We’ve been unwell, both The Driver and Me, so we have not ventured up Mill Street for a couple of weeks or more (missed the Slow Down Boys whom I really wanted to see – hope they were good). But I also really wanted to see Peter Price (Jan 17th) so we made the effort on a cold dark night braving the perils of Belper’s most notorious 1 in 4 (the last 50 yards always seems more like 1 in 2.5) to see a modern delta blues singer, Mersey Delta that is. For Peter hails from Warrington and when speaking to him one can detect a north-west burr, but when he sings you could swear he came from a couple of thousand miles further west and south.
Straight into Robert Johnson’s Kind Hearted Woman hammering out the accompaniment on an old Gibson SJ – possibly 1950s if that was a crown emblem on the headstock – then straight into Blind Willie Moore’s One way Gal and then two more by the man who "sold his soul", Crossroad Blues and Come On In My Kitchen (it was reputedly the former rather than latter location where the dirty deed occurred!). I was going to like this.
(Here one has to be careful; criticism is essentially a subjective view tempered, hopefully, with objectivity. But if you are going to like it you are going to like it even if the performer is not the best guitarist or the most accomplished singer who has graced that stage. And I enjoyed the evening even though he is not the most accomplished performer I’ve seen).
But certainly very interesting as he then played several instrumental pieces on the old SJ which were absolutely enthralling. A Brazilian ‘maxixe’ complete with tolling bells effect, Baton Rouge Rag where he ham-hammered a slightly de-tuned E string to get a compelling bass riff and Latchford Laguna - Western Swing from the Cheshire Plain.
Switching to his other guitar he launched into some good ole blues starting with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s Kokomo Me Baby and paying tribute to all the Johnson boys – Lonnie, Tommy, Pete and Robert, none of whom was related to each other, although Tommy did also claim to have "met ol’ scratch at the crossroads", who "tuned his guitar so he could play any tune" (if only…!) – along the way.
I’ve got several Fred McDowell LPs and I heard him shortly before he died (didn’t see him; The Driver and Me had gone to a pub "dahn souf ov the river" (common enough then, wouldn’t dream of it now), obscure, wouldn’t be too big a crowd. When we got there – well, if this had been the equivalent of the Queens the punters would have stretched all the way to King Street. So we just had to stand outside and listen. And I remember his voice was raucous and his playing keening. Unfortunately the Beltona Resonator might be a National look-alike but sound-alike it ain’t. Too mellow by half. Still Mark Knopfler likes them and Peter said it suited him. And I had come to see Peter Price; Mississippi Fred songs were a bonus.
It is obviously difficult for a performer to please everyone, I would have been content if he had played nothing but Delta Blues but the performer can educate as well as entertain and as P. P. said, "Live music for live people." So ‘Last Train To Belper was an interesting precursor to Pete Seeger’s Working On The Railroad and other ‘folksy’ numbers, from Big Bill’s First Child Born to Roy Acuff’s As Long As I Live which he sang beautifully; he really has got a versatile voice. And despite what I said earlier he is also a versatile guitarist. This was ably demonstrated by his rendition of the 23rd Psalm played in the style of the great Bahamian picker Joseph Spence (his earlier trick of ‘bam-bam’ on the E tuned down to D is a Spence affectation). And then he played the harmonica! Two more Robert Johnson numbers and then he made that D string buzz just like the drone on uilleann pipes with the other five strings filling in nicely on Last Pint. Which wasn’t the last song, not by a long way, because after he came back from a quick pee he had the audience singing Goodnight Irene, Drinking Wine Spodee Odee and Don’t Fence Me In. After two excellent Zim songs (Buckets Of Rain and John Hardy) it was almost midnight before he played his last Delta song – the Ganges Delta this time. Anno’s Chant was a variation on the Indian hymn Sitar Ram and if you closed your eyes you could swear that old SJ had a sitar’s 17 strings instead of its own six.
Peter said that he hoped his playing would arouse curiosity regarding the composers of the music he played. I certainly checked out Joseph Spence whom I did not know (although I did research his background if not his actual music after Brooks Williams mentioned him a few months ago) and who had a laugh that would strike terror into the heart of anyone standing at a crossroad. Also, I must get a plug on my record deck; modern technology is all very well but vinyl is still a useful resource and after hearing Peter Price perform I wanted to listen to my old black (sic) discs again. Nice evening Peter.
We haven’t been up Mill Street for a while; The Driver was unwell, then me. Then we were away and then unwell again, and then, horror of horrors, the computer crashed and I couldn’t work (where do you think I get all my info from anyway? My memory might be long but it’s ain’t that good!). We did manage a trip down the hill though. To Nailers, to see Ian Parker – the Air Guitarist’s Guitarist-of-Choice. The approach to Nailers is worse than Long Row, and it was raining, and it was dark. But it was worth it if only for a seven minute solo on Awake All Night which was so good it made my fingers bleed just thinking about it. You missed it? Tuff.
But up the hill since we were last there we have missed, Gina Dootson, Pete Morton and the redoubtable Claude Bourbon. But I was not going to miss Lisa Mills accompanied by Robbie Blunt. So, on a cold THURSDAY (19th) we trudged up the hill (and, not having done it for so long, you have no idea what a struggle it was!). But like I.P. it was well worth it.
Not as many people as I would have expected but a good crowd. Robbie was sitting on his own with a shiny green new looking Strat with very thin looking strings vamping away, his fingers dancing along the neck. Even unamplified it sounded good, high and keening. But there is a price to pay for delicate strings – they break – and that evening we were treated to the Not The Green Guitar Show. Every time he picked it up he had to put it down. I think we heard it once and I can’t remember what it sounded like. Ah well, never mind, he did have another two axes with him.
Lisa bounced on stage and perched on a stool with a gigantic, borrowed Takamine Dreadnought guitar and launched into one of her own numbers so quickly I missed the title and then equally quickly into John Prine’s Hard Way To Go. Both with Robbie on an old Strat with thicker strings. Lonnie Mack’s Cream Milk Cookie Blues followed with Robbie playing excellent slide on a Gibson Melody Maker and Lisa playing bass heavy riffs on her axe. (it was only much later that The Driver pointed out that there were only the four low strings on the guitar. That’s why it was bass heavy. How could I have missed that? I was obviously too enthralled with the performance to notice). There was however an annoying hum from the speakers, I thought, "Queens needs a new PA." Then I came across the following on a website (for those of you of a technical bent and nerds like me. Don’t say I don’t try to make it interesting),
"The total lack of set-up (nut height/intonation) makes the Gibson Melody Maker sound and feel initially rather nasty. Setting intonation with this slightly high action means we run out of travel on the low E saddle and you're left thinking that Gibson, by now, should know where to put the bridge on its guitars. But with the intonation set and the quite high .010 gauge action, the guitar actually performs quite well. It's a bigger, more direct sound than the Faded DC's bridge P90 and it hits the spot perfectly for rootsy rock. Even with more gain, the guitar surprises by turning in a gutsy performance so long as you can manage the background hum. With any single-pickup guitar you can either have your volume and tone on full and use amp channels/stomp boxes to colour your sound, or get used to the volume and tone to subtly shape your tone - we prefer the latter, straight into your amp. Guitars this simple can be wonderfully liberating: just how good are you?"
Be aware, Robbie Blunt is good, very good.
A Lucinda Williams song next Concrete And Barbed Wire. Now Lucinda has some excellent backing music and writes good tunes but to me she is the Norah Jones of Swamp Rock – monotonal and boring. Not so Lisa who emoted above the limitations of her solo 4-string guitar. Then launched into pure rock, Ain’t Got You the Yardbirds (or was it the Pretty Things? I can’t access my vinyl) version rather than Springsteen or Trisha Yearwood.
She moved onto one of her own numbers I Don’t Need You and allowed her voice and emotions full rein. Now comparisons are always personal and often invidious but I swear she sounded just like Janis Joplin. Hell, Lisa fronted Big Brother & the Holding Company for a while and I don’t think Pearl would have been too unhappy about that. Plus the fact that those of you who weren’t there need some point of reference. Whilst we are on the subject I thought she LOOKED like a young Angie Dickinson. That is personal; and unlikely to be invidious.
Some numbers I didn’t know, Kick It Around by James Hunter – "Does anyone know James Hunter’s music?" Lisa asked, "He’s British." Blank looks all around. Now had she asked, "Does anyone know Howlin’ Wilf?" I would have done. Big(ish) in 80s R’n’B (proper Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, NOT what masquerades as R’n’B today) with his band the Vee-Jays. He has been recording again on Ruf Records, same label as Lisa’s latest CD. And "Austin girl" Toni Price’s Richest Woman, followed by Baby Please Don’t Go by Dublin’s finest with an excellent Blunt solo and some fine singing from Lisa.
The woman even screams in tune.
Several frenetic numbers culminating in Mose Allison’s Your Mind Is On Vacation But Your Mouth Is Working Overtime. And suddenly a haunting rendition of Dobie Gray’s Drift Away calmed us down for a beer break.
There had obviously been a manager’s chat in the dressing room (metaphorically speaking) during the interval; the two of them have been playing together for a while but in the first set they were not necessarily always totally together. Robbie was not always sure when to come in for the solo, Lisa’s guitar was sometimes a little overpowering. Don’t get me wrong, they were good, damn good, but not always cohesive. All change. Things could only get better. And they did.
Two more Texas songs; another William’s number Lake Charles poignant and beautifully sung and another Price song Throw Me A Bone Tonight. Loved that one and sought out the original. I like her voice.
Things started to really gel when they performed Ain’t Nobody’s Business with each verse in a different Blues style and they finally came together perfectly on B.B. King’s Since I Met You Baby. Robbie’s old Strat ain’t Lucille but it sang. As much as I love the National (and its clones) not much can beat a Fender in full flight. And it was up there with the angels that night. Uphill all the way (that’s good, not bad) – Sugar Coated Love (when I say "love" I mean L-U-R-V-E); Don’t Advertise Your Man (the green Strat got a brief look in here); Slow Train (Gibson slide). All too soon Bright Lights, Big City and Koko Taylor’s Stop Crying provided a triumphant finale.
How do you follow that? An a cappella version of Dock Of The Bay. Voice, handclaps, audience participation. But no whistling, mores the pity. A great evening. Lisa even told me she would have sung Ball And Chain - if I had pleaded. And guess what I was whistling on the way back down Mill Street?
PS We missed Winter/Wilson on Saturday. So nothing on them I’m afraid.
It is surprising how practice does tend to make perfect – well, offers room for improvement anyway. For we have been up Mill Street several times recently and it seems to be GETTING EASIER. Mind you talking is still verboten; don’t want to run too much of a risk! So it was with comparatively little reluctance that The Driver and Me set out last Saturday (28th) to See Jim Condie at the Queens.
I knew nothing about Jim. That much was painfully obvious, so let’s get the Lena Zavaroni thing out of the way; that was all I had at the time. There was no redirection to the extensive website which lists all the famous friends he has played alongside and friends of friends who have played alongside someone else famous. The ‘one step away’ syndrome. How could I have missed Hercules the Bear (thanks to Tracey for noticing that) and Spit the Dog! Or the Theme from Rab C. Nesbitt (The Driver got that in a later conversation), or that he actually appeared in episodes of Govan’s finest and – wonder of wonders – TAGGART.
But Jim has also stood next to the likes of Van Morrison, Chuck Berry and Taj Mahal on his trip to the dizzy heights at the top of Mill Street. Of all this I knew not. But I came to (ap)praise the man not review his life history. So what’s he like?
First off – he’s better looking than his pictures (and if I had found his website I could have found some real stinkers! But more on this later…) and, to get the invidious comparison thing out of the way, he doesn’t sound like anyone else. He sounds like Jim Condie, which is great. He has a deep but mellow accentless voice (it always surprises me that strong speaking accents – Jim hails from Dunfermline – are lost when their owner sings). If necessary though he can hit the high notes but tuneful all the time.
Straight into an upbeat song about everyone’s mother-in-law (oops!), Jim Crawford’s Pigs Might Fly but then equally adroitly the haunting Steve James song Talco Girl. A story song which Jim equated with his travels away from his native Dunfermline. The next song Farewell To Edinburgh was also a story song even though it was an instrumental! Jim’s preambles to the songs (to my mind) announced to the audience that here we had a return of the story telling performer, something I feel we have missed of late at the Queens.
That last number was sweetly played on a Dobro of indeterminate age with a Diamond bottleneck (I know that from the website!) as was the next, a rollocking Tamp ‘Em Up Solid. He then transferred back to his other guitar, an interesting flattop cutaway which he said was a Dougie Maclean or perhaps he meant it belonged to Dougie Maclean. Either way it had a great sound and he flailed away in an accomplished boogie style on It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie. Next a couple of depression songs – the ethos rather than the era - Uncle Dave Macon’s All In Down And Out Blues and Ain’t Nobody Loving You from the pen of Lonnie Johnson. Jim said that at a gig someone had said the song "…reduced him to tears." It certainly was maudlin but I wonder who the mystery man really was?
Before we all slashed our wrists, a couple of lively numbers took us up to the break – Crow Back Chicken and Steve Pineo’s Didn’t Quite Make It. With audience participation on that one. Nice sliding and picking on both those. Even on the most complex passages Jim seems able to easily skip the notes which are going to cause a problem hardly missing a beat or checking the fluidity of the passage too much. And throughout it all little jokes and anecdotes. Mmm. Nice.
The second half started on a slightly upbeat - no slightly up-tempo – number, after all Warren Zeavon was terminally ill when he wrote My Dirty Life And Times. But Blind Blake’s Big Bad Bill (a la Ry Cooder) did give us a little swing lift before a really quite fine version of Vigilante Man dropped us down again (but it was a high in itself). Really, is there no end to the man’s mood swings? However the next number Greasy Greens, Amos (Bumble Bee Slim) Easton’s paean to vegitarianism – not! - was close to The Driver’s heart as was Mississippi John Hurt’s Payday to mine.
Lively to the end then; Great Dream From Heaven in the style of Joseph Spence (I told you about him a couple of weeks ago) which did sound a lot like Ry Cooder’s version of Happy Meeting In Glory – but that’s no bad thing. Then another highspot – a song written by Pat Donahue (who also penned the rather catchy Moan, You Moaners, Moan) to the tune of Swing On A Star – Would You Like To Play The Guitar? Very funny and performed with a twinkle in the eye and the wrist. A powerful version of Rev. Gary Davis’s Judgement Day adapted by Jim to make it his own (another little story there) and then Goodnight Irene (more audience involvement) brought the set to a close well past finishing time without anyone noticing. An encore of Make Me A Pallet On The Floor brought some heavy applause and a good evening to a close.
One slight disappointment for me; Sleepwalk, the Farina Brothers’ greatest (but by no means only) hit is on Jim’s CD. Now this is in my Top 3 all-time hits (the other two are Sweet Dreams – Tommy McLain’s 1966 version and Phil Phillips version of Sea Of Love) and I asked Jim to play it but he said he could not do it solo. I can’t put my hands on my vinyl so I played his CD version – pretty good and close to the original (although I don’t think he quite captures Santo & Johnny’s ending); but high, very high, on the list of covers. Now whilst listening, and during writing this I have been looking at the album notes (self-deprecating or what?)… The ‘Distant Cousins’ look incestuously close to home – his not mine! And their names… I don’t know any of them but they all seem strangely familiar. Perhaps there is something on his website. If only I’d spelled his name right in the first place. Can’t play it solo indeed. He he he he…
We’ve been away, The Driver and Me, to sunny Brixham. Actually it rained for most of the time we were there – large, horizontal drops of water borne on a fierce wind. And cold, because parts of Brixham are up high - higher than the top of Mill Street. The friends we were staying with lived right at the top of the town; up one hundred and four steps which rose at an angle of approximately 57 degrees and made the trip up to the Queens last Saturday (20th) seem comparatively easy.
Comparatively; although we would have made the trip anyway for we were going to see… OTWAY (no-one ever calls him John, his mythic status makes him iconic) and one surmounts all obstacles to experience that. But then one has to stand back and ask WHY?
I vaguely remember seeing him on TOGWT when he fell off the amplifier and quite literally knackered himself and I’m pretty sure I’ve got a copy of ‘Cor Baby, …’ (I really must make a concerted effort to get to my vinyl) but that was TWENTY SEVEN years ago and I haven’t thought about him much in the interim. But nearly everyone at the Queens seems to revere him (so much so that I thought he was a local lad, imagine my surprise when I discovered he hails from Aylesbury), so we had to be there. We even bought tickets in advance just to be on the safe side. Just as well; it was crowded upstairs and later packed.
A buzz of excitement, a figure pushes through the throng but it was someone else’s shiny pate (I would have recognised him from the front as I had already greeted him downstairs – he was sitting under his poster!). But finally the Twig Man made the stage. A sort of suburban version of the Thin White Duke with a different haircut. And without the expensive suit. And no tie. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bowie in a pullover. This is going off at a tangent. 57 degrees? That’s what he does to you!
He takes off his jacket and pullover. Crisp white shirt and dark trousers held up with a PYJAMA CORD?!! But no, that holds up his guitar not his trousers. A Clever Device which allows the quick release of the axe (a fine Takamine) when he does his gymnastics!!! But more of that later.
B-musement very quickly turned to A-musement with the story of his progress from one-hit-wonder to two-hit-superstar, something he really believed in as long as he sang his first number of the evening – I Am A Lion – every morning in the shower. Works for him because THEN THE HITS STARTED. Cor Baby, That’s Really Free reached number 27 in the charts and number two on the evening’s playlist and proved what an ace on the guitar special effects pedal Otway really is. No great shakes on the actual instrument mind you (Mmm…). The music soared and it sounded if there were at least double the number of performers on the stage (there normally is, dunno where Richard was that evening). In order not to lose the moment he quickly launched into what was the B-side of the A-side, Beware Of The Flowers ('cause I'm sure they're going to get you yeah!), the song which endeared him to almost a lot punks and which included a quite devastating Pete Townshend impersonation (the flailing arm rather than the dextrous fingers but stunning in its ordinariness none the less!).
Otway then picked up a strange instrument – Siamese twin guitars. Now you know I’m a guitar geek (not freak – I can’t play the damn things but I luv ‘em to bits) but I had not seen an instrument like this before so I looked up "double guitar" (expecting to find pictures of Jimmy Page or even a Gibson 1275 in all its glory, which I would have done had I input "twin neck"). Almost the first things which turned up (actually the VERY first thing which came up was a pair of Trinidadian steel DRUMS called "double guitars", honest) looked much like Otway’s instrument; it was a Dean Zelinsky guitar designed by, and built for, Michael Angelo Batio of the group Nitro. He is an axeman nonpareil; a man with three hands and dozens of fingers on the end of his left arm – check him out, visually even more than audibly. But anyway, Otway’s axe looks a bit like the Dean with one important difference – it has a springy hinge in the middle so it can be bent to produce a tremolo effect (I think!). And so he played that old Sweet favourite Blockbuster rather in the style of a talking blues (which seems to be his style anyway) but with exemplary foot pedalling (well, sort of. Mmm… again) so it sounded like the whole group were there. 21 Days (Without Remission) followed, a song which made Leonard Cohen sound cheerful. Then one of his signature tunes, Honey, Bobby Goldsboro’s paean to loss which Otway sang quite brightly; the man is a paradox and at this point one realises that he is actually more skilful than his buffoonery would suggest for he managed to accommodate the song’s many key changes by simply sliding the capo down the neck of the guitar – a Gordon Smith as I was reliably informed. He made it look clumsy but he never actually lost the rhythm or missed a beat. The next song then reinforced my admiration of him. Poetry and Jazz was a complex straight story song complemented by some completely competent guitar playing.
But then mania returned – ripping the shirt open, the microphone on the coat hanger and a crazy punk version of Two Little Boys and the mini drum pads in his pockets which enlivened (is that really all it did?) Body Talk. You just had to be there. Sorry.
The second half rocked. (My) House Is On Fire led into a really real impersonation of the Zim singing Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive (now if he could be on roller skates…). And then…and then… the OTHER HIT – Bunsen Burner. You all know the story (if you don’t, read it on his website. It’s too long to recount here), but because he didn’t have his Disco Inferno backing he told it as poem and one got the full import of the words and realised what a really clever poet he is. His fans know all about it and there were plenty of them in the audience as amply demonstrated by House Of The Rising Sun: "There is a house…","Where?", " …in New Orleans.", "What’s it called?" and "With a suitcase and a tronk…", "What’s a tronk?"’ "I don’t know. I didn’t write the bloody song."
It became a bit of a blur after that. Punk Rumplestilskin ("Gimme the baby!". Kyle and Cartman would have liked that one). Middle of Winter (bashing the mike-stand [Nessum Dorma]). And a very, very ‘fuzzy’ version of You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet. This involved a ladder, a thrown guitar and some adroit gymnastics. Like I said, you just had to be there.
God’s Camera and a truly heart rendering rendition of Cheryl’s Going Home closed the set. Then as a finale a number involving that ladder again (no expensive speaker stacks these days), along with the participation of the microphone and a long-suffering roadie, which originated from Otway’s one time partner in music Wild Willie Barrett, Headbutts. The title speaks volumes. Literally.
None of the above adequately sums up the man. If you are a fan and familiar with his performance you’ll understand. If not take the first opportunity to go and see him and then you’ll understand. And you’ll probably become a fan. I don’t think The Driver and Me were humming any of the tunes as we walked down Mill Street. We were just giggling.
Very late – and very short - review this week as things have not been going to plan. Decorating, and I have had a cold, and anyway we shouldn’t even have been at the Queens last Saturday (10th), The Driver and Me. We should have been in Bacup in Lancashire getting riotously inebriated with the Stacksteads Silver Band and the Britannia Coconut Dancers but the Niece-by-Blood was dropping a sprog so we decided to hang around for that and then, three days late on top of two weeks overdue so, what the hell, everything else is going awry, Mill Street is minor by comparison.
Steve Tilston is popular, a legion of fans, most of them strangers (to me), but he is a folk singer and my folkie days are very long gone (although I do still like Morris dancers – I defy you to take the piss!). The problem is that I don’t know any folk songs so I can’t sing along to A Crow’s Heart, Games That We Play or even Constant Lover as the audience certainly was even though Steve knew, "…this is not a folk club". No it ain’t, but quite a few knew some of the words (one diehard seemed to know them all; to every song). What do I do? Mime? Actually he needed no help from me or the others for he is a very fine singer and an excellent guitarist.
And what a great sounding axe. A Martin Cole (the eponymous luthier is from Bude, Cornwall) Stratus 14/12 and to quote the maker, "Specially developed in conjunction with Steve Tilston, this guitar could be described as a steel sting version of a classical guitar. It borrows heavily from classical guitar design and construction i.e. slipper heel integral neck, wide fretboard, 650mm scale length and slotted headstock but differs radically in that the uneven shoulders of the body allow access to the 14th fret without resorting to a cutaway. Body capacity is therefore maximised for a very rich acoustic performance." A full sound is what you get and very sweetly played by Steve.
But I was still having trouble with folk songs. Did I remember that Here’s To Tom Paine was a tribute to the author of "The Rights Of Man" and "The Age Of Reason"? No. Was this Salty Dog the same as the Procul Harum version? Probably not. Did anyone realise that "Steve Tilston" was once an answer on MasterMind? I doubt it. And did I listen to the words of the long rambling anti-war song? Actually I did but I still don’t know the title. And even listening to the words I couldn’t really fathom it out.
(The Driver always accuses me of not listening to the words and indeed I gave up around about the time that 45s went beyond a hundred and five seconds and writers ran out of rhymes for "moon", "spoon" and "June". At the same time though I discovered the Blues and even though I couldn’t understand the patois of Skip James and Bukka White the sound stayed with me).
At this point though Steve played a "Road Song". It was really a folk song, Way Behind The Times I think; but it had the right bluesy walking guitar riff. Then straight after, New York Girls which even I knew the words to!
During the beer break The Driver said how much she enjoyed the up-tempo numbers and could we have more? What cheek! But the second half was much more lively. Let Your Banjo Ring and Walking Down That Roman Road involved some very nifty de-tuning and re-tuning of the guitar and some very classy playing. Then a terrific version of Marc Coen’s Walking In Memphis. No folk there, folks. The Waterhole and Tetse Fly Shuffle showcased some more guitar work of the style I tend to favour. A very 60s, very interesting (folk) story Anthony Believes (Jesus Will Return) followed. Then a rollercoaster to the finish; The Dewey Ones (a folk song but played in a lively Cretan style) and a rocking ‘Slips, Jigs And Reels. The encore, Near The Mountain Streams Where The Moorcocks Crow, though was not only very folky but somehow the words and music did not seem to gel. Pity.
But he must have been good for… someone who shall remain nameless stayed right to the end and she does not normally do that. And The Driver and Me had a pretty good time after about the first forty minutes. One final point, I may be narrow-minded in my musical taste (actually I’m not, I’m completely catholic – apart from (Traditional English) folk music that is!) but at least I’m courteous enough to listen, and not, like some, chatter incessantly throughout virtually the entire set. Even the quiet numbers.
Anyway you can have a break from my chattering (oops) for a couple of weeks as I shall miss The Slowdown Boys and Adrian Burns. I hope you enjoy them.
The Driver and Me haven’t been up Mill Street for several weeks now. Not because we were wetting a new baby’s head in Chester or dancing the night away at a birthday party in Hertfordshire. Not even celebrating, with canapés and champagne, the first anniversary of our arrival at the Heart of Derbyshire (although we did have a singularly fine claret with our spag bol – we’re not proud!). No I’ve been in pain and flat on my back with a trapped nerve for almost a month now. So we have missed The Slowdown Boys, Adrian Burns, Imisti and Asere: although I have to own up to staggering down to Nailers to see Errol Linton’s Blues Vibe but I was up to the eyeballs on Pedigree and painkillers so that doesn’t really count.
But then I thought, "This is ridiculous. I’ll never get out again.", and I was determined to see the latest band, so last Saturday (8th) We staggered, and I mean staggered, up Mill Street to see the ZZ Birmingham Band. Actually technically speaking that’s not whom we saw, it was ZZ Birmingham with the Elmos Grandez Band but I’m sure many of you are aware of the incestuous Billington genealogy so it’s almost a moot point really. Anyway, The Driver and Me were not familiar (we’ve only been here a year remember and ZZ B seems to have more incarnations than Slowhand Clapton) so did not know what to expect.
It quickly became clear why the place was so crowded - Fans. Lots. And lots of strangers amongst the familiars. It was not just the room which was crowded, the stage was pretty packed too – four band members, a full drum kit and more guitars than you could shake a plectrum at. Oh, and a couple of harmonicas too.
Oh joy! The music was familiar; I could sing along to these, John Lee Hooker’s I’m In The Mood For Love, Walkin’ The Dog (the Rufus Thomas version rather than the Tex Grimsley). I could even have tapped my foot had I not had a gammy leg (… but more of that later). Wonderful harmonica playing on the latter; Arthur may not be much of a guitarist but he can certainly blow a harp with the best of them. After having said, "Nobody takes you seriously if you only have one guitar!" (more of that later also), ZZ launched into a sort of ‘medley’ – so many of these blues songs have subtle variations though but I thought I picked out Have You Ever Loved A Woman (Freddy King) Blues With A Feeling (Little Walter)and Ain’t That Just Like A Woman (B B King). I could be wrong of course!
Tommy Tucker’s High Heeled Sneakers followed - with ZZ doing a creditable impersonation of the ‘duck walk’ (is A B as old as C B? He must be - he has to sit down during the lead guitar breaks!!). Then a riotous rendition of Boogie Chillun, riotous because Arthur is at heart a comedian. With his beat-up fedora and his scruffy beard he struck me as the Adge Cutler of the blues circuit. This is not denigrating his achievement in any way – his humour ("Avoid the Blues Police, say, "Muddy Waters". Loudly.") keeps the good-timey feeling rolling on. The one self-penned number performed, Boots proved not only his talent but also that humour can come from the deepest despair ("…she put my best boots in the washing machine.") – provided ones tongue is firmly in ones cheek.
Wall-to-wall Muddy Waters followed; Going To Louisiana, Rollin’ & Tumblin’, Catfish Blues. Then the aforementioned Boots and more humour with the Voodoo Suitcase. "What’s in it?" a Mojo Working according to the Hoochie Coochie Man.
Elmos Grandez was back late from the break so his dad sang Walking By Myself and then You Dirty Groundhog (Get Out Of Belper!), get to the Bright Lights, Big City (of Uttoxeter) – surely he didn’t mean it.
ZZ Birmingham certainly dominated the stage but the band was tight behind him. A solid rhythm section of bass from Elmos (aka Jake Billington) and ‘Magick’ Sam Murray on drums and excellent lead/slide/blues guitar from Paul Evans (sometimes known as Rubio). In fact it was the instruments which dominated the stage, Arthur spent a lot of the time playing in front of the stage. So many guitars, a veritable League of Nations; Arthur has a Hofner Senator from Germany and a Swedish made Levin, Paul’s National Steel and Fender Jazzmaster are from America, he also has a Jim Deacon wood-bodied resonator from, of all places, China (a trade name, mass produced but a good sound none the less). Jake’s bass (instrument - not playing) remains anonymous but Sam’s drums were well to the fore even if they were at the back. If you see what I mean.
It rocked right through from then, Bessie Smith’s Ain’t Nobody’s Business (If I Do) next a guest drummer (more satire, Alphonse Fito de la Pata is as Cuban as my boot heels) sat in on The Zim’s Pledging My Time and an incredibly frenetic version of my theme tune, Willie Dixon’s Built For Comfort (I Ain’t Built For Speed). It had been such a good evening (The Driver said the best ever) that the end crept up on us unnoticed. Bring It On Home brought us easily to 11.30 when Dick announced "This has got to be the last one." Honey Hush played as train song seemed highly appropriate.
Oh yes, I had been tapping my foot and hopping around on my bad leg which made walking DOWN Mill Street an absolute bastid.
Ullapool (pop. 1731), the jewel of Wester Ross. About a dozen streets and a slightly greater number of pubs most of which are full when the Stornaway ferry comes in across Loch Broom. The Driver and Me were last there about twenty years ago when Scottish Licensing laws were rather less liberal than they are now (if you came out of the pub at 10.20 p.m. – drinking up time INCLUDED – the sky was as bright as day; it seemed like it was still lunchtime, you weren’t ready for bed, what did you do? Answer: Get a ‘cairry-oot’ and go to a dance or music performance, these could go on all night!).
Peter Price was in Ullapool last year and it seems that after the performance onstage, there was a bit of a performance off as an old lady had to ask him, "ye a’ reet hen" when she found him supine on the pavement next morning. And Peter was back at the Queens last Saturday (16th) to recount the story.
A solid set, as usual, although a little slow to start I thought. However enthusiasm increased on both sides of the footlights with a corresponding increase in audience numbers until the outro ended up more lively than the intro!
All the old familiars were there: The detuned E string hammering in (a bit more accentuated than last time and in some cases, I felt, a little detrimentally); the maxixe; the psalms, hymns and chants; the uilleann effect; and all the blues, shouts and hollers which Peter’s versatile voice copes with so well. There were a few new things – a decent version of Angie and a Tom Waites song, Picture In A Frame which, whilst extremely poignant, segued very easily into an instrumental version of Bicycle Built For Two which we sang along to with gusto.
But it’s the blues which always get me, Mississippi; Chicago; Miami, Florida (sorry that’s a tangent!), which Peter pounds away on his Beltona (Interesting Point: few of the old musicians played steel bodied resonators. Robert Johnson is pictured with a Gibson L-1 but probably owned a cheaper Kalamazoo version. Elmore James started with an amplified Kay acoustic before moving on to an electric solid body version. And Blind Willie McTell played a 12-string anyway. So Peter might be better sticking to his old SJ for all these numbers), I always find the sound of the Beltona a little ‘dull’ anyway. But hey, that’s me.
Anything else new? John Hardy compared to Percy Topliss, The Monocled Mutineer. A balalaika-like version of The Moon Shines Bright with allusions to Rasputin. "Elmore James is Irish(?)" (Perhaps that should be "as". Aides-mémoire are no good when the short term memory is shot!). Business as usual is fine with me - the guitar played like pipes, sitar or Joseph Spence still thrills. (Check out Spence, he makes Tom Waites sound like a boy soprano). It all went well.
By the way, I did hear rumours that there was a late performance by Peter. Whether in the Queens or some point southeast I don’t know but 5am was mentioned. The man has stamina. Must be practising in places like Belper and Ullapool! Oh, if you do ever find yourself in the latter, I believe you can now drink more or less round the clock: and there are no hills in town. Draw your own conclusions.
Incidentally, the Top Bar was looking magnificent (if a little austere – get the posters back up!) thanks to the ministrations of the lovely Tracey wielding the paintbrush over the summer break. And she hung new curtains! Almost worth the trek up Mill Street for that alone.