Reading Festival, summer 1990. Late afternoon, in the Mean Fiddler marquee, filled with thousands moshing and jigging. No organisational screw-ups. The format is well-worn now. Thick-jowled heavies with black bomber jackets and two-way radios keep control, in a formal sense. In that way, the sixties and seventies are long gone. But not in the spirit of the music. Over the drive of bass and drums fiddle and whistle soar. The song draws on an old tune and tells a familiar rebel's tale. The band's called McDermott's Two Hours (after a character from the early Derry riots who played The Incredible String Band on free radio and told everyone to 'love one another an' keep cool') - a cult rabble, ploughing the circuit while it feels good, breaking when it turns sour. Why I'm there. My ten year old son beside me. On stage. They're my band.
This was the moment when I repaid my debts. It was a long road travelled, full of happy synchronicities and hellish hours I won't bother to recall. I had come from a sixteen year old would-be hippie in a felt hat and a long coat to a singer-songwriter in a Paddy suit. I was lucky. I couldn't read much music, but I had a good ear, I had learned to play all kinds of accompanying instruments, and as a poet, found writing lyrics around borrowed or adapted tunes a constant source of release. In pubs and clubs and festivals I had met with some of the best musicians in the folk idiom, while it had lapsed again and lain dormant. So when it rose up, like John Barleycorn, in the eighties, fuelled by a new urban-style commitment, and spawning another social revolution, I was ready to go with it.
Shane McGowan and The Pogues first broke the ground. It was punk, not rock, this time that fused with the tradition. I had tried it before, in Germany, with a - rightly obscure - band called The Bluebell's Anus, and seen the potential effect. So when we struck up at Brighton's Zap Club and in the space of two gigs had queues halfway along the seafront waiting to be turned away, it didn't surprise me. Not particularly because of us as a band. But because of the faith I had that those vital seeds once sown had spread indelibly underground and would shoot again when it was time.
For McDermott's Two Hours, after four years hard work, from clubs in Stockwell to Glastonbury and Womad - garnering two albums and a publishing deal with the same Joe Boyd who had by now moved into world music and proved himself a true survivor - Reading was our zenith. The gig when it all came together, and we could fairly claim to represent the spirit embodied in the Tull set twenty years before. There is no feeling like being on stage at the heart of this kind of music when it flies. You hear the cadences and rhythms of the past rise, phoenix-like, within the wall of sound around you. You tap into the unconscious instincts of the crowd, and they elevate you further. It is mythical.
This may sound extreme, like some of the claims one makes for the power of the idiom itself, but it is an extreme experience. And its inspirational effect cannot be denied. When McDermott's Two Hours split and another Brighton-based band, The Levellers, hit the road, the movement gathered real momentum. Travellers, new age hippies - whatever they got called - formed a vital political force, which helped smash the poll tax, dug subversive tunnels under half the countryside, and waged a memorable battle against the Criminal Justice Bill. The Levellers became the voice of another alienated generation. And I can say now - what they have said many times publicly - without us they wouldn't have been there. In the early days we were their Tull.