The Great British Rock and Blues Festival

Live Review | Butlins, Skegness | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Once again this famous East Lincolnshire coastal holiday resort has made great use of its facilities during the somewhat un-seasonal winter months, with another exciting music festival celebrating the combined forces of British rock and British blues music. It’s not the first time that Butlins has played host to this festival in Skegness, a winter gathering that has fairly quickly achieved a great reputation and a fervent following, which now draws in a 7,000 strong audience.  The resort provides all the warmth and comfort such a gathering could possibly wish for, especially at this time of year and ensures that all who want to ‘rock out’ (with air guitars plugged in at the ready) or just ‘mellow out’ to some soulful blues, can do so in equal measure.  This weekend the Great British Rock and Blues Festival showcased a varied programme of rock and blues acts, including a number of musicians who have passed through the ranks of such outfits as David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Wishbone Ash, Rory Gallagher, even the Rolling Stones, to name drop a few, together with the cream of contemporary rock and blues.   Sensibly dividing the two main stages into rock and blues, The Centre Stage offered a series of quality R&B bands (the original R&B if you please); whilst the Reds stage tentatively challenged the speaker stack capabilities as it showcased one loud rock outfit after the other.  It has to be said, the festival leaned slightly more towards the blues, as the Centre Stage also programmed in afternoon concerts on both Saturday and Sunday, whilst the rock stage catered for lengthy sound checks in order for things to run swimmingly in the evening.  Friday night saw things get off to a good start with the Climax Blues Band who opened proceedings on the blues stage, kicking off with Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”, featuring Johnny Pugh’s trademark sax, Lester Hart’s informative guitar and George Glover assured keyboard work.  The band, originally formed in 1969, has historically enjoyed chart success regionally but most famously worldwide in 1973 with the timeless “Couldn’t Get it Right”, which the band performed during their opening set on Friday night.  Simultaneously, North Shields-born rock singer Lorraine Crosby kicked things off on the rock stage next door with an energy driven spectacle, offering something quite different from the blues stage.  Crosby’s voice is known to millions and in particular to Meatloaf fans, albeit under the pseudonym of ‘Mrs Loud’, as the female voice on the multi-million selling album Bat Out of Hell II, most notably on “I Will Do Anything for Love”, despite some imposter appearing in the videos.  Increasing the volume, Crosby clearly enjoyed strutting her stuff whilst two swaying lovelies, who Crosby affectionately referred to as the ‘Sweaty Bettys’, provided a visual treat for the male dominated audience.  With a string of Meatloaf hits, a handful of partner Stuart Emerson’s songs and the one Beatles cover and current single Help, the singer brought a bit of glamour to the opening night.  Back on the Centre Stage, the festival welcomed back Liverpool-born singer Connie Lush who is recognised as arguably the UK’s greatest female blues singers, an entertainer through and through whose pedigree includes working with the Memphis Horns and the Hodges Brothers, Al Green’s backing band.  Sporting a poppy red top hat, the singer brought some cheeky northern banter to the stage, as well as some soulful blues, all of which was eagerly consumed by an appreciative audience.  Back next door and the Heavy Metal Kids delivered a taste of their own specific brand of attitude and punk sensibility, with a lively set featuring new front man, actor John Altman, otherwise known to Eastenders fans as Nasty Nick Cotton.  Altman joined the band last year replacing the late Gary Holton, both of whom had previously worked together in the film version of the Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia.  Dressed in a black ankle-length leather coat, Altman entertained an ‘uncontrollable’ and enthusiastic crowd on the Rock Stage on Friday night, before the Quireboys performed their headliner set.  In the Sixties, the Rolling Stones were described as mere ‘choirboys’ compared with the contemporary band the Pretty Things, the original bad lads of British rock.  Tonight the band turned in an exhilarating R&B set, which included the title song from their seminal rock opera SF Sorrow.  Original members Phil May and Dick Taylor, the original Rolling Stones bassist, coincidentally celebrating his 68th birthday, led a cast of musicians young and old to recreate some of the more blues-based numbers from the band’s forty-eight year career.  On Saturday, the Centre Stage opened with a surprise replacement for the Malchicks who were unable to attend the festival.  At very short notice, fine artist and musician Steve Pablo, who had up until this point been busy selling his paintings in the Skyline Pavilion just outside, jumped on stage armed with a bouzouki and a couple of acoustic guitars and played a suitably laid back opening set.  Despite admitting to being slightly unsettled, Steve performed well and provided a low key set of both rhythmic and melodic songs, embellished with some percussion sampling at his feet.  A nice start to what promised to be a packed day of entertainment.   The Welsh-born Australian guitarist Gwyn Ashton was up next to perform a blistering set aided and abetted by the young drummer Kev Hickman, who between them became, for all intents and purposes, the White Stripes on Blues for the next forty-five minutes.  The Two Man Blues Army provided some of the funkiest guitar of the day, augmented by some excellent sticks work by the young drummer.  Later that evening Hickman was seen backstage with Monsters of British Rock drummer Harry James, who was overheard by this reviewer to say to the young drummer ‘I hear you’re good?’; he heard right.  Fresh from their radio session on the Paul Jones BBC Radio 2 show, Paul Lamb and the Kingsnakes brought a taste of classy R&B to the blues stage. Led by the sharp-dressed North East harmonica player Paul Lamb, the band featured Chad Strentz on guitar, Rod Demick on bass, Paul’s son Ryan ‘Junior’ Lamb on guitar and Mike Thorne on drums, who together played a tightly storming set on Saturday afternoon.  Slack Alice returned to Skegness after first appearing at the festival in 2008 and closed the Saturday afternoon concert on the blues stage.  With gritty rock and blues combined, the band could quite easily have played either stage.  Fronted by founder member Cliff Stocker who commanded the stage throughout, weaving in and out between the sparring partners of Colin Redmond and Chris Preston on guitars, the band played an exciting set of songs culled from a thirty-eight year career, rounding off a perfectly enjoyable afternoon of blues-based concerts.   After a short break, giving the festival goers an opportunity to freshen up and have a bite to eat, the evening concerts began on cue with two bands led by their drummers.  Whilst John Coghlan took to his seat to present some classic hits from his former band Status Quo, including the throbbing “In My Chair”, Taste’s John Wilson made himself comfortable on the blues stage to remind us all of the much-missed Rory Gallagher.  Normally used to playing sprawling two and half hour sets, Wilson together with Albert Mills and Sam Davidson of Northern Ireland’s premier blues outfit, were just about getting into their stride when their forty-five minute slot was up.  The band, well known as being the vehicle for the success of the late Rory Gallagher in the 1960s and early 1970s, brought along a newer revitalised version of Taste, which featured a new repertoire, as well as the obligatory nod to Gallagher’s heyday, with the inclusion of the crowd pleasing classic “Bullfrog blues”.  In December, Sandi Thom made a headlining appearance at the inaugural Great British Folk Festival at this same resort, an appearance which was potentially marred by illness, as the singer came down with a bout of flu hours before her performance.  Soldiering on in good old fashioned ‘the show must go on’ professionalism, her illness being completely camouflaged by her own determination to perform well, Sandi’s appearance here was eagerly anticipated by a packed audience in the Centre Stage on Saturday night.  Playing songs primarily from her most recent album Merchants and Thieves, such as the opener “Maggie McCall”, together with the earlier breakthrough single “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)”, the Aberdeenshire-born singer-songwriter went on to perform with her band a delightful version of Little Willie John’s astonishingly beautiful “Need Your Love So Bad”.   Whilst Sandi Thom emoted in classic Fleetwood Mac style on the blues stage, the Monsters of British Rock were raising the roof next door with an electrifying set bringing together the shared experience of luminaries of such bands as Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Wishbone Ash and Thunder.  With Mickey Moody on guitar, Neil Murray on bass, Laurie Wisefield on guitar, Harry James on drums, Michael Bramwell on keyboards the energetic Chris Ousey on vocals, the band collectively encapsulated the spirit of British rock music, spanning four decades of unique music.  Saturday night’s final concert on the blues stage brought with it a touch of class from the blues world with the legendary Herbie Goins.  Working with the likes of BB King, Sam Cooke, Bobby Bland, Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker as well as giants of British blues such as the late Alexis Korner and Dick Heckstall Smith, the 72 year-old Florida-born singer joined the Norman Beaker Band for a thrilling late night set on the Centre Stage.  A showman through and through, Goins commanded the stage as the veteran British bluesman Norman Beaker and his tightly intuitive band gave him the kind of support he fully deserved.  There’s a great sense of community at the Great British Rock and Blues Festival, where between acts the audience can be seen milling around the no man’s land area between the two main stages, where smokers gather offering one another some communal warmth in the otherwise freezing canopy covered open air.  So many people gather here, that some much needed busking wouldn’t go amiss. The Skyline Pavilion is the general meeting place for everyone concerned and is always bustling with activity.  Once the two main stages have called it a day, some late night entertainment is still on offer in Jaks nightclub, where its own programme of events took place over the weekend organised by Blues Matters magazine. Roadhouse provided some jam sessions during the day and such acts as Idle Hands, Elephant Shelf, the Dale Store Band, Green Mac, the Clare Free Band, Delta Ladies and Babajak maintained a quality driven alternative to the main stages throughout the weekend.  On Saturday night, or more accurately Sunday morning, the charismatic Larry Miller performed to literally a packed house, appealing to music lovers of all ages, within the legal requirements of course.  After such an exhilarating and sweat-soaked Saturday night in Jaks nightclub, Sunday morning takes a little easing in.  The one thing that most of the acts like to comment on at the end of their respective sets on either of the three stages is just how good the staff is on site. Credit where credit’s due; the staff work tremendously hard in all the outlets, bars and restaurants, even the security are all smiles and helpful. It all makes for a pleasant experience.  Without labouring the point, I noticed one example of great hospitality in the Yacht Club restaurant for example, where a friend chose just egg and tomatoes at the breakfast buffet and was immediately asked by a member of staff if he was vegetarian.  His plate was soon replenished with veggie sausages.  It’s that sort of attention to detail that makes all the difference.  Sunday afternoon got off to a great start with the Blues Band’s Gary Fletcher, who brought along his own blend of R&B to the blues stage with his own band featuring ex-Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers, Steve Ling on lead guitar and Gary’s son Jack on bass.  For consummate showmanship, we need look no further than Hamsters’ front man Snail’s-Pace Slim, who was on fire throughout a mid-Sunday afternoon set, featuring a handful of Hendrix classics such as “Voodoo Chile” and “Purple Haze”, the odd nod towards ZZ Top, as well as a handful of self-penned material, in a frenzy of licks from his familiar yellow Burnin’ Vermin guitar.  With several smirking Ozzy’s peering out from the guitarist’s shirt, together with a whole menagerie of toy merchandise hamsters, either splatted to a speaker or merrily spinning their clockwork wheels, the band added a sense of humour and fun to the day.  Making a last minute appearance at December’s folk festival, with a stripped down acoustic appearance, Nine Below Zero returned to full blown electric form for their Sunday afternoon appearance on the blues stage.  Fronted by guitarist/singer Dennis Greaves and harp player Mark Feltham, with one of the tightest rhythm sections in the business courtesy of former Rory Gallagher sidemen Gerry McAvoy on bass and Brendan O’Neill on drums, the band maintained the momentum of what was becoming a thrilling afternoon of top quality music on the Centre Stage, which was completed shortly afterwards by a main stage appearance by Roadhouse, the band responsible for some of the fine jamming session in Jaks.  The final home run of the 2011 Great British Rock and Blues Festival on Sunday evening started with a choice of late 1960’s rock and blues.  Whilst Juicy Lucy cranked up the volume on the rock stage, the legendary Ric Lee, original drummer with the equally legendary Ten Years After, flew in especially from Switzerland to join his band, the Blues Project, for this rare appearance at the festival.  Joined by former Savoy Brown luminary Bob Hall on keyboards, the band alternated between Boogie Woogie and Barrelhouse to classic R&B and good old Rock n Roll with equal authority, with the obligatory drum solo somewhere in the middle.  It has to be said that this reviewer chose the relative comfort of the Centre Stage for the most part of the festival, basking in the warmth of British blues, in its many manifestations.  The final night however did provide a moment of nostalgia with the appearance of headliner band Uriah Heep, a band whose albums helped a fifteen year-old forget school homework of an evening back in the day.  The band pulled out all the stops, increased the volume (presumably preparing a couple of thousand eardrums for Girlschool who followed shortly afterwards) with a lively set featuring such classic Heep fare as “Gypsy”, “Bird of Prey” as well as the relatively pastoral “The Wizard”.  This nostalgic trip unfortunately meant completely missing Dr Feelgood on the blues stage, who apparently ripped the place up in style.  With some initial technical problems, Girlschool’s set was delayed slightly before they took to the stage to demonstrate their prowess at making a noise.  Setting the dials to twelve, the all-female band comprising of original members Kim McAuliffe on guitar, Denise Duford on bass and Enid Williams on drums, with ten year veteran Jackie Chambers also on guitar, raised the roof with a selection of songs from their thirty-three year career.  As the curtain remained down during the technical problems, Kim McAuliffe teased the audience by popping her head through the curtain and winking at the audience.  The surprise hit of the festival was King King who played the final concert on the blues stage on Sunday night.  The band provided possibly the high point of the festival with an astonishing version of the Clapton/Cray number “Old Love”, complete with Alan Nimmo’s sublime guitar solo, which arrived quite fittingly very close to the climax of the festival.  The kilted front man brought a delicate touch to the festival, despite a noisy reception during some of the most beautifully soulful guitar playing of the entire weekend.  I’m confidently certain that had King King started the evening’s concert, there would have been a hushed silence throughout “Old Love”, a moment this reviewer will look forward to sharing with the band once again during their forthcoming UK tour.