Proud South Londoner Billy Jenkins may not exactly be a celebrity, but his presence has been felt in some of the most significant areas of contemporary British music. He played with legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker and helmed the Voice Of God Collective, which featured a number of jazz musicians also associated with the big band Loose Tubes – Iain Ballamy, Django Bates and Ashley Slater included. The Voice Of God group proclaimed “the religion is music”, an idea that Jenkins revisits with the playful title of this new album. Whilst in the past, Jenkins has merged his love for the blues with other improvised forms, he is now chiefly regarded as a blues guitarist and singer.
Born Again (And The Religion Is The Blues) is a collection of straight-ahead blues with minimal arrangements and spirited playing. Nevertheless, it is still tremendously exciting, sometimes unashamedly bracing. Where some artists – Eric Clapton perhaps – treat the blues with sincerity, reverence and respect – Jenkins views it as a form malleable to his own personal voice. He takes old clich�s (Ain’t Getting Married In the Morning, Guilty) and refashions them with wild wit and considerable charisma.
His lyrics rarely shy from the ridiculous or unusually frank. Guilty ends with Jenkins’ adversary being convicted for assault and battery. On a less consequential note, I Don’t Want Another Night Like That sees Jenkins berating social occasions where “the drinks are expensive and the food is crap”. Perhaps best of all is the quite wonderful When The Parents Come To Stay, on which he brilliantly captures the sense of dread that often accompanies family occasions. Jenkins celebrates the poetry of the everyday in a language that completely lacks pretence or affectation.
Jenkins creates vibrance and humour through his peculiar vocal style. He rushes his phrasing in the manner of jazz singers such as Mark Murphy. Yet he also has the snarl and growl of Tom Waits. In fact, if anything, Jenkins’ vocal is wilder and more unhinged that Waits’, sounding almost psychopathic on the hilarious I Hate Dogs. Elsewhere, he often resembles the way Bob Dylan often now sounds in concert – aggressive, unpredictable and in a real hurry to spit the words out. The vocal style is determinedly unconventional, but it often creates a sense of drama and manic energy.
Jenkins can sing in a smoother style too – although he’s unlikely to be duetting with Diana Krall or Stacey Kent any time soon. Looking For Mr Happy strips away some of his more violent modes of expression – but it seems like an ironic commentary on the smooth jazz mode of delivery. On the poignant closer I Took A Walk, Jenkins adopts a more understated style, perhaps reminiscent of Kurt Wagner or Bill Callahan.
Musically, Born Again is a ferocious, energised tour through what is in Jenkins’ hands the varied terrain of the blues. Jenkins’ visceral, scrambled guitar lines of course feature strongly, but the supportive and insistent playing of his colleagues – particularly Jim Watson on organ – help produce a wide range of textures and colours. Jenkins’ humorous, satirical style may not be to everyone’s tastes. Some may dismiss Born Again without realising how deeply immersed in the language of this music Jenkins actually is. Still, for those who prefer the blues to be delivered in blistering, abrasive, confident and idiosyncratic form, Jenkins proves that the form can still be more inspiration than limitation.