August Bank Holiday weekend in the UK means the annual Great British Rhythm & Blues Festival. This was the 11th time that the festival has been held, and it attracted the usual host of quality acts from both sides of the pond.
Sunday afternoon on the International Stage started with Mo Indigo, just like Saturday last year. They are a solid band, who always deliver the goods, but without ever really setting the world alight. Which is probably just as well on this occasion, because the guitar player looked he was oven-ready, wearing what looked like a foil shirt!
Next up was the near legendary UK pianist Diz Watson, who now spends more of
his time playing in Continental Europe. Even though he hails from Ilkley (just up the road from Colne), this was his first appearance at the Festival. He served up a very nice solo set which visited the songbooks of all the classy piano players you can name (Professor Longhair, Amos Milburn, etc.) and included a few of his own compositions too.
Penultimate act of the afternoon was the excellent Steve James. There are very few solo performers on the go who can match James' act. The majority of his set featured songs from his universally acclaimed "Boom Chang" album, including "Sonny Payne" and "Galway Station Blues." Each song was accompanied by a surrounding tale to set the scene, and James, as usual, put heart and soul into the playing of his custom built National steel guitar. If you have never seen Steve James live, it is about time you put that right. You will not be disappointed.
It was left to French band Ras Smailer to follow that. Their style reflected a mixture of influences, rather than just straight blues, with lots of rock leanings. They were not helped by the sound mix, however, with the bass being so high that it hurt, and the vocals so low that they were almost indecipherable.
The evening session started with regular festival favorite Chick Willis. He was backed by Parker's Alibi, one of many fine young British blues bands currently on the rise, led by the very talented Ian Parker on guitar. Willis is always terrific value for money, and certianly knows how to play an audience. The set was comprised of all the old favorites, and everyone pretty much knew what he was going to do, and when, but nobody minded. If you need to get people moving, Chick Willis is your man.
Willis was followed by Cephas and Wiggins, who were the real hit of the day in this reviewer's eyes. They came on, sat down, and then entertained the audience from start to finish with their tales and songs. John Cephas is a real treasure, and Phil Wiggins must be one of the best unamplified harp players around. They played from the heart, a selection of Piedmont standards, and several songs from "Homemade". With the audience lapping up the few Delta songs they threw in, they even added another one, just to keep the customer satisfied. This was the first time they had played the Great British R&B Festival, and they went down an absolute storm. They would be welcome to come back any time.
Penultimate act was Syl Johnson, who was always going to have a tough time following Cephas and Wiggins. Johnson served up a set that mixed together soul, funk and blues, and pretty much covered the last 30-something years of his career in an hour or so, including "Take Me To The River" which was (apparently) written for Johnson by Al Green when they were both recording for the Hi label. The only minor criticisms were that Johnson tried to put too much power into his vocals, which meant that he was almost shouting at times; a brass section would have helped to add some extra edge too.
Top of the bill was Son Seals, with excellent support from Studebaker John and the Hawks. It was the first time I had seen Studebaker John, and I was highly impressed. The guy plays some of the finest slide guitar this side of Elmore James, bar none. When it came time for Son Seals to join them, he simply laid down guitar and picked up his amplified harp, and proceeded to demonstrate his prowess on that instrument too. Son Seals took a while to get his volume levels just how he wanted them on his amp, although the sound never seemed to suffer at any stage. He was in fine voice, and laid down plenty of that bad axe for which he is so famed, on a set comprising a mix of standards (albeit done in an idiosyncratic Son Seals style) and originals.
Elsewhere I also managed to catch an impromptu piece by Perry Foster, prior to a trio without a name but featuring an excellent blind guitarist by the name of Andy. Out on the streets the Maharajah's rocked up a storm, including one character playing suitcase (instead of drums). The Hoochie Coochie Mancunian(!) was also there as usual, serving up his own brand of wit and blues. And this year there was even a Busker's Stage, where I caught an unknown guy playing some excellent electric guitar and simultaneous rack mounted harp.
Roll on 2001!
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