The Levellers are one of those bands who’ve often kept themselves incredibly busy. Aside from the time spent off the road during the pandemic restrictions, they’ve toured constantly. When not on the road, the members can be found writing or in the studio recording. The band’s production wheel keeps turning in a way that suggests there’s a real love of what they do. Never was this more true than in 2018. Celebrating their 30th anniversary as a band, they released ‘We The Collective’, an album reworking old favourites acoustically, embarked on a twenty two date acoustic tour, played five festival dates, another two big shows arranged around their own “A Beautiful Day Out”, and almost thirty full electric shows. In between those, vocalist/guitarist Mark Chadwick found time to play seven solo gigs. In terms of work ethic, that’s a schedule probably only rivalled by Frank Turner, a man who seemingly never sleeps.
Almost five years on from the first ‘Collective’ release, ‘Together All The Way’ revisits a few old favourites in a semi-acoustic form, and also shares a few previously unheard tunes, released here for the first time. The mix of old and new works very well; it gives a few classic tracks a new lease of life but also shows how the band haven’t lost any of their musical chops over the years. Unlike other bands, the Levellers’ approach to the semi-acoustic isn’t just a case of stripping everything down, either. In the case of ‘The Game’ the previous jig-led arrangement has been pushed aside for a doomy, slow riff, bringing the song much closer to the darker heart of 1993’s self titled album. Charlie’s drums provide a steady, almost funereal beat; Jon’s violin supplies a deep drone before breaking into a more familiar hook, and Jeremy’s bass thuds with a real intent. Played at somewhere around half the original tempo, it allows for a closer inspection of an ominous lyric, which Mark really sells with a semi-forlorn cry. ‘Wake The World’ already had a darker tone in its original form on the underrated ‘Green Blade Rising’ LP, so what better than to turn it around? Here, it retains a sadness in the main vocal melody, but with that placed against a jangling acoustic rhythm and joined by a brighter sounding female harmony (courtesy of Hannah from The Moulettes), it grows into a really pleasing slice of folky pop. A couple of listens should be enough to win over all but the most stubborn fan, and it’s actually an improvement on the original cut.
As anyone who’s seen a Levellers acoustic show will know, ‘The Cholera Well’ translates very well in a non-electric format, but playing it so straight would be too easy for a project like this. Much like ‘The Game’, its jig elements have been rethought, and in their place comes a great piece of music where a hard but slow rhythm builds up something almost trip hop-ish, with hard percussive sounds breaking up the groove. There’s a darkness that suits the lyric which, again, Chadwick recycles at a slower tempo, but he makes up for any energy loss with the vocal stretching out to bring in a much bigger melody. Years of hard touring hasn’t affected his voice in any way; within this spacious arrangement, he really shines when reaching for a few longer notes. This is a much smarter tune than the version from ‘Letters From The Underground’, and gives ‘Together All The Way’ a genuine standout track that’s reason enough for such a project to exist.
Another pair of ‘Levelling The Land’ classics provide a solid backbone for this set. An orchestrated ‘Battle of The Beanfield’ immediately throws the spotlight on a brilliantly rough sounding cello and emotive vocal. There’s something about the strings that pulls it closer to sounding as if the band have been listening to Nick Drake’s wonderful ‘Five Leaves Left’, but the voices – presenting Mark in a mood that gradually escalates with anger, and Hannah bolstering parts of a great melody – are unmistakable. ‘Sell Out’ also gets retooled with a gentler, folk-based heart. Although it loses Jeremy’s hefty bass, the opportunity to hear Jon picking at his fiddle strings behind a strong harmony adds a fragility that’s enough to make you appreciate the melody and lyric anew. A few subtle piano flourishes from Matt highlight the live in the studio sound, and another appearance from Hannah fleshes out a chorus that still sounds strong, no matter how its played.
Going back to somewhere near the beginning of the Levellers’ journey, ‘Together All The Way’ is played pretty straight due to the debut’s bigger concession to folk arrangements, but its nice to hear it reinterpreted with a live sound an a choir of vocals, and ‘Wheels’ clings onto another huge folk core where a few strings and a mandolin back a lilting vocal melody. This album features much better tracks, in all honesty. There’s nothing drastically wrong with ‘Together’, but its a bit too phoned in compared to ‘The Game’ and ‘The Cholera Well’, and ‘Wheels’ was always one of the band’s lesser tracks. It’s a pleasure to hear it here with Hannah adding a floaty harmony that occasionally sounds reminiscent of Julianne Regan, but again, this album has already shared much more interesting arrangements by the time this rolls around.
Regarding the new and more unfamiliar material, it’s a mixed bag, but not without charm. ‘Down By The River O’ opts for the full-on folky jig, with Levellers in their “more accessible Pogues” mode, as per ‘Dirty Davy’, and as such, has a huge amount of energy. The acoustic guitars are hammered into oblivion; Jon’s clearly relishes the opportunity to latch onto a massive musical hook, and the rousing gang vocals lift an already explosive piece further still. Far more melodic, ‘Man O War’ works around a beautiful finger-picked acoustic guitar, soaring strings and very natural voice. It’s lovely to hear some fairly trad melodies filling a charming hook, and in terms of lead vocal, it’s definitely one of Mark’s best this time out. By the time the instrumental break appears – exploring a soft Celtic lilt – it feels like a tune you’ve known forever. The pure beauty of this makes up for ‘Sitting In The Social’ which, unfortunately, is a genuine misfire. A couple of minutes’ worth of shouty gang vocals atop a stomping rhythm, it plays like a quick b-side filler. Its lack of melody is further amplified by its close proximity to ‘Man O War’ (which, it cannot be understated, is fantastic) and the interesting interpretation of ‘Sell Out’. It’s hard to imagine this ever being considered a favourite.
With the first ‘Collective’ release having already reworked the evergreen ‘One Way’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Hope Street’, the band have dug a little deeper here for a couple of crowd pleasers. However, given the breadth of material to choose from, putting together a second round won’t have been too difficult. In the main, this is every bit as good as its predecessor. It’s worth hearing for ‘The Game’, ‘Man O War’, ‘The Cholera Well’, and ‘Wake The World’, but nine of the ten songs are of a great standard. Some of the re-recorded material is unlikely to replace the originals in long-term fans’ affections, but the deeper dive into the world of folk in places makes this an interesting collection that’s accessible to everyone. Even with ‘Sitting In The Social’ tagged on the end, this is highly recommended.
Read a review of the band’s 2021 Margate gig here.
Buy the CD here: LEVELLERS COLLECTIVE – Together All The Way