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.

Well, what do we have here? An ‘intimate’ venue just off the main city centre which may not be big but it is clever. Great, wide stage, fabulous sight lines, fairly shallow standing-only area, nice uncluttered bar with efficient staff and fair prices away to the side but in the same room.

Perfick.

You come to see a band here – and they are In Your Face; so it really lends itself to ‘you’re having it’-type performances.

Which is what we get from The Skids from the get-go. Support band Borrowed Time are well-chosen for the task and get the crowd seriously warmed, especially with their song “Borrowed Time” which I suspect struck a chord with quite a few in the room.

But, The Skids.

Oh My Goodness.

On they come – and on guitar, Big Country main man Bruce Watson. I had seriously not done my homework on The Skids – I figure sometimes it is best just to go out, grab a beer, and see what you get. One of the great pleasures of doing this gig, for me, is not being over-prepared and therefore, everything comes as a surprise. And for me, this was a gig full of pleasant surprises – and because I hadn’t done my homework I wasn’t expecting that because This Lad Can Play A Bit. Last time I saw him, he and the Big Countryfolk were being supported by The Osmonds on the night when the toothsome pair for some reason neglected to go ‘whinny, whinny’ during “Crazy Horses”.

But I digress.

Richard Jobson is, first of all, in great nick. Whilst no longer in the first flush of youth, he still has great bundles of energy and seems to have taken care of himself down the years. Self-deprecating to a fault, though; rips it out of himself for terrible dancing – and then hurls himself about the stage all gig long, just as he did ‘back in the day’ as a sort of cross between a Northern Soul floor cruiser and a demented Highland flinger – and he’s a big lad to be doing that kind of thing. And the voice; if anything, this guy sings better now than he did then – and his voice is a quite fabulous vehicle for the anthem-rich body of work which is The Skids songbook.

And we get them all tonight and more besides.

“Animation” kicks off and it is so full of hooks even if you hadn’t heard it before you’d still find yourself attempting to sing the lyrics. Followed in breathless short order by “Of One Skin”, which came into my life one day via a demo 4 track EP entitled “Wide Open” and is a real stunner; you didn’t get many ‘punk’ songs back then which had changes of pace, complete ‘breakdown’ sections etc, etc and STILL a killer hook. And straight into “Charade”, another hit tune which got them loads of Radio 1 plays and folks like me up and down the country playing it whenever the opportunity presented itself. You just couldn’t not play it. The hooks get in, you can’t get ‘em out. It’s an earworm at a time when there were plenty of bands with ‘attitude’, and some who could actually play, but not many who could write a live anthem that was a turntable hit as well and not have some people accusing them of ‘selling out’. Now that is a clever trick – and to perform it 40 years on or so with so much venom and bite is nothing short of exceptional.

From “Burning Cities”, their latest on No Bad Records “Kings Of The New World Order”, and “One Last Chance” slotted well into the set, definitely sounded like ‘Skids songs’, and didn’t let up on the momentum one bit. Quite a few ‘heritage’ bands could learn from Jobson and Co about the fine art of introducing new songs into a set. Many musicians of a certain age publically bemoan the unwillingness of live audiences to ‘accept’ new songs in a set which is largely nostalgic – but The Skids proved it can be done, it can be done in such a way that the new tunes can be used to add interest to a set and engage the audience even more – so let’s have no more of that negative talk, eh? The new ones went down well here tonight in Derby and they deserved to do so.

Then a stunningly-performed triple; the breakout track, “The Saints Are Coming” – and after this you could be forgiven for looking to the skies to see if indeed they were – the amazingly prescient “Working For The Yankee Dollar” – a sort of “Not Born In The USA” for us careworn non-Americans who grew up still paying off the lend-lease bill; and “Hurry On Boys” – singalongajobbers in turbodrive on this one.

A couple from “The Absolute Game”, “Woman In Winter” and “Circus Games” were served with the awesome top 20 hit “Masquerade” as a chaser. Once again I fail to see how anyone cannot fall under the spell of this thunderous track, played, once again, with strident freshness and verve. Word here for the rhythm section. You didn’t know they were there. In a good way. Not a foot wrong all night.

And the ground rumbled (OK so I just noticed the rhythm section) and Mr Jobson declares, ‘well, it’s now or never…’ and doesn’t, surprisingly, launch into what would have been a highly incongruous version of the Elvis Presley classic, but the Greatest Hit, “Into The Valley”. Lyrics are so obtuse you can’t really sing along to this one but hey, it doesn’t stop you trying. La la la la la, la la la la la. Rock classic? Yep. Should it be on more ‘drivetime classic’ CD compilations and playlists. All Day Long, my friend. Sometimes the ‘labels’ we put on things don’t help and don’t work. Sometimes our compartmentalizing of stuff leads to miscarriages of justice. This should have been a number 1 hit.

I did my bit. Virgin had stopped sending me free stuff by that time. So I bought a copy. If you were ‘around’ then – and didn’t – I blame you, personally, for the fact that this didn’t happen.

“Happy To Be With You” and “TV Stars” bring the contractual part of the proceedings to an end and rather than head off to the back of the building for no apparent reason just to traipse back on again, the band elected to stay put and deliver a rousing encore without the need for a breather; and, seemingly just for the hell of it, the band run with my ‘Elvis’ idea and produce a killer version of the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” and The Buzzcocks’ “What Do I Get?” before finishing with “The Olympian” and a spirited reprise of “Of One Skin”.

The two-guitar attack of Bruce and Jamie Watson combined with the rock-solid rhythm section and the strident vocals of Richard Jobson are an incredibly strong proposition. If you haven’t been to see these guys in a long while, then you should. They are the Real Deal and can and do deliver the goods as they should be delivered.

Backstage after the gig and briefly reminiscing with Mr Jobson about a gig they did in Dundee where I was compere and DJ guy back in ‘78, I suggested to him the band really should be playing far bigger venues than this. He smiled wryly at that; the band have played many large festival gigs in this incarnation but it is quite clear they feel happier – much happier – when playing indoors, to be playing the kind of gig where the crowd are right there, right down the front and totally free to leap all over each other, throw beer all over each other and enjoy the sheer joy in this stuff.

And long may they continue to do so.

For some reason and lovely though it is, press tickets for Buxton Opera House invariably mean you are crammed up against the lighting rig way up in Ye Gods. It’s not the most comfortable way to spend an evening, I will cheerfully concede.

Support act Smith and Brewer wander on and are a competent and pleasant enough listen, with some interesting lyrics and quality acoustic picking. There’s a lot of it about, but you could spend half an hour in significantly worse company, even when they do the Buxton Water Gag (Buxton famous for bottled water, every band has one on stage, congratulates audience on very fine water, everyone goes ha ha ha politely).

10CC have always been an enigma. Their run of chart success, both singles and albums, suggest they should be up there with Queen etc etc but somehow, the mass adulation, instant recognition and media frenzy they managed to evade. So despite number 1 UK hits, a spectacular run, memorable records and huge sales, they remain a sort of large-scale minority (!) semi-guilty pleasure.

Probably because they never had a defined front person, a definitive ‘star’ or focal point in the pack. They were a band – and an art-rock band at that. You never knew quite who you should be looking ‘at’.

History has simplified things considerably in that respect and the only remaining member of the original ‘gang of four’ currently in 10CC is Graham Gouldman. I could at this point make the crack about it being 2.5CC or whatever but in fairness, drummer Paul Burgess has been playing with the band since 1973, which is pretty much the duration of, and lead guitarist Rick Fenn has been with them since about 1978 or so. Which is a while.

So, Graham Gouldman is de facto band leader, and the band do indeed take their cues from him, and the ‘act’ as such, is, as it should be, built around him. That said, he’s a bass player, and, well, you know. Bass man he don’t call for no glamour. Then again, Tom Robinson, etc etc…..

A strange and stagey start to the gig with the band coming on to the audio backdrop of a Graham Gouldman song about…being Graham Gouldman; with squirts of Hotlegs’ “Neanderthal Man” stirred into the mix. This is actually quite evocative and relevant, for Gouldman’s story is a strange one. Few are as prolific and successful as songwriters; he wrote “For Your Love” and “Shapes Of Things” for The Yardbirds, “Look Through Any Window” and “Bus Stop” for The Hollies, “Pamela” for Wayne Fontana and “No Milk Today” for Herman’s Hermits amongst many others. He went to live in the States for a while to churn out ‘bubblegum’ hits for the likes of Ohio Express and Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus. Strange Days Indeed, before Hotlegs who got to number two and sold two million and then, 10CC.

And straight into “Wall Street Shuffle”. Band don’t look overly enthused. It is clinical, but not in a good way; then “Art for Art’s Sake”; and they’ve burnt two classic 10CC 45s, both big hits, and neither audience nor band look particularly engaged by the proceedings so far. And at this point Mr. G and the rest of the band start to talk to the audience and this helps a bit and slowly but surely, they start to ‘unstiffen’. There’s tight, and there’s uptight, and that’s how it looked and sounded early doors, but as the set progressed, matters improved in this respect and that’s a good thing.

Still the hits kept on coming, “Life Is A Minestrone”, attributed to some misheard radio DJ. We have a lot to answer for, it appears. These are Clever Lyrics. And that also can have the effect of driving a bit of distance between the audience and ‘the turn’, but as the band warmed to the task and ultimately the mock-profound lyrics, and the sumptuous layers of sound started to turn things around. “Good Morning Judge” followed, once again reflecting Gouldman’s time in and understanding of aspects of the American experience, in lyrics but also in the chunky country feel this one seems to exude. Another top ten UK hit. Gouldman’s voice didn’t seem altogether ‘there’ on this one, though, which is strange because elsewhere he was spot on.

The band is outrageously talented; various members swap from bass to guitar, keyboards to guitar, percussion to key boards, guitar to bass without any great fanfare, almost just because they can. Indeed Gouldman seems just as happy waving a Telecaster about as he does his bass –and he has a few of those to choose from as well.

Yet another and very interesting hit follows – “The Dean and I”. It is such an effective pastiche of Beach Boys-stylee American youth culture of a time ten to twenty years removed from when it was written – counterbalanced with all the ‘fun’ of being a grown-up, and all that that entails. Perceptive, sharp-eyed and yet still affectionate in a strange kind of way, an early highpoint of the set.

Off we go into the album tracks and – good call – “Old Wild Men”, 10cc’s tribute to Bowie’s “Rock n Roll Suicide”. And the irony was not lost on the band members, especially GG, now 72. Of course, you only get to ‘old’ if at some point you manage to get a grip on ‘wild’, combined with a certain amount of good fortune. This was followed in short order by “Clockwork Creep”, which still has the theatrical power to shock, as we are invited to consider the curious dialogue between aeroplane and explosive device. The theatre, timing and delivery of this really was something else which had the effect of making the following “Feel the Benefit”, a classic Northern expression derived from being forced to take your coat off inside the house, sound a bit ‘baggy’ and prog-rock, really. Which is where a number of 10cc’s album-buying fans lived; in the prog rock bubble of interminable album tracks bereft of hooks, charm or justification. It wasn’t that bad by any means but….some did indeed enjoy it. In a set where they didn’t play “Worst Band In the World” and “People in Love” I struggle to understand, but, fair enough. In a body of work of this size, you aren’t going to get all your faves.

And to be fair, they reacted like they knew this and sweetly harmonised their way through a gorgeous “Things We Do For Love” which FM radio just embraces and celebrates. Very nice camp 70’s hand claps, too.

”Silly Love” then launches itself with careering, skittering intensity and great guitar work. Another high point is reached a few minutes later as “I’m Mandy, Fly Me”, complete with lovely jangly acoustic is announced by the correctly-mixed sample from “Clockwork Creep”. And for most of the time, the harmonies have that sumptuous, layered, multi-tracked gloss they need to bring this off. Can’t be easy to recreate this live even with today’s technologies. Very well done indeed, chaps, especially Paul Canning and Keith Hayman who absolutely shone on this.

And, just as I become aware of two stationary glitter half-balls towards the back of the stage, the band strikes up with “I’m Not in Love”. Recorded around the time of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, when musicians were waking up to the possibilities of multi-layered technologies, this remains one of the most awesome radio tunes ever. And dance floor ‘gnight ‘n’ thangyou’ tunes ever, as well. A number one all century long, it was co-written by Graham Gouldman, and many of the assembled gentlemen sent a silent prayer of thanks towards the stage for something which many will have their own ‘story’ about. I cheerfully predict this tune has not reached zenith point yet in terms of global ‘reach’ and impact. In many years time, this will turn up as THE theme tune to a Massive Film. Even more massive than the last one. And it is played with great accuracy and regard to the original even down to Gouldman’s curious bass meanderings under the girly whisper. One of the greatest UK number one hits ever, recreated beautifully. And what a way to finish your set – with a loose and bouncy chunker-chunk through “Dreadlock Holiday”, another number one hit, finished with ‘I don’t like Buxton – I Love it!’ Beats the generic ‘water’ gag of earlier, I’ll tell thee.

I would have been quite happy to go home at that point but no, the deserved standing ovation brings the encore, and a reflective “Ready to Go Home” leads into a stellar acapella version of the first 10cc hit, “Donna”. This was always a doo-wop pastiche just waiting for this treatment, but the success of this type of treatment depends on the quality of the delivery. Done badly, it’s awful. Done as well as this, it is a guaranteed show-stopper. Brought the house down. As did the only truly ‘rock out’ tune in the repertoire, the rubbery, sinuous “Rubber Bullets” which went all the way to number one in 1973. Standing ovation reprised, band take selfies, all look a bit stunned, which is such a distance away from the reaction and indeed my feelings two tunes into the set, after which I got the distinct impression it was going to be a Long Night For The Riot Squad.

Which it wasn’t.

Doreen Schaffer 26/10/18

Oh, ‘tis my delight on a Friday night…..to find a smallish, intimate venue where there’s something interesting going on. Especially after the wide open cavities of the O2 on the previous night.

And there is something interesting going on here, period. Approximately 300 people big when rammed I’d guess, they’ve got anything from the aforementioned jazz and blues to The Sweet, and Steve Harley coming up. Eclectic, you might reasonably conclude.

And tonight, it’s Ska night – and how. Tonight’s headliners – The Skatalites, who had a bona fide top 40 hit back in the day, a day which was a very long time ago when the world was new, with their Skatalitic version of “Guns Of Navarone” and were band mates, stable mates and studio mates with the likes of Prince Buster, Jackie Mittoo, Toots and the Maytals, etc. Bluebeat is pretty much what it was, but they have broadened out and have reggae’d the whole deal up a fair bit as time has gone by, styles have changed and the world woke up to those off-beat rhythms.

Faada Ras 26/10/18

Tony Alli 26/10/18

And, none of your messing about here – The Majestic is playing in support and they soon prove to be an extremely effective unit. Once the sound desk had woken up to the fact that the singer would be best heard with some access to a live mic, they play tracks from their album “Unequivocal Love” and a handful of other songs with discipline, affection and conviction. They are led by Faada Ras who bounces, cajoles and drives the band through the set making certain the audience is completely engaged with what’s going on. Bass player Tony Alli is as solid as a rock but really, this isn’t about any individual; they are a very well rehearsed, very tight unit which actually plays like a band who do a hundred gigs a year or so. They have some good, slick-sounding material as well, especially “Too Cool” and “Free Up Your Mind”. Keep an eye out and an ear open.

They also formed an appropriate and affectionate platform to ‘launch’ The Skatalites. The wonder of these guys is they pack a full three-part horn section of tenor sax, trumpet and trombone – the archetypal full band brass section, but absolutely spot-on for Bluebeat and Ska.

And what they did was really, really interesting and complex. The ‘legacy’ of this band is the stuff from the Bluebeat and Ska era; their original period of peak creativity was around 1963 to 1965 or so; but then they ‘sort of’ split then reformed years later, by which time music had pretty much moved on, the way it tends to. And so, to survive, they adapted and took influence and inspiration from other, later reggae styles – and why not? As individual band members they played alongside the likes of Jimmy Cliff, Ken Boothe, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Peter Tosh. Not only have they earned the right the hard way, how could musicians of such talent be expected to stand still, just because their ‘moment’ happened a long time ago? So in 2018, and still with some, how shall we say, more venerable band members such as drummer Trevor ‘Sparrow’ Thompson and oh-so-solid bass player Val Douglas, who find themselves sharing the same band vehicle as other younger members with other influences, such as stratospherically-talented sax player Azemobo ‘Zem’ Audo and guitarist Natty Frenchy who has been in there with the likes of U-Roy, they present an absolutely fascinating hybrid which seems to zap backwards and forwards from just post-Laurel Aitken and Prince Buster through to much less jagged and almost ‘rocky’ reggae tunes, the kind of thing that Peter Tosh might have been knocking out back in the day.

But it really isn’t the sort of audio train crash it could conceivably have become. These people know exactly what they are doing and move seamlessly between genres without clumsy ‘gear changes’. The trombone really ‘bosses’ the ‘older’ ska tunes, especially the likes of “James Bond” and the pop hit , “Guns of Navarone”; but the guitar easily drives the band along with the more fluid and sinuous songs in the set. Special mention for Ken Stewart on the keyboards as well, who shifted with the deftest of touches from the hard, rhythmic ‘piano’ sound needed on occasion to the more soulful, Hammond-like offering which was also on occasion called upon.

Azemobo ‘Zem’ Audo 26/10/18

The high spot for me, apart from the fabulous instrumental groove of the indeed mighty ”Guns Of Navarone”, was the point where the generally-acknowledged ‘Queen of Ska’, Doreen Schaffer, took to the stage to take us through a clutch of hits from those times. The crowd positively revelled in the warmth and togetherness she generated; Feel The Love, indeed. The fact that she left the stage to even greater acclaim than she arrived to was suggestive not only of the respect and admiration in which she is held – but the fact that she can still Nail It. Which she did.

Doreen Schaffer 26/10/18

Whole place was rocking by the time the band drove hard to the finish line which I think was either a quick blast of the “Nutcracker Suite” or a reprise on “Guns” but to be honest by that time I wasn’t counting. What a joy that was. Great venue, excellent performances. Joyful. I really felt that I’d lively upped myself, and that doesn’t happen every day – and an object lesson in how a band can, with dignity and no loss of credibility, keep true to their roots, but take themselves forward into the future, and still be a relevant and entertaining force of nature. And that’s not an easy trick for anybody to turn.

Photo courtesy of John Hayhurst.

I recently saw a 15 year old Ford Mondeo which had just been resprayed Brilliant White and which was reclining resplendently in the pub car park. I have very rarely seen a consumer durable which screamed ‘OOOOHH! LOOOOK AT MEEE!!’ with quite such intrusive insistence and neediness. Hold that thought. I will return to it in a short while.

Jo Harman was the proud owner of the ‘early doors crowd shuffles in, a bit grumpy as they’ve just got in from work and haven’t yet got over the shock of the price of a beer’ spot in what Mr. M. describes as ‘The Enormodrome’ because yes, I’m back at my least favourite venue in the land, the Eauchew.

And something seems to have happened to her. A few years back I seem to recall a series of sharp, soulful single releases ending up persuading me to programme her on the A-list of ‘our’ couple of commercial radio stations so I was probably in a minority in being intrigued to hear what she might have to offer. Unfortunately, this appeared to be a sort of Joni Mitchell / Carole King hybrid with added ‘soul’; which strangely seems to have the opposite effect, making it seem an even more sterile experience in a half-empty big shed. Keyboard player who accompanied her wasn’t a lot of help either. The irrepressible Robert Elms had a few minutes previously claimed ‘we were the lucky ones’ in catching her set. I must confess I didn’t exactly feel like a lottery winner as a consequence. I wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to achieve and to be honest I don’t think she achieved it short of a polite but lukewarm reception at the end of the set.

The reason her set was truncated and she was introduced with seemingly indecent haste was that things appeared to be running late, which in a time-sensitive, virtually automated venue like the O2, Just Can’t Happen. And so when The Steve Miller Band hit the boards, the sound was still pretty much all over the place. Anyone suffering from a gluten allergy would have been poleaxed; it was glutinous, sticky, thoroughly unbalanced and really quite horrible to begin with. The keyboards, which would play an increasingly important part in the set were virtually absent; the guitars lost in a quite horrible swamp of all the things I do not appreciate which sometimes seems to be ‘the way it is done’ when an American band plays a stadium rock gig. The drums sound like someone is throwing an empty filing cabinet down a lift shaft; the bass is an intrusive, rubbery Audio Prevention Scheme. Which is a blooming shame as the band set off at a fair old lick with ‘The Stake’ and, to quote SM himself, ‘a bit of magic’ – ‘Abracadabra’. Iwannareachoutangrabya. Apart from the fact that if you tried you’d have to get past the white Mondeooh, look at me, go on, look at me – rhythm section.

I must admit I am of the persuasion which tends to believe great bass playing in an ensemble rock setting you barely even notice; it does the job, it hangs it all together, it doesn’t ‘make you notice’. And as for those drums! Whole rows of people felt bottom leave chair momentarily as the hammer came down. And we were sitting hard by the mixing desk; gawd help the benighted souls heading for the stratosphere where the sound is suspect at the best of times.

Anyway. It’s the Blues Fest and we’re going to hear some and the band treat us to “Mercury Blues” and “All Your Love”, an Otis Rush song, and the main man explains to us why and how he has more right than most to sing it. He’s a great raconteur; very unassuming and self-effacing and with that sort of laconic West Coast sense of humour which is at once likeable and engaging. And from that it’s Space Cowboy, and a real ‘oldie’ in “Kow Kow Calqulator”, still muddy but at least the vocal, which is great, starts to assert itself. Steve Miller has a really listenable voice; it rocks, but with just that edge of sweetness and West Coast smoothness that radios have loved for years. Not only that, but jukeboxes, too. Back in the day on both sides of the Atlantic, having a juke-box friendly sound really got you through to people when they were at leisure and unusually receptive to music; and “Take The Money And Run” is one of these and it spat its way sharply across the floor of the O2 towards me – and as it did I can remember having played it just once, then drilling out the hole ready for slamming it on the ‘Union’ jukebox, where it was played until it went grey with wear. Whoop – whoop!

“Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Serenade from the Stars” were standouts from the mid-section of the set and despite the depressingly overplayed ‘Thuds’ and rumbles from the rhythm section, the quality of the mix did improve. The keyboards started to assert themselves and the quirky ‘synthesizer’ FX and the trademark guitar ‘wolf whistles’ started to join Miller’s voice and the excellent harmonic backup to make the gig sound more like…The Steve Miller Band. “Fly Like An Eagle” is a great song, always was and is one of those that just refuses to date; very much like “Swingtown”, which is such an oddball, really, but just works brilliantly as one of those jukebox 45’s, or as a ‘top down’ radio cruiser; and we’re off into the Solid Gold Hits section of the show (and thanks be to the lord that the sound has continued to recover) as we blast through “Rock ‘n’ Me”, which should be the first track every on ‘Drivetime’ CD compilation ever produced and “The Joker”, complete with album cover back drop on the big screen. This song had a strange time in the UK; first released on Capitol Records back in the early seventies, it did OK but didn’t set the country alight whilst it raced to the top in the States and most of Europe; but it went to number one in the early eighties and thereby righting a strange historical anomaly when the record company reissued it once the band had seriously broken through and already had a string of Big Ones for Mercury / Phonogram.

Encore time and they thrash through spirited versions of “Jungle Love” complete with the FX – and “Jet Airliner” which just so suits the ‘double track’ vocal style and purposeful ‘drive’ of the song. And by the end these guys had the vast majority of the arena on their feet – as many had been from about half way through the set – and they had underlined the thing that experienced All-American Bands do best; they know how to put on a show in a stadium, they know how to pace a set, they know how to work through the obstacles that get in the way. And despite my clear annoyance about the sound, I’d have to say they were ultimately worth the entry fee alone.

Don’t tell the Festival organizers though because they’ve booked some bloke called John Fogerty as tonight’s main Turn after the bingo.

John Fogerty. The songwriter, frontman and main driver behind the hits of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fogerty and Co. climbed to the top of the rock ‘n’ roll pile in the US and indeed a position of considerable prominence across the rest of the world when the market was extremely competitive. Playing at Woodstock, the guy is a true all-American music hero. Going back to the ‘jukebox’ theme again, Fogerty virtually made the 7-inch piece of black plastic his personal territory as his hits blasted out of virtually every jukejoint, bar, drive-in, and yes, radio speaker grille across the greater USA. Despite being very much “Born On The Bayou”, by making direct, impactful and Damn Loud tunes based on (in the main) classic rock ‘n’ roll structures straight out of the ‘fifties, his band criss-crossed the states in a dizzying dash to take the music to the people. And he played everywhere and all the time. But he had things to say as well, about which more later.

And so at the age of 73, the main man positively leaps onto the stage in London’s ‘Enormodrome’ to find thousands upon thousands already right with the programme -‘737 Coming Out Of The Sky’ – and we’re playing in a “Travelling Band”. Bedecked in a jacket even more attention-grabbing but considerably less intrusive than Steve Miller’s rhythm section, he smiles sharkishly at the assembled multitude and launches that amazing, insistent, hot-knife-through-butter voice. He looks like a man who KNOWS he’s got what the people want and he ain’t afraid to use it.

“Green River”, “Hey Tonight”, “Up Around the Bend”, ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain”. I’m already exhausted by the intensity and we haven’t even started yet. Band and JF are performing with total energy and conviction and seem to be having a great time as well. The extremely young horn section – especially the sax player – swing and sass with fruity verve and give the tunes the extra dimension they sometimes need to ‘lift’ them to the place where they deserve to be; and he’s a great storyteller as well, grinning throughout he thanks the audience at every turn and tell stories of Woodstock, guitars, family, travel, love and strife. It’s all there.

Most bands who are still fortunate enough to enjoy the experience and guile of a 70+ year old main man usually have to adopt ‘coping strategies’ to eke out the energy and resources of the man it is actually all about. This can entail band solo spots whilst the main attraction has a rest and a change of clothes; a harmony section which sweeps in like a Huey chopper sweeping in to rescue a struggling Marine battalion in the Mekong Delta once the ‘voice’ starts to fade; no such strategies with the goodly Mr F., who holds his bandstand throughout. He SINGS these songs. They are not ‘easy pieces’ to sing; they require sustained power, accuracy and clarity, and there’s no hiding here. He is, however, given a bit of moral support by the appearance of one of his sons, Tyler, who sweeps in to sing “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Psycho” in a good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll tear-up; and indeed Shane Fogerty, who stays on stage throughout and is, in his own right, a phenomenal rock guitar player. And the enthusiasm is just so infectious; you just can’t help grinning from ear to ear. It becomes clear that what’s happening here is a joyous celebration of a career which has defined American rock and roll for more years than seems possible, but not in a ‘curated’ kind of way. This is Some Party.

This is followed by a sober, testifying “As Long as I Can See the Light” and a quick trip down the “Mystic Highway” before it’s party time again as there’s another of the bewildering number of guitar changes and we’re off down to New Orleans. “Born On The Bayou”, surely one of the most atmospheric and downright creepy songs of the genre, gives way to a giggly, jiggly “Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot”, “Jambalaya” and a killer version of Gary US Bonds “New Orleans”. Well, take me to the Mardi Gras. The unfeasibly youthful brass section all head off into the audience playing their heads off whilst Bob Malone, who plays an absolute captain’s innings on a double-edged battery of keyboards – leaping from one to the other with demented energy – but it’s on stuff like this you start to realize quite how versatile this guy is. Rolling, barrelhouse Fats Domino piano? Here you go….and how about a bit of squeeze box…? Anything else? And this all fattens the sound out and makes it fill every corner of the vast O2 in a set which is rapidly becoming a Masterclass in Just About Everything.   

A whole bunch of bands could learn a thing or two about set pacing here as well. “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” is more contemplative fare – but again, another enormous hit which everybody has heard and the audience goes into singalong mode. That’s the way you do it.

Oh, and just in case anybody’s missed this one, this man wrote one of the most important songs in the world, ever. Nothing like a big statement, is there? Especially when it wasn’t a massive hit for him personally. But just imagine what Live Aid 1 would have been like if The Quo would have hit the stage to kick off proceedings and it had all been a bit….meeah? Yep, “Rockin’ All Over the World” is One Of His. Few, if any, have captured the essence of the joys of a touring rock band so succinctly and effectively. Apart from Fogerty himself. ‘Playing In A Travelling Band’. More than one hit song about rain, more than one hit song about life on the road. Blessed is the ballpoint that scribbled on the fag packets that led to those little beauties, I would contend.

And we’re not done. “Down On the Corner” is one of those tunes which just lit up the gloomy doomy turn of the sixties into the seventies. Some managed to keep it simple, kept writing songs for everyone. Bring a nickel, stamp your feet. “The Old Man Down The Road” is another of Fogerty’s admittedly serial reinterpretations of Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q” but it’s none the worse for that and “Keep On Chooglin” is an irresistible invitation to have a right good Choogle, complete with spectacular guitar pyrotechnics and another guitar change. And speaking of pyros……Lawdy Miss Clawdy! You could feel the heat generated by the flash-bangs back here by the mixing desk, and the drummer did well not to melt on the spot as great gouts of napalm sprang upwards. Oh – and have you noticed? No griping about the sound. The horrible ‘stadium’ drum and bass combo which so compromised Steve Miller’s set was suddenly clean, clear and unobtrusive, but hard-driving and taking no prisoners. In fact once they’d got the voice balance on JF’s voice during the set opener, you could just forget about it, which is how it should be (but how I feared it wouldn’t be given the earlier problems).

An angry and prescient “Fortunate Son” – ‘it ain’t me,’ indeed – led to an admission that a ‘rather nasty curfew’ was about to descend upon proceedings and so I was left feeling the non-appearance of “Hot Rod Heart” was a bit of a miss but in the context of what we’d already been treated to it would indeed be positively churlish to complain.

So, “Bad Moon Rising” – a fitting bookend to “Fortunate Son” predictably brought the house down (I mean, what a song. What A Song. Two minutes or so spent listening to that at any time of day is never time wasted) and then “Proud Mary” kept on turnin’, and the band went off to a rapturous response, Fogerty smiling the smile of a man who Knew as he turned to look at the mayhem his songs and performance had, once again, created. The applause had barely faded when the roadies were already breaking down, the band were being hustled through the labrynth, and, desperately trying to ignore the jetlag which they had spent the last couple of hours or so denying, contemplating that early flight to Dublin for the next gig the very next day. Rockin’ All Over The World? Playin’ In A Travellin’ Band? You bet. As Long As He Can See The Light, Keep on Chooglin’ Mr. F.

Damn. Why ARE Americans SOOOO good at this sort of thing? Especially this bloke and the band he has built around him. And don’t even bother mithering me with any of that ‘ah, but is it the Blues?’ nonsense. Isn’t even a consideration. Willy and the po’ boys are playing, bring a nickel, stamp your feet. Or Don’t. Your choice.

So, meanwhile, I’m still thinking…..I’d spent a chunk of the last week reporting on the Leek Blues and Americana Festival and with the book coming out and everything, I was feeling a bit knackered so a bit of a break in Norfolk seemed just the very thing before covering Creedence Clearwater Revival’s original main man John Fogerty and The Steve Miller Band amongst others for MusicRiot.

The North Norfolk coast is a very quiet part of the country, though, and something interesting on a Saturday night isn’t normally part of the masterplan and to be honest, I really wasn’t looking for anything which would lead me to flex the writing muscles.

All I want is Easy Action, Baby.

So when we discovered T. Rextasy was playing, literally, an ‘end of the pier’ show in Cromer Pier Theatre that very evening, we couldn’t resist very late seats in what was an ostensibly sold-out house.

However.

It is the best part of twenty years since I interviewed main man Danielz on Newark FM, when he was playing the festival in front of the splendid castle there; how has he managed to carry the live legacy of Bolan through to Now?

Because way, way back then, he was already regarded as having transcended the medium of ‘tribute’ acts. And since then, there has been a positive tsunami of these, some of which play your local pub on ‘band’ night on a wet Wednesday on the strength of the front man bearing a slight resemblance to whoever of whatever, some of whom work at it, get professional representation and marketing behind them, and find themselves treading the boards alongside the Last Men and Women Standing in provincial theatres or as part of ‘jukebox musicals’; the ‘whoever’ story, insert name here. In some cases the ‘originals’ are still alive, and in some cases still turn out for the occasional tour, which makes it all a question of scale, affordability and access. Very strange.

No such problems with Marc Bolan’s legacy. It was all over for the poor bloke by the end of 1977; and he’d been drifting, well off the pace, for a number of years before that. He’d been ‘rumbled’ by then, the ‘cosmic boogie’ card had been heavily played, and he was busily trying to find a way forward in the face of punk, the stellar progress of his old mate Bowie, and the debilitating effects of long-term enthusiasm for the Peruvian Marching Powder.

And during his life, he really didn’t ‘tour’ extensively. After the rash of festivals played with the folksy, Tolkienesque Tyrannosaurus Rex, many of his ‘live’ performances were glammed-up set pieces on Top Of The Pops and the such like. So, it isn’t ridiculous to suggest he really didn’t understand, appreciate or value the power of his songs as live show-stoppers.

Danielz, however, in the years between when I interviewed him for radio (and he’d already been doing this for a while before then) and now, has had more than twice as long as Bolan had to ‘grow into’ the T. Rex repertoire. So, it isn’t ridiculous or sacrilegious to suggest that Danielz probably has a greater understanding of how the songs work in a live setting than Marc Bolan ever had.

And it shows. The luxury of time passing also gives him the opportunity to take risks with the songbook as well, as a younger generation of fans along with the ‘old guard’ don’t necessarily know the difference between some of the minor hits and the ‘B’ sides, hence kicking off the set with “Raw Ramp”, an early 70’s B-side. There’s brave, but the band attacks it with plenty of zip and It Works. Indeed, the whole band are a crisp, disciplined and well-drilled unit, which shows all the hallmarks of hard gigging and professional musicianship, which sadly wasn’t a charge which could be laid at Bolan’s door throughout his career. The biggies are saved largely for the second set, and the middle section of the ‘first half’ is given over to a very enjoyable acoustic section which draws in some Bolan rarities; which makes the decision to do an electric boogie-woogie version of ‘Deborah’ seem a slightly strange one.

The first part of the evening’s entertainment is concluded on a high with a spirited dash through “Jeepster” – one of Bolan’s recordings for Fly Records which are generally regarded as his best; and hearing it live again throws all sorts of light onto it as a song; and for all the world the bones of it seem to have country roots. The bass line which underpins it could easily have been part of a ‘Western Swing’ tune from the late 40’s and early 50’s. Bolan gave us plenty of clues to this – and in the live context presented so expertly and affectionately by T. Rextasy, these become clearer and more visible/audible. In “Telegram Sam”, for example he’s a Howlin’ Wolf at the end, and indeed he is. And a cosmic Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, insert name here. We Love To Boogie.

I can’t help feeling it was rather sad, watching Bolan, as I did, slowly lose his grip on the cutting edge, whilst desperately trying to hang on to it, seemingly only ending up with badly injured fingers. He desperately and at times embarrassingly tried to embrace punk and the songs from this period show someone who was trying to tap into the energy but had seriously lost his way; which is more the pity given he had already written and recorded a proto-punk anthem in “Solid Gold – Easy Action”, which Danielz and Co thrash through at the speed and urgency it calls for in order for  it to work

Predictably and entirely reasonably towards the end of the band’s set, three big shots in “Ride A White Swan”, “Get It On” and for the encore, “Hot Love” and indeed why not? However it is in these more than any other we see the slight ‘morphing’ of these tunes into the live crowd-pleasers they always potentially could have been; for me, the slightly ‘dirty’ guitar sound doesn’t help the first of these as the bright, spangly guitar on it is what makes it stand out; but a rockier and more ‘stadium’ “Get It On” really helps it to live in a more ‘real’ context than a slightly ‘cut and stick’ studio confection; and “Hot Love” gives a whole load of opportunities for a joyful audience singalong which becomes the celebration of a classic body of work it should be. All interspersed with affectionate, cheeky asides to the audience between songs, some of which showing the ‘beyond the call of duty’ respect Danielz enjoyed from members of Bolan’s family and indeed the larger musical family to which we all claim a degree of patronage. If he is to be believed (and having spoken to him I see no reason why he shouldn’t be) in the final years of his life, the only musos of the period Joey Ramone would call were Tony Visconti, Suzi Quatro, Noddy Holder and Danielz. Well, that kind of tells you something in terms of what Danielz has achieved here. What is also interesting for me is to watch Danielz so many years after first clocking his act all those years ago; he really has matured as a performer. He knows how to ‘work’ a crowd alright. Most of the members of the audience were out of their seats for more than half the set and with an audience largely of mature years, that, in itself, is not easy. And meanwhile, I’m still thinking; I wonder if Bolan would have managed the same given the same longevity? Because one thing you can say with absolute certainty is Danielz is a grafter; this act needs work; it needs to be rehearsed, over and over and over, especially in order to develop the flexibility of ‘oh, ok, we’ll play this now’, which the band does seemingly effortlessly. Which takes a lot of effort. Would Bolan have put this level of effort into ‘being’ Bolan? Conjecture.

So, have I ‘lost the plot’ reviewing a tribute act? Or has Danielz, along with the rest of T. Rextasy, escaped from ‘Tributeland’ and become part entertainer, part curator, part terrestrial interpreter for a mercurial talent who won the battle to reap the initial rewards – he drove a Rolls Royce ‘cos it was good for his voice – but wasn’t around long enough to win the war; respect, enormous back catalogue sales and becoming a live draw of preposterous proportions. Would any of this have happened or would he have been playing the equivalent of the end of the pier show?

I suspect the former rather than the latter. But in order to make an informed decision about that, I would strongly advise an evening or a bit a festy in the company of T. Rextasy. And I’m unlikely to say that about Fake Prat or whoever, so don’t get used to it. And meanwhile, I’m still thinking….

Oh me, oh my. What a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive. Have I just watched The Wailers? I think I have, but it required a degree of mental flexibility, upfront, to convince myself of this.

The present line-up of The Wailers features Aston Barrett, Jnr., on drums; the son of the legendary Carlton Barrett, drummer with the Wailers at the time of Marley’s death, and, let us not mince words here, an amazing drummer. To be a proficient reggae drummer is to understand rhythms within rhythms and to use percussion in a way that is just other-worldly. To be expert at this is to be one of very, very few. To be in direct bloodline to this remarkable musical collective is to be unique, especially given that his father was murdered in Jamaica in 1987.

The sadly deceased Carlton’s brother, Aston, is generally referred to as ‘Familyman’ due to his organisational skills in getting the band together following Marley’s untimely death; a label he earned sometime before fathering what are claimed by some to be 52 children. And he’s only 71. He was/is the bass player who provided the ‘thump’ behind so many of the Marley biggies; indeed the combination of the two brothers could pretty much be described as the reggae version of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers, having worked with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry as part of The Upsetters. They were very much the nucleus of the musicians who became Bob Marley’s backing band, along with vocal back-up from the I Threes, when the original Wailers split in 1974. But Aston is pretty much confined to a wheelchair tonight, and bass duties are largely being looked after by ‘Dreadie’ Reid.

The main focal point and powerhouse in all this, though, is Junior Marvin. Recruited to And The Wailers in 1977 after working for Island Records on a Steve Winwood project, he featured on the majority of those later Marley jukebox hits and he was very much the right man in the right place at the right time; and in fairness it is pretty difficult to see how the 2018 incarnation of The Wailers could function without him. On stage and in the context of a gig which might be described as ‘challenging’, he certainly emerged as nominal band ‘leader’.

Donald Kinsey adds the ‘rock’ to Marvin’s reggae chops. Not only has he toured with Bob Marley and the Wailers and Peter Tosh, he’s toured with the likes of blues legend Albert King amongst others as well  – and his rocky roots are very much in evidence when he cuts loose on one of many deft and sinuous solos.

And to top this off, singer Shema McGregor is daughter of one of the original I Three; Judy Mowatt. And the front man, in the eyes of most of the audience having to shoulder the mantle of Bob Marley for the night, John David Barrett, is a distant relative of Aston Barrett.

Live audio engineer Dennis Thompson is on keyboards of various kinds and knobs and twiddly bits and he is the guy who was largely responsible for ‘that sound’ on the band’s output and on tour in the seventies. His importance to The Wailers is – and was – as Billy Preston to The Beatles or Ian Stewart to The Rolling Stones.

Blimey.

Anyway.

What sort of deal do you have to make with yourself before going to see The Wailers in 2018? Well, the first and most important part of the deal is that you have to accept that Bob Marley Is Dead. Get Over It.

That part of the deal is particularly important. It’s a bit like going to see The Blockheads since the death of Ian Dury.

So, what are we left with? An impressive body of work, great songs captured on memorable recordings and a collective of musicians with the spectacular skills, passion and desire to carry the music forward in a live context.

Like it or not and as time goes by, we will see more of this. Ageing or ill members of bands will step down, or will just leave, to be replaced by other musicians who have earned the right to take their place, and we will be in a situation where we will be paying very straight-faced money to see a band with a particular name, with none of the ORIGINAL members, but with member or members who joined the band later in life, but are still part of the band’s organic development. This is by no means far-fetched. And sometimes it can work out very well, and mean that the music goes forward into the future. Dr. Feelgood is an honourable example of this.

And what’s the alternative? The music dies in a live context with the death of the main man or woman? Is that what we REALLY want?

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. You pays your money. Or you doesn’t.

Well, I did and after a delay getting into the venue I arrived just in time to hear the support band, Common Kings, playing their last tune.

And the sound was positively hideous. The stage and all that surrounded it was reverberating with a horrible bass rumble that returned once The Wailers ambled into position. “Irie” was a booming mess, and a bemused-looking band stumbled into “Rastaman Vibration” with no great sense of commitment or confidence. Many meaningful looks were exchanged until part-way through “Buffalo Soldier”, Junior Marvin threw his guitar off and stalked to the side of the stage where a harassed – looking technician was engaged to try and do something about the awful mess, which was clearly driving Dennis Thompson, on keyboards, etc., for the night, to the point of distraction. And so it should have done. I really don’t know what happened between sound check and gig but…..anyway, you get the picture.

Once the band had slipped into “I Shot the Sheriff”, (see what I mean? Do you REALLY never want to hear this again live and as intended?) things seemed to right themselves. This isn’t of course the case; someone on the desk would have been frantically rebalancing, re-patching, etc., but whatever and whoever did what, well done, because suddenly most of the clouds lifted and whilst the vocals were a little ‘muddy’ all night it did become a hugely enjoyable gig, with some qualifications.

The band slipped into “Easy Skankin” before a show-stopping “No Woman, No Cry”. Having shots like this in your locker means never having to say you’re sorry.

“Heathen” and then “3 Little Birds” had Manchester’s finest in full voice; especially when the band morphed the song into “One Love”. Put another coin in the jukebox. “Waiting In Vain”. And played so beautifully. The band pass vocals between Josh David Barrett, Junior Marvin and Dennis Thompson as well as I Two (!) and such was Marley’s vocal prowess, it took all of them to pull the trick, if indeed it is a trick, off.

A funky, sweaty “Roots, Rock, Reggae” gives way to one of Marley’s most beautiful and enduring love songs – “Is This Love”, played and sung spookily faithfully and by now I have bought into Marvin’s assertion that in order to gain Marley’s blessing to carry on as The Wailers, they had to agree to make sure the music was played live as well as it had been; and a thoroughly stirring “Stir It Up” confirmed this. And by now the place is going absolutely berserk. Doubts dispelled, cynicism put quietly to bed with a warm drink and a good book. And then the band blasts into “Could You Be Loved”.

And the whole thing falls over after about five seconds.

Usually when something goes horribly wrong and a band stops dead after a few seconds, there is either an extended period of recriminations and swearing and the very public apportioning of blame, or a similarly extended period of forced smiles and giggling apologies, concentrated tuning up and associated farting around.

But there isn’t the time for this and the musicians in the band know this. They’ve been on the road between them for probably approaching a thousand years and they know that at this point in the gig, especially if you’ve been fighting technical difficulties of various kinds, you have to strike whilst the force is with you; and indeed within about three nanoseconds we’re off again, all-important momentum maintained – and Friday night is saved for the assembled. The reception is rapturous and becomes increasingly so as they strike up “Jammin” and the place erupts.

And that’s just about all for now, folks. The band wander off severally, some looking rather sheepish as if they’ve just about gotten away with it…..but in fairness they had far surpassed this. There were times during this gig where the band’s performance was little short of transcendental.

It is a shame, then, when the band returns – well, some of them do – and simply perform “Redemption Song” before taking a bow. I know from the setlist drummer Aston Jnr. kindly gave me afterwards that the intention had been to play “Lively Up Yourself”, “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Exodus” amongst others but either one of two things happened. Either the band had taken to the stage later than they had intended and were caught the wrong side of a curfew, or because the technical problems, which diminished but never disappeared entirely, made it so that they really hadn’t enjoyed the gig as much as the audience clearly had; for the skeletal encore was rapturously received. But you can’t tour the album ‘Legend’ without playing ‘Exodus’. It ain’t my bandstand, but you just can’t.

However, be that as it may, what a night they are. And you will end up telling your grandkids about this one, and you will probably subtitle your bedtime story ‘The Night I Saw Marley’s Ghost’.

Or not.  Been done before.

imgID72704821.jpg.gallery[1]‘Well, I said hello to the spirit of 1956,

Who was stationed in the bushes next to ’57….’

Thus sang Jonathan Richman on one of the dozen best songs ever recorded, “Roadrunner”.

I encountered the same spirits on a soggy Thursday night in Leek. It’s not what you expect, really and I would have appreciated fair warning but there it is.

A modest but politely enthusiastic audience was more a reflection of the night rather than ‘the turn’. Leek, one of the highest towns in England – ‘Queen of the Moorlands’, baby – was sloshing about in the remains of the tropical storm which had brought a well-morphed spirit of the Caribbean many miles away from source. This exotic and fantastical weather ‘bomb’ was well named by the time it reached these climes.

Doris. Queen of the wet and windy.

So one for the hardy, very local or true believers.

First up, support from a local musician and leading light in the Leek Blues Fest – end of last week in September 2017 for those of you young enough to believe in the idea of forward planning – Mike Gledhill, an affable singer-songwriter who played an amiable bunch of self-penned songs, one of which he entertainingly claimed he wrote with J.J. Cale….”he just doesn’t know it yet…!” all of which amounted to a pleasant enough starter-upper.

John Lewis is, in his solo incarnation, a revelation from the second he hits the strings. Within the first four songs it is pretty obvious we’re in the presence of something a bit special here. His repertoire wanders with total comfort between 1956 rockabilly skeletons, Hank Williams-esque country painfests, straight-ahead four on the floor R’n’B – tinged rock ‘n’ roll that Chuck Berry made his own, and the prehistoric pop sensibilities of Buddy Holly. How does he manage this?

Well, for a start, this guy has A Voice. And it’s usually the voice which lets down a perfectly acceptable ‘Americana’ (hate the term – but bear with me) act, especially the blues. But this guy has got the whole thing going on. I find it incredible that one bloke’s voice can capture the essence of the pained ache of the aforementioned Hank Williams (done badly it just sounds like mawkish sentimentality – and John Lewis doesn’t appear to do mawkish sentimentality), the tremulous, vulnerable majesty of Roy Orbison, the mean, gritty swagger of some of the other Sun-era originals like Sonny Burgess, Charlie Feathers et al, and the popped-up sweetness of Buddy and yes, at one point, Elvis and of course, Johnny Cash. Not only that, he is positively expert on a range of guitars that look like they really ought to be nailed to the wall in a museum in Nashville or used as agricultural instruments.

Here is a man who is on top of his game, big style. You don’t have the likes of Imelda May helping out on his beautiful celebration of dadness, “Waltz Around the Kitchen”, or The Jets providing back-up on some of his recordings without knowing your chops. What I find similarly astonishing is the authenticity which having a ‘stamping board’ – which looks like a heavily-modified pallet – as your rhythm section. And to keep that going with metronome precision throughout a set which requires a variety of pace changes mid-song can’t be easy, not to mention physically exhausting.

What is it about the Welsh? Why do they produce such brilliant rock ‘n’ rollers? Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers; the much-maligned Shakin’ Stevens; Geraint Watkins; Ricky Valance (first Welshman to have a UK number 1 hit; ask your grandma.) Even Sir Thomas The Jones started out with beat-group derivatives of old-school r and r. And John Lewis sits fairly and squarely in the middle of this tradition. Already. And you feel there’s still plenty to come.

Perhaps the best compliment you can pay an artist who features a number of ‘covers’ in their set is that the originals are not fillers you sit through politely before he chucks in a crackling, impatient “Help Me” or an incendiary “Baby Please Don’t Go”. By focussing on the fundamentals, family relationships (“Waltz”) paying the bills or not (“Money Troubles”) or social exclusion (“Not Quite the Not”) his own stuff sits in perfect context with a whole range of classics which span early skiffle, work songs, blues and country. Modern sensibilities, mark you; “Money Troubles” is a beaut, naming the beast in a direct and modern setting. I mean, if he was writing ‘baby left me and mah mule got lame, lost mah money in a poker game’ you’d wonder quite what the point was. So he doesn’t.

And that quite stunning voice enables him to interpret an old and well-worn song with vision and flexibility. I mean, “Always on My Mind” sung by Elvis always sounds to me like ‘I may not be perfect but regarding our relationship I’m always Elvis Presley.’ Sung by Willie Nelson, it sounds like ‘I’m nowhere near perfect but regarding our relationship, this is the about the best I can manage.’ Here is an interpreter of other people’s songs who thinks about what they mean to him, not just his own material, and that isn’t necessarily a given.

Note to self; go and see The Real John Lewis, as the microphone stand proclaims, as a trio and see how that changes the dynamic of things. I’d imagine that freed from having to be his own personalised rhythm section there’d be some real pyrotechnics then. And also, must go see him in an over-full, sweaty cave somewhere filled with the drunk and the raucous rather than the sparsely-populated but admittedly lovely high-ceilinged Victoriana of the Foxlowe Centre.

I stop mid-gush to voice two slight concerns. Firstly, regards old rockabilly and rock n roll, (I flatly refuse to use the term Americana as I hate it with a vengeance) virtually the entire world is looking in a direction away from the original source of music as we know it at the moment. How is this phenomenal talent to break out of the limitations of the genre? And secondly, what exactly IS the genre? And DON’T say Americana, I will not be held responsible for my actions. Sooner or later, a ‘breakthrough’ airplay track may well compel The Real John Lewis to define himself a little more precisely than his talent would probably feel comfortable with. At that point The Real John Lewis – or a version of – might be forced to stand up. (At which point the rhythm section will fall silent, ‘cos you can’t do the stomp rhythm thing unless you’re sitting down.)

But neither of these things are the artist’s problem and neither are they particularly within his control, either.

And the latter might be a nice problem to have. It would be no more or less than he deserves.

New acoustic album “His Other Side” comes out on February 26th, I’m told. Website www.therealjohnlewis.com