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

Rude Boys ScrollerOK I’ll admit it. I’m in a bit of a 2 Tone loop at the moment. As part of “Tales From the Towpath” we struggled up the Coventry canal to, well, Coventry, and I can cheerfully admit I have never seen more rats or prostrate drunks on a section of canal than on the section between the junction with the North Oxford (Hawksbury for all fans of the genre) and the Coventry Basin – but we had set our hearts on visiting the 2 Tone village complete with the Coventry Music Museum. And after an extortionate taxi ride from the Coventry Basin, at which we duly arrived albeit not without incident.

And brilliant it was, too. The guys here clearly have a firm grip on the 2 Tone heritage, but at the same time they realised they wouldn’t pull in the ‘heritage’ funding without the general Coventry music stuff. So along with the 2 Tone saga – probably the world’s most accurate record of the last great working class youth music movement in the UK – you get everything you need to know about Frank Ifield and Vince Hill. Mock ye not; Four UK number 1 toons for Frank. Come back and laugh after you’ve managed likewise and I’ll listen to you. Until then, Look and Learn.

I did wonder if the irony of having his biggest hit being a cover of a toon most favoured by Teutons most likely to bomb your chip shop was lost on our Vince (“Edelweiss”, just in case you missed that one) but I dwell not on such matters.

Incredible number of One Hit Wonders, though. Jigsaw, Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours, King. Remember “Love And Pride”? Thought so. And what about The Primitives? There you go you see. The only area to produce more one hit wonders seems to be Wales. “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”. Anyway. Where was I?

Yes.

So, fully fired up on 2 Tone and having listened to very little else but old Trojan masters on the way up from Warwickshire to Staffs, we happened to chance upon The Swan at Stone. Somewhere between Coventry and here you cross the border into The North. The temperature drops by about five Celsius and it starts to rain with a near-professional intensity, and whereas in the beautiful south, the rain is warm, up here it is cold. I mean you wouldn’t call a town ‘Stone’ if it was in the South, would you. Course not. Stands to reason.

So we stopped at Stone and there are two things which make Stone exceptional. A Mexican restaurant called Chico’s and a superb real ale pub (at least it would be if they could just keep the beer a degree or two cooler) called The Swan which is about twenty yards off the Trent and Mersey canal, which do indeed sweep right though the middle of the town, and tonight they are hosting The Rude Boys, and you can guess the rest.

The Rude Boys have toured incessantly in various guises but are Staffordshire’s only serious 2 Tone /ska band. They start proceedings tonight with a melange of Paul Weller, kicking off with “Peacock Suit” and “That’s Entertainment” before morphing into a whole range of back catalogue stuff including more Jam (eg “Strange Town”), more Weller (eg “Changing Man”) and Style Council (“You’re The Best Thing”).

After the break they’re back with a mix of 2 Toners – particularly courtesy of The Beat and The Specials – and a chunk of true ska beat courtesy of Toots. They were very well received by a pretty full pub, for a Thursday night, and despite the occasional vocal frailty, Hank the bass player knew how to handle a fully-grown Rickenbacker, Ryan the guitar player knew his chops, and Neil the drummer hit the rimshots like a good ‘un. Some may say a classic pub night and not a lot else but for me this is your new British folk music. Make of it what you will. The Rude Boys are taking this into the future and are making a living out of it, and good for them I say.

They’re a good night out, especially if you’re in the mood.

City Funk OrchestraIt may be stretching a point to provide a ‘tales from the towpath’ where we had to catch a combination of trains and tubes to get to this gig, but hey, this is London after all – and unless you’re going to Dingwalls you really shouldn’t expect to float to a gig.

The crowd might have been a bit sparse for a Saturday night but a whole bunch of people had decided to spend another two hours of life watching Germany win on penalties after extra time. Clearly, in a week of surprises no doubt a predictable, nay, inevitable outcome was a comfort to some. But those who did so missed a storming, uplifting Saturday night out.

And that, in essence, is what City Funk Orchestra are about. From the get-go you just know you’re in safe hands. Within the first half a dozen songs we’ve had a slick, uptown “Back Together Again” where the blend of voices paid genuine homage to Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Not” featuring some real ‘period’ bass playing from the absolutely imperious Rick Mitra, a great version of “Love TKO” which took the pace down briefly before the first set ended with a very acceptable “Ain’t Nobody”.

The voices of Noel McCalla and Louise Warren matched each other beautifully, even if Noel was occasionally a little bit found out when ‘doing’ Barry White. Quite simply, he’s very competent in the lower register but he’s absolutely astonishing and has a genuinely soulful intensity when he heads up the scale. By the same token Louise was astonishing when she let fly at Aretha’s ‘Rock Steady’ but seemed a little at sea on material which perhaps needed a little more control such as Sister Sledge’s “Thinking Of You”.

High points of the set for me were a warm and sinuous version of Luther Van D’s “Never Too Much” and a crowd-pleasing “I’ve Found Lovin” which really rolled back the years for many of the assembled.

As already alluded to, the rhythm section of Rick Mitra and Geoff Dunn never missed a beat. Guitarist Nial Tompkins showed he was equally at home playing the funky scratch you need for the likes of “Good Times” alongside occasional pyrotechnic lead fills, and Gary Sanctuary on keyboards had his hands full providing the depth and breadth of backing needed to ‘trick’ the assembled into not missing a horn section – which is probably the main thing that was missing.

But you can only review what is there – and what was there was enough to have the floor full of dancers and a room full of smiley Saturday night. City Funk Orchestra go out there and Do The Deed. They really are a party on legs. The set may have been a tad predictable but what did you want for your money? And to be fair they were considerably less predictable than Germany on penalties.

Mad Larry ScrollerThere’s nothing quite like it is there? I mean, music. Sometimes it just creeps up on you and whacks you over the noddle when you’re least expecting it.

The game plan as I wander through England picking out the odd gig here and there was to catch Henry Cluney, of Stiff Little Fingers fame, who was due to play The Wheatsheaf, a pub in central Oxford, on the particular Sunday afternoon in question.

And I got there late and missed him. However, this being a sort of package bill straggling across Sunday afternoon into the evening promoted by local hotshots GiddyUp Music, I thought I’d swing by and at the very least grab a beer and an earful, the way you do.

Walk through the door of the authentically cramped and sticky-floored Wheatsheaf and suddenly you’re in pubrock heaven, circa 1975. Mad Larry and his band are on stage – well, more accurately just to the left of the bar – and are blasting through an incendiary “Drinkin’ Man’s Blues” which gives way to a cheeky and well-played reggae tune which I must confess I didn’t recognise and then an absolutely storming version of “You Keep A Knockin’” which would have shamed many of the pantheon of greats who have had a tilt at this one. We then get some self-penned ditties, liberally laced with tales of beer, drugs, naughtiness and more naughtiness, stirred in between a Bo Diddley, a BB King and all played with Feelgoodian pace and attack culminating in Mad’s album title track “Dirty Work” before a wham-bam encore featuring some exceedingly tasty guitar work by Dan Collis – who’s full-on ‘yer ‘aving it’ approach reminded me more than a bit of the late, great Gypie Mayo – and honking harmonica of the greasy, sleazy variety from Kevin Busby. Blooming great engine room as well; take a bow Ron Wyatt and Anthony Christmas on bass and drums respectively.

Despite this being the last set of a long afternoon, the pub was rammed with punters all grinning that silly grin you do when the beer and the live music combine most agreeably. And for the life of me, I couldn’t think of an occasion which more accurately summoned up the spirit of the pub rock RnB gigs of the mid seventies when, if you lived in the right bit of the country, you could stumble through the door you could hear music leaking from and catch The Kursaal Flyers, The Motors, The Feelgoods, Lew Lewis, Kilburn and the High Roads, and insert name here. The only thing missing was the nicotine and I don’t smoke. And I have to say that’s how I like my nostalgia; not in pre-packaged compilation form, but about a yard away from you, at ear-whistling volume, with some own recent tunes flung in for good measure (Mad’s album was released in 2014) and played with enthusiasm and conviction.

I implore all right-thinking people in Oxfordshire and thereabouts to beat a path to The Wheatsheaf whenever GiddyUp promote one of these jollies and indeed specifically to go see Mad Larry’s Band either here or when out and about elsewhere (they have been a regular guests of The Pretty Things just recently, which is no mean accolade).

Bit of a disappointment he didn’t do “Zoom” though. Or is that Fat Larry? And did he just lose weight or go mad as well?

Blues Summit ScrollerI have seen the future of rock n’ roll.

Ever feel that you’ve been ‘ad?

These two famous rock n roll misquotes sort of sum up my reaction to one of the strangest live music events I’ve ever attended anywhere. No – make that any kind of event, anywhere.

Indulge me a moment whilst I attempt to explain the venue. A convent, formerly the home to a silent order of four nuns, in an extremely quiet and secluded corner of England at a discreet distance from the bright lights and fleshpots of, err, Stroud.

Bands play on the altar of the convent chapel, replete with stained glass windows, and the obligatory(!) trombone wedged behind the altar and sewing machines and alarm clocks scattered around the huge stone windowsills.

The rest of this huge venue appears to be part hotel, part bar, part restaurant. The whole place has a sense of brooding oak darkness about it and the sleep of centuries of silence.

The chapel itself has around 100 or so seats arranged tidily on the chapel floor and further seats in the pews around the edge.

There appears to be no signage to speak of and getting into the venue is more by luck than by judgement, as is finding the bar as you wander around the gloomy, doomy corridors in search of a pint of 6X. Or absolution. Or both.

Eventually, showtime, and this is a very precise showtime as the show is being filmed.

The audience tonight appears to be about 30 people or so, many of whom appear to be here by invitation. By now, the casual observer would be wincing for the poor promoter who would undoubtedly be facing a night dedicated to St. Flatbroke, Patron Saint of The Unsustainable Loss.

So, Blues Guitar Summit take to the stage, unfeasibly close to the declared 9PM start time for rock n roll. The three – guitar attack of Chris Corcoran, Mal Barclay and Paul Garner  are very good value, having distinctly different guitar styles, having a wide and varied repertoire from blues shuffles to solid rock boogie-woogie tunes to four on the floor 50’s rock n roll and some classic gems, such as a very likeable version of “Tequila”, for example. The rhythm section, Jamie Lawrence and Robert Pokorny on slap bass and Gretsch sticks and pans form a solid and confidence-inspiring backdrop to whatever direction the assembled guitarists head off in. The voices are workmanlike and functional, as tends to be the case, but some of the playing is genuinely inspired and very enjoyable, especially “Crawl” and ‘High Heel Sneakers’.

But something feels, very, very weird – and it isn’t just the rather ‘creepy’ venue. The band are almost treating me like I’m not here. I feel like a sort of irrelevancy. And the reason why slowly begins to dawn.

We were told at the start of the show by the smiley, jolly MC that the show was being filmed, and streamed. Nothing unusual in that, perhaps, but what became rapidly clear was – that was the whole and only point. The kit being used to film, record and stream the gig was light years in front of virtually anything I’ve seen outside the BBC and the stage / altar lighting was clearly set up with this in mind. The venue claims to be the world’s first ‘pay-to-view’ subscription live venue. Punters, anywhere in the world, pay a fee to stream the show or pay a subscription fee to stream a sequence of shows – and, worldwide, there are sufficient numbers of fans of particular musicians or a particular genre of music to make this a viable exercise.

And therein lay the problem with the performance. The band were playing directly to the camera. I was just there to be another pair of clapping hands. My ten quid ticket purchase made not a jot’s worth of difference, nor my attempts to help support the venue by purchasing another pint of 6X. I felt rather like the telly equivalent of canned laughter.

So, if you like your Rock n roll without the muck, the stale beer and the piss, this is for you. Me? I felt a little bit like I’d been used as a prop. True, I was offered free pizza and drinkies afterwards and the staff and management of the venue were kindness itself but almost as soon as the band had finished – without an encore of course as the transmission end time had been reached (an ironic request for an encore was greeted with nervous laughter) – I felt a rather tremendous urge to leave. Ten minutes later given the lack of signage we were still trying to leave. Eventually we gave up and asked one of the management team where the exit was as we wished to leave; and was told, with jolly candour and good cheer, that they didn’t like it when people left and why not stay for some pizza, at which point my companions and I did actually start to do that odd run-walk thing they do in all the best horror films.

In summary, a good but sterile performance in a very strange circumstance. The Blues under laboratory conditions. Not for me.

383849_4pDigiDifficult one, this.

This is a very likeable album. The title track, for a start. Just the title defines a bad day at the office.

Given the fact that the guy is from Texas, is quite old, plays Texan country-tinged bluesy rock n roll, has got a beard and has a song on the album about a Buick you are dragged kicking and screaming towards the conclusion that this is going to be infused with more than a tad of ZZ Top, sold as seen, if you like. And indeed there is.

But it isn’t quite that simple.

The album leaps out of the box with the incendiary “Three Fifty Seven”, a snarling ‘death row’ blues with raw chunks of harmonica from Dan Moser, just one of a number of damn fine players featured on this album, which is as bitter and scary in the lyrics as it is raw and jagged in the playing. “Power in the Snake” has lyrical nods to Steve Earle but for me, you could hand that song to George Thorogood and the Destroyers tomorrow and they’d do a job on that for you.

He does a tidy line in ironic lyrics as well, with “The Wages of Sin” sounding quite ‘churchy’, on the surface, but actually, not. “Pestilence and Locusts”sounds a bit like a Crazy World Of Arthur Brown B side as song titles go but actually it’s a rather sad, rather bitter ditty about what happens when ‘the thing you love most becomes the thing that drags you down’.

And ‘Big Ol Buick’ does what it says on the tin and is an enjoyable listen.

And already you can sense a ‘But….’, right?

So what stops this from being the kind of album you ring up your mate and say ‘you’ve REALLY got to hear this…’ always assuming your mate is into that sort of ‘Americana’ thing, which in my view all right-thinking people should be.

Well, conveniently for me, Mr. LeMasters has been asked to review his own album by his PR man. And this is what he says.

‘I write songs with the intent that they will be songs that I perform at my shows. If ever I write a song which is good enough and it gets heard by the right person, some big-time singer might record it…’

And at this level, this all works just fine. You could take this bunch of songs out on the road in the good ol’ US of A in the bars, clubs and roadhouses and they’d work perfectly fine with the voice of Dick LeMasters doing the honours. The album has some very fine new songs, the songs are extremely well played (there is some really nice guitar and harmonica work on this, it really is a joy in places; I mean, “River Blues” is really rather special, for example) but his voice really is an adequate tool for carrying the songs and nothing more. So, and by the guy’s own admission, this works pretty damn well as a demo for his songs, a shop window for ‘big-time’ singers to check out his wares. And for his sake and for the sake of an extremely enjoyable if not exactly fashionable music genre, I hope someone does. At the very least he deserves a round of applause for not deciding to spend the rest of his life knocking out ZZ Top covers when no doubt he could.

But there’s your problem. Well, his, anyway – and the reason why this is a tough one to review.

Apart from the fact he’s already written his own review with candour and accuracy.

3.5 Stars out of 5.

Self-released and out now.

LZ titleSo there we were in Macclesfield having arrived by boat and having looked around the local gigs and jigs we saw that Lucy Zirins was due to play The Wharf Inn and with it being but a few strides from the canal, it all seemed like a sensible thing to do. Lucy Zirins comes well backed; a lot of specialist radio airplay especially on community stations and Radio 6, a well – received first album in “Chasing Clocks” and a gig schedule including some of the most prestigious blues festivals this year, not to mention a string of Award nominations from the British Blues establishment and you have a ‘what’s not to like?’ cocktail which deserves to be sampled at the very least.

The Wharf Inn is a very independent-looking boozer with a natty line in whacky beers like smoked stout (no kidding!) and a keg beer called Syrup and Figs. They also have reputation locally for decent live music nights. So, nice intimate little venue to hear Lucy Zee go through her paces.

About 9PM and she starts her set to the usual Saturday night pub mix of folks who have come in to see The Turn and folks who have come in to drink and socialise and rather see The Turn as a distraction at best and an annoyance at worst. Not an easy balance keeping everybody happy in that situation, but she did so with the easy grace and charm of someone who has been treading the boards for a while now and has been doing so rather successfully.

She launches into “Ready to Fall” from “Chasing Clocks” and plays an acoustic throughout the first of two sets; it’s pleasant enough, nice voice, nice tune, decent enough lyrics, well played. She then goes into a range of songs taken largely, but by no means exclusively, from the album and each song is politely if hardly ecstatically received by the audience, which she works quite adeptly, recognising and mentioning by name a couple of guys who went to a recent festival, a number of local folks she knows, and a local radio DJ who did an early session with her. Her inter-song raps have a homely Lisa Stansfieldesque quality about them and we are shortly invited to enjoy a refreshing beverage whilst she takes a break.

When she returns she has dropped the acoustic for a blingy dobro which she plays extremely well. Stand-out songs in the set are “Home”, a bit of a ‘road’ song, and “The Last One”. But I find myself becoming increasingly fidgety, and it isn’t just the distance from the gents making me feel uncomfortable. For I honestly thought I was coming out to hear the blues tonight – and I don’t hear ‘em. I hear a very competent and quite likeable singer / songwriter and a very adept musician. Occasionally I hear a country singer and player. True, we get a bit nearer blues-sounding stuff once the dobro becomes the weapon of choice and sure enough there are a few classic covers in the second part of her set including a fun singalong version of ‘Little Red Rooster’ and an encore of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’ but all told, I seemed to be watching an artist confronted by the same problem I’ve seen loads of talented people unhorsed by over the years.

I don’t think she’s a blues singer, as such. I really don’t. But the thing is, the flag of convenience known generally as the blues means that if you hang your hat on that particular peg, to mangle metaphors horribly, They Know What To Do With You. You get to play blues festivals, you get to do gigs like these and the broad church of ‘blues’ fans will give it a go, record / production companies understand what to do you with you; there’s a process. If you’re singer / songwriter, no fixed artistic abode, you sort of drift around trying to connect with an audience, which, well, isn’t all that big and lacks ‘focus’. As I say I’ve seen many musicians over the years trying to ‘shoehorn’ themselves into ‘the blues’ and it becomes painful to watch.

So if you like a female singer songwriter with some good original songs, but as yet no out-and-out killers, with a good voice and is a very good musician, you could do a lot worse than a night out with Lucy Zirins.

But if you’re looking for a night on the Blues, I’d look elsewhere.