Paul Ubana Jones returns to Downstage

Last year I interviewed Paul Ubana Jones; it was the first time, having know him as a musician and person for about a decade, that I had been able to ask Paul serious questions; the first time I had the chance to get him to trace around how he found his sound.

The reason (excuse) for that interview was because Paul performed at Downstage Theatre as part of the Soundstage series.

He loved it so much, and they loved having him so much, that he's back - this Sunday, July 24, 7pm. It's $35 on the door or you can click that link in the line above for booking information.

I decided to catch up with Ubana Jones and find out what he's been doing since he last performed in Wellington, what appealed about Downstage as a venue and what he's planning for the rest of 2011 and then on from there.

"Well, I loved Downstage", Paul tells me, his rich, cheery voice down the line from his home just out of Christchurch. "I loved the focus on the show, it being a theatre gig. I feel in so many ways I've paid my dues, doing the pubs, and so it was nice to sit and play where I could feel, instantly, an energy; I knew people wanted to be there. And that was great. It has a wonderful ambience, a lovely personality, as a venue. And the people were nice!" And here Paul breaks into that soft chuckle he has; one that fits many situations - it can be sardonic, it can be sincere.

"I like to think," he picks up, "that I'll return to play at Downstage again after this visit - and certainly for this performance I'm doing a hugely different programme. There'll be some favourites and some new ideas too - and I'm just always working to keep things fresh for the audience and for myself. There will be things from the wider spectrum of English folk song - which I grew up with. And there will my usual gesture to Afro-American blues and its various forms."

Paul Ubana Jones is good at being modest - so I'll interpret this as being another killer set from one of the finest guitarists we have living in this country.

I've said many a time before, in reviews and features that we're lucky to have Paul living in New Zealand; playing here - entertaining us and sharing his gifts of songwriting and song interpretation.

There will be some new covers because Paul likes "taking a song for a stroll down a new avenue" - and in fact some of his own material feels different to him now. "A song like I Need a Storm, I think I do that better now; it's more convincing to me, I've lived a little, I'm happier with the version I present of it now."

It's been a busy time since he was last in Wellington. Earlier in the year he was the opening act for B.B. King and Ruthie Foster. It was a great pleasure for him to meet both artists and share the bill. He nailed his set too.

"You do figure, with things like that, that you might be getting to play to a few new people; an audience that hasn't seen you before because, let's face it, they're there for B.B. or they're there for Ruthie as well. So, yeah, you give it your all. But it was a lovely night. I felt good about my set and I didn't know Ruthie Foster but she and her band were just lovely. And B.B. King was very gracious and just the perfect gentleman. And it was an honour to play before them."

He performed two pre-shows for Bob Dylan's recent tour of Vietnam and has continued with his gigs and workshops across schools in Australia. He'll return to Western Australia and NSW for more performances and workshops. And is hoping still to connect with an orchestra in Saigon to create some string arrangements for his songs ("it's an area of my background, composition-wise, that I haven't explored with regard to my own songs and I'd very much like that to happen").

There'll be a month in Switzerland ("the usual high school gigs there") in September and then it'll be time to think about touring the country again potentially; the big Kiwi summer tour that is a staple for Paul.

So a lot of busy things - a lot of work - as he contemplates closing in on two milestones that are not so far off: his 60th birthday and 40 years as a professional musician.

There were of course also the September and February earthquakes.

Jones says, "Well, fortunately we're okay. Damage to the house was minimal really - but we had a lot of friends we feared for, trapped in buildings, you know. It hasn't inspired new songs from me but it has, if anything, reinforced something that I feel has always been strong in my lyrics and that's the idea that you live your moment while you can, tomorrow it could all be over. I mean that was really reinforced by those quakes. And so we carry on, we battle and get through it. It was lovely to be part of the Celebration Tent in Hagley Park; a chance to take people's minds off it if just for a moment and a chance to promote music and community as part of a way to help us all through a series of tough times."

Also, since Paul last performed here, there was the news of Gil Scott-Heron's passing. I mention this to Paul because he introduced me to Gil Scott-Heron's work. Ubana Jones has, for the last 30 years, performed a superb a cappella version of Home Is Where the Hatred Is; he has other Gil Scott-Heron pieces in his repertoire.

"I'll be doing something from Gil at the Sunday concert, absolutely. Spreading the word and paying tribute."

I figure that if I learned about Gil Scott-Heron through Paul's interpretations it's likely that many other New Zealanders did too. It sent me to the book store and the music store to order copies of his poems, music and, more recently, reissued novels.

"Well, yeah, I guess that's true", Ubana Jones characteristically understates. "But then, I was thinking the other day that the I Need a Storm album was released in America and I was signed to an America label before, as far as I'm aware, any other New Zealand solo artist was. But people probably think the first person to achieve that was Anika Moa."

Perhaps Paul Ubana Jones misses out in some areas for not being born in New Zealand; I certainly feel he's paid his dues as a writer and performer - a world-class writer and performer.

If you would like to see Paul's Sunday performance as part of the Soundstage series, I have one double-pass to give away thanks to the kind folk from Downstage. Just leave a comment saying why you'd like to win. I'll choose the person I think is most deserving.

So are you a Paul Ubana Jones fan? Are you heading to the show? Did you go last year? Would you like to see more musicians playing in theatre spaces? Who would you like to see in that environment?

And if you're thinking about going but need some more encouragement here's my review of last year's show. It was a ripper.

Postscript: Here's the link - again - to the full interview with Paul Ubana Jones from last year.

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