It was a pretty close run thing, but in the end the Burnley Blues Festival finally *did* go ahead for the 12th year. The programme was a bit more restricted than in previous years due to cutbacks in funding. This did not deter the crowds, however, and the Sold Out signs were much in evidence in advance of the event itself.
This year there were no events on the main stage in the afternoon. To make up for this we had laid plans to catch the set by Emily Druce on the acoustic stage in the Theatre bar. Things were running a little late, so we caught the tail end of local band the Two Mo Kebs, who were well received, by a reasonable crowd which pretty much occupied all the tables in the bar, and then some. It was difficult to get a good vantage point, so I could not tell the exact line-up, although there was definitely guitar, double bass and harp. Emily Druce followed, and played a very nice set of mostly pre-war acoustic blues with a few original compositions thrown in for good measure. The influences are reflected in the choice of song material (Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Memphis Minnie and so on). Druce adds a nice original twist to many of the songs, however, and sings in a style that brings to mind the late Jo-Ann Kelly, and Rory Block. Definitely a name worth watching out for.
The main event started with Mike Sanchez, the former frontman of the Big Town Playboys, playing solo. Sanchez gave a good demonstration of why he has won awards for his piano playing, although he also switched to acoustic guitar for a few numbers in the middle of the set. You cannot help but be hooked in by the music Sanchez plays and the flamboyant way in which he delivers it. There was lots of good time R&B, which had several people up in the dance floor. The songs included a nice interpretation of Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell," as well as the excellent New Orleans stylings of the original "Three Months, Three weeks, Three Hours" from Sanchez's latest album. There was also an acknowledgment of Sanchez's Spanish roots with an impassioned version of "La Bamba." There was no time for hanging around, as Sanchez crammed as many tunes as possible into the available time without noticeably hurrying the tempo of the music. The audience lapped it up, and Sanchez certainly got things warmed up for the rest of the evening.
The mid-point of the evening was occupied by Detroit's Marcus Malone and Red House. Malone is a very good singer, and played some nice bluesy guitar, although much of the material was either funk or rock oriented, in an amalgam of Hendrix, Prince, James Brown, and Cream. The problem was that there was too much rock for my ears. The lead guitarist seemed to be stuck in a 1970's progressive rock time warp. He could definitely play guitar, but he played for too long, too often, and with a sound that eventually gave me a headache. Having said all that, the band did play some very good stuff, with the title track of the band's album ("One More Time") being the pick of the set.
Then it was the point we had all been eagerly anticipating: the UK debut of Mighty Sam McClain. If you have heard any of Sam's album you will understand the justifiable plaudits that Mighty Sam has been receiving. Sam's six piece band--trombonist Ken Wenzel was absent--warmed up with a couple of instrumentals, before the main man hit the stage wearing his trademark cap to thunderous applause, and launched into some serious testifying with a cracking rendition of "Gone For Good."
The dance floor was packed, and the band simply thrived on the audience's very positive reaction. The set comprised a collection of tracks from Mighty Sam's various CDs, and showed that in addition to being a great singer, Mighty Sam is a highly accomplished songwriter. The original material ("Sledgehammer Soul & Down Home Blues," "I'm A Man," "New Man In Town" and so on) stands favorable comparison with covers of the caliber of "Gone For Good," "A Change Is Gonna Come," and the excellent encored version of "Long Train Runnin'."
Mighty Sam always gave the band their head, and they gave it their all, with stand-in Paul Ahlstrand doing a particularly outstanding job on tenor sax. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and I suspect that as a result of this gig several more people are now eagerly awaiting Mighty Sam's new album. Although the UK debut had been a long time coming, it was well worth the wait, and I suspect that the UK may become a regular stopping off point when Mighty Sam visits Europe in the future. Mighty Sam McClain and the band are red hot, and provided an excellent end to the 12th Burnley Blues Festival.
Post Script: The good news is that 13 is not going to be unlucky for some in this case. The MC announced at the end of the evening that there definitely *will* be a 13th Burnley Blues Festival in Easter 2001. Make sure that you pencil the date in your diary.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Gordon Baxter, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.