February 23, 2024

Dave Evans – Elephantasia

“A glorious folk opus from 1972”, “Long lost and attaining a legendary reputation”, “Timeless record that never got its due”

You had me at folk opus, but the fact this was a rare and largely unheard of album in the early 70s, despite being lauded by John Peel of all people, and it is a record with a story behind it, with Dave Evans being that story, makes this reissued album sit right in my sweet spot.

Fans of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Ralph McTell, and that quintessential finger picking folk guitar style, need not look too much further than Dave Evans for another hit to satisfy their addiction. Like Nick Drake, Dave Evans was a guy with a guitar and a tape recorder and an unfair amount of pure talent. Born in Bangor, Wales, and having spent his early adulthood “crawling over the Indian Ocean in a sluggish tub of a cargo ship”, Dave met Ian A. Anderson, founder of The Village Thing record label, in Bristol where he had moved after leaving the merchant navy, and became one of the labels early signed artists with the home recorded The Words In Between. Incidentally, Anderson added the middle initial A so as not to be confused with the Jethro Tull supremo, as he was an outstanding folk musician in his own right.

Before landing in Bristol, Evans had run his own folk club for a while, as well as make pottery (a designer of some note for the Honiton Pottery) and live on a house boat in a seemingly nomadic lifestyle. He only ended up in Bristol, a veritable UK folk hub, at the invitation of Steve Tilston, an old college friend and very well known folk musician.

Comparisons to Jansch, Davy Graham, John Martyn etc, as already made above, are to be expected but the truth is Evans’ guitar (which he didn’t start playing until the age of 23) sounded like no other. Largely, or maybe wholly, because he built it himself. The ultimate in self tuning, Evans built his guitar to sound exactly the way he wanted it to, and often that meant it sound like two or three guitars at once.

An amazing, intricate player, lyricist and composer, Evans hit a rich vein of form for 5 years in the early 1970s with highly regarded albums, instrumentals and compilations and then, apparently, pretty much vanished.

Dave Evans’ second album, Elephantasia was released in 1972, his debut Words being classed as one of the top ten contemporary albums of the time. Neither album, though, had a huge following or, sadly, a huge number of sales. Whether this drove Evans to abandon (or at least lose focus on) his music career, or whether it was the nomadic, Celtic DNA that drew him away from the scene, he more or less gave up on trying to make it any further in the industry, and moved to Belgium in 1979/80 making pots and repairing musical instruments to scratch together a living with his partner, Jacobien Tamsma, for the next 20 years.

Evans died in May 2021 aged 80.

The album reviewed here has been reissued on Fire Records who, five years ago, also re-released The Words In Between.

I make no apologies for immediate comparisons to Nick Drake on the first track, Only Blue. Even the piano accompaniment is reminiscent. It’s the piano that takes centre stage on this track, and pulls the constant, picking guitar along with it. Evans’ Welsh lilt is immediately apparent to me on the vocals – I grew up in South Wales but also listen to a lot of Welsh music such as early Gorky’s and the more contemporary Melin Melyn, and it has the same quality when sung in English. The opus promised in the opening paragraph is very much backed up by Only Blue. It’s a great start to an album although slightly confusing in that the melody is pretty upbeat and joyful and the vocals fairly mournful.

Elephantasia, track two, is a great piece of instrumental guitar music. Very complicated and technical and a sort of cross between Leo Kottke and Davy Graham.

Evans’ vocal and melody writing talents are very evident in Lady Portia, all the while his guitar for company. I kind of wish Lady Portia had been the second track – Elephantasia sits uncomfortably between the first and third, not that it isn’t good, it just doesn’t flow quite right for me.

Next up is That’s My Way and again I think we have what Leo Kottke would have sounded like had he been from the UK, and a John Martyn-esque melody which again is no surprise. The folk scene wasn’t so large in the early 1970s for there not to be influences everywhere you look. That’s My Way is the shortest track so far at just over two and a half minutes.

Yes an harmonica! On The Run, for what it’s worth, is the most popular of the tracks on Spotify with a little over 1450 total plays. In fact only three tracks on the album register any plays at all. On The Run feels an odd one out – maybe the harmonica transports it somewhere else, but there is a folk song in there trying to get out, and being held back by a 60s harmonica pop beat.

St Agnes Park has more steel guitar slide (Kottke again) and if I’m honest I’m not a fan of that style. Again not unpleasant by any stretch, it just reminds me too much of bad country and western and I find it hard to get past. A more simple guitar in a more traditional ‘new revival’ folk style would have elevated this song, as the lyrics and melody are lovely.

Ah, Beauty Queen, that’s better. Finger picking folk goodness front and centre, and here you can really hear the expansive guitar sound that leaves you wonder how many musicians were involved. I mean, obviously there are other musicians involved, but the guitar is all Evans. Ten Ton Tasha is a very short instrumental, just over two minutes and dare I suggest a bit of a filler. A little too simple at times, and the album I think could have happily been two minutes shorter.

The LP finishes strongly with Earth, Wind, Sun & Rain and Take Me Easy with both tracks showcasing Evans’ song writing ability. Take Me Easy may be the most ‘complete’ song on the album, by which I mean it sounds like a song, with all the elements you expect in a song. Guitar, percussion, harmonies, accompanying musicians, a crafted song from start to finish. Not the best on the album, but in the top half.

All in all, this album makes me feel warm and comfortable. It has enough familiarity that it sits easily with my 70s folk albums and yet adds something to the whole genre. It’s another glimpse into the scene at that time, and has educated me about what a hotspot Bristol was at that time. I keep coming across these ‘long lost’ artists and their music and that always astounds me. How much more is left to be discovered?

I now can’t imaging not owning Elephantasia, and it feels oddly like I always have. It’s like a missing link between other albums and other artists and it feels like the folk family tree is that much more complete today.

If you are at all interested and/or familiar with the people mentioned in this review, then you will enjoy listening to, and probably owning Elephantasia.

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