Jackie Leven - a cult artist

Jackie Leven, Andy White and Michael Weston King | Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London
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The Independent Culture

The three performers sit together on stage, taking the lead in strict rotation; it isn't long before their individual strengths and weaknesses become apparent. Stage left, King is an unfortunate combination of borderline pomposity and whingeing piety; in the middle, callow-voiced White is airy, skittish, inoffensive, sometimes pleasant enough. Neither can compare to Jackie Leven, whose formidable bulk matches a huge talent moulded by a life and career teeming with hard experience and inspiring regeneration.

The three performers sit together on stage, taking the lead in strict rotation; it isn't long before their individual strengths and weaknesses become apparent. Stage left, King is an unfortunate combination of borderline pomposity and whingeing piety; in the middle, callow-voiced White is airy, skittish, inoffensive, sometimes pleasant enough. Neither can compare to Jackie Leven, whose formidable bulk matches a huge talent moulded by a life and career teeming with hard experience and inspiring regeneration.

An itinerant guitarist and singer who left the abandoned coalfields of his native East Fife in the wake of Sixties acid rock, he spent the Seventies playing in Franco's Spain, and a Berlin divided by the wall. As the front man of Doll By Doll, he presented an intense blend of transcendent hard rock and Celtic blues invocations in the post-punk era. Nearly strangled to death in a street attack, he could not exercise his rich soulful burr of a voice for an extended period, sunk into heroin addiction and devised his own cure by setting up the Princess Diana-supported Core Trust in the Eighties.

Since 1994, he has released a series of records that few in these islands - or anywhere else, for that matter - can match for their tender beauty and consistency. The current album, Defending Ancient Springs, may well be his best, with his astonishing (recovered) voice - wondrous, wounded bellow, heart-stopping elisions and melisma straight from black American gospel - used to explore songs alive with poetic resonance, earthy intimations and plaintive memory.

In the flesh he's something else again, like a trawlerman at rest. Clad in a baggy denim work shirt and, for those of us at eye level at least, a disconcertingly tight pair of shorts, he drinks a cocktail of gin, vodka and ginger wine. At one point, he has the drink fortified with a generous measure of lager from a front row punter. His conversation is deprecating, offhand and often off-colour, obsessed with bodily functions, Izal toilet rolls and wonderfully scurrilous reminiscences involving Patsy Kensit, Salman Rushdie and the country legend Will Oldham.

At first, the chat seems a mask for the deeply spiritual blues he mines in songs inspired by a lover's tryst on a Yorkshire hillside ("Chevin") and the meditation on loss and loneliness that is "Single Father". But through his often wordless, slurred and drunken improvisations, and his rancorous and percussive guitar, he is immersed in messy visceral emotions. He ends with "Madame George" (an old Van Morrison song from the days before he started writing new-age nonsense), and reclaims its jazzy spaces, dark rhythmic nectar and deathly intimations - an approach long since forsaken by Morrison. A cult artist with a cognoscenti following he may be, but on this showing, Leven deserves to be recognised as a living treasure.

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