Michael Roach

Live Review | Selby Town Hall, Selby | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Washington DC born ‘songster’ Michael Roach made a return visit to the Selby Town Hall tonight for a couple of sets consisting of a broad range of songs that included several blues standards, a handful of gospel and spiritual songs, a few from Roach’s own pen and one or two nursery rhymes.  Smartly suited and wearing his trademark brown fedora, the seated musician alternated between his Gibson acoustic and prized National Steel, for an evening of songs predominantly from his current album release Innocent Child.  Easing the audience into his opening set with four songs from the new album, Mississippi John Hurt’s “Got the Blues and Can’t Be Satisfied”, “Be a Man”, “What’s the Matter Blues” and “Noah”, the singer’s warmth and relaxed manner soon became apparent.  With an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of African/American music and culture, Roach went on to insist that he is no Bluesman, rather a Songster.  He also contested his status as an academic, preferring to be acknowledged as just an ordinary fellah with an insatiable curiosity.  As is the case of many songsters and bluesmen in the evolving traditions of American folk music, Roach learned a good deal from his elders and in his own particular case, Archie Edwards, John Jackson, John Cephas and Jerry Ricks, all now sadly passed, but with their legacy very much living on in Michael Roach’s music.  Speaking highly of John Cephas in particular, both as a major influence, teacher and friend, Roach went on to pay tribute to him with a heartfelt performance of “Remember Me”, Roach’s composite arrangement of the Swan Silvertones’ “That Cross on Calvary” and the Harmonising Four’s “When Tears are Falling”.  With some enlightening historical anecdotes between songs, Roach dispelled some of the myths surrounding the story of the blues, such as the incorrect notion that the blues began in Africa or indeed in the Mississippi Delta, using simple chronological historical records.  Roach also attempted to demonstrate how some of our modern musical styles derived such as in the case of Bo Diddley, who’s style of playing Roach believes comes directly from the art of ‘hand bone’, the rhythmic slapping of hands on thighs, chest, chops and anywhere else that takes your fancy.  For those in the audience who had come along to hear some real down home blues, they wouldn’t have been disappointed with Roach’s performances of such classics as Sleepy John Estes’ “Brownsville Blues”, Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster”, both incorporating the bottleneck style and resonator guitar, together with a faithful version of Son House’s “Death Letter”.  Reminiscent at times of Big Bill Broonzy, Roach paid tribute to his fellow ‘Songster’ with “A Shanty in Old Shanty Town” and the suggestive “How Do You Want It Done?”, both very much a part of the American folk tradition.  Consistent with Roach’s claim to be a Songster, rather than a Bluesman, the singer went on to perform in a variety of styles such as in the folk blues of “Staggerlee” and “Kassie Jones”, the country blues of Hawkshaw Hawkins’ “Rattlesnakin’ Daddy”, the jazz inflected “Minnie the Moocher”, the spirituals “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Jesus Knows I’m Coming” and even a bunch of nursery rhymes with the audience offering suggestions as Michael proved that every one of them fit snuggly into the same blues tune with an infectious chorus of “Little Boy Blue”.  Finishing with a version of the old American folk song “I Shall Not Be Moved” and a final a cappella version of Mahalia Jackson’s “It Don’t Cost Very Much”, Michael Roach left the stage, once again leaving behind a suitably satisfied Selby audience.