Has it really been 25 years since one of the most iconic folk/punk albums graced our record players?
The Platinum selling ‘Levelling the Land’ rightfully holds its place as one of those game changers, much like Nirvana's ‘Nevermind’, it marks a moment when what was previously only enjoyed by a few hardcore fans in dark clubs or new age travellers dancing round a camp fire now was almost MAINSTREAM, well ok, Alternative-mainstream anyway! By the end of 1991, there wasn’t many a student that didn't own a Levellers t-shirt or know by heart the lyrics to ONE WAY, a track that has gone on to achieve legendary status amongst the bands followers. So tonight at Plymouth we take a trip down memory lane to a time when ‘Swampy’ (who retired from protesting in 2013 and got a job picking acorns - as one does...) was in the headlines and get to enjoy ‘Levelling the Land’ in its entirety LIVE!!!
The nostalgia started when we arrived at the SOLD OUT venue and a foyer rich with the smell of patchouli, wafting through the air, taking me right back to the first time I saw the Levs back in 1990 (when they supported New Model Army). Although it has to be said I think many of those responsible for this may have been primarily there for the excellent high-energy support act Ferocious Dog.
Opening the evenings entertainment was Bristol based solo artist Gaz Brookfield, he played an entertaining set, his songs covered a plethora of topics including diabetes and the West country, it seemed by the audience’s reaction that this guy is well loved throughout the Levs community, having never seen him before, I would strongly advise you to seek out a future live date and get yourself along to catch his set.
Next up were Nottingham based six piece folk-rock band Ferocious Dog, these guys reminded me of The Pogues in the way that their songs started out quite calmly, lulling you into a false sense of security before BOOM, the tempo is upped, the bass kicks in and before you even realise, you’re bobbing along to the output of these guys along with the other 4000 people in the arena! The lead singer (Ken) cut a menacing shape on stage with his spiked hair and laced up Doc Martin boots but after listening to his between song banter where he dedicated a song to those suffering PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) saying that he lost his son to it, my image of him softened somewhat and by the end of their set, I was sure that they’re all a bunch of pussycats! I couldn't help but mention that I spotted the one and only Les Carter (Fruitbat) from 90's 'pinup' band Carter USM, great to see that he's still at it, doing a great job too!
To summarise their set, I would have to say it was start to finish high energy folk-punk, there were crowd surfers, dealt with very deftly by the security team and many folk leaping about when their favourite opening bars rang out across the capacity crowd. I hear that these guys are quite an act to see on the festival circuit, I for one will be checking their schedule next Summer to see if I can get to any where they’re playing, brilliant stuff, just what was needed to warm up the room for the main act.
Of course a lot has changed since 1991 not only did we all now look a lot older but the world has moved on too, or has it? As the lights dimmed and the back wall of the stage lit up with a video giving us a 25 year run down of major political events between then and now, I think the Levs were trying to tell us that really, nothing has…. BOOOOOOOO went the crowd when Thatcher appeared. OOOOOOH went the crowd at the battle of Beanfield, YAYYYYYYYYYY they went as Thatcher Left Downing Street, BOOOOOO at Blair, YAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY at Corbyn... HE’S BEHIND YOU as Trump appeared, no not really….. but it would have completed the pantomime nicely if they had.
So with the goodies and baddies established and no exit poll needed to know which way the crowd here were voting, on with the show. As this was the 25th Anniversary of ‘Levelling the Land’, the set list was going to hold little in the way of surprise and the band launched into ‘One Way’, without doubt the Levellers anthem with its rousing sing along chorus of "There’s only one way of life and that's your own", a rallying cry to the early 90s youth not so keen to follow in the footsteps of previous generations. The 4000 strong crowd loved it and were in fine voice with lead singer and guitarist Mark Chadwick inviting the crowd to sing along, which they did heartily.
With the crowd pumped and 'time travelled' back to 1991, the tempo continued and Jon Sevink’s pulse raising fiddle launched us into ‘The Game’. Cunningham let his knee length Dreads down and bassist and fiddler proved that the Levs still have lots of life in them yet as they jumped and ran around the stage throughout ’15 years’.
Slowing it down a bit and our 3 song press pit limit over, we retired to the balcony and the Levs had us wistfully longing for a simple life with ‘The Boatman’. " I wish I could choose the life I please, but I am not a free man", another poignant lean at the feeling and passion of the time and our freedom being taken away. This led tonight as it did on the album into the almost battle like cry from guitarist/mandolin/banjo Simon Friend "Liberttttttyyyyy" as the rocking guitar riff started followed by Heathers pounding drums and the relentless bass of Jez kicking in, the crowd was driven into a mass pogo stirred on by the ever exciting notes of the fiddle giving that punk rock sound the folk feel that makes it such a classic album track.
After being reminded we are ‘Far from Home’ we go to ‘Sell Out’, another massive hit from the album, a chant of living in ancient times and poets not believing in modern ways. Fine words in 1991 but maybe we didn't listen to the message as the mass of iphones filming the event ready to be spread all over Face-Tube made me feel that not only us but the Levs were ‘sold down the river’ by the very corporate capitalist greed that they so beautifully filled our hearts to sing against 25 years ago.
Lights dim and focus is brought to the haunting harmonica that is the introduction to ‘Another Man's Cause’, a favourite of mine that I actually remember busking on the streets of Totnes in my college years, one of the few songs on the album that is whilst still a political statement, is aimed more at the personal sacrifice of those that go to war. Still a beautiful and thought provoking song that is as powerful now as it was 25 years ago in 1991.
The Album and main event of the evening concludes with ‘Riverflow’, ‘The Road’ and ‘Battle of the Beanfield’, blue flashing lights fill the arena and manic strobes fuel the aggression of what was a brutal act of government culminating in the infamous Beanfield eviction. It is still a very powerful song and a great live performance but its meaning lost now on a 40 something crowd about to hop in their Volvos to drive home.
Once the final notes of ‘Beanfield’ had died out and the applause and cheering had subsided, Chadwick announced "Well that was Levelling the Land, in its entirety and in correct order, what do we do now?". In answer to his question of what now….well we had ‘Julie’, ‘Carry me’, ‘Beautiful Day’ and a few others that seemed to just pad out the time until the final encore of ‘What you Know’ which featured the awesome duelling fiddles of both Jon Sevink and Ferocious Dog’s very own Dan Booth.
‘Levelling the Land’, was and still is a phenomenal album of extraordinary passion that filled our hearts with a voice of change, gave us power and had the romance that made us wish for a better world. The Levs deliver it now in a very polished and pleasing format that makes for a good show and sadly that's what I feel they are now, a good show. There is nothing wrong with this of course as we pay our money for exactly that but I can't help but wonder when I see the confetti canons, massive lighting and an even bigger mass of iPhones that the idealogy of this seminal album was somewhat glossed over. Me, like the rest of the 40 something's headed home to post on Face-Tweet about our little trip back to 1991 with thanks to the Levs for giving us a voice in our youth, keeping our feet tapping and for 90 mins, making us all feel 20 years old again...you can't put a price on that!
Words by Matt Roffe
Photography by Matt Roffe and Tom Osmond