Towards the top of Mill Street, about where the handrail begins, conversation stops and breathing becomes more laboured and you begin to wonder if it is really worth coming out now that the dark nights are drawing in. Some idiot has chained their bike to the lamp post in the jitty aggravating your difficult progress and you have to stop for a couple of minutes outside so you don’t look a completely breathless fool when you enter. But then through the door and you are into the smokey haven which is the Queens Head on a Saturday night. A beaming smile from Simon (or not!!) and a couple of pints of something or other and things are looking brighter. Oh, and of course there’s the music.
Yes, the new season of Belper Music and Arts ‘Saturday Nights at the Queens’ is underway again.
Debby McClatchy opened the season last Saturday (6th) with as fine a set of singing and banjo playing as I’ve heard in a while. Her style of playing where the player strikes the melody notes downward with the back of a finger (usually the index finger) and uses the thumb to sound a drone on the fifth string is called ‘frailing’ but there is nothing frail about this diminutive sexagenarian whose sweet clear voice perfectly suited the acoustic of the Queens upstairs club room. A solid bass from her right foot rhythmically thumping on the floor adds to her stylish playing; it’s finger-pickin’ good (groan…sorry!!).
Her set ranged from traditional Underground Railroad songs, songs which gave escaping slaves clues to safe houses and routes, like Green, Green Rocky Road to self penned satire, Gerds and Whirls – life was hell for a plump girl nerd in the 50s, the with-it girls had all the fun.
This review seems a little short - perhaps something got lost in transition!
I suppose it had to happen; towards the end of his set, and for those who hadn’t thought of it already this was probably a good thing, Dana Robinson mentioned that quite a few people have been coming up to him on the tour saying, "I thought you were that Irish girl". He wanted to set the record straight, " I would just like to say that my name is pronounced Da(y)na NOT Da(h)na." Really, no-one could confuse this strapping troubadour with the fey Irish Eurovision winner (did you know in 1970 she scored four times as many votes as Julio Iglesias?) or even her more statuesque namesakes such as Gillespie or International!
But a troubadour, and of the first order, is what Dana Robinson is. He travels - and tells stories and sings songs about those travels. He took to the stage at the Queens last Saturday (20th) with his partner and fellow musician Susan Pufahl and an array of instruments before a good-sized audience (the lady from the council who writes the cheques but "doesn’t sign them" was there but not all of you. Really, you are missing some good evenings) and immediately launched into some lively guitar picking with a variation on the traditional Paddy On The Railroad.
His next song Raspberry Cane was preambled by an anecdote of how he wrote it when he was building a house in the mountains and the soil was so shallow nothing would grow but wild raspberries. This set the tone for the evening, stories and music. Susan accompanied him on banjo here and you could hear, and see, that they not only performed well together but were – happy.
Susan effortlessly switched to guitar when Dana took up the fiddle for an impassioned bit of playing on Ozarks Farewell/Bear Left. He admitted it was her increasing proficiency as an accompanist which allowed him to concentrate on his own playing. Although most of Dana(remember it’s Da(y)na)’s songs are self-penned much songwriting is derivative or at least owes a debt to the past, so his version of Tommy Gerald’s Hush Little Darlin’ was better known to me as Charlie and Innez Fox’s R’n’B hit Mocking Bird. Essentially the same root and it all works. A couple of other ‘borrowed’ numbers were the rather (to me) melancholy James Leva song Love Beyond and the Huddie Leadbetter song Ain’t No Cane On The Brazos. Although here Dana had listened to a version by Harvey Reid, changed some of the words, used his own tune and called it Ain’t No Cane. An ever so slightly post-modern approach.
The troubadours of old were the information highway of their day and last Saturday we learnt a lot about American social history (Avenue Of The Saints tells us that fans of the Green Bay Packers football team wear hats shaped like giant green cheeses – mmm). And geography; The Susquehanna River originates near Cooperstown, New York then makes its way south through Pennsylvania and Maryland into the Chesapeake Bay. Many old and beautiful railroad bridges cross over her including the Rockville Bridge, which is the longest stone masonry bridge in the world – if that ever comes up in a pub quiz... Both these songs represented a long ramble through the heartland of America, an enjoyable journey with a thoughtful man in touch with the roots of rural America. Even when those roots show that not everything is well in the land of the free, the home of the brave: from This Town, "This town is full of vacant houses, missing shingles broken dreams, rain blows through the empty windows, like a vagrant whistle screams."
Dana’s overriding influence would seem to be Woody Guthrie and, from What Would Woody Do?, an apparent anti-consumerism anthem, "…you don’t have to be a poet to write a song about it." It was however the poet in him which interpreted the autobiographical words of the wanderer Everett Ruess (who disappeared mysteriously in the 1930s) to pen the hauntingly beautiful eponymous piece which closed the set.
But whilst his lyrics are contemplative his music and playing are pure down-home good-timey. Casper & Dots (named for his friend’s dalmatians) and Lost Girls were exciting instrumentals, the first on the flatiron mandolin the second the fiddle. Both featured repetitive hooks that built in ferocity as he played them. The fiddle piece featured a drone note, which sounds horrible on paper but was amazing in reality. Midnight Salvage was a lively piece which he dedicated to "ALL British guitar pickers." And you could hear the hommage to the Johns (Renborne, Martyn and perhaps even Mayall), but at this point a somewhat disquieting note crept in. I realised that he often sounded a lot like Cat Stevens. Still he was a good storyteller too, wasn’t he? So no bad thing really.
The encore Safe Home was a nice touch which brought a warm and relaxed evening to a happy conclusion. And the walk DOWN Mill Street was uneventful - although All Kinds Of Everything did keep popping unbidden…
Steve James, whom The Driver and Me had come to see upstairs at the Queens Head last Saturday (27th), wears pointy-toed cowboy boots. Remember this for later. The National Resophonic Guitar Company’s style ‘EN’ has a solid brass body, maple neck with ebony fretboard and ivorid machine heads. It’s about as heavy as a sack of potatoes; remember this also for later.
The brass-bodied single resonator guitar is etched on all sides, front and back, excluding only the edges which are polished to a mirror finish. It is then nickel plated creating a matte finish with beautiful highlights on the edges. Style ‘EN’ was specially made for Steve who wanted a Style ‘O’ that didn't blind his audience. Blind them, no; but he is not shy about dazzling his audience. And dazzle us he did with some powerful singing and virtuoso slide playing. You could tell he was serious right from the start – he was standing up, in those pointy-toed cowboy boots.
Straight into a rocking version of an old song wherein we learned that, "…It wasn’t about the money that I shot Billy Lyons dead. It was all about my John B. Stetson Hat." Reworked words, tune and the eponymous hat gave new impetus to what was essentially the old standard Stack ‘o’ Lee in all its various guises. Next an interesting story song about the long time (continuously since 1951) presenter of the "King Biscuit Time" radio Blues show - Sonny Payne (here we are learning more social history, if only I could learn to play the slide guitar by the same means). I certainly would like to be able to play like Steve did on the next number, Fisherman’s Reel even though I do have a little bit of a niggle about it. It was one of those pieces where "skill was demonstrated" (even the title was clever) and for me it was all just a tad too clever; to the point that, for me, it started to sound disjointed and discordant. But that is just one little quibble, the only one, and it was only the third number. And anyway The Driver liked it. After that everything went rapidly uphill.
Although no-one won the proffered pint for knowing who the Freestone County Blues was about, even though Blind Lemon Jefferson had asked, "…see that my grave is kept clean.", we were enthralled enough not to worry. And he kept our attention with tales of Leadbelly as he launched into Suki (or Sookie, or Sulky) Jump Party a really excellent instrumental which was not in the least bit wrong. It’s always fun when listening to musicians to try and spot the references but the next two numbers had me stumped. Prince Albert Hunt (in the words of Michelle Shocked), "A mystery, a cipher, a master. A white boy raised up around Negroes, who chose as a man to live ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ among them." Regarded by some as the progenitor of Western Swing his Blues In A Bottle showcased the ease with which Steve could switch ‘styles’ in his playing. He took this to new heights on the next number Way Out On The Desert written by Roosevelt T. Williams aka The Grey Ghost. Williams was a Texas ‘stride’ (a barrelhouse, blues style flourished with knuckled key rolls) pianist who came to fame in 1940 with his recording of Hitler Blues which was played on the BBC. He once said of his playing, "I plays with my right hand and let the left hand do what it want to." Steve announced he was going to "play Texas stride on the guitar" and he did just that- using both hands at once. Simply amazing.
Fast Texas the title track of his new CD followed and it was round about this time that he mentioned hills again; just the fact that Austin, Texas was rather hilly. Remember this for later.
After the interval during which I discovered just how heavy a National steel really is (had you remembered?) Steve launched quickly into two dedications – one to British womanhood and one to vegetarians – or rather they weren’t. Bachelor Blues extolled the virtues of all things single – and male and in (Greasy) Greens we learnt that Steve likes, "Cabbage greens, mustard greens, anything like that." Just as long as "They are cooked in BACON FAT." These numbers were very tongue in cheek and it was difficult to take offence despite the subject matter. I said earlier that Steve was a very serious musician. That he is but also a very humorous entertainer.
On the next tune Rosa Mesquite there was mention of "d’gonne hills" again and Steve mentioned that he often toured by train and that his favourite sort of songs were drinking and train songs. We had had some of the former and the set then raced along to its conclusion to the rhythms of the latter. The next number was written by Sylvester Weaver who in 1923 made recording history with his Guitar Blues, the first ever blues guitar record. His career was short-lived, but his music lives on. He retired as a recording artist in 1927, but the second record that he made, Guitar Rag, has become a country classic. As Steve played it it was almost the zenith of the set because for his finale he played Change. Steve explained how this song came about: One evening his audience was dancing the Hucklebuck to a particular tune and he realised he was coming to the end of the number; what was he to do? He just started talking over the guitar rhythms. And that’s what he did on Saturday night, a pounding repetitive rhythm and a story about everything and nothing in particular although there was a leitmotif of " A red and white Ford Fairline, you know the one I mean, the one with the small V8 engine (it rhymed!)." This held us captivated for over ten minutes and the encore Milwaukee Blues whilst a good going home song was almost superfluous.
You might have noticed that there was quite a bit of ‘extra’ information this week that was because I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t really make too many notes and so I had to pad this review out. Sorry.
Anyway I expect you are wondering why I am concerned about pointy-toed cowboy boots and the weight of a National Steel Guitar. Well… The Driver and Me had been out for the day, got back late, had a quick bowl of spaghetti which was laying heavy as we rushed up Mill Street, we were more out of breath than usual but we got our drinks and staggered up stairs to a CROWDED ROOM! Well done all of you. However… Steve had come up to Belper by train, walked up Mill Street in his pointy-toed boots with a sack of potatoes over his shoulder and been on his feet for two hours rocking ‘n’ rolling and wasn’t even red in the face. What a hero. I should never again complain about walking up Mill Street to see terrific entertainers. But I probably shall…
SPIKEdrivers (irregular capitalisation and lack of article) who were upstairs at the Queens last Saturday (4th) were Fan-F…ing-Tastic (irregular capitalisation and lack of constraint). That’s all you need to know. End of review.
No, I expect you want more than that: The Driver and Me had had a really good day, we had been to Kedlestone Hall in the morning where it was Abso-F…ing-Lutely (interesting device this ellipsis/dash but it quickly becomes tiresome) freezing. In the afternoon we saw the beam engines at Middleton Top and Leawood fired up and in the evening, a good meal with an excellent wine – which was nice.
So even though I approached Mill Street with the usual trepidation we were well keyed up for a good night out. And what a night – Ab Fab (I like that even less than the earlier device. Ho hum).
SPIKEdrivers are Ben Tyzack, Constance Redgrave and Maurice McElroy. They are a tight little group – musically and physically! Ben has four guitars, Constance a Fender bass (which is almost bigger than she is), washboard and assorted things for making noise and Maurice a full Ludwig kit and assorted other percussion, add all the Fender amps and stacks and you could see how they had to stay close on the Queens tight little stage.
Straight into the title track of their new CD Blue Trash – Ben sliding on an old flat top baritone Lowden, Maurice playing an udu (essentially a large pot with two holes in it, but what skill to make the holes do the right thing) and Constance looking like a miniature Xena, Warrior Princess, clad in a washboard breastplate which she was playing with metal dog grooming brushes?! We were only halfway through the second bottle of wine but I was transported and would have sworn that the sun was streaming down on Ole’ Miss (which it probably was taking the time difference into account).
Next number featured Maurice playing with his cojones – no, sorry, he had already made that mistake in Barcelona where he came across the cajon a wooden box used as percussion in Flamenco. When The Driver and Me saw the instrument in Seville it was just that – a wooden box – Maurice’s version had snare strings and bells ("wot no whistle?" Patience. Later). Not Flamenco but train songs was the order of the next part of the set; Laying Down Lincolns referred to the practice of placing (American) pennies on a railway line just before a train comes along, if they stay there "luck is yours". Ben had switched to a huge vintage Hofner Committee f-hole which made a powerful sound and so the next three numbers were almost a rockfest. Hey-Hey, a Big Bill Broonzy number closely followed by Leadbelly’s Gallows Pole (which Ben admitted was based on the Led Zeppelin version – and he could have slipped the hook from Stairway To Heaven in there without missing a beat!), then Ghost Train Shuffle whereon he sounded to me a lot like J. B. Lenoir. Ben’s playing was immaculate and inspired but the sustained rock and rhythm was in no small measure down to Constance and Maurice pounding away in the background. All finished off with a mournful train whistle ("told you so."). Which was nice.
It was Maurice’s turn to shine with Where Did The Money Go, a catchy song which he wrote, played the washboard with all ten fingers and the bass drum and hi-hats with all ten toes. Constance wrote and sang on the "wrist slashing" (her sentiments, not mine) You Don’t Care. Melancholic and dark, but dark like a good espresso with just the faintest hint of sweetness from Ben’s Gibson 125 all nicely stirred by Maurice’s hypnotic brushwork. The 125 saw us through a crisp Soul Searching Blues and Stop Breakin’ Down – Robert Johnson with drum ‘n’ bass.
After the break they came back and just carried on rocking. Got Me A Chicken was very loud and had Constance playing her washboard with all manner of swizzle sticks and bottle openers. That’s No Way To Get Along and Shake That Thing were all twiddles on the Hofner and various percussion. And to cap it all, on Maurice’s laconic rendition of Ray Benson’s Am I High Ben brought in the Brasso section, yes, he played the eponymous metal can and very polished it was too (sorry!). By now we were on our third bottle of wine (which was nice), and rocking along with all the other air drummers in the room (no one dared compete as an air GUITARIST). Too Much Trouble, Bright Lights, Big City we knew ‘em all until Constance slowed it down a just a leetle bit with Grampa Was A Moonshiner. Swamp guitar riff, the udu again and Constance sort of stroking her washboard which you will remember was strapped to her bosom. All rather erotic. Which was nice!
But then the pressure was piled on again when Ben picked up his home made resonator guitar. It didn’t sound like a National but it had the same power and it was way past finishing time when Urban Boogie Number 6 and Tampa Red’s Love With A Fever crashed into a very long version of Slim Harpo’s Hipshake. What a finale. A standing ovation from a packed house bought one – Little Red Hen - then a second encore. And they were clever those SPIKEdrivers; the self-penned Oklahoma Stardust Blues is a dreamy number complete with cicadas sound effects. Everyone went home relaxed.
It was very late so The Driver and Me had one more drink downstairs and went home to bed. Which was nice…
Nailers at Belper Football Club has an advantage over the Queens Head as a music venue – Mill Street does not enter into the equation! Well actually two advantages, it’s bigger, no, three, it has a dance floor. And dancing was what the Blues Night last Saturday (17th) was all about.
Erroll Linton’s Blues Vibe is a dance band. Not strict tempo, more correctly a band for dancing to and plenty of people danced the night away. The place was packed. I was a bit worried when we bought our tickets in advance (and saved the price of a pint) as they were numbered 2 & 3 – with only two days to go. But of course we were lucky, they had obviously been sold in reverse order and these were two of the LAST three. Hooray.
Only a few familiar Queens faces. Where do all these people come from? Didn’t make any notes, too busy bopping; a young woman even asked me to dance – lucky I had new batteries in the pacemaker! Notes would have been difficult anyway, the acoustic at Nailers is not as precise as up the hill so really one is assailed by a wall of sound (Phil Spector would have loved it) and also there were no preambles, no anecdotes, just one number into the next. It was not until about the fifth or sixth number that I actually recognised anything - Chester Burnett’s Howlin’ For My Baby and it was not even like the Wolf would have played it.
But why should it be? With a band like the Blues Vibe the music is evolutionary; on the band’s CD Roots Stew, Bo Diddley’s Fool For Love is credited to E. McDaniel – along with the rest of the band! And On several of the numbers Erroll’s Brixton roots overtook his Delta roots – Reggae Blues. But we can dance to Dub too (although some of the chaps did look like out of work, and step, Morris Dancers).
It was not the full band – no keyboards, brass or woodwind – but the tight little four piece rocked everyone in the house. Erroll’s keening harmonica perfectly complemented by Adam Blake’s wailing guitar nicely finished off by Jean-Pierre Lampe’s thumping double bass and Phil Myer’s equally thumping drums. But as I said earlier, dancing was what it was all about, and I noticed quite early on that most of the audience were in some way or another ignoring the band. Just dancing. This is in no way derogatory, in fact it was highly complementary. The band had transcended just playing, the music had taken everyone to a higher plane. Fun with a capital F. And perhaps just the odd spliff with a small s.
Long Row was flat (metaphorically) after that but the Vibe got us up that slight hill no trouble.
The Driver and Me and Younger [but old enough for pubs] Travelling Daughter who was visiting arrived at the Queens last Saturday (1st) late, but just in time to hear Brooks Williams say that he was also nearly late as he had "Just driven down from Newcastle" which was "only this far on the map.", fingers indicating about four centimetres. Did he not know Mill Street is only a gnat’s whisker on the map but it can still make us late? Actually this week the real reason was because we were watching Thorton’s fireworks - did you know they were on the 1st? Not many people seemed to; the firework party we are going to next Saturday is going to be a little disappointing!
Anyway we arrived in time to hear Brooks’s rendition of John Martyn’s May You Never. Apparently this is The Travelling Daughter’s all time favourite song and she pronounced this version "Not at all bad." Off to a good start.
I described Brooks Williams on the web site as playing "with the precision of a classically trained musician and the soul of a barroom brawler." This was ably demonstrated on the next number Saving Grace; my notes (which are weekly becoming increasingly incoherent) for this number read "Richie Havens??? 3chord trick". In order to make sense of it I have to think back to an evening in the late sixties when The Driver and Me were sitting next to Richie Havens on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall (the Upstairs at the Queens of its day)… No big deal, dear reader, in those days a well known but esoteric performer such as Havens couldn’t fill the Albert Hall. In fact there were probably less punters than the holes in A Day In The Life. And it was easy enough to go and sit at the back of the stage – where the choir is during the Proms – and watch Havens hammer his guitar. But I digress. What I was thinking was, Richie Havens hammered his guitar but was no great player. Brooks Williams, on the other hand, hammers his guitar but is a maestro, a virtuoso, an ace. His next song You Don’t Know (My Mind) admirably showed this. Complex vocal phrasing complemented by some nimble fingerwork on his wonderful Martin OM21.
Williams’s (I thought I would change to the surname to avoid the ‘s’s’ but I can’t!) musical influences are many and varied and stem in a large part from his pranks as a child of swapping his older brothers’ records in their sleeves. Pretty soon he realised that perhaps he should be playing the records rather than just playing with them. He discovered Ry Cooder and by diligent research one of his influences, Joseph Spence. Spence was a retired stonemason from the island of Andros in the Bahamas whose métier was religious songs. His deep gruff voice coupled with the Bahamian patois made his singing difficult, sometimes even uncomfortable, to listen to but his guitar playing was sweet, complex and melodious. Brooks neatly turned his hero’s style around on On The Rolling Sea (Jesus Comes To Me) with some sweet singing and really deep gruff guitar. The following number I Have Grown Weary Of The Moon was also gentle but ended with a bang – literally – as we were reminded that it was Firework Night outside.
Brooks did have formal musical training (his mother was an Opera singer, The Met. rather than Grand Ole’) and this was apparent on the next piece Joyful, Joyful which he described as a "Bossa Nova version of Beethoven’s Ninth" and also Frenzy At The Feeding which sounded as if he had Julian Bream, John Williams and John McLaughlin playing alongside him. His first slide piece (oh! I do love bottleneck guitar), Memphis Slim’s (Go Back To) Mother Earth proved that a two thousand dollar lump of wood packs as much punch as a two thousand dollar lump of steel. A versatile instrument the OM21; on the recorded version of Mother Earth Brooks plays a 12 string octave slide and is accompanied by a pedal steel and electric bass. On stage he sounded pretty much the same playing on his own.
After the break we heard the best line of the evening – "In a haze of patchouli and gin, she set her hook and reeled me in." from Great Big Sea. And then, according to The Driver, he got even more romantic – Dancing (In The City) was about his honeymoon – and almost slushy with Dougie Mclean’s She Loves Me (When I Try) which The Driver thought was, "Lovely, lovely but it was the way he sang it."
Most of Brooks’s (there it is again) songs are self-penned but he used the words of J. R. R. Tolkein for All That Is Gold (Does Not Glitter), the hoped for royalties not materialising because it was not used in the film. And in the next number Goodbye Walker Percy’– which for my money and The Driver’s and The Daughter’s was the highlight of the evening – no words at all because, "Walker Percy’s words speak for themselves" and Brooks Williams’s slide playing speaks volumes.
The evening drew to a close with the amusing Rotterdam Bar, Belfast where really famous musicians played and Brooks had been taken the day after it closed down. So in a fit of pique amidst the demolition he got onto the stage and sang an impromptu story song which was recorded, proved popular on Belfast local radio and caused the bar to be reopened. Brooks played the reopening night arriving in a stretch limo with champagne and caviar; but as the owner said, "Just this once!".
Killing The Blues by "Chris Issak’s bassist" (did he ever play the Rotterdam?) and another Joseph Spence (he could have) song (We Shall Be) Happy All The Time ended the set, with an encore of the soft instrumental What Wondrous Love - I’m really starting to like these low key/up beat endings, they make a good evening finish well.
Incidentally, he did know about Mill Street as he had to go back to the Post Office to pick up some more CDs such was the demand. He was not even out of breath on his swift return. But I think someone had given him a lift.
The Queens had a beer festival last Saturday (15th) so trudging up Mill Street was not so bad. Actually it was lucky that we were there at all that night as The Driver’s Sister was supposed to be visiting but strained her back and couldn’t travel so we were able to get out after all.
Of course, the real reason we were there was to see and hear Kellie While. We even got there early as it had been suggested that the place would be packed to the rafters. Unfortunately it wasn’t. But professionals can cope with this so The Driver and Me found a comfortable spot at the back and settled down for what we hoped would be an enjoyable evening as everyone we had spoken to opined as to what a great performer she was.
Kellie is the daughter of Chris While and I must admit I had heard of neither mother nor child despite being a fan of the Albion Band, with whom they have both sung, a long time ago. Mind you Shirley Collins was the singer way back then (and it was a long time ago – I’ve just discovered that Ashley Hutchings is planning to release ‘GREAT GRANDSON of Morris On’ next year!) so perhaps I can be forgiven my ignorance.
Kellie has been singing with the present incarnation of the Albions and also fronting a world music/jazz/fusion group, e2y. For someone so seemingly used to being at the forefront she seemed curiously diffident on Saturday night.
Right from the first number That’s What I Get it seemed to me that the PA was too loud. In the first half I couldn’t catch much of what was being sung. It was rather like that sequence on Never Mind The Buzzcocks where the panel have to decipher what is being sung by raucous rock groups. But here we had a solo singer with a lovely voice distorted by amplification, although her partner had done the sound checks so it must have been me then! Or maybe she was just too close to the mike. Either way I could not catch the title of the second song which was written by one of her heroes – Billy Joel!
Several self penned songs followed – Northern Town about her journey up the M1 from Dagenham to Southport; Laura, about her Granny, all very much the same, with a similar little guitar arpeggio at the end. The next song was by another ‘hero’, Mike Silver, but his style is very much in the same vein and when she announced the title, Where would You Rather Be Tonight? one could detect an edginess, but tinged with a certain ironic defiance.
Her next songs were poignant, How Do I Resist Your Love? and funny, Hopefuls. This latter was about her failure to qualify on a Popstars type reality audition…
Comparisons are invidious; Kellie While sings like Kellie While not like Eva Cassidy or even Norah Lord for that matter (which is lucky really as I find her terminally boring) but on Slip On The Way there was just a hint of Joni Mitchell (who was actually one of her mother’s heroes/heroines[?]). Riverbed, a Ron Sexsmith song followed (Leonard Cohen sounds almost lively compared to him!) but then finally, finally an upbeat number – a spirited version of the Zim’s Mississippi. But then you go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like…"A song by my favouritist hero of all – James Taylor". Millworker was highly apposite for Belper but I was glad it was the interval.
She and I chatted in the interval about her Fylde guitars (two grand again and she had two, must be something to singing in a pub). One was actually her Mother’s which she had been playing since the age of fourteen and I think she was more comfortable with this than her newer one.
After the break there did not seem to be many songs but one could at least hear the words as the mike had been turned down. A couple of the songs were brand-spanking never-performed-before new and I wonder if this was the cause of her diffidence, she had no way of knowing if these untried songs would be up to scratch but she tried them out on us anyway.
It wasn’t to be my night; I missed what The Driver thought was the highlight of the evening, In My Room by the 'lost poet of Merseyside', Jimmy Campbell. I was in the lav, well it was a beer festival! For the first time in the Upstairs Bar music series I was looking at my watch hoping that the beer downstairs was not going to run out but I dutifully sat through the dutiful encore, a good version of Hoagey Carmichael’s Skylark.
Downstairs talk turned to the preceding entertainment and the consensus was universal, "She wasn’t as good as last time." No good to me, I didn’t see her last time. But she has a beautiful voice and composes elegant complex tunes and so I await the next time - although I think I would like the accompaniment of Hutchings et al.
Incidentally, the ‘theme’ of the beer festival was vaguely "Doctor’s Orders" and talking of Doctors… the good news is that the Sister-in-Law will be well enough to travel next week so unfortunately The Driver and Me shan’t be there to hear Kieran Halpin’s "sardonic sarcasm." Enjoy…
Actually The Driver had been away whooping it up in Brighton for a couple of days (Elder Soon-To-Be-Married Daughter's hen bash) so it ended up a bit of a rush (because I had suggested "be there early"). Picked her up from the station. Quick simple meal –bretelloni (a long wavy, Pugliese pasta) served with a puttanesca sauce; you can buy it at Bennetts in Derby but if you get the chance, go to Carlucci’s deli in Covent Garden… Anyway, eight forty-five, a dash up Mill Street which was NOT GOOD, a couple of pints of guest beer which were, and then upstairs. Which was not packed, at that time.
The man was there. Had been since seven o’clock. He was drinking Mateus Rosé. Now you probably know him better than me…
When I saw him my mind immediately went back a few years to when I last saw John Hammond at the Borderline. Now that man is seriously one of my all time favourites. On that occasion he was wearing a grey suit which shone in the lights, probably Armani, probably silk, pale snakeskin boots and a vintage Martin – about six/seven grand all told – singing songs about the depression and the dispossessed. But I still loved him.
Ian Siegal had on a shiny suit, H & M, polyester. Honest, I asked him. And pale shoes. Also the ubiquitous two grand lump of steel (nickel-plated brass actually). Ah! But no. This axe was far from ubiquitous. A gen-u-wine 1929 National Triolian with its original buttermilk (or polychrome tan as it was originally known) finish although some of the decoration looked a little suspect – especially the Osborne brandy bull.
But what an instrument, and what a sound in the hands of such an accomplished player. Straight into John The Revelator, then the self-penned tribute to Skip James, Shake Hands With The Devil and then a song, "Just about a horse. Not sex. Just a horse." Saddle Up Your Pony (I’m Gonna Ride My Black Mare). I was liking this. I thought I was hearing Son House then Fred McDowell but no, it was the Magic Captain. And when, on the next number, he used his old axe to emulate a whole band I didn’t really care whom he sounded like, until… He then said that Tom Waites was one of his greatest influences. Heart Attack & Vine. Ah! That’s who he sounds like.
Now don’t get me wrong (I’ll get the criticism over now so maybe you will have forgotten it by the end of this piece), I like Tom Waites as much as the next person. In fact I admire his music and performance a great deal. But Tom Waites is Tom Waites and Ian Siegal isn’t. Ian Siegal is a marvellous performer who writes terrific songs (more of this later) and interprets the old blues styles brilliantly but I can’t help feeling that his increasing dedication to T W’s music is bordering on impersonation. The slippery slope to ‘Stars In Their Eyes’ beckons: "Tonight Matthew, I’m…".
Ian clued me in to something I did not know – last year John Hammond recorded an album of Tom Waites songs with the album produced by T W himself. A collaboration: "On tune after tune, Hammond inhabits Wait's wonderfully peculiar landscape with his own art and attitude." And for me that is the key: Interpretation not impersonation. Anyway the audience (not the usual crowd at all) loved it. They knew every "Yeah" and "Sha la la" by heart but I still wonder had the real T W been there would I S have had a look in?
But of course this is only opinion and I loved him too. He is a marvellous singer and player and wonderfully entertaining. His "songs that never were" ("I looked over Jordan and what did I see? Mr Jordan cumming after me") had us hooting with laughter and playing that old National like a five-string banjo was jaw droppingly awesome.
After the break we had a respite from T W where Ian’s own versatility came to the fore. The self penned Brand New Ford was like Alvin Lee on speed, then scintillating versions of Ground Hog Blues and Grinning In Your Face (Hooker and House respectively).
(An observation: That last song involved the audience in hand clapping. Was this an attempt to drown out those strange people who had paid a fiver to sit and talk, loudly, throughout the whole set? Sadly it was not totally successful).
Then, my highlight, a new number, Guitar Shaped Woman: "Teeny weeny waist like a famine and an arse like a five course meal". How close to the real thing is that? A change of pace with The Beast In Me which was apparently written by Nick Lowe and not his step father-in law! And a haunting rendition of Sting’s I Hung My Head. The next number Somebody Stolen My Scarecrow had a sort of silent scream (as The Driver described it) which was truly electrifying. And so he rocked on I Shall Be Standing In The Morning (by this time the bottle of Mateus was getting low); Catfish Blues, Leave My Wife Alone. The guitar doubling variously as bass or flamenca. All too soon it was Time, Time Time to finish. At this point two perfect double Jack Daniels appeared as if by magic, one of which he thought was his Mateus! After that and, "unaccustomed as he was to public drinking" perfect versions of Jersey Girl and Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis which I had always liked anyway. And he did have the decency to finish with a Willie Nelson song, Crazy Old Soldier. Although that might have been written by David Allen Coe.
Anyway The Driver thought it was a terrific evening. Me, I thought it was pretty damn good too. However I’m not going to miss him with his band, in fact if The Driver and Me were not away at New Year we might well be going to the Running Horse in Nottingham where he will be playing solo and with his band, the best of both worlds, fifteen quid including buffet, first 130 in advance only.
Going back down Mill Street was terrible. The rain was sheeting down from the North. We were drenched and freezing. Stripped off and towelled down and the remains of the bretelloni was still moist and a little warm; which was nice.
13/12 – bit of excitement Ian Siegal at the Queens. Unannounced (although I did post it on the website). Now The Driver and Me are not from this neck of the woods originally so we are unfamiliar with Nottingham’s finest. And we missed him when he was last at Nailers with his band. But everyone speaks well of the lad, so, special effort tonight.