Rev Hammer’s concept for his Freeborn John DVD/CD has been around for a long time.
The original studio CD was finished in 1996 and this DVD package’s literature thanks “Mark Chadwick for an idea in a country garden, July 1994”. However, there are recordings in existence of Rev performing some of the songs on here (“ England’s New Chains” and “ Elizabeth’s Great Gallop”) as early as 1992.
This gives some indication of the amount of love, endeavour and effort that has gone into this project, covering the best part of 15 years. And it shows.
Freeborn John tells the story of John Lilburne, the leader of The Levellers (no not them) in 17th century England , and “the first English Radical”.
This DVD is a recording of the performance that Rev and his fellow musicians performed at the Beautiful Days festival, Escot House, Devon in August 2005. You also get a CD of the live recording as well.
The DVD (and CD) consists of 13 or so tracks, the majority written by Rev with one written by Justin Sullivan of New Model Army which is, I believe, exclusive to this release.
The story starts where it should, at the beginning, and takes you through Lilburne’s life, telling of his run-ins with Prince Rupert, The King and eventually Oliver Cromwell.
The story is told in a sort of Folk-Rock-Opera style with passion and intrigue as each of the performers taking the stage puts in enthusiasm and effort. And what performers there are, including but not restricted to; Rev himself taking the part of John Lilburne, Maddy Prior playing Elizabeth – John’s wife, Justin Sullivan (of New Model Army), Rory McLeod who somehow manages to pull off a great performance as the folk singer (something he has been doing for much of his life) and The English Civil War Society who put in brave performances during the fighting scenes.
I’ve listened to the original CD numerous times and the live CD accompanying this DVD a number of times, but nothing prepares you for the full impact of the DVD presentation. However, you have to pay attention – let yourself get distracted and the impact is lost.
But if you sit there and immerse yourself in the experience of the story, the storytelling and the songs, then you will be moved. Some of the literature in the DVD booklet is included on the DVD to help with the narrative and this works well, filling in the story between the main areas covered by the songs.
This is a DVD that is a required purchase for anyone who was at the Beautiful Days festival in 2005, an historic recording of an historic performance, which could quite easily move the viewer to tears at times (especially during “Seventeen Years of Sorrow” and “Lilburne’s Death Song”) and a document for anyone wishing to learn more about the history of England without the need to resort to a history book.
But for Rev Hammer, nothing like this would ever have seen the light of day as I can think of no other performer around today who could have pulled it off.
Rumour has it that Rev is planning to tour the show next spring (2008). If this rumour turns out to be true, then I wish him luck and can promise here and now that I will be there.