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Rev Hammer Freeborn John Live (Freeborn John Theatre) Review

Album. Released 2007.  

BBC Review

...You can't help but think of old Freeborn and wonder whether if he'd been alive to...

Chris Long 2007

In 1995, Rev Hammer embarked on a concept album that would tell the tale of John Lilburne, England's first radical, an unsung hero of the Civil War and a religious agitator who fought for freedoms of speech, of the press and of conscience.

Understandably, it was an all-consuming project that took him a couple of years to complete. To tell the tale, he enlisted the likes of Maddy Prior, Eddi Reader, Rory McLeod and his long-time friends, New Model Army and The Levellers (who both take their name from the Civil War, being Cromwell's army and a Parliamentarian political movement).

This is the live version of that album, delivered nearly a decade after its studio counterpart came into being and over three and a half centuries after its inspiration, the life and trials of Freeborn John.

Recorded at the debut performance of the piece, at 2005's Beautiful Days Festival in Devon, it is a record (and, rather unnecessarily, a DVD) of Rev's own dream to see his concept come to life on stage in its entirety.

And make no mistakes, this is a piece that needs to be performed unabridged. Whatever those involved - The Levellers and Maddy Prior are amongst those who join Rev in seeing this through to fruition - and the subject matter might suggest, this is not a simple collection of folk songs, but a full-blown rock opera, coming closer to The Who's Tommy than it does Peter Bellamy's The Transports.

It also, sadly, needs a gallon or two of fine ale to get through it. Rev may have come at the project with noble sentiments, but the aching pomposity and 'crusty' ballads of his music, coupled with the DVD's school concert production values means it ends up looking less like a raising of a revolutionary banner and more like a late night A-Level gig.

Indeed by the time it rattles to a close, you can't help but think of old Freeborn and wonder whether if he'd been alive to see his tribute, he'd have fought quite so hard for freedom of speech after all.

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