Thursday, 1 March 2018

Best New Album – Worst Live Band (Part 2 of 2)

Back in Cambridge, E has asked an excellent question – why are guitars seen as so ROCK and keyboards so geeky? If I had given a better answer I would have focused on elements of live performance – how the guitar can be worn, strapped to the performer as they prowl the stage like a gunslinger or pirate, or fall to their knees. Or lie on their side and run around in a little circle on the floor. I might have even talked about phalluses.

Unfortunately, I was still smarting from my Deep Purple Humiliation, which my whole family had arrived in Smugglers Records just in time to witness, and I took this as an opportunity to construct a defence. “That’s precisely it – they’re seen as geeky –” I looked over at the two bespectacled students banging the hell out of Rachmaninoff on the piano in the middle of the shopping centre – “but good keys in a band make all the difference. When I was a teenager, I thought that only guitars really mattered, and so when I heard everybody playing a piss-simple guitar riff really badly, and then found out Deep Purple’s line-up was built around a classically trained organist, I decided then and there that I wouldn’t like them. And I didn’t listen to them again until last week!” But E had walked deliberately away from me at 'When I was a teenager.' He didn’t actually want an answer; he just wanted to point out that it was unfair. And he was right. And my answer was terrible.

As were several of the bands we had seen the preceding weekend at Broadstairs Blues Bash. I spent three days trying to establish why so many Blues Bands appearing in naff pubs play Naff Pub Blues. To pose a question that sounds like one of their song titles, “Who Gave the Blues a Bad Name?”

It was a very well-organised festival, involving about twenty venues and sixty bands. There were some good performances, as you would expect, and some good pubs too, but they were both in the minority. The better examples were those that were reaching beyond the limitations of what ‘THE BLUES’ or ‘THE PUB’ has come to mean.

Bert Jansch, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Booker T and the MGs, Dr John, The Doors and many and varied others have entries in the really quite useful Virgin Encyclopedia of the Blues, because of the music’s key influence in each act’s sound, but the vast majority of Pub Blues Bands throughout my musical lifetime haven’t explored a tiny sharp sliver of this variety. It is more as if some of the less-interesting sixties album tracks of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were crystallized as Blues Essence in the 1980s and cut into very thin slices for distribution to Every Blues Band in Britain.

The worst offenders in Broadstairs were built around this model, and were playing, appropriately, at the naffest pub in town. A virtuoso guitarist à la Clapton, loud wailing harp, a singer who could sing but sounded like she’d been given a Blues Brothers libretto to work from (that film is supposed to be a comedy, not a musical manifesto) and a rhythm section that might as well have been a backing track. All in all, much less than the sum of its admittedly capable parts. I won't tell you what their name was because that would be mean, and because their name was so shit. But here is a bit of advice for anybody starting a blues band - don't put BLUES in the name. It immediately makes you sound like Blues Hammer in Ghost World.

In spite of much of the music, Broadstairs last weekend was one of the nicest places we've been. The sun was shining and temperatures were mild and pleasant - strange as it seems writing that now. The beautiful weather meant we hardly needed the heating in the van, and it felt like we were doing this for pleasure once again. Morelli’s, the ice cream parlour that was old-fashioned when I was a kid (and hasn’t changed in the slightest since then) provided E and H with enormous sugary breakfasts on a late-rising Monday morning when their friends would be in school after half term. We didn’t investigate the contents of the beach hut that advertised ‘Egg fried raisins and turkey crab nipples.’

The Chapel, which was a bookshop for many years before also becoming a bar, is a fantastic venue, and the New-Orleans-inspired community band we saw down there really stood out among the acts in the festival for actually doing something different.

This got me thinking once again about the blues. What I understand by it, as opposed to what it has come to mean. The organizers of the festival heard the blues in this music, and rightly so. Professor Longhair, Lee Dorsey and Eddie Bo would all have recognized this music as blues. Alton Ellis and Laurel Aitken and Jackie Mittoo would have bought R&B 45s straight off the plane from
Louisiana, and in turn made a Jamaican blues that came to be known by half a dozen different names. Meanwhile, in the US, R&B combos were the house bands for labels recording a huge range of soul singers. This is LeRoi Jones’s Blues Continuum in motion, and this is what I think of when I think of the blues.

I once got into a slightly heated online discussion with a bloke who was the sort of person I was hoping to attract to a Blues Night, because I’d said something like ‘Not just the same old 12-Bar Blues’ on the flyer. He wanted to know what was wrong with 12-Bar Blues, and all I could manage was ‘Nothing at all. But I wouldn’t want to listen to it all night long. It would get boring.’ I came to the conclusion that it never works when you were trying to define something to say what it is not. Every child in England already knows this is true, from all those lessons writing Non-Chronological Reports.

There’s me moaning about musical manifestos and I might as well have just written the OUR PHILOSOPHY page for

Henry VIII did go to
Cambridge University, paying for this and founding that, but he was only continuing his father Henry VII’s work. And I doubt if he went to any lectures or learned anything from the experience. He had inherited the title Earl of Richmond in addition to the crown on his father’s death, as well as a number of palaces on the Thames, one of which was named Richmond.

Richmond upon Thames was at the heart of the British Blues Boom of the 1960s, which was just one strand of the blues spider-web, but seems to have become What We Think Of When We Talk About The Blues in this country. This, I think, is a shame.

Richmond, Indiana was the home of Gennett Records, where Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton cut sides thirty years earlier that were among the first recorded country blues, but nonetheless exhibited a remarkable variation of style and form.

Richmond, North Yorkshire, will soon, I hope, become a new home of the blues. A more positivist, inclusive blues that has evolved and grown and spread, strong and far and wide, into almost every sub-genre of popular music – or at least way beyond the foil-thin definition offered by the average record shop’s Blues section or the average pub’s Blues Band.

I think that OUR PHILOSOPHY webpage is going to need a bit more work.

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