During Jo Burt’s stellar career in music, he’s shared stadium stages with Freddie Mercury, Black Sabbath and The Troggs. The Dorset singer, songwriter and guitarist will tell stories of his time with these stars and perform unplugged interpretations of their classics in a candlelit concert at Fontmell Magna Church this Friday.
Jo Burt has been driving around the Westcountry, stopping occasionally to inspect village churches, but not because he’s interested in their history or architecture. Jo’s been checking out their acoustics for his special tour. “This is the other side of being a musician really. I feel a bit like a door-to-door salesman. I’m going around these churches and looking to see if they’ve got toilets, car parking and how far it is to carry the equipment from the gates to the church,” Jo laughed.
We chatted in Shaftesbury’s Grosvenor Arms Hotel. Fellow coffee drinkers in the lounge would not have guessed that this softly spoken, articulate and friendly man had spent years on the road with the raucous gods of rock – Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Sabbath. Today, Jo loves being able to make a connection with the audience in atmospheric venues like St Andrews. “You don’t have to be religious. They’re just remarkable buildings. They are great spaces,” said Jo.
Fontmell’s church is a world away from Wembley, which appeals to Jo. “When I was playing in those stadiums, I didn’t really take into account the effect that it was having on the people that were there. It was more about my career and me. I dreamed of playing Madison Square Gardens and Wembley. Now I realise it’s a privilege. I take that seriously. My songwriting reflects that. I’ve gone through a major change,” he said.
Jo says he enjoys seeing how his music moves people and welcomes conversations with the audience after the gigs. That didn’t happen when he played huge venues. “You’re surrounded by security guards and you never actually meet (people).”
The stars that Jo has got to know during his impressive career have inspired his choice of cover versions. “I picked the tunes from people that I’ve worked with and throw them in amongst my own songs,” he said, although it could be argued that his deconstruction of tracks means he’s made them his own.
During a tour of Canada, Jo was inspired to strip back a heavy metal classic. “The front rows were full of ‘Sabbath fans. I had to find something in my armoury to placate them because they’re all shouting for ‘Iron Man’. I went through the catalogue together with my wife, Antonia, and I discovered in ‘Paranoid’ this wonderful pathos in the writing about a young man not being able to deal with life. I bravely recorded this acoustic-electric version of ‘Paranoid’. Now people hear the song, they hear the story. I am a bit apologetic when I play it because I’m nervous that Sharon Osborne’s going turn up but it goes down really well because it has this vibe about it,” said Jo.
Throughout Jo’s career, he’s worked and played with the headliners on tour. “There are some artists where the bands don’t travel with the star. They have different hotels. I was very lucky because I was never in a band like that,” he said. “A lot of those artists also travel with an entourage and that causes attention. They arrive at airports with sunglasses and furry coats. A great example for me was Freddie Mercury. He occasionally had a bodyguard and his chauffeur. He was obviously easily recognised, but generally, he didn’t cause a stir wherever he went. He would go shopping. We would go out to dinner. There was no great hoo-hah about it. Those artists were very generous.”
Jo says Mercury offered him much support and encouragement and I wanted to ask Jo about the recent Bohemian Rhapsody film. He hasn’t seen the entire movie, just clips. Jo has mixed feelings about it. As a fan, I thought that Rami Malek’s portrayal of the star was spot on. Jo was Freddie’s friend and knew the star. He agrees that the actor has Freddie ‘to a T’.
“It’s a bit uncanny. I suppose that makes it more difficult in the sense that the storyline is so bizarre. I think it’s great that (Queen has) been brought to a new audience. There are problems that I have with it. For instance, in the film, he’s portrayed as going to this hospital on his own, as this lonely figure. That’s impossibly untrue. He wasn’t alone at all. There was a huge amount of joy in his life. I was lucky to share a lot of that and some of the stories that he used to tell me about Michael Jackson and going back to Neverland and asking why Michael insisted on sleeping on the floor. Michael said, ‘It’s because I want to be near the earth’. And Freddie replied, ‘But you’re on the second floor of your mansion’. He was so effervescent to be around, and it was always great fun,” said Jo.
Jo was born to entertain. His earliest childhood memories are of the entertainment industry. “I toured with my parents until the age of five. They did summer seasons at the end of the pier. In the winter, they used to go to the pantomime.”
His aunt was a regular on the classic kid’s TV show ‘Crackerjack’. “She appeared with Peter Glaze and Leslie Crowther. I would go to the show every week and see fantastic bands that would come from America, like Roy Orbison. The Troggs played, Cliff Richard and The Shadows. All these amazing bands. There was no other show that did that. The hairs on the back of my neck rise when I think about that time. That’s really what swept me from my showbiz family into rock and roll music.” And Jo says he got plenty of the sought-after Crackerjack pencils!
After university, Jo toured with the 1960s chart-toppers, The Troggs. Jo’s show contains a music tribute to the band from whom Jo learned a lot. He’s keen to put something back and feels that the British musical exports he’s toured with bring in money for this country as an export. He often goes into schools and is saddened that IT departments are well resourced, but music lessons have been cut back. He’s worried that there are fewer chances for young people today.
“There are people coming out of university with amazing talents, being able to play all the instruments, but there’s nowhere for them to play because all the pubs have been turned into gastropubs or because the neighbours have complained,” said Jo. He believes that he’s lucky to have toured in the 1980s, when the big concert tours provided defining shared experiences for a generation. TV reality shows and more manufactured bands mean those days have gone.
I asked Jo to share the moment when he realised that he’d made it. “I toured with Elton John around 1984. I played in America for him as well and at major stadiums through Europe. The tour ended at Wembley Stadium and we were lucky to get the opening slot as the stadium filled up. It’s an 80,000 capacity. I did have a moment, and it’s on video. You can see my eyes are watering and my voice is going slightly. I was playing with my own band with my music. It really was mine,” said Jo.
Jo can vividly describe the power of some of the performances he was part of, such as with Black Sabbath. “Working in this huge stadium, where for the first five minutes or so you can’t see the audience because of the smoke and the racket,” he explained. Jo’s guitar was linked to three amplifiers that delivered 300 watts each. “They just make your trousers flap,” he said.
Jo has realised that his stories, shared between songs, are funny. “When I’m in front of an audience and I’m playing these tunes, and I’ve got all these stories to tell, they seem to come out in an amusing fashion and people laugh. I don’t think of myself as a comic by any standard, but I think there has been a natural gene that has been tapped into in the few years when I’ve been running my own band. Because of my history, a lot of people expect me to be a heavy metal kid or a punk, because all the seasons that I’ve been through with the bands that played,” said Jo.
Jo Burt’s Acoustic by Candlelight is on at St Andrew’s Church in Fontmell Magna on Friday 18th October. Doors open at 6.30pm. Tickets are available from Fontmell Magna village shop and Shaftesbury Tourist Information Centre, or from the Eventbrite website.
This article is an abridged version of the podcast audio interview. Click the audio link above to hear more from Jo. Read more about Jo at www.joburt.co.uk.