Author: Drew Hobbs
To the uninitiated, the blues is all about hard times, losers, hobos and winos, with the typecast image being of an unkempt, down-on-his-luck, middle-aged black guy with a beat up old acoustic, playing in some smoky backstreet club to a handful of undesirables worse for wear on alcohol and drugs. I’m sure there are clubs all over Europe and the USA still playing host to this very scenario, just as there are many clubs packing them in night after night with that most bizarre phenomenon – the tribute band. But the blues is more, so much more than a ride on the misery train.
Whilst its origins can be traced back to the likes of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Leadbelly and Bessie Smith – all brilliant pioneers – its tentacles have reached out and embraced so much more as the decades have progressed. Once the electric guitar befriended the blues community with artists such as Muddy Waters at the helm, it began to attract young and hungry musicians in this country eager to explore and experiment. Leading the charge were Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Alexis Korner, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and the daddy of them all, John Mayall.
Mayall’s Bluesbreakers became a veritable revolving door for some of the finest musicians of their generation, and it’s where Clapton got his ‘God’ tag from. In the 60’s the blues was booming; amazing players were popping out of the woodwork and paying homage to their heroes in their own distinctive ways. Fans were keen to discover where The Rolling Stones, Free, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and The Yardbirds found much of their inspiration, and this in turn changed the fortunes of the under-appreciated black creators of this delightful form around. Suddenly, white kids got turned onto Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and a host of others and the blues became hip. It also laid the foundations for heavy rock; it’s there in the belly of Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and any other hard rock band one cares to mention – past and present.
The major labels down the years have been quick to recognise the money-spinning potential of the blues. They’ve made millions, and true to form have used everything at their disposal to get it to as many paying customers as possible. Not totally a bad thing of course. I still remember the scintillating buzz around Robert Cray when ‘Strong Persuader’ came out in 1979. Here was a guy who had it all; good looks, brilliant songs, a voice plucked from the hallways of heaven and a talent on the electric guitar that was the envy of his peers. ‘Strong Persuader’ even managed to hit the top 30 with Smokin’ Gun and handed Cray his first Grammy.
Music retail continued to reap rich rewards as far as fascinating characters were concerned. One to strike a very deep chord, in more ways than one, was John Campbell. The two albums he released for Elektra in the early 90’s contained some of the most menacing sounds ever to emanate from mouth and guitar. He sang about graves, hell, voodoo, sorrow and all places in between with an unmatched ferocity. Maybe ‘sing’ is not quite the right word; it was more of a guttural roar from the pit of his stomach, but it collided spectacularly with the sounds he tore from the bowels of his electric/acoustic. On stage, Campbell was a frightening sight. With his tied back straggly hair, the facial scars from a horrific car accident and his long wiry frame, he looked like the last person you’d want to meet on a dark night, but once plugged in and rocking Campbell was an out and out star. He died of heart failure at the age of 43, just as his career was beginning to take off. The blues knows how to wound.
I’ve talked about how the blues helped create heavy rock but one artist actually found more success when he went back the other way. Gary Moore achieved plenty of sales in his hard rock guise but when he released his first proper blues album, ‘Still Got The Blues’, his career went into overdrive. Since then, this most enigmatic of performers has continued along that path, releasing album after album of ass kicking blues. The last two, ‘Close As It Gets’ and ‘Blues For My Baby’ positively melt the speakers with some of the most molten guitar playing ever. Beautifully recorded, they deserve their place in every music fan’s collection.
Blues has throughout history made many vital contributions and it remains a form of music both versatile and adaptable. However, I have heard many times that if it is to survive, then it has to constantly reinvent itself. Why? I don’t see rap, hip-hop or a lot of the sappy rubbish passing for pop these days reinventing itself. What I see is massive media exposure and big budget spends that run close to brainwashing. Blues can and does appeal to the younger fraternity, but they need to be introduced to it in the first place! A case in point is Jonny Lang. He burst onto the scene with an absolute cracker of a debut, ‘Lie To Me’. His voice was big and sounded like it had been nurtured on a lifetime of bourbon and extra strength Marlboros, but he was only 16 years old at the time! I watched him play a sold out gig in Camden Town and down the front were loads of teenage girls swooning and calling out his name. It’s the same with Aynsley Lister, another young gun who can pull an audience with ages ranging from 16 to 50 plus.
Of course, the question is how do the next generation of blues artists break out of the clubs and bring their sparkling talents to a much wider audience? It probably won’t be via the major record companies, they’re no longer what they were and certainly not run by people who live and breathe music. Oh no, record companies are now run by accountants who see only figures and a ‘product’ that has to be exactly that – accountable. What would have become of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and all those other legendary artists with massive and still highly profitable back catalogues if they’d have surfaced in today’s narrow-minded markets. Perish the thought.
With those thoughts in mind, Hi Fi Plus took up an invitation to attend a showcase gig at the Jazz Café in London. We were there to watch a triple header, a coming together of some of British blues’ most promising talents. The place was heaving, with a sense of tingling anticipation I haven’t felt at a concert for some considerable time. The first of the three acts should have been Jay Tamkin but unfortunately he was unable to attend, so his place went to a young trio going by the name of Virgil and the Accelerators. I have to confess to knowing nothing about them, only that lead singer/guitarist, Virgil is 18 and the drummer weighs in at a very tender 15 years old!
They treated us to a foot-to-the-floor set of blues rocking numbers and showed surprising maturity for ones so young. Virgil clearly comes from the Stevie Ray school of mastery and while this is as good a place to start as any, if they are truly going to make their mark and stand out from the pack they need to inject a little more originality into their repertoire. That said, they have time on their side and are clearly talented, so watch this space. Joanne Shaw Taylor had flown in from Detroit with only 3 hours under her belt when she took the stage. She remained quietly patient whilst technicians sorted out a glitch in the sound system, but once up and running this young Brummie made her intentions clear to the crowd with a set culled from her terrific debut, ‘White Sugar’. Your Time Has Come found her prowling the stage with her eyes closed, feeling every note as deep and sensuous sounds burst from her Fender Strat. Blackest Day, one of ‘White Sugar’s defining moments, floated in on a flush of caressed guitar. Her honey-smoked voice wrapped itself around the song as it built towards a finale of red hot soloing – I swear I saw flames coming off the fret at one point! The sound this girl gets in the studio is highly polished but live she’s a totally different animal, preferring to beef the sound up with less soul and a whole lot more blues. On the rattling shuffle of Bones the volume went up a notch or two and her vocals got drowned out in the mix, but there’s no denying the talent Joanne possesses. She works a fretboard like she’s been doing it for half a century, yet she’s only 22 years old. The six songs she played were enough to convince me and the packed out crowd that Joanne Shaw Taylor has what it takes to lead from the front.
Last up to hit the stage was 19 year old Oli Brown, the prince of modern blues. In his pin-striped suit and purple shirt and with chiseled good looks and tapered flowing hair, Oli looks more like a film star than a bluesman. Oozing confidence, he struck up an instant rapport with the crowd, commanding the stage like a veteran. He belted out Open Road, the title track to his debut CD, with gusto and power as the crunching chords reverberated all round the walls of the Jazz Café. The tender blues of Love’s Gone Cold came next and nestled sweetly in the lap of our emotions, building and building before settling to an almost jazz-like pace. When this guy plays he puts lots of space between the notes; he never wastes a single one and always makes each one count for something. The less-is-more approach is where he’s at. However, when the need arises he can give the sound more muscle or dress it in velvet – and he often does it all in the same song! It’s not art for art’s sake, it’s a gift that only the best possess.
One of my favorite numbers got an airing next. Roxanne fizzed and crackled and sounded so fresh and vibrant in a live setting. Oli projected the vocal with real panache and the way the band weaved and flowed to the chorus was pure delight. Midway through the song Oli stepped back from the microphone with his guitar draped by his side and proceeded to sing to the crowd in true unplugged fashion. It showed the immense power he can unleash with that voice and sent a shivery tingle up the spine. After a wander upstairs where he serenaded the dining punters, he returned to the stage for a rousing stab at Ram Jam’s Black Betty. He was clearly enjoying himself and wanted to carry on playing, but the dreaded 11p.m. curfew kicked in and he left the stage to ringing applause.
The whole evening was a stunning success and proved without doubt that the future of British blues is in safe hands. Artists like Oli Brown and Joanne Shaw Taylor are, dare I say it, sexing up the blues and giving it a makeover. Get them on Later…with Jools Holland, play their songs on mainstream radio, put them on morning TV. Do whatever it takes and then let them do the rest – but for God’s sake give them a break!! Then we might just introduce the blues to a generation that think the world only revolves around the likes of Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Kanye West.