Great British Rock and Blues Festival 2017

Live Review | Butlins Holiday Resort, Skegness | Review by Allan and Liam Wilkinson

It’s almost as if the New Year is quite incapable of getting itself off the ground; that is until it’s been kick-started with a shot of heavy duty rock and roll and a spoonful of down home rhythm and blues.  The quiet seaside town of Skegness once again played host to the latest in a long running series of music festivals under the ‘Great British’ banner, forcing the sleepy North Sea shoreline awake.  As the beach shook to the vibrations of familiar rock guitar licks and the Skyline Pavilion shuddered to wailing blues harp solos, the Butlins resort once again welcomed in 2017 with the Great British Rock and Blues Festival.

Kicking off this year’s festival were Scottish blues rockers GT’s Boo’s Band, a four-piece powerhouse of a group that managed to quickly warm up the Introducing Stage on a chilly Friday afternoon.  Led by guitarist John Boos and vocalist Greig Taylor, the band performed songs from Steak House, their 2013 debut, as well as their eponymous follow up which was released last year.

Having been praised by such British institutions as Paul Jones and Bev Bevan, the Tom Walker Trio delivered a performance of shimmering power-blues to a notably impressed crowd on Friday afternoon.  Brummy bluesman Walker’s ferociously slick playing and passionate vocals are those of a seasoned player but one that, remarkably, hasn’t yet reached his twenty-second birthday.  With a repertoire that moves fluently from face-wrinkling hard blues to heartfelt soul, the trio prompted an appreciative crowd to select them as a headliner for next year’s festival.

Whilst talent and charisma were plentiful at this year’s festival, few acts engaged their audience in the way that Leeds City Stompers did on Friday evening.  The Yorkshire-based trio led us down a winding path of rockabilly, blues and jazz from the first half of the twentieth century, never ruffling their razor-sharp suits as they injected equal amounts of fun and dexterity into such numbers as Blind Blake’s “Wabash Rag” and Louis Armstrong’s “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead”.  Using the traditional instruments of a street corner jug band, including washboard, double bass, resonator guitar and even a kazoo, the trio brought a touch of authenticity to the proceedings, especially during the folk song John Henry which was stunningly imparted via the impressive vocals of the trio’s drummer, Jack Amblin.  The Stompers concluded their set with the traditional “Mama Don’t Allow”, a song which showcased the impressive prowess of each of the three musicians with solos that almost ripped holes in the arena’s canvas ceiling.

The six piece Southampton based combo Backwater Roll exposed the sharp edge of the blues on Friday evening.  Led by the gritty vocals and harmonica of Miff Smith, with piercing guitar solos by Deano Matthias, the band brought both energy and dignity to the Introducing Stage with a set that treated the blues with the respect it deserves.

After impressing last year’s festival goers on the Introducing Stage, the young four-piece blues rockers Sugarman Sam & the Voodoo Men opened Centre Stage with an uncompromising dose of hard-hitting blues rock.  “My education was the record store” sang Sam during “(Blues) My Shining Light” – a song which recounts the history of Sam’s musical journey – before taking us on a tour of the styles this fine young bluesman has mastered since the age of thirteen.  From “Some Kind of Voodoo”, with its deliciously swampy rhythm and stunning piano solo from Paul McCormick, to the strutting new song, this was a performance that laid a steady foundation for the rest of the festival and proved that the blues is safe in the hands of a new generation.

One of the most magnetic performances of the festival came courtesy of the Giles Robson Band.  Thanks to the band’s harmonica-wielding leader, a performer who manages to plunder the blues for the very essence of its stories, the four-piece band wove a thoroughly engaging show that incorporated readings of classic songs such as “Sarah Lee” and “Give Me Some of That Good Stuff” as well as a lesson in the history of the blues harmonica.  “You cannot be a blues harmonica player,” insisted Robson, “without a steam locomotive impersonation in your repertoire” and, true to his word, a thundering harmonica solo ensued, leaving the crowd even more breathless than Robson himself.  The Reds stage was pretty much the domain of the blues harp for the duration with guest appearances by such legendary players as Magic Dick, James Harman and Billy Branch.

Despite a few technical hitches and broken strings, the Friday night performance from Florida-born slide guitarist Eric Sardinas and Big Motor garnered a great reaction as well an encore from the intrigued Centre Stage crowd.  Decked in feathers, chains and a top hat, the born showman Sardinas slid his way through his back catalogue with all the highly watchable curiosity of a Stephen Tyler/Captain Beefheart hybrid, before plummeting from the stage into a heap of hair-braids and peacock feathers at the feet of this very reviewer.

A little bit of elder-statesmen wisdom was delivered to the festival courtesy of Snafu, the British R&B band that burst onto the scene with their eponymous debut album in 1973.  Led by seated vocalist Bobby Harrison, Snafu concluded the evening schedule with choice selections including a tasty rendering of the Allman Brothers song “Don’t Keep Me Wondering”, a highlight from Snafu’s 1975 album All Funked Up.

Whilst The Texas Flood returned to the festival after winning one of the heats on the Introducing Stage last year, the well-respected British blues guitarist and singer Martin Harley proved, on Saturday afternoon, that, when it comes to the blues, just the one foot will do.  Harley hobbled on stage courtesy of a pair of crutches, stating “that’s what you get for wrestling alligators”.  Martin’s consistently mesmerising set of stunning acoustic blues songs was interspersed with engagingly comical patter, including stories from the time he worked as a pancake chef at an Australian nunnery and a dream he had in which Alan Titchmarsh came to the British bluesman and declared “consistency is the last stronghold of the unimaginative”, a philosophy which has since inspired this fine musician to keep each set fresh and engaging.  With a weeping Weissenborn and mellow Gibson acoustic, Harley haunted the musical territories or Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and Tom Waits as well as reducing the festival goers to complete silence during his self-penned masterpiece “Cardboard King”.

Whilst the eight-piece blues rockers Nine Below Zero turned the heat up in Reds, another eight-piece band was running its engine on Centre Stage.  Helen Hardy is perhaps best known as a member of folk rock band Cold River Lady, but this weekend she brought her own band to Skegness, as well as a leopard skin top and thigh high boots, for a sassy performance which included a fine version of Family’s “Burlesque”, written by Helen’s co-musician of thirty years Roger Chapman.

When it comes to British rhythm and blues, Nine Below Zero have been leading the pack since they established themselves as Stan’s Blues Band in 1977.  Forty years later, this no-nonsense eight-piece band drew an excited crowd to Reds for one of the festival’s most imposing performances.  Led by the raw and punchy harmonica of Mark Feltham and backed by the buxom brass of saxophonist Chris Rand and trumpeter Paul Jordanous, this much loved combo thundered through an energetic set which included taut renditions of “Señor Soul’s Don’t Lay Your Funky Trip On Me” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Homework”.

Tony Underwood’s slicing telecaster, piped through a gorgeous Vox amp, made everyone sit up and listen on Saturday afternoon as Hornsea trio The Alligators opened the Introducing Stage. Songs such as Blues Trader, featuring some impressively ornate lead breaks from Underwood, and the swampy New Hesitation Blues with its “ch-ch-cheesy cha-cha-cha ending” hit all the right notes as the festival glided comfortably into its second day.

Although introduced with the wrong name, the Matt Edwards Trio sliced into their late afternoon session with headstrong poise and one of the crunchiest lead guitars of the weekend.  There’s a mix of rawness and mellowness in Matt Edwards’s voice that succeeds in bashing a blues song into perfect shape with what seems like little effort.  “Under a Leash” from Matt’s 2011 album Follow the Plan sounded superb as did “Don’t Need You Anymore” from the British bluesman’s latest release Four Berry Jam.  And although Matt’s wah-wah peddle had let him down during the previous evening’s gig in Milton Keynes, it held out in Skegness for a delicious rendering of the Hendrix classic “Who Knows”.

The young five-piece band Southbound had the crowd on their side from the start of their Saturday afternoon performance thanks to the Robert Cray-esque vocals of Tom Ford and Elliot Stout’s gutsy SG.  The band performed self-penned songs from their eponymous EP and earned themselves a place on next year’s list of headliners.

This year’s festival boasted a range of first-rate vocalists but it was the voice of Nottingham’s Amy Eftekhari that lulled everyone into a bewitched state on Saturday afternoon.  With a set of pipes to rival some of Europe’s grandest church organs, Amy treated us to versions of such diverse songs as Ella Fitzgerald’s “Your Red Wagon”, John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith In Me” and Eva Cassidy’s arrangement of the classic “Over the Rainbow”, each accompanied by the exquisite fingerpicking of Elliot Coombs.

London-based blues n’ roll outfit Bourbon Street Revival closed the Introducing Stage on Saturday evening with a punchy big band sound.  The eight-piece band included a bold brass section, the roaring harmonica of Steve Buckerfield and charismatic vocals of Marcus Foster, with self-penned songs such as “Absolution” and “Feel My Time Slipping Away” laying a keen groove for the dancers amongst us.

Louisiana blues singer and pianist Marcia Ball brought a generous portion of class to Reds on Saturday evening.  Sitting cross-legged at her piano with a quintet of slick musicians around her, including the stunning Austin-based guitarist Mighty Mike Schermer who provided outstanding vocals on “Barking up the Wrong Tree”, the legendary American artist performed a packed set of infectious rock n’ roll and New Orleans shuffles.  The rest of the set list was, however, cast into shadow by the band’s heartfelt reading of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” which included a heart breaking sax solo from Thad Scott.

If former guitarist with The Who (yes, it’s true) Steve ‘Boltz’ Bolton claimed to have survived the band during his set with his new band Dead Man’s Corner, then the same could be said for the next familiar ‘face’ to grace the Centre Stage.  Kenney Jones has provided a steady beat on many a classic record over the years, especially as drummer with the Small Faces and, after the death of Keith Moon, The Who.  Those are his sticks on the Small Faces songs “Itchycoo Park”, “Sha-La-La-La-Lee” and “All or Nothing”.  For this year’s festival, Kenney brought along his all-star band which included singer Robert Hart, keyboardist Mark Read and the outstanding young guitarist Johnson Jay who provided blazing renditions of familiar solos on such songs as Free’s “All Right Now”, Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

After a superb set by Moreland and Arbuckle, who clearly won over the audience on the Reds Stage, Alligator Records’ Bruce Iglauer, introduced onto the stage Toronzo Cannon who delivered an authentic set of chugging Chicago blues songs with his creamy white Strat and soaring vocals.  With shimmering versions of Mrs.  From Mississippi and Bad Contract, Cannon proved that years of listening to and studying the likes of Buddy Guy, Eddy Clearwater and Lil’ Ed Williams have paid off.

Forty six years have passed since hard rockers Leaf Hound released their debut album Growers of Mushrooms, which has since been voted by Q magazine as the number one most collectible rock album of all time.  With one original member remaining, the band took to Centre Stage late on Saturday night for a chest-pounding set of new and classic songs.  Peter French, dressed in a lavish silk jacket and looking considerably younger than his years, was in fine voice on songs such as “Nickels and Dimes” and “Stop, Look and Listen”.  And despite being the most sensibly dressed of the four-piece outfit, bassist Peter Herbert was easily the wildest of the bunch, hurling himself across the stage unceasingly throughout.

It’s getting harder and harder to find blues legends, these days, given that we’ve already passed the genre’s centenary.  A few authentic bluesmen, however, can still be found behind their guitars, doing what they do best and Lil’ Jimmy Reed is, without question, one of them.  At 77 years of age, the Louisiana bluesman can still wrangle a set of slick blues numbers including Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Johnny Moore’s “How Blue Can You Get”.  With fresh licks from a ripened stalwart, Reed’s set was nothing short of a gift to all those present.

Rumours of the fine set promised by The Rainbreakers spread like wildfire through the Butlins Holiday Camp over the weekend and, on Sunday afternoon, all our hopes were satisfied as the four-piece blues rockers performed an emotive set on Centre Stage.  With an effortlessly expressive lead guitar that was, at times, reminiscent of the diminished moans of David Gilmour, the band proved their mettle when it came to tightly-bound, soulful blues.  Most impressive, however, was the building drum solo at the climax of “On My Knees”, which whipped the audience into elation.

Dave Kelly and Paul Jones have woven a fine golden thread through the British blues scene for many years, lugging their pared down performances from gig to gig with great dignity and warmth.  The duo, who would later perform at the festival as part of The Blues Band, entertained the afternoon crowd with a set of songs that showcased Kelly’s deft fingerpicking and Jones’s spirited vocals.  It was in Paul’s stupefying harmonica blasts, however, that there was a sense of mass leaning-in amongst the engaged crowd, especially in “Noah Lewis Blues”, a song about the fate of Paul’s favourite early blues harmonica player.

“My name is Popa Chubby, what’s your name?” was the warm way in which American musician Popa Chubby addressed his audience before blowing the place to pieces with his raw brand of hard blues.  With songs such as “Working Class Blues” and John Mayall’s “Looking Back”, this uncompromising bluesman, big in both stature and voice, led his band through a set of balls-to-the-wall blues with an easy-going magnetism throughout.

There’s an attractive honesty to Zoe Green that gave her set on the Introducing Stage a touch of infectious credibility.  “I get through them fast” the Birmingham-based singer admitted, letting on that many of the self-penned blues songs were inspired by a long line of ex-boyfriends.  Going to the Grave was one of the love-gone-bad songs that made Green’s set of sensual blues seductive from the get-go.

The Lol Goodman Band are a tour-de-force when it comes to power balladry and their Skeggy set was a highlight for those of us who like their blues meaty and smothered in molten Hammond organ.  Despite their expansive and energetic style throughout, it was, perhaps, the slower and sincere “I Live My Life with the Blues”, released recently as a single that caught the band at their very best.  The same could be said for the highly entertaining Greg Coulson, whose engaging set won him and his band a place on one of the main stages next year, the other two places claimed by the Tom Walker Trio on Friday and Southbound on Saturday.

The Bristol-based vocalist Elles Bailey is one of those singers that possesses a vocal quality that is somewhat difficult to describe.  Few vocalists present such a hard task for a reviewer, but the attractive rasp in Bailey’s voice, coupled with her spirited stage presence, made for a very beguiling concert indeed. Backed by a tight band, Elles delivered a performance which demanded close listening, especially with such songs as the atmospheric “Wildfires” and the gospel-infused Perfect Storm which was inspired by a visit to Muscle Shoals where, so Elles says, “music is colour-blind”.  This young artist’s material, garnered from her EPs Who am I to Me and The Elberton Sessions, shows enormous potential and there was a feeling, throughout, that we were witnessing the first flickering of a long and fruitful career.

Laurence Jones and his band have all the frenetic energy you’d expect from a group so deeply entrenched in their music.  Laurence is a masterful guitarist and passionate vocalist, not to mention a proficient crafter of impassioned lyrics and daring riffs.  “Stop Moving the House”, inspired by a friend’s experience with the effects of alcohol, was one of the highlights of Laurence’s 2015 album What’s it Gonna Be and went down a storm at this year’s festival as did the album’s title track which provided a thumping conclusion to a slick and confident show.  But it was perhaps the song Evil, complete with Jones’s scratchy guitar and a blustery organ from Bennett Holland, that made the biggest impact.  This was all in stark contrast to David Knopfler who once again could hardly be heard due to his insistence of playing not at eleven, but at minus eleven, just as he did at the Great British Folk Festival in December.  If Laurence Jones successfully made a noise on the Centre Stage on Sunday night, then his namesake Paul Jones and the rest of the Blues Band worked up the audience on the Reds stage, blowing some fine harp once again, that stage culminating in a closing performance by Jamie Williams and the Roots Collective.

But the grand finale of the Great British Rock and Blues Festival belonged to the Centre Stage with two outstanding performances.  One of the most alluringly smoky voices in contemporary blues filled this stage on Sunday evening as Joanne Shaw Taylor and her band stormed through a set of blues rock juggernauts and spine-tingling ballads.  Hot off the success of her top 20 album Wild, Joanne confidently planted her flag as one of our most treasured blues talents with performances of album highlights such as “Nothin’ to Lose”, “Dyin’ to Know” and the dreamy “Wild is the Wind” which Joanne dedicated to David Bowie.  It wouldn’t surprise any of us to learn that this sizzling guitarist was born with a Gibson around her neck. Indeed, the music and, more specifically, the heart-draining guitar riffs seem to be a deep and essential part of this young artist’s very self.

The song “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” has surely entered the same realm as “Yesterday”, “Over the Rainbow” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, its climbing acoustic guitar intro being instantly recognisable to anyone with a pair of ears.  And so it was a moment of thorough nourishment to see the song’s composer, Steve Harley stride out on stage for a crowd-pleasing set of familiar melodies.  And it wasn’t just the song that earns him a comfortable pension that made us smile.  Indeed, “All in a Life’s Work”, “Judy Teen”, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Mr Soft” each made welcome appearances, thanks to a voice which hasn’t altered in over forty years.  That being said, there was something incredibly tender and sweetly melancholy about Harley’s performance, especially during moments when he mentioned the pride of being a grandfather and how deeply the recent death of his hero Leonard Cohen affected him.  And after almost an hour, just when we thought we’d heard it all, this much loved and highly respected singer songwriter and his band gave an impassioned performance of the wonderful “Sebastian” before sending us home on that aforementioned, familiar hit.