Album Reviews: Pete Ham – ‘Gwent Gardens’ and Tom Evans – ‘I Am Myself’

The careful, exhaustive and ongoing campaign to document (and share with the world) the cache of demos, home recordings and other audio arcana from core members of Badfinger continues apace. Leader and guitarist Pete Ham died tragically and by his own hand in 1975; his bandmate Tom Evans similarly left us in 1983. But thanks to dedicated archivists, the comparatively slim catalog of prime-era Badfinger – six albums, many of which would be unavailable for decades – has since been augmented with an array of compilations.

Chief among those archivists was the indefatigable Dan Matovina. Author of the authoritative written history of the group (Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger), Matovina dug deep into Badfinger’s history, forging close relationships with the estates of Ham and Evans. That in and of itself was quite a feat; anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the band’s disastrous history will understand that those families have good reason to be suspicious of most anyone claiming to help them (or “help” them). Fortunately for them – and us – Matovina earned their trust and served as a staunch advocate.

He was on our side, too. And by “our,” I mean those of us who cherish the musical talents and legacies of Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Matovina was responsible for Pete Ham collections 7 Park Avenue, Golders Green, Keyhole Street and Demos Variety Pack; the Iveys (pre-Badfinger) compilation Golden Delicious Demos; and likely some others I’ve momentarily forgotten. And he was notably uninvolved in any of the Badfinger cash-in abominations like the botched live album on Ryko and the dreadfully wrongheaded No Matter What: Revisiting the Hits. Instead, in one of his last major coups on the group’s behalf, he helped make “Baby Blue” a key part of the soundtrack of the final moments of the landmark Breaking Bad series.

Matovina also curated a succession of Badfinger-related releases, starting with the long-awaited Head First album. He would go on to compile and oversee release of several Pete Ham demo/outtake collections, thoughtful reissues of the band’s two Warner Brothers albums, and other projects. Tragically – damn, that word gets a real workout whenever writing about Badfinger-related matters – Dan Matovina passed away prematurely in June 2023.

Unsurprisingly, at the time of his passing he was deep into not one but two more archival projects. And thanks to the folks at Y&T Music – fans and respectful archivists themselves – those projects have now come to light. 2024 sees the release of Gwent Gardens, a collection of 18 rare Pete Ham recordings.

To be clear, these are home demos from half a century ago, never intended to be heard by the listening public. Yet even when the audio fidelity is a bit dodgy, Pete Ham’s sonorous voice, earnest yet melancholy demeanor and inerrant melodic sense all shine through brilliantly. Anyone who has spent time with Badfinger’s core releases will hear piano-and-voice demos like “The Day Begins” and easily imagine the grandeur that could have been a full-band Badfinger reading of the songs.

A few familiar titles are sprinkled throughout the set. Demos of “Take it All,” “I Miss You,” “Walk Out in the Rain” and “Blodwyn” are all spare in the extreme, but even in skeletal form, Ham’s sturdy songwriting is clearly evident. And the songs you won’t have heard before are of strikingly high quality as well. It’s a testament to Ham’s artistry that even four (Five? Six?) compilations in, Gwent Gardens never for a moment sounds like a closet-cleaning exercise.

All but one of the recordings on Gwent Gardens are previously unreleased. And the one that has been released before was available only on the bonus CD that accompanied the second edition of Matovina’s book, now a sought-after collector’s item itself (the book is now available on Kindle, though, and it’s a must-read).

Joining Gwent Gardens in the Badfinger-related catalog is a just-released title, I Am Myself. Similar in nature to the Pete Ham set, it features 21 recordings, this time all from Tom Evans. A (very small) handful of these tracks have appeared before, and again, only on comparatively hard-to-find releases.

There’s a saying that’s often applied to John Entwistle: he had the misfortune of being a very good songwriter in a group (The Who) that already had a great one (Pete Townshend). Something similar might be said with regard to Tom Evans, though his muse was arguably closer behind Ham’s than The Ox’s was to Townshend’s.

“Hello” is, as liner notes author Tom Brennan rightly enthuses, a remarkable showcase for Evans’ skills as a singer, arranger and DIY home recordist. His demos display startling variety, alternating between sweet pop tunes and all-out, wailing rockers with electric guitar. Occasionally there’s a dashed-off quality to some of the recordings, but one comes away with the sense that that character had more to do with a desire to get ideas down before they got away than any sort of dismissive approach to the material.

And those are more than offset by carefully multi-layered demos that find Evans engaging in lovely vocal harmony with himself, making use of a variety of instruments (wooden flute, etc.) and musical textures. For Badfinger aficionados, only demos of “Fisherman” and the bouncy “No Escaping Your Love” will be familiar tunes, and they won’t have heard these demos.

Occasionally within this collection, one will encounter a song that seems quite far afield from the kind of songs one would hope or expect to hear on a Badfinger record – “The Leaves” is one such audio sketch – but then these were demos, after all.

There’s almost nothing in the way of criticism to be directed at either of these sets. True, the cover art for both is plain and somewhat amateurish, but the quality of cover art shouldn’t figure at all into one’s assessment of the music within. The liner notes offer up the right amount of detail and context. And the copyright attributions printed clearly on both discs make it plain that these are fully authorized releases (“Estate of Peter William Ham,” “Estate of Thomas Evans”). It should go without saying that neither of these albums should serve as an entry point into the music of Ham, Evans and/or Badfinger, but the place of both albums in the Badfinger-related body of work is a place of honor.

Gwent Gardens is available now; I Am Myself is set for release June 7.

Postscript/edit: I am just now reliably informed that Matovina had, in the words of the correspondent who contacted me, “almost nothing to do” with the Evans compilation. He is credited (“as a courtesy”[!]) with digital transfer of the audio, but most of the work was done by the aforementioned Tom Brennan and others. Musoscribe regrets the sorta-error and humbly suggests that had it not been for Matovina’s tireless decades of work that came before it, we well might not even be talking about this new release.