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Wizz Jones ought to be regarded as some sort of national treasure, though I doubt the notion would appeal to him much. He comes across as a self-effacing musician with an ego in inverse proportion to his ability. There are people around, though, who revere him, and they’re right to do so.
Wizz belongs to the folk/blues posse of now elder statesmen who’ve been around since the beginning of the beginning. They picked up on this music in the 50s, as very young men, and they made a life of it that goes on now. The gang leaders are Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Davey Graham and Wizz. Wizz has probably been the least generally known of them, but people in the know speak of him in hushed tones, and the other gang members tip their hats to him. He’s at least their equal in all but recognition.
The Green Note is a terrific small venue that deserves the sort of success that would lead the owners to seek a slightly bigger venue. It’s pleasant and friendly and rather cosy, putting it emphatically in the non-squalid bracket of acoustic music venues. Before the gig started, the audience was politely requested not to talk during the sets, something which they were clearly glad to go along with as they had presumably come to listen. Personally I’ve never understood why anyone would want to pay to go to a gig and then shout a load of gibberish about what’s happening in the office over the artist they paid to see. Anyway, on this evidence, it doesn’t happen at The Green Note. And those present all got a treat.
Wizz was first in a double bill that included the American duo Kill Henry Sugar. He sat alone waiting to go on, chuckled at the notion of a sound check, and then launched into his set on an Epiphone. Straight away we had evidence of what the Reverend Gary Davis called ‘a sporting right hand’. Wizz’s picking style has attack, and the bass and top-string riffs roll out fluently, like a whole band. There’s an awful lot going on, and not an awful lot of people can do it.
He kicked off with a couple of blues numbers, laying out the guitar technique that must have led to a thousand handshakes and backslaps and awestruck questions from people who thought they were pretty good till Wizz shuffled on somewhere and reminded them of the difference between a real player and someone with a job. He sings well too, the voice getting stronger as he warms up.
Wizz is firmly in the folk/blues tradition, as I suppose it can be called, and so after a couple of numbers that ran into each other, he announced ‘that’s enough of the blues’ (though I for one begged to differ). There was a folkier song then, but next up we were back in blues territory with a song about Mississippi John Hurt, hotly pursued by one by him (Got the Blues and I Can’t Be Satisfied). Wizz commented on how hard it really is to play in John Hurt’s deceptively simple style, but personally I’d have said Wizz has cracked it.
We then had some more folkier numbers, including one about a pigeon fancier (not I’ll wager a subject much used in songs down on the Delta) before some more blues, in the form of Wizz’s version of the grand old song Sittin’ On Top Of The World with the riff from Tommy Johnson’s Big Road Blues grafted onto it. Prior to this he informed us that his approach to guitar playing was ‘when you don’t know, hit the guitar hard and put piddly bits in’. Mmm, nice try Wizz, but you ain’t foolin’ no one.
Shortly afterwards, what Wizz referred to as ‘the bloody banjo’ came out for an airing, and needless to say that got expertly picked rather than strummed too. The set then ended with his rendition of Davey Graham’s classic instrumental Angi, preceded by an anecdote about Wizz hearing Davey play this in a Soho coffee bar in ’58 or 59’ and asking Davey what he was going to call it. Davey decided to name it after a girl working there. In guitar circles that tune represents the very invention of a whole kind of popular music, and Wizz was there at its inception.
So Wizz Jones is a legend and a piece of history, if you like. All sorts of people name-check him (Clapton, Keith Richards, etc), a sure sign that someone didn’t get their due, but he doesn’t come across as someone unduly perturbed by not having had even a brief flirtation with real fame. He’s 68 now, and he’s probably as good as he ever was. He’s got a thick head of white hair instead of the thick head of dark hair he once had, but apart from that change, he’s probably still doing more or less what he’s always done. The repertoire is largely American in derivation but there’s something very British about it. Perhaps that’s just the natural diffidence.
But Wizz Jones is much more than a piece of history. He’s a damn fine act in a noble tradition, and he’s one of the finest guitar players you’re ever going to see. So go see him - he does gigs in London from time to time. And then don’t be afraid to tell him how good he is, as several audience members did when he came off, and as Kill Henry Sugar did during their set, when they thanked him for ‘the music lesson’. Wizz chuckles and looks at the ground at this sort of thing, but he won’t mind.