“Saltwater” – John Fairhurst

4 stars (out of 5)

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SaltwaterIf you happen to have dipped a toe in the pool that is the British blues scene recently, you may have noticed that there are some very snappy critters swimming there waiting for the unwary. As with any scene that’s out of the mainstream, it’s inevitable that cliques develop, a fact that isn’t helped by too many performers chasing too few fans. It’s a classic supply and demand situation. As well as reducing the cash available to performers, it creates a situation where greed and selfishness seem to be excusable and some of those critters in that pool are piranhas. You can hear accusations of nepotism, award-rigging and other bits of nastiness, but the worst thing you can do is to question someone’s authenticity, which is ironic given that the players who are currently really successful are imitating the players from the 60s and 70s who imitated the original blues artists from the 30s and 40s.

Ok, so here’s where that was all heading; I’ve been listening to an album by John Fairhurst. The album’s called “Saltwater” and it’s not full of tasteful imitations of Clapton playing “Further on Up the Road” or “Key to the Highway”; the inspiration here comes from Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and many others. The smoothness has been filtered out and this goes back to the raw earthiness of early country blues and Chicago electric blues.

John Fairhurst is originally from Wigan; he now lives in Bristol and recorded this album in Bristol and London with the help of Toby Murray (drums), Joe Strouzer (harmonica and vocals), Emma Divine (vocals), Tim Loudon (bass), Luke Barter (bass), Jago Whitehead (drums & percussion), Phil Jewson (piano), Saul Wodak (guitar effects) and Alex Beitzke (bass). I have a little confession to make about the album; on the first listen, I was halfway through before I actually started to get it (during the guitar solo on “I’m Coming Home”, actually). I blame it on the previous review I did, which was a very cleanly-produced singer-songwriter and it took a while to move from that to the over-driven guitar, wailing harmonica and Tom-Waits-dukes-it-out-with-Mark-Lanegan vocals. So let’s go back to the start.

The two opening songs, “Breakdown” and “Who You Fooling” get things off to a raucous start with plenty of amped-up slide and harmonica to get things rolling before the album’s only cover, the Mississippi John Hurt song “Pay Day”, which is much gentler, using the old country blues devices of repeated lines and call and response with the help of the Dean Street Choir. There’s even a sneaky little Eric Clapton reference at the end. “More More More” and “Time Goes By” are rooted in the rural, country blues tradition, the first having a UK skiffle feel while “Time Goes By” could be Tom Waits with the badly-tuned pub piano accompaniment.

You couldn’t really describe “I’m Coming Home” as blues; it’s a mutant Jimi Hendrix/Neil Young hybrid with “Voodoo Chile”-style riff and fill playing in the verses and a Shakey-style solo from the “American Stars and Bars” era. It’s the first of the album’s epic pieces. “No Shelter” is another elemental piece built around a simple (but loud) guitar riff and a reasonably good choice for the album’s first single while “Black Cat” is pure Muddy Waters; it’s a straight-ahead twelve-bar with belting harmonica and that always sounds good to me. So, more of the same to finish the album off?

No way; the penultimate song, written by the whole band, is “Dance in the Pines”, a mad surf-punk piece which splices DNA from The Cramps, Dick Dale and The Ventures. It’s off the wall and it’s brilliant. The album’s closer and title track, “Saltwater” is the magnum opus and absolutely has to be the last track; it wouldn’t be as effective anywhere else on the album. The song, which is a restyling of the Robert Johnson “Crossroads” story substituting the ocean for Clarksdale, has the singer refusing to shake hands with The Devil. It’s an epic which starts with acoustic guitar and vocal (slipping into a Wigan accent) which builds through a rural bluegrass-tinged to a kitchen-sink finale featuring Emma Divine delivering a vocal which easily equals Clare Torry’s famous performance on “Great Gig in the Sky”. And it’s the last track on the album because you can’t follow that; job done.

If you’re sick of hearing second and third generation blues revivalists recycling smooth guitar licks and bland vocals (no, I’m not naming names) then this could be just the album for you; don’t file under easy listening.

Out now (JF005).