Fine Lines – The (continuing) Life and Work of Pepe Belmonte

Pepe Belmonte

I first came across Pepe Belmonte early last year just before I started this site, although I am not sure how or where. Like most things musical in the electronic ether I think his song came to my ears through clicking around just to see what was out there.

I had just begun to realize the weight and breadth of the current new wave of roots music and it felt like coming out of a long period of hibernation. Pepe seemed like a personable soul with an individual folk-blues voice and some nice tunes. I made a mental note to get back to him later while I sorted out the look and feel of the site.

The next time I saw his name was more than a year later when I read that he was making slow but steady progress recovering from a serious road traffic accident. Who knows where the time goes indeed? He had been very badly hurt when, in March 2011 he was hit by a speeding police van and thrown from is bicycle. Such was the force of the impact that he suffered multiple injuries and spent a prolonged period in hospital – part of it in an induced coma.

It is a strange set of circumstances that puts so many of us, who are in truth strangers, in such close proximity to one another yet contrives to keep us in ignorance. Facebook, Google and Twitter are like a maze of revolving windows that allow us to see each other but catch only fleeting glimpses of our real lives. For all our attempts to manage our respective destinies we remain utterly at the mercy of fate. Ultimately, we can only do our best to skip between all those fine lines between achievement and failure, love and loss, life and the other thing.

Mountain With A Moving Peak – Pepe Belmonte 

It seems almost redundant to retrospectively review Pepe Belmonte’s critically lauded debut album The Hermit’s Waltz through the prism of passing time and the occurrence of a life-changing event. But the record is the point where the seed of a career had been planted and it looked encouragingly as if it would grow and blossom. It is also the back marker for the end of a long hiatus from which Pepe is only now emerging and the place from which his journey must re-start.

It is perhaps worth re-visiting the music on The Hermit’s Waltz in order to better to understand the ambitions and intent of this singer/songwriter prior to his trauma. I think this is important because his long (continuing) period of recuperation and recovery means that he will now grow differently as an artist. The Hermit’s Waltz is unlikely to be the platform for similar and successive works – the second and third albums that usually mark stepwise growing maturity, confidence and greater definition.

I suggest that he may grow differently partly because a close brush with death has a tendency to concentrate the mind. An already thoughtful songwriter will have deeper murmurings in his soul as he contemplates life and mortality, not as opposites but as unsettling bedfellows. But  I think it is inevitable that Pepe will pick up the songwriting thread at a different point from the one where he was so abruptly interrupted.

It may seem a trivial comparison, but I recollect that Mr. Dylan  famously enjoyed an enforced sabbatical due to a rather enigmatic neck injury sustained in 1966 when he parted company with moving motorcycle. It was the catalyst rather than the cause of an extended leave of semi-absence before he returned with some very interesting albums indeed. John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and New Morning were unusual and distinctive but they also contained an ingredient conspicuously absent in his preceding work – charm. The critics were sniffy and they kept turning their noses up at his work until he eventually re-instated himself with Blood On The Tracks in 1975.

Looking back down Dylan’s timeline we can properly see that those post-trauma/personal crisis recordings (including Self-Portrait) were a cathartic watershed rather than a diversion. The maturity of the songwriting that followed was informed by those recordings rather than delayed by wandering idly down country roads.

The Hermit’s Waltz contains a lot of warm, embraceable folk-blues, country-blues and just plain blue-blues. The fingerstyle guitar work is light, relaxed and a little like Johnny Too Bad in a gentler frame of mind – such as can be heard on Over The Hill and Spencer The Rover. It seems that many of today’s young guitar players are Johnny Martyn’s bairns. But another fine line, the one between influence and imitation, is negotiated successfully because the songs and the singer have strong personalities that are all their own.

There is also the highly modish use of tasteful strings that is a welcome fixture now in contemporary roots music arrangements. Performers like Pepe Belmonte love the blues but don’t smother them with the suffocating affections of the obsessive fan. This is music that says “why not?” rather than “no can do” So blues with cello it is then.

Pepe’s delivery on tunes like the opener To The Boys and Girls, Pending on My Mind and Nothing Blue Except the Sky remind me very strongly of the way John Prine structures a story and revels in the intimacy of its telling. These are good songs made better by sincere attempts to create a conversation in the listener’s head. This is innate songwriting, and that alone makes The Hermit’s Waltz worth listening to closely.

Tracks like Mountain With A Moving Peak, Foolish, and Walk On Down faithfully observe the conventions of traditional forms of American folk music, but they are imbued with the sweet nature of the lover smitten by the form. However, it is Lonely Lady and the title track, The Hermit’s Waltz that hint at the nascent pedigree of the individual. Both are suggestive of aspirations that belong to songwriters who want to stretch out and extend their reach, whether it is in the arresting cello arrangement and vocal performance on Lonely Lady, or the substantial depth of The Hermit’s Waltz.

Pepe Belmonte could churn out folk blues for the masses on a Bandcamp conveyor belt if he so desired, but the first steps in a more productive direction had already been taken on this album. He is, as I write, quite literally picking up the pieces of his shattered life and it may be some time before it is completely restored to him. What is certain, I think, is that songs will come. They will be in new shapes, sizes and colours and they threaten to be stronger, more profound and perhaps more intense. But that would not be solely because of the artist’s personal circumstances at this moment in his life.  It will be because the serious intent to grow was always there. It is self-evident on The Hermit’s Waltz.

The Curator

November 2012

Pepe Belmonte website