Aaaaaagggghhh!! My ears!!

AAAAAGGGGHHHHH!!!

That is SOOOO chuffing loud.

In an attempt to impress The Girlfriend (later wife, must have worked) I purchased two tickets with intelligent deployment of pocket money in December 1974 (could have been December ’63, why let the truth get in the way of a good yarn) in order to get to shake the dandruff to the latest and greatest exponents of your heads down, non–stop, mindless boogie.

AAAAAAGGGGHHHH!!!, again, I say. There’s loud and there’s 70s gig rock show loud. Nothing, and that’s nothing, prepares you for the onslaught of 70’s gig rock show loud.

The Beatles more or less ragged it in at the Shea because the weedy PA setups of the time meant they could hardly hear themselves play; but the lack of any intervention by local authorities – though it would soon come (see Paul in “Broadcast Brothers: On The Radio”) in terms of noise abatement meant that a wall of Marshall stacks = welcome to a life of tinnitus.

Very much still a ‘blues’ based 12-bar operation at the time, an investigation of the playlist from the tour reveals that they probably kicked off with “Junior’s Wailing” and featured “Railroad”, “Roll Over, Lay Down” and “Roadhouse Blues” before going off to a cross between a roar from the assembled male RAF greatcoat wearers (non-negotiable) and screams from the (largely) girls who had seen them a couple of times on Top Of The Pops – 1974 was indeed largely both sexist and tribal – before returning to chunder their poptastic path through the live DJ’s greatest fear, “Caroline” (‘oi, mush; play some Quo or I’ll do yer!!!’ – usually after the first slow dance of the night and ten minutes before ‘thengyew, gunnite’ and mains off) and “Bye, Bye Johnny”…

Coach down there, bunch of school mates and a few others can’t remember who, big, barn-like theatre (seemed like a cinema to me, but probably wasn’t) and possibly Snafu or Sassafrass in support but I can’t quite remember…Brushed denim loon pants wafting in the fan-assisted breeze…curtains of long, centre-parted hair tumbling over Telecasters…and LOUD. Very Loud Indeed.

Followed no doubt by the attempt to purchase alcohol whilst looking about 16 and sounding about 12. Fag smoke. Chips. 12 bar blues. Sort of 12 bar life. Back to school. Everybody has to sometimes Break the Rules.

Oh, I just don’t know where to begin…Accidents Will Happen. In late 2018, this venue played host to the early dates of an Elvis Costello tour which didn’t get much further. He was diagnosed with a form of prostate cancer and despite some lurid headlines, he recovered and here he is back treading the boards many, many years after angry young manhood.

So it seems a little impolite to, well…I dunno.

The support act kind of underlined the problem here. Singer/songwriter Ian Prowse was very hale, hearty, full of verve, vigour and twinkle, a combination of scouse/Irish wit and charm and poppiness. Clearly thrilled to be playing such a big venue with such a ‘name’ he claimed his eight-year-old daughter came out to see him in Liverpool on the first night of the tour; and that was ‘the first time she’d seen him’ which I don’t think is quite what he meant. He also offered to buy everybody a drink if they met him at the merch stand after his set…careful, Ian. Last time one of our lot made a similar claim it cost me thousands. Seriously though he was very listenable as were his fellow troubadours but the lack of a bass guitar can very rarely be compensated for by a keyboard, I reckon. The final song in the set, “Does This Train Stop on Merseyside” is a bit of a stonker as well. Keep eyes and ears open for Ian Prowse. A good listen.

Elvis, on the other hand…the tour is called Just Trust 2020, and we kick off with a ‘sighter’ from the ’81 ‘Trust’ album, “Strict Time”. I usually allow bands one or two to get settled and to let any gremlins work their way out so we won’t dwell on this one much, followed by “Clubland” and “Greenshirt” which, although intense seemed to be pretty much all over the place mix-wise. I know the venue has a bit of a reputation for wayward sound but this was a really wild ride, a sort of rumbling, grumbling mess. It seemed to these ears that the opposite of what should have been the case was the truth; they were playing like they’d only just met. And with former Attractions Steve Naïve on keyboards (lots of them) and Pete Thomas on drums and with a settled line-up in the Imposters, this took me rather by surprise.

And come the first of the ‘Hits’, the towering majesty of “Accidents Will Happen”, another problem seems to emerge. Occasionally in later life, singers will not be able to hit particular notes. But this doesn’t seem to be the problem here…his vocal range still seems to be there…but the timing is all over the place and sometimes he just seems to be ‘chasing after’ the song; which is a problem for the sharp, angular, quick-fire demands of many of his older hits. His singers/dancers throw themselves about all over the place to give the impression of concerted, rhythmic responses to the music, but they can’t throw me off the scent. I dig in for an evening of irregular but profound wincing. Great, great song, though.

And then “Better Watch Your Step” and a clutch of others…but I’m SO distracted by now. It isn’t just the timing…he’s Very Flat on occasion…then he’ll throw in one of those soooo Elvis vocal trills and you’ll forgive him…and then for the next 30 seconds he sounds like he’s in the wrong key…the mix is beyond muddy and…I’m not sure he can actually hear himself. Can he hear himself?

“I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea”. Love the song. She’s last year’s model. It’s a killer. Band layer it intensely but he’s chasing the song again…why? I can’t sing but I could probably read the lyrics so they’d actually ‘fit’ the song… all over the place…

…into one for the 2018 album “Suspect My Tears” and possibly because it was written when he was an older man, he does actually get this one to ‘fit’ and glory be, the mix slowly starts to get a bit tighter and more ‘approachable’. After which I’m treated to Elvis telling me he hates me in “Radio Radio” complete with bonkers ‘Farfisa’-style organ and intense and angst-filled playlist envy. Sorry Elvis. Just not radio-friendly, that one.

“Watching the Detectives” is, though. Backlit in eerie green, Costello as ‘spook’ comes to the fore and, at this juncture, it is important I mention the guitar playing. His various ancient and weird-looking guitars and barrage of foot pedals are no doubt very necessary for despite the barrage of keyboards Steve Nieve bounces around behind, there is only one guitarist and it is EC. And the guitar sound is universally excellent, very subtle and supple where required, very sharp and incisive in ways which the interesting but wayward voice now seems less than.

Sitting down at the piano we get the ‘country’ section of the show, including a quite rambling and off-key “Good Year for the Roses”. Always a broken heart/broken voice job, this seriously pushes the boundaries on that particular concept.

From that to another from the 2018 album “Look Now”, “Burnt Sugar is so Bitter” a song co-written by Carole King and this is a right old work-out on a song which tells one of the oldest stories in songwriting in a typically direct way. This worked really well, Steve Nieve’s rattling, empty ‘ice rink’ organ sound giving a hollow, almost ‘Northern Soul’ feel. And speaking of which…”High Fidelity”, a hit from the ‘soul’ album “Get Happy”, which once again, seems to leave his voice behind. Otherwise, just great. But…

“A Whisper to a Scream” jerks us back again to “Trust” and it is an intense delivery, which then melts in to the sublime “Alison” from the first album recorded for about six quid in 1976/7 depending on who you talk to. This is gorgeous and even though the voice does that wandering thing again there are moments within this when all is forgiven, just to hear it ‘live’ again; especially when that folds seamlessly into a marriage with Motown beauty “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”. Every tune is working to a crescendo now and it would be spectacularly unfair to point out that despite the compromising of songs by a meandering voice, the audience are really warming to this and 80’s FM radio A-lister “Every Day I Write The Book” arrives right on cue and as described in the brochure.

And then “Pump it Up” nearly blows the roof off the place. At the end of it, this guy is a showman. Nobody is going to leave this venue feeling like they’ve been short-changed, I will say that much. And as is the current vogue for encore avoidance, the band stay on the stage and soak up well-deserved applause for a strong and professionally-delivered set. Not their fault the old lad’s struggling to hold a tune on occasion now.

And our final tunes for the night are the “Give Peace a Chance” section of the show and who can blame him? Certainly not I when this commences with “Shipbuilding”. Written by Costello and long-time Madness producer Clive Langer, I have to say I FAR prefer Robert Wyatt’s tremulous, fragile version but I’m here tonight and I’ll take this….but he’s off wandering again and he can’t point at not being able to live with the pace of the song here…and it’s all a bit so-so until he finishes the song on a shimmering, jazzy ‘When we could be diving for pearls’ which just seems to hang in the air and really does force listeners to face the compromises we make with the world in order to be ‘of’ the world.

Which, of course, rumbles straight into a spirited, very ‘dashing’ rock ‘n’ roll version of “Oliver’s Army” which ‘only’ got to Number 2, combining fairly ‘confrontational’ lyrics with the sort of piano that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Abba single. Part of our ‘Should have got to number 1; God, where were you?’ club repertoire, anyone would have been excused for thinking that was that, as it could well have been, but pacifist’s corner ended very appropriately and rather touchingly with Brinsley Schwarz’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and that was indeed it, standing ovations all round the crowd no doubt shuffling off into a cold night warmed to the cockles by the memory of familiar tunes played stirringly….and how many of them would recall great acres of vocal creakiness the following morning?

Absolutely well worth going to see but an increasingly flawed masterpiece as the vocals struggle to live with the songs he’s created, I’d like to think he was throwing stuff about when he got off stage because he couldn’t hear what was going on or he’d just had an ‘off night’. But. Maybe it is Twilight Time.


To paraphrase rock snapper Allan McKay, ‘in the unfortunate event of Armageddon, the only survivors will be rats, ants and the Technics 1200 record turntable. And Dr. Feelgood.’

Starting out from Canvey Island in 1971, much has been made of the ‘no original members’ thing over the years. But you can trace the ‘blood line’ through this band going Way Back. As members have left or died, they’ve been replaced. Nothing ‘tributey’ about that. That’s reality. That, in part, is why I published “Rock ‘n’ Roll Twilight” in the first place. Bass man Phil Mitchell and drummer Kevin Morris have been with them since 1983, and so both recorded and toured extensively with main man Lee Brilleaux. Guitarist extraordinaire Steve Walwyn has been with the band since 1989; and even relative ‘newbie’, vocalist and harp player Robert Kane has fronted the Feelgoods for over 20 years, celebrating his 1000th Dr. Feelgood gig as long ago as 2007.

So let’s have none of that ridiculous sniffiness. As George Michael once said, ‘listen without prejudice’ (though admittedly that didn’t turn out well).

First though, a bit of a larff.

John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett first entered my flat by stealth when in 1977 Polydor Records sent me a copy of a single called “Really Free”. Like many record labels they were desperately casting around for ‘punk’ acts to sign in ’76/77 and picked this lot up from Pete Townsend’s Track Records label as they were basically taking what amounted to a scattergun approach but amongst the dreck this decidedly odd little single stood out. We gave it some plays, radio picked up on it and within what seemed like five minutes the duo were ‘On Top Of The Pops’ in time-honoured fashion and it became a ‘proper’ top 40 hit in the days when that meant Selling Stuff. The only problem being that as far as his musical partner is concerned, John Otway is a Complete Prat. A most unlikely ‘pop star’, he took the fast route back to obscurity by winning an international gurning award on Top of the Pops, and famously making a complete ass of himself by unsuccessfully attempting to hurdle a PA stack on BBC 2’s ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ TV show and ending up with his knackers in a splint. It could have been A Lot Worse.

He then proceeded to pay for the rest of his ticket back to nowhere by releasing a full-on, big-production ballad, “Geneve”, which completely stiffed despite the record company spending eye-watering amounts of money on promoting it (and record companies don’t forget that sort of error of judgment in a hurry) and, to further compound spectacular failure, not telling his musical partner WWB that he had neglected to give him a ‘name check’ and it was in effect a solo record for no other reason than that he did SO want to be a ‘proper’ ‘pop star’. Mr. Barrett was on his way to a gig at the time with Mr. Otway when he heard it introduced on the radio. Strangely enough, he didn’t turn up to play the gig that night and the duo had the first of about 27 ‘splits’ thus far.

Back on stage together and both now either 70 or pushing it, on first appearances it is difficult to resist the conclusion that for some strange reason the ghost of author Roald Dahl has dyed his hair black and decided to tour with a grumpy version of half of Chas and Dave. And a Wheelie Bin. More later.

However, be that as it may, we are treated to a spirited gallop through ‘Louisa on a Horse”, their second single, sort of accompanied by a scraping, raking fiddle contribution by Barrett. This is followed by ‘The Hit’, which they make a monument out of, informing the assembled ‘this is as good as it gets – the bar is over there!’ and stopping part way through in order to drag five minutes out of the thing. By which time, half the audience are in hysterics and the other half are wide-mouthed and not necessarily in admiration.

“Beware of the Flowers” features Barrett on Wheelie Bin. When he wishes to make a contribution to proceedings he opens a brown wheelie bin which is strategically placed by his side which contains an FX machine from which emanates ‘rock guitar’ noises and other things, brilliantly timed with deceptively well-rehearsed comedy in the opening and closing of the bin (no, really! Very funny indeed. I will take the recyc out with some trepidation after this.)

They then make a spirited but ill-judged attempt to pay tribute to Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys”. I always thought seeing as Rolf had done a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, Robert Plant and his mates might have at least returned the compliment by having a shot at said tune, but no. It is left to Otway and Barrett to right a historical wrong. Which isn’t a good thing, necessarily…

Otway then explains the reasons for the 27th split being Barrett’s refusal to play encores so the audience are encouraged to go for the compromise which is that they’d stay onstage whilst the audience make a whole load of noise and then they’d do “Geneve” as a ‘not’ encore. During which shenanigans Barrett takes a tenon saw and tries to cut the acoustic he’s playing in half (whilst playing it), then assaulting it with a hammer before stomping all over it for no apparent reason. Then and once again inexplicably a set of bagpipes disguised as Bagpuss come into play. Otway then sweeps off like the ‘star’ he ‘is’ and Barrett is left onstage to offer the mangled cheapo acoustic, which cost him £30, to the first member of the audience to stump up £33 (inc artistic ‘tax’) as a charitable donation at the merch. Ermm…….I was only massively entertained. Never left a show which has Otway in it anything other than grinning like an idiot. And this was no exception. Folk meets pop meets rock meets country, somewhere around the crossroads marked English Eccentricity.

But let us not delay too long here as this is all about the Feelgoods. On the band march at the allotted time, to a Friday night ‘full house’ welcome and straight away you can see they’ve clocked this could be Very Good Indeed. There is already a sense that we’re Having It.

We start with a whole bunch of ‘oldies’; “Drives Me Wild” as a ‘sighter’ whilst they bring Robert Kane’s mike forward a bit in the mix, “No Mo Do Yakomo”, I Can Tell” where Steve Walwyn lets that flamethrower Telecaster loose for the first time tonight, “Been Down So Long” and “Down by the Jetty” which once again reminds the assembled what a wealth of great R and B songs this band have in their locker which very rarely troubled the UK singles chart (but goodness me, they shifted some albums).

The next segment of the evening’s proceedings features Steve Walwyn on slide guitar with some great blues vocals and harp stabs by Robert Kane. This guy is a great rock singer by any measure but can he sing the blues….it is no surprise he was with The Animals 2 before he joined the Feelgoods. Anyone who at any point found himself in Eric Burdon’s shoes is, we can perhaps agree, none too dusty, but the band reel off a vinegar version of Elmore James “Dust my Broom”, “Rollin’ and Tumblin” and of course whilst you’ve got the correct weapon to hand, “Back In The Night”, their mid-seventies jukebox shaker which introduced a whole bunch of Brit rock fans to the Joy of Slide, if Rory Gallagher hadn’t already done so.

This, then, is the first of the ‘juke box hits’ section of the show as we gallop in rapid sequence through a jumping, pulsating “Roxette”, taking a few minutes out for a slow blues band showcase in “Shotgun Blues” where all the band members show what they can do. Steve Walwyn makes a claim to be the best guitarist Dr Feelgood ever had (and not only the longest-serving) at this point (controversial, I know; when you’re talking Gypie Mayo and Wilko Johnson as the primary contenders) and Phil Mitchell’s rumbling, sinuous bass is absolutely killer here, and then we’re off to shake that jukebox again as we blast through a rabble-rousing if slightly misfiring version of “Milk and Alcohol”, and a spirited rip through the thoroughly ‘wired’ “She’s A Wind Up” followed by the sharp, ‘all elbows and knees’ jerkiness of “She Does It Right”.

Everything they do has that precision of the heavily-gigged professional rock act. This is no occasional run out, or a 20-date travelling circus. This is what they do and what this band has done, in venues of this size and bigger and smaller, since 1971. That’s nearly 50 years. And I shudder to think how many gigs the band has done in that time.

After that and in a perfectly-judged set there’s a mélange of what should have been a massive radio drivetime hit “Going Back Home”, “Down At The Doctors” (Got to number 48 on the UK singles chart…….hellowwww…..!) “Gimme One More Shot” and they’re off.

And of course they’re not going to get off that lightly. We do indeed get one more shot and it’s a spectacularly dense and intense “Mad Man Blues” followed by the flip side of Roxette back in 1974, the ultimate encore machine, “Route 66” and then they ARE gone.

Never mind all the sniping about who’s who. These lads are rapidly becoming a national treasure in a world of phonies and one-trick-ponies. From the greasy sleaze of the ‘sneaking out the back door with a grin’ stories to the workaday, careworn, bluesy lyrics, from the red hot and rocking juke-box smashes to the smouldering, powerful blues workouts, this is the way to celebrate the end of the working week alright. Need a shot of Rhythm and Blues? Go see the Doctor. He might be considering retiring. Or he might, in some incarnation, just go on for another hundred years. Because Dr. Feelgood is a sort of collective; a sort of ‘idea’, born largely out of the energy and vision and drive of one Lee Brilleaux. But despite the fact that Lee isn’t around to see how well his insistence the band carried on after his death worked out……why stop now?

Postscript: And in the pub across from the venue afterwards, the esteemed and venerable Nook, we fell across the lucky man who is now the proud possessor of a sawn – off acoustic guitar. They didn’t event throw in the tenon saw for his £33. 

Reckons it is going straight on e Bay. 

And I say – ‘Cor Baby, that’s Nearly Free.’
 

It’s a streaming wet and murky day in the Moorlands – and it pretty much doesn’t matter which set of Moorlands you’re in, it is giving way to a horrible ‘don’t bother’ kind of night.

Graham Parker doesn’t need telling this. He’s just played the first date on a solo UK tour celebrating the release of an acoustic version of his best-selling UK hit album, ‘Squeezing out Sparks’, in Exeter and has spent six hours swapping one set of Moorlands scenery for the Staffordshire Moorlands. For tonight he’s set to play The Foxlowe Centre in Leek. And despite a nasty ‘tour cold’ and having to survive recording a near-on half-hour podcast and radio interview with Mr. McKay and I following the sound check, this sprightly, twinkly 60-plusser is in fine voice when he hits the stage.

He follows a short and perfectly fine set by Stephen Wilson Jnr and once he takes the stage, always a slight and quite unassuming figure, you’re once again reminded of the ‘nakedness’ of the solo acoustic performer. No ‘The Rumour’-style brass section to ‘lean on’ here. The songs either do the job, and the performer can ‘sell’ them, or they can’t.

It kind of helps, though if you’ve got a body of work spanning decades which includes 3 UK top 40 single hits, and 4 top 40 UK hit albums. “Squeezing out Sparks” got to number 22 on the UK album chart and went Gold in a number of territories and is the most ‘stripped down’ of the albums which troubled the UK chart, so that kind of helps as well, as does the knowledge and experience which comes from touring, incessantly, for more years than seems possible and guesting recently on tour with the likes of vinyl single chart-toppers Stone Foundation.

He kicks off with “Fool’s Gold” from 1976 and the album “Heat Treatment”. It was a great song then and is a great song now and Parker’s nasal rasp is the ideal vehicle. His voice does indeed sound needle sharp and his acerbic and self-deprecating wit between songs is an object lesson in how to entertain when you ain’t singing. He follows this with “Chloroform” from 2005 and the album “Songs of no Consequence” and we’re off and running. He already has the near-sell-out crowd eating out of his hand.

He candidly admits “Waiting for the UFOs” is probably the weakest song on “…..Sparks” but plays it anyway (Why, Graham? This has, in fairness, dated a bit) before a triple of “Every Saturday Nite” from recent album “Cloud Symbols”, “Stick to the Plan” and “Black Honey” all of which are played with humour, verve and panache by someone who knows how the tread the boards. He’s nobody’s idea of a world-beating guitar picker, but he’s perfected the art of using alternately a large acoustic and a Telecaster (not to mention a kazoo!!) to accompany himself to a perfectly appropriate effect, especially the acoustic, which he plays with a choppy, rhythmic style which ‘drives’ songs along. Another recent song in “Bathtub Gin” leads into the album opener on “….Sparks”, “Discovering Japan”. Often used a set opener when playing ‘full band’ gigs, this once again proves what an unusually-structured but striking piece this is in a live setting. Well into the ‘back nine’ now, he helter-skelters through to a paint stripping version of album title track “Howlin’ Wind”, which heralded the start of Parker’s recording career back in ’76, “Back to School Days” and a positively desperate-sounding ‘Stick To Me’. This was always a great song which all but disappeared under the ‘kitchen sink’ production which was thrown at it when the album was recorded and indeed it didn’t ‘do’ anything like as well as it should have done due to alleged cack-handed record company shenanigans (“Mercury Poisoning”, anyone?) and then a celebratory bundle of “White Honey” a top 40 UK hit on ‘The Pink Parker’ EP, “Is The Sun Out” and a blisteringly angry version of the new red vinyl single, “Nixon’s Rules”, which is ripping up a few trees as a searing critique of Britain’s failed and increasingly discredited drug policy.

He leaves the stage to rapturous applause to head off in to the next night on his UK tour, nursing a heavy cold but in the secure knowledge that man flu is temporary, class is permanent. He remains one of the few artists to emerge from the era of the ‘new wave’ with an ever-increasing appreciation of his qualities as a song writer and a performer; a reputation which, at the time, was probably ‘disguised’ and certainly under-appreciated by the demands of a very strange time. Bizarrely enough, as an artist, his time is probably Right Now. And it appears to me, watching him onstage in Leek tonight, that he’s clocked this. Go GP.

The things we do for love?

Almost, but not quite.

Mrs. J is extremely partial to the velvet vocals of the Lighthouses and even though I cannot pretend to be a diehard fan I know an airplay tune when I hear one. My musings at the end of my recent review of an Al Stewart gig where I briefly allowed myself to consider how much brass the aforementioned’s “Year of the Cat” has made me, personally, over the years shrinks into complete insignificance compared to the recorded output of these guys.

I’ll have made more out of these than The Beatles, The Stones and The Who put together, and then some, and it is, of course, mutual. The Lighthouses have, or had, that uncanny knack. You could programme them anywhere, anytime, as often as you like and nobody is ‘tuning out’.

And therein lies the reason for my disquiet and sense of apprehension upfront of tonight’s gig. I really WANT to like them. And in this sort of circumstance you either get affirmation or very real disappointment. I am very worried that the crystal recorded quality of these songs as finished productions won’t cut it, live, in a largish, seated and rather soul-less theatre.

Well, let’s see…..a very pleasant curry upfront certainly meant I was very much ‘in the mood’ as support act Georgie wandered onto the stage. She’s a local lass, apparently, and this is the first night on the tour she can sleep in her own bed, she tells us. A solo singer/songwriter and tidy guitar/keyboard player, she does her stuff to an audience who are somewhere between polite and appreciative. She’s got a couple of decent songs, as well, which she wisely saves for late on in her set. Vocally, a bit like Sandy Thom meets k.d. lang in Nottingham. Excellent pitch, but there’s a lot of her about. Needs a ‘killer’ tune to break out and so far I don’t hear one, pleasant enough a listen though she is.

To The Lighthouse. Well, not exactly, yet and we’re given a time-consuming photograph backdrop ‘scene set’ to a sort of audio ‘drone’ which for me outstays a welcome by some considerable time. On they come, finally and serve up “Salvation”, a new one, as a set opener and it is your classic set opener, nothing more, nothing less, but the sound is muddy and Tunde Baiyewu’s vocals are struggling to be heard. This is followed by a mid-paced chugger with tidy Stevie Wonderesque keyboard tricks from Paul Tucker on “Blue Sky In Your Head”.

An early pearl is the gorgeous “Loving Every Minute” which is severely compromised by the backing singer just seeming ‘off’ somehow, Didn’t sound right to me, but let’s stay with the programme……

I’m sure the Lighthouses mean to be sincere on the inter-song raps, but they do really overcook it at times, with stories of raising kids and all that. So much so that the lead up to ”Put My Heart on You” doesn’t exactly have the desired effect on me.

By now, I will admit to feeling mildly irritated rather than entertained so when they kick into “Lifted” with the instantly recognisable Spanish guitar figure at the start, it is something of a relief. ‘I know what you’ve come for’, says the singer and he’s right, because as the night passes it becomes clear to me that these guys had excellent A and R and record company support. They absolutely picked the best songs as singles. Sadly, though, the hits do scream ‘HHIIIIITTTT!!’ at you extremely loudly so I don’t think it was a difficult job for the A and R bod to go ‘That’s the single’. And it isn’t just familiarity.

“Lifted” is a full-on radio singalong tune any day of the week. Nobody switches this off, ever. It does, indeed, ‘Lift’, and, to be fair, the audience are up on their feet for the first time. BUT – and unfortunately…….it doesn’t seem to ‘work’ live. I mean yes, everybody is up etc etc. but……in the cruel lights of the Concert Hall, the song is exposed for the one-line hook it pretty much is. The ‘trucker’s gear change’, the little ‘breakdowns’ in the song, all beautifully locked in by the studio with all the trickery a decent producer can bring to bear, are laid bare by the live performance. It’s just a bloke walking around the stage bleating one word, pretty much repeatedly. And “Run”, which follows, is breathtakingly ordinary.

“Raincloud” is a great song, though, and always was a bit of a fave of mine for coming out of an ad break with. You don’t have to say anything, the powerful piano shapes along with slightly eccentric percussion tricks, a bit off the beat, just draw you in and the chorus, combined with the Gil Scott-Heron style instrumental break are a delight.

Which is a shame, really as we lose the piano figure and the subtlety in percussion in the swirling, slightly mad, pseudo-Gothicky mix the whole thing seems to be wrapped in.

“Ocean Drive” is a really transcendental summer radio tune. About as close to a British Brian Wilson moment as you’re going to get, this one is pure escapist fantasy. We all know life isn’t like this but for two and a half minutes or so, most of us are prepared to suspend disbelief; and they do pretty much nail this. And “Lost In Space” is similarly such a plaintive radio-friendly tune; but tonight there just isn’t enough ‘Space’ for Tundi Baiyewu’s voice to touch and warm the listener; it is just squeezed too much by everything else that’s going on. And despite the warm accolades for the rhythm section from the two main Lighthouses, I thought they were that unforgiveable sin for a rhythm section; they were obtrusive, often as a deep, vibrating rumble, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. And completely at odds with the delicacy and lightness of the songs themselves.

“Who Gonna Save Me Now… by now, I am starting to feel uncomfortable. Another ‘ordinary’ tune, as is “Clouds”, but of course they have a set saver in “High”, which has graced many a person’s wedding/funeral/fave playlist, etc, etc and really you can’t go wrong with it…but once again, in a live format, those ‘trucker’s gear changes’ really do grate.

They encore with “Street Lights in the Rain” and “Free” and “One” but by now I have lost all patience with them. They are falling over themselves to congratulate the audience on their good taste, especially Paul Tucker, who is nobody’s idea of Mr. Showbiz and really, is best just not saying anything.

So, by the time we stream out onto the pavement, I am at serious odds with most of the audience. They feel ‘Lifted’, I feel like I’ve been resprayed magnolia. And my worst fears are confirmed. Clever though some of the songs are as studio confections, they do not translate that well into a live setting. The songs that were hits were hits for a reason. And their medium is FM (and, no doubt, digital) radio. They are best heard once every six hours or so…..or you do start to feel slightly….magnolia.

But the audience loved them, and the body of work is there, and we have done each other a lot of good over the years, so I’m going as far as 3 stars. But I don’t feel good about it.

Well, here’s an odd one. This weekend my daughter is working at the Splendour Festival in Nottingham where The Specials are set to play; and here I am in Holmfirth for the Summer Ska Splash, largely featuring music made by the band and their contemporaries, a number of whom are here in Holmfirth today.

Funny old world, the world of the ‘bitza’ band. So The Specials and their spinoffs and satellites tour in a variety of configurations, none of which, at the present time include Jerry Dammers.

Very strange.

Anyway, we are to convene early as it is a half-six kick off courtesy of The Beat Goes Bang, a mash-up of former members of The Beat (namely drummer Everett Morton and guitarist Neil Dethridge;) and a former Dexy (Keyboard player Mickey Billingham) along with Jason Ensa, Sean Williams and Theo Hockley. Once through the preliminaries, the band is already blowing up a storm when we get the first one in and boy, are they a good listen! “Too Nice To Talk To” was always a top-drawer tune and it still sounds fresh today, played with affection and enthusiasm. For me, though, and I guess many of the assembled, “Mirror in the Bathroom” is the highlight, the sax break truly evoking the spirit of Saxa. And that Everett Morton; whack. For any reggae-rooted music to hold water, the drummer seriously has to know what he or she is doing and this guy is quality. His performance underpinned a sharp and well-received set. These lads play with a refreshing enthusiasm and spring in their step and it looks and is infectious fun – and I’m bopping away and it isn’t even half seven yet. Can’t help feeling we’re getting our money’s worth here tonight!

Next up after an ugly and gratuitously foul-mouthed DJ set by one Fat Piggy from Sheffield, Roddy Radiation and the Skabilly Rebels. Monsieur Radiation was the guitarist for The Specials on and off through until 2014; but you can tell his heart was only partly ‘in it’. The Specials were always a sort of punk-ska outfit and the punk influence was always an important part of their appeal; and this guitarist was always at the ‘punkier’ edge of the spectrum. And just to underline this, the first thing they do when they come on is gob in the air. It could have been worse.

Roddy Radiation cuts a dapper figure in blue drapes and crepes and full marks to him, the seemingly unbridgeable gap between punk, ska and rockabilly he seems to cross with ease. The two guitar attack is one beautiful noise especially on “Bonedigging”, “Blues Attack” and “Keep on Learning”; but boy, is he grumpy. ‘I’m Roddy Radiation, apparently,’ he grudgingly concedes and it seems the massed ranks of Ben Shermans, pork pie hats and 2 Tone T shirts have drawn his ire for so many people doing the ‘follower’ thing in terms of dressing up.

Oh, come on.

The gig has been billed as a ‘Summer Ska Splash’. It is Saturday night. Most people are here tonight for a bit of a party. Lighten up, for goodness sake. And anyway, since we seem so keen on upholding the ‘revolt into style’ critique, could I perhaps be permitted to point out that the drapes and crepes thing is also A Style, a similarly mass-produced youth style thing. Once upon a time. You don’t see Elton John spitting out the dummy because half the audience insist on wearing big glasses, do you? Enough, already.

That said, they chop through their set with conviction and yes, there are a few in the audience who can’t quite get to it, find it a bit too ‘rock’. And in the interests of journalistic balance I think I ought to say that some should perhaps be a bit more willing to open minds and ears.

I have to say I absolutely loved it and I probably wasn’t in the majority. He’s some player and his band certainly blow some as well. It is self-evident that this guy and his associates have toured the States extensively and they don’t need anyone to show them how to do the deed. He includes an aggressive and pointy “Rat Race” early in the set and does what for me was the musical highpoint of the entire proceedings in a killer version of “Do Nothing”, for me one of the most underrated Specials songs ever; musically a sort of distorted and creepy version of Keith West’s “Excerpt From a Teenage Opera”, their version has a sort of gothic despair to it.

Absolute tops for entertainment and please don’t stop playing this all night award goes to their fruity and joyful version of Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise”, though. Oooohwee, Baby.

Great, but Grumpy.

Which you can’t say about The Neville Staple Band. Departing from The Specials in 2013 allegedly due to ill health, he’s toured his show ever since, mixing The Specials classic repertoire of songs with a few ska faves and hits from the Funboy Three days. From the second they hit the gaffa tape crosses with a joyous, energetic “Gangsters”, the audience singalong of “A Message To You Rudy” through “Swan Lake”, the only duplicate of the entire evening in their version of “Do Nothing”, and the doomy and extremely pertinent “The Lunatics have Taken Over the Asylum”, they were really saying something. Oh – and there’s another one. It was a joyous and happy celebration of a music which still has the power to energize, to uplift, to lively everybody up. And “Ghost Town”. If ever a song hit the nail on the very epicentre of the head at the time, it’s that one. And the onstage rapport between yer main man and his good lady, who acts as chief cheerleader and voice for the notes he isn’t quite equipped to hit, is charming and life-affirming in itself, especially in the context of their terribly sad, grievous and still recent loss.

So would I have preferred to be with daughter at Splendour in Nottingham to see ‘the real thing’ or Holmfirth to see a different spin on ‘the real thing’? Do you want to go and see Brian Wilson or The Beach Boys?

Not really a legitimate or fair question, is it? Holmfirth’s Summer Ska Splash was great fun; and in a way, very ‘real’. You pays your money, you takes your pick.

Getting to Birmingham by boat is a bit of a struggle. You have to cover a lot of water the day you set out, as you have quite a few miles of ‘badlands’ to get through before you reach the ‘safety’ of the city centre and Gas Street Basin, which is extremely lovely. Not to mention a steep watery climb up to the summit almost underneath the city itself, which in heavy rain, constitutes something of a challenge. But it is extremely lovely in the way the BBC think ‘heritage’ is really lovely and consequently it is worthwhile getting slightly off the beaten track once safely moored up and in possession of your weekly spending money.

About 600 yards off said ‘beaten track’ stands The Prince Of Wales, an old-school city boozer selling pies, pints and on occasion, there’s a ‘turn’, often at slightly odd times of day and it is with some surprise we stumbled upon a spirited, reggaefied version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” pouring out of the door. Intrigued, in we went, to be confronted by a pretty much full house of late Sunday afternoon drinkers all giving it plenty and a six piece band (on average) grooving away in a most delightful way. Pete Hyde and The Vieillards may be past the first flush of youth – indeed ‘Vieillards’ are old folks, rather than some strange mythical wossname born on the bayou, but they are warm, sinuous and very much ‘alive’ live musicians. I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching the living embodiment of the lyrics to Dire Strait’s “Sultans Of Swing” as this bunch weaved effortlessly through reggae to blues standards such as “The Thrill Is Gone”, classics like “Summertime” and some rock n roll standards, many illuminated with fine, fruity saxophone fills provided whilst said musician wandered off to the bar, almost as an afterthought whilst ordering a round. Indeed, at one point he was interrupted mid-noodle by someone who had just walked in off the street to enquire where the bogs were (note to person; if you’re going to creep into a pub to enquire the whereabouts of the rest room without purchasing a beverage, perhaps best not to broadcast this by interrupting a band member whilst about their business, even though your business may appear equally pressing) and evocative, rich keyboard work reeking of Booker T Jones at times, Dr John at others, shades of Georgie Fame also.

And not just the flipping obvious in the repertoire. As well as Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road” which is very easily played badly but in this case wasn’t, we are treated to his lesser known but equally lovely “Cleaning Windows”. And the crowning glory for me, Ry Cooder’s magnificent “Little Sister”, complete with that wonderfully ‘aged’ and rubbery guitar sound and fabulously complimentary harmonies.

One of those marvellously ‘accidental’ Sunday gigs where you really didn’t need a drink to appreciate what was going on – but it was very thoughtful of the management to provide some. Bit more Ry Cooder and perhaps some more Toussaint, and maybe some Lee Dorsey perhaps, would have been nice but they’re musicians, not a human jukebox. And between sets, how wonderful to hear Smokey, The Crusaders, The Temptations, etc., underlining the importance of the stuff played in and around a live band’s set to maintaining a groove. And they played for a couple of hours or more. Sultans of Swing, in very deed.

4 Stars and a bit.

Saturday night in downtown Norwich is a pretty wild affair down by the river. According to a local JP (sez our taxi driver), 75% of plod in Norfolk is gathered in this 200 yard stretch on a Saturday night into the wee hours.

So it was a quite lovely thing to tie the boat up and leave it to whatever fate had in store for it whilst we headed for the opposite side of town. The Arts Centre is one of those old, ecclesiastical buildings which, although wonderful, begs the question ‘what do we do with it?’ So ‘turn it into a multi-purpose performance space’ seems an excellent solution all round.

First up on an ‘all mod cons’ card, Squire. A tidy little three piece who have worked hard to earn that most unwanted of tags – ‘nearly men’.

As the 70’s tipped over into the 80’s, there was a collective sense of ‘what the hell do we do now?’ for the trad guitar drums and vocal set-up. Punk – the ‘commercial’ bits of it anyway – had morphed into power pop, amongst many diverse other things, ska was busily rejoicing in a second coming and electro and new romantics were just starting to make waves.

Glen Matlock, newly fired from the Sex Pistols, formed The Rich Kids with Midge Ure and had a couple of hits. The Undertones headed in a ‘poppier’ direction than was suggested by the crunching guitar on ‘Teenage Kicks’ and one of the weirder abominations of a very confused time, The Pleasers, a bunch of pretend Beatles in preposterous 60’s suits and shoes signed to Arista records, if memory serves me right, for stupendous amounts of money, none of which would be coming back once the punters had seen through the trick. And in the States, The Knack was pulling off a similar trick with the admittedly irresistible ‘My Sharona’.

And as Ska dragged Trojan-style reggae back through the door for a welcome reprise, The Jam’s massive success, fronted by the massively influential ‘modfather’, Paul Weller, meant that all and sundry record company A and R types were running around like headless chickens looking for bands who could straddle the 60’s retro, mod, power pop, post punk power vacuum. And as The Knack had shown, taking “Sharona” to Number 1 and staying there for the best part of a couple of months in the USA, if you got it right, the rewards were beyond human comprehension.

With me so far?

Right. So…

Squire so very nearly ‘made it’ to the top table, they really did. Two singles, “My Mind Goes Round In Circles” and particularly “Walking Down the King’s Road”, became big airplay hits and so very nearly delivered that elusive hit that opens all the doors. Recorded for the same label which pressed Secret Affair’s cuts and indeed produced by Ian Page and Dave Cairns, the two main men from the above mentioned, they were in the right place at the right time for teenage music fans looking for that smartly-dressed retro thing. However, much though their sound chimed in with the mod’s second coming, they were actually more a cross between power pop and that paisley-shirted Californian sunshine pop sound. Anthony Meynell’s jingle-jangle Rickenbacker is solidly backed by a really crisp rhythm section, especially enhanced by the fab harmonies from the bass player and the onstage sound is really ‘clean’; and all the tunes, be they from singles, album tracks or recent stuff, fit together in a coherent and very listenable way.

But the problem now was the problem then; there’s no ‘killer’ track to provide the hit which then opens the floodgates for less memorable tunes to do the heavy lifting to sustain the ‘career’ and get the airplay to sell more albums. So, they will probably always live in that unenviable box marked ‘nearly men’; but for all that, they were a really pleasant listen, and you could see why the Secret Affair lads felt they were worth the time, back in the day and indeed now.

Anyway, Time for Action.

On troop Secret Affair and once again on the occasion of a celebration of 40 years of their hit album ‘Glory Boys’, we are reminded 1979 is a very long time ago. In their sharp mohair suits and stylish shirts, they look like a bunch of retired London gangsters fronted by a grumpy deputy headmaster. But you can’t help that, that’s what happens.

But the sound. It is AWFUL. Off we go with “Dance Master” and “Walk Away” and it’s just a muddy mess with Ian Page frantically gesticulating to the backstage (or as frantically as super-cool mods gesticulate) to give him more volume. Dave Cairns repeatedly peels off into the wings to fiddle with various bits of kit and the keyboard player just seems to be swamping everything with great doomy chunks of Procol Harum. Things hit something of a stride when Page lets rip on Smokey Robinson’s mod anthem “Going To a Go-Go” but even then the phrasing seems a bit odd and he sings like a man who can’t quite hear himself and to be honest, stir in a three piece horn section blowing up a somewhat unbalanced storm and, well….

The horn section finally got working on “All the Rage” and from this point on, things started looking up. A quicksilver solo from Dave Cairns, a proverbial master of the Telecaster, dovetailed neatly into a tidy faux-Hammond solo with distinctly jazzy overtones and you could be forgiven to thinking these lads have definitely ‘grown’ in terms of musical ambition and accomplishment. The band’s cover of Junior Walker’s “Roadrunner” is another interesting one. As a very young man, as he was when the hits happened, Ian Page’s top-end foghorn of a voice was strident to a fault and could catch the attention of the terminally hard of hearing on the worst radio in the world but at the best part of sixty, his voice still has that hard, steely edge which means that, on songs like this, he sounds in part like an old style blues and soul ‘shouter’, but with slightly strange phrasing, which means you either like or actively dislike their cover of this song. I will admit I liked it but not as much as the crackling, stomping ‘dance hall’ version of arguably the greatest gem in the Northern Soul vault, Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You” which was famously condemned to the Detroit dustbin having ‘sold’ about 3 copies ‘back in the day’. Now TV commercials fight over the rights. You just never know.

‘No Doctor’ sees the band getting seriously warmed up for the sprint to the finish and then indeed comes the four – card trick to guarantee the encore.

First of all it’s a gripping version of their hit “Sound Of Confusion”, which seems, in the strange way that this sometimes happens, as fresh and as relevant now as it did then. The church-style keyboards at the beginning give the whole thing a sort of gothic shadowing, which works well on stage. And then – straight into the anthemic and authentic mod call-to-arms, “Time For Action”. Page can’t help but laugh as the crowd, who by now are moshing away merrily in significant numbers in this standing-only venue, sing all the difficult bits for him in a time-honoured call and response stylee. And at the end it’s all ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’ and gloriously messy, as the original single. What a joy it is to have a genuine ANTHEM in your locker.

This morphs into a personal fave of mine, “Let Your Heart Dance”, the hit follow-up which I got as a picture-sleeved demo. During the thunderous tom-tom breaks on this one, Page leads the crowd on bits of “Land Of A Thousand Dances” and, inexplicably, “Let’s Twist Again” (Let’s not!) before blasting towards the finish line.

The band knows they’re on the home stretch now and the show starts to glow with that sort of joy in performance which has been conspicuous by absence so far. And at that point they pull a rabbit out of the hat. The main man from the Purple Hearts, another ‘nearly but not quite’ band if ever there was one, leapt onto the stage and led the band in a spirited and stirring blast through their two mod nearly-hits, “Jimmy” and “Millions Like Us” before Page takes back the reins and drives it breathlessly home for their probably most remembered ‘pop’ hit, “My World”, which once again and in fairness has aged very well. In a ‘retro’ sort of way.

Off they go and back for a rather forgettable encore of title track “Glory Boys” and “I’m Not Free (But I’m Cheap)”. But by that time they’d delivered the goods in a well-judged half hour which had punters smiling on their way out into the rain and in many cases I suspect to a big Northern Soul DJ mash-up at Carrow Road as part-celebration of Norwich’s return to the Premiership.

Sound of Conclusions? It was pretty good, but the messy, uncoordinated early section of the gig compromised things for me more that a bit. And Squire? Well, yes, all very lovely but they needed that ‘killer tune’ in the set for the rest to coalesce around and in the fatal words of the A and R man for many a band’s career, ‘I don’t hear a single’. Which you can’t say for Secret Affair. And the Mods still love them. And why shouldn’t they? And if for no other reason, Secret Affair should be congratulated on surviving ‘King’s new clothes syndrome’ back in 1979 to still be in a position to celebrate 40 years of “Glory Boys” in 2019 with such aplomb. And that, in itself, is no mean feat.

Steve Jenner, (with Quiz Of The Week – live from Norwich!)

So Scott Walker (Engel) walks off into the sunset having lit up the world with a voice of such depth and resonance music itself was hardly big enough to hold it in.

In my capacity as radio bloke for High Peak I had the honour of interviewing Walker Brothers founder John Walker (Maus) at the Buxton Opera House back in what was once regarded as The Day. Scott Walker wasn’t a subject you touched on much; Scott had gone off to start a solo career back in 1967 and there had been a few temporary reunions when the bank balance got a bit squeaky but, by 1967, Scott Walker had pretty much ‘outgrown’ the Walker Brothers formula and had started a lifelong walk on the musical wild side, starting with working his way through the darkness and despair of the Jaques Brel songbook and eventually recording albums including music that many regarded as barely recognizable as ‘songs’.

But WHAT a legacy.

I will admit to a prejudice here; I believe about twenty of the best minutes to come out of the sixties came from The Righteous Brothers. “Lovin’ Feelin” is the single most played choon on American radio and there is a reason for this. And check out “Soul and Inspiration”. And that wasn’t even produced by Phil Spector.

And if that’s what floats your boat, you can’t resist The Walker Brothers. Similarities there are a-plenty; none of them are Brothers to each other and none of them were really called Walker (or for that matter, Righteous). There is truth in the rumour that The Righteous Brothers were so named when a punter in a predominantly black audience they were performing for declared ‘that’s righteous, brothers’.

There is no truth in the rumour that The Walker Brothers were so named by a punter enjoying a potato-based cheese and onion snack food.

Each was fronted by a deep-voiced, achingly soulful lead singer who could make walls weep. But Scott Walker had RANGE. How does he do the ‘la dee dah baby babys’ at the end of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More” in that register when he starts off ‘Loneliness….’ With both voice and soul locked in a cellar somewhere? Not to mention a heart-breaking heartbeat ‘late’? And don’t even talk to me about clever tricks by the knob twiddlers; this was 1966. The world was still black and white and mono. England were in the process of winning the World Cup and studio kit was still operated by blokes (and yes, I do mean blokes) in shop coats.

Each recorded ballads; but managed by harnessing soul and raw power to rise above the cloying sentimentality of many gainfully employed by the genre to create something that would Last. And I’m not talking James Last here.

Each needed voices that could do battle with and soar above, below and around the orchestra of angels; transcendent string arrangements that blow the top of your head off.

Each had mahoosive hits in the sixties but still had enough in the tank to come back and shake the tree many years later.

Both had to tolerate the dorkish demands of the pop business at the time, had to do tooth-rottingly bad TV appearances, pour out their little drops of genius whilst TV studio audiences yawned and scratched themselves, and being compelled to record some stuff which they were ill advised to record. And that’s being polite.

But there it ends.

If The Walker Brothers had kicked it in the head after “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More”, their place in the history of recorded music would be cemented; but they didn’t. Check “My Ship Is Coming In”. More Righteous than the Righteous, and that’s saying something.

And “Make It Easy On Yourself”. Their version is better than The Impressions version. And that is the only time you will hear me say that about ANY song recorded by The Impressions (Actually, no; check out “For Your Precious Love” by Linda Jones but for goodness sake NOT after you’ve had a drink; you WILL weep openly for half an hour at least. You Have Been Warned.)

And then, that album they recorded in the mid-seventies for GTO Records. Hit with a Tom Rush song, “No Regrets”. They did it, some say, as a bit of a contract fulfillment job, in order to get on with the things they REALLY wanted to do. But goodness me, on very few occasions has a song been so heavily sold to the listener by being heavily undersold. It sounds like they can’t be bothered…but in delivering it so, it reeks of the world-weariness of the genuinely Tired.

My fave beyond these has to be “The Electrician”.

Anybody who can make a song about the ‘work’ of a CIA torturer an enjoyable listen has pretty much escaped the usual constraints of the music biz, I think it fair to contend.

And after that he never came back, really. Numerous collaborations with the likes of Jarvis Cocker et al. Lots of years off. Lots of tracks which I will cheerfully admit were well beyond me. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t any good or worth a listen; they just didn’t do much for me. I’m at heart a radio man; can’t resist a good hook, no matter how you dress it up.

Thanks Scott; thanks Walkers. I blame Gary Lineker.

What a wonderful thing it is to be able to go, ‘yeah, I’ll have a bit of that’ when you’re in your local having a pint. So happens the promoter of the local folk club was in. So happens he’s a long-time mate of Steve Gibbons. Turns out he’s persuaded him to play an unplugged solo gig upstairs at the intimate but absolutely luverly (if we overlook the early-closing bar) Rainbow Room at the Foxlowe Centre in my current and I suspect final hometown of Leek.

I haven’t seen him in 42 years, ever since I did the support rock ‘n’ roll themed disco and compere duties on a gig whilst he was touring Scotland just as his cover of Chuck Berry’s “Tulane” was in the top forty, having briefly made it into the top ten.

So, yeah, I will have a bit of that, thank you very much.

Said promoter, Dave Rhead, is also opening for SG tonight. This is brave of him as he has just fallen base over apex, stone cold sober and in full public view, over a local pavement. He’s well banged up and does well to hobble through “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and Anthony Toner’s lovely “Always Meeting my Cousins at Funerals”. To add insult to injury he managed this just outside Specsavers. Maybe he should….

When I last saw the Steve Gibbons Band they were absolutely in their pomp, top of their game. Huge great P.A. system, all the paraphernalia of a band signed to a major record company with a hit single and album in “Rollin’ On”. And he’s just finished a tour of parts of Scandinavia with a full band, so his trip to Leek for this solo low-key ‘unplugged’ set was clearly going to be something of a ‘gear change’ for him.

But he’s a trouper, is Steve Gibbons. His Dylan Project has kept playing gigs, he still packs them in on full band gigs, has played a number of big festivals in recent years, as well as solo and unplugged events like these. He is, to quote Pete Townshend, ‘road-worn’ but he cuts an elegant and dignified figure as he sets up to go.

First song is one of his early ones from the sixties. He was around in The Uglys and The Idle Race and the Dominettes before that – and the Dominettes can trace lineage back to 1960. This guy has been at it All Day. As far as I can discover, this is his first song recorded for a major label – “Wake up my Mind” was out on Pye back in 1965. Didn’t do much over here but went top twenty in Australia. They all count.

He then heads off into “The Chain” from “Maintaining Radio Silence” and “Wild Flowers” where the Dylanesque phrasing comes through and a lovely love song for Valentine’s Day, “Still in the Dark”. Can’t Get Next To You, Babe. The mystery of relationships and all that malarkey. “Graffiti Man” was an amusing aside from his observations of Birmingham life, and “Down in the Bunker” was a song that indeed took me back.

“I Got Chuck In My Car” finished off the first half of the set with more than a little nod to Jerry Reed’s “Tupelo Mississippi Flash”, a former hit single of his (apart from the fact that it’s a song about Elvis). More about that one, though, later.

Time to reflect.

The Steve Gibbons Band hit serious paydirt for probably the first time in the period 1976-1979; and he was by no means a young man by then. He was the right man at the right time, in many respects; rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly were enjoying a resurgence, even amongst home-grown acts, and his energetic and fleet-footed reworking of Chuck Berry’s “Tulane” sort of bridged the gap between rock ‘n’ roll revisited, punk energy levels and pace and the (by then) rapidly fading pub rock scene. Also; it kind of fitted the zeitgeist. The Fonz. Grease was just about to hit VERY big. “American Graffiti”. Showaddywaddy selling truckloads, and here comes Shakin’ Stevens…..you get the picture.

But he was a whole lot more than that. In the second half of the show he began mining the rock ‘n’ roll roots as only someone who had been playing music and listening to all that amazing stuff first time around can. I honestly believe you don’t HAVE to be American to understand how great rock ‘n’ roll works (but it helps) but if you’re not, what helps a very great deal is if you were ‘around’ when these great, great songs were new to the world. And for that you really don’t need to be born in the fifties, like me; you need to be born in the forties, like Steve Gibbons. And through most of the second half of the set, he showed us how true that is. Starting with “Hey Buddy” dedicated to Buddy Holly, “Memphis Flash” (please see above!) dedicated to Elvis including a sneaky peek at “That’s Alright”, the drug mule song “Mr Jones” the roots of American rock ‘n’ roll music are laid bare by the dry, dust-bowl voice and the simple but authentic guitar chops.

The problem is – if you were born in the forties, you’re knocking on a bit now, and whereas age might have done really interesting things with his voice, he freely admits it hasn’t done him any favours in the memory department, so there are occasional meanderings and excursions, sometimes between songs, sometimes during a song, but on the rare occasions this happens he manages to scrape it all back together again and keep moving.  Be under no illusions; his performance wasn’t perfect – as you might expect from someone carrying very many years on his back. But what he brought to the party meant you were absolutely forced to overlook that and to do otherwise would just be plain churlish.

This guy was more ‘Americana’ than many who currently wave that particular flag decades before anyone so much as mentioned the word. A point which is subtly underlined when he swoops into Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, Bo Diddleyfies “No Spitting on the Bus” (which might sound like Americana but is about as English in content as a pint of mild) and “Man in the Long Black Coat”.

Bizarrely, events are interrupted by the drawing of a raffle, before he draws the evening to a conclusion with a moving rendition of Rick Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou” before being called back for an encore during which he wanders amiably through Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee”. Somewhere I imagine Dave Berry has neglected to start his gig with “Memphis Tennessee” but has decided to sing “Tulane” instead. The universe must be kept in harmony.

Yes.

Speaking with him afterwards was an absolute delight. He signed my 45s and indeed the page of our book where the Steve Gibbons Band gets a mention so I’m well chuffed. So the guy who toured America with The Who, and has shared stages with the likes of Lynryd Skynryd, ELO and Little Feat quietly packed his personal kit away, no doubt already contemplating the next stop on the seemingly endless road in whatever incarnation presents itself to him. Because that’s the deal.

Steve Gibbons is one of Britain’s last real troubadours who link directly back to the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll in the UK – had hits during (arguably) its most turbulent and explosive times – and yet whose voice and presence recall a world and a culture many miles removed.

If that moves your soul, catch him while you can. If not, well, your loss.