instrumentals. Bryn is not only an excellent guitarist, he’s a talented songwriter and singer, and this album showcases all of this. And it’s also got a group of very talented musicians contributing. He told me about the making of the album.
“I got the title track Ready or Not and I thought, right, that’s a good title for the album. But just as I was supposed to record it in 2020, Martha Rafferty, Gerry Rafferty’s daughter, asked me if I’d play on an album of Gerry’s she was putting together. [Gerry Rafferty passed away in 2011]. And that was more urgent. So I dropped my own plans and I did Gerry’s stuff. [Bryn contributed guitar work on five tracks on the album, Rest in Blue, which was released to critical acclaim in September 2021].
“So then, I started my own album in November a year ago. I did some live sessions with Paul Beavis [drums] and Dave Bronze [bass], just the three of us together, about four or five tracks. And then it all kicked off after that. I then had rebooked to do some live work in January, but COVID came in and the lockdown happened again.”
So Bryn had to improvise, travelling up and down the country to accommodate various musicians he wanted on the album. People like Henry Spinetti, who played drums in the Climax Blues Band, was previously a member of Eric Clapton’s touring band and played on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, and Teri Bryant, another world class drummer who has done world tours with the likes of Faith Hill, Peter Gabriel and Matt Redman. And then he worked remotely with Chris Stainton, long-time keyboard player in Eric Clapton’s band.
So, this album is chock-a-block with top notch English rock musicians and the song arrangements sound like a proper band playing.
It gets off to a great start with the title track with some characteristic Bryn Haworth slide guitar as the song begins. I asked Bryn about this song.
“For me, the whole idea came about when I was playing hide and seek with my niece’s children. You let them go and hide, then you count 20, and then shout “coming, ready or not!” It’s just that whole thing, that you can be doing something, and then you can be suddenly found. And I think Jesus’s return is something we need to be reminded of in the church and the world as well, because to me, it begs the question, am I ready?
“When I first became a Christian, a guy said to me, ‘are you living in the light of his coming?’ And it always stuck with me. It does makes you think. I think generally the album is about that, about that theme – so it’s just that urgency.”
We talked a bit about another song Bryn had written and recorded many years ago, on a similar theme – The Grand Arrival, the title track of his 1978 album. And then I asked him about All I need is a Home, now re-recorded on Ready or Not, which had originally appeared on his 1974 Let the Days Go By album. It’s a beautiful song where you really appreciate Bryn’s singing voice. When I asked him why he decided to include it on this album, he immediately started thinking about his work with prisoners.
“So many people are released from prison and they don’t have anywhere to go. They just end up committing crimes and going back into prison. And there are various homeless charities that we’re involved in as well.
“I wrote that song nearly 50 years ago when I was 23. And that was my experience when I came down to London, then. I didn’t have a home. I slept on buses and bus stations. And then during the day I’d go and try to look for work in music shops, and try and get a gig somewhere, but then I’d go back and sleep on a bench.
“So I know what it’s like to not have a place to live and especially in London, it’s horrible. And I just felt that in the next couple of years, it’s going to be more of an issue in this country, homelessness and people not being able to afford rent, and we’re going to need to do something about it. There are some really good initiatives already going. So I thought recording this song might just help raise the profile of this problem.”
Bryn’s not the young guy he was when he made Let the Days Go By, but here he is still being creative, still making great music, as evidenced by Ready or Not. I wondered what he thinks about getting older and continuing to be creative?
“It’s like the song, Boom, Baby, Boom, that’s on the album. That’s really about this whole thing of getting older. Because when you get older, you feel sidelined, you feel useless, irrelevant, and invisible, and you’re not wanted, but at the same time, you have so much experience from your job, what you’ve been doing and your experience in life.
“And especially as a follower of Jesus, you’ve got so many things you’ve experienced, seeing Jesus working and seeing miracles. I’ve seen amazing stuff happen through prayer. I want to carry that on. Psalm 92 verse 14 says that the righteous will stay fresh and green and they’ll still bear fruit in old age. And that’s what I feel. I mean, as long as there’s something to sing about and something to play, then you keep going as long as your hands are able to play. Boom Baby Boom was about that.”
Boom Baby Boom, a great 1950s style rock’n’roll song with some terrific piano and guitar work, is one of my favourite songs on the album. As I get older myself, I appreciate the positivity here: “You’ve got one life with so much left to give…there’s still time for one more dance.”
When I spoke to Bryn a while ago, he mentioned having problems with his hand, his fingers, so I wondered how that was going.
“Well, you always find there’s a way of playing around it that you can figure out. Bruce Coburn, has problems with his fingers and he’s figured out a way to still keep playing. For me sometimes there’s a way of placing your fingers where you wouldn’t have done normally – you can do it and it still works. You adapt. And I think the thing with slide guitars, it makes it a little bit easier because you’re only playing with a slide, you’re not playing with the fingers so much.”
We Never Thought This Could Happen is a delicious country number. At first I thought it was a song about the pandemic. But as I listened, it seemed to be broader than that – it’s all about the sense of foundations shaking, loss of confidence, “cold hearts and empty eyes” – a hard look at the world as it is.
“I got the idea for the song in a dream ten years ago. In this dream, my grandparents were singing this song, we never thought this would happen, and I thought, that’s really good. And they said to me, don’t you know this song? And I said, no, and then suddenly realized I was dreaming it. And so I better get up and write it down.
“There are two or three songs here that came through dreams. But I think for me how it developed was just looking back in history and it struck me how quickly, how easy it is for the way of life people take for granted to just disappear overnight. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about the things that we take for granted.
“That song’s got many levels, but I think it’s important for people just to think about it. Because it’s not just about the pandemic – although, of course, we never thought this could happen. We never thought our way of life could be disrupted and that’s the weakness that we have.”
I asked Bryn about Enough is Enough, which he released as a single a wee while ago. This is a lovely slice of Americana which starts with Bryn singing over a strummed acoustic guitar and eventually gives way to some sumptuous slide guitar. The song is about our trees being destroyed, which Bryn has been quite vocal about.
“I just changed a couple of lines in this new version. I just think we’re losing so many of our mature trees unnecessarily through the building of houses and roads and railways. The government can say, well we’ll plant more trees, but you know, trees take 150 years to grow. The UK is the least forested place in Europe already, we’ve lost so many mature trees.
“William Blake says, the tree, which moves some to tears of joy, is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. I thought that was really good. To a builder, it just stands in the way. But to some people this is massive. This tree is going to outlive me. And then you start to think how much you need them just to live on this planet. They’re just being felled indiscriminately. So that’s why that song is there.”
There’s a great reworked version on the album of Let’s Work Together, which again has some tasty slide guitar. I only knew the Bryan Ferry version, but Bryn put me straight.
“Wilbur Harrison wrote that in 1969. He was a Black American, one-man-band kind of guy, with a bass drum and a guitar. I remember he supported Creedence Clearwater in the early seventies at the Albert Hall.”
Apparently, Harrison wrote the song as Let’s Stick Together and then changed it a few years later to Let’s Work Together. Bryan Ferry went back to the original title and then Bryn went with Let’s Work Together. All clear?
“I’ve gone to the Canned Heat version [a million seller in 1970) and the Harrison version. I just felt that community is the one good thing that I’ve seen come out of these last two years. Our street has gotten much, much better over these last two years – we have a WhatsApp group and we can look after each other, do people’s shopping for them. And I think in the coming years, we’re going to need that sense of community more and more. So that’s why I put this song on.”
The last couple of songs on the album are Holy Spirit of God, and Doxology, the first of which, within the bounds of a lovely tune, contains a remarkable amount of theology. I asked Bryn if he thought there was enough emphasis on the Spirit and what the Spirit does in the church.
“No, I don’t think there is. Christianity is more than having your sins forgiven, as amazing as that is, and then waiting to die to go to heaven. You don’t really hear much about the fact that we’re called to live a new life and God’s got things for us to do. You know, I love Ephesians two verse ten – it says we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to join him in the work that he does and the good works he’s got ready for us to do. If that’s the case, then I need to be able to recognize his voice because he’s got stuff for me to do.
“And I think the person of the Holy Spirit is so vital to living this new life. I wrote that song just to remind myself that every day, you need to be asking, ‘Holy Spirit, teach me to hear your voice.’ When I wrote it, I just played it to myself. I’m saying it to myself because I just wanted to be reminded. But then I recorded it and I was pleased with the way that it came out.”
The album wraps up with Doxology, a beautiful, finger-picked acoustic guitar piece, which reminds you again what a fine guitarist Bryn is. But more than this, as you listen and begin to think of the words of the Doxology hymn behind the tune, it’s a fitting note of praise on which to complete the album.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.