Temp-5944The band’s name is HVMM (pronounced ‘hum’, you know like Chvrches) and they were playing Camden Rocks Presents at Proud Camden. An early evening slot on the hottest weekend of the year didn’t look too promising, but this band were determined to go on and kill it. HVMM is Sam Jenkins (drums), Andy Teece (vocals), Ebony Clay (guitar) and Jack Timmis (bass) and they’re based in Worcester, which might be relevant because they’ve got a bit of a Peaky Blinders image including some serious facial hair (apart from Ebony).
On stage they erupt in to a six-song set with their upcoming single “Lacerate” and from the outset it’s blindingly obvious that this isn’t some shambolic indie outfit or Shoreditch hipsters. This band means business and they ain’t taking prisoners. Powerhouse drummer Sam stokes things up from the back and alongside bass player Jack builds a platform for Ebony’s monster over-driven riffs and Andy’s manic, demented prowling and half-shouted/half-sung vocals. It’s loud, aggressive and in-yer-face but make no mistake, they’re great players and the songs are all carefully crafted. When they crank out “Pummelling a Monk” and “Modern Pussy” to close the set, you know you’ve witnessed something a bit special. As for musical genre, who knows; it’s hard and heavy but the lyrics are fairly leftfield, maybe nu-metal indie? Anyway, they make a glorious noise and you can’t take your eyes off the stage. That spells great gig to me.

We’ll be down at the front again some time soon, meanwhile have a look at this:

Carrie Elkin ScrollerEvery once in a while a gig comes along that restores your faith in London audiences; this was one of those gigs. The basement of The Slaughtered Lamb was packed to bursting with music fans and every single one of them wanted to listen and pay attention to two superb and engaging performers, Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt. Both were on stage throughout the two sets, but the opening set featured Danny Schmidt’s songs with Carrie supplying harmonies while the second set was mainly songs from Carrie’s outstanding new album, “The Penny Collector”. Throughout both sets, Carrie and Danny, singly and as a double act, kept the audience entertained with jokes, anecdotes and outright weirdness as a counterpoint to the beauty of the songs.

Danny’s opening set demonstrated the huge range of his writing and performance, from the barnstorming opener with about half a dozen false endings to the intensely personal song “We Need another Word” and the very wordy closer “Stained Glass”. As a songwriter, he can do the simple, moving songs but also has the more unusual ability to create songs that are packed with witty ideas without sounding self-consciously clever.

For the second set, the emphasis shifted to Carrie and the new album while Danny played guitar and added some gorgeous harmonies to a set of songs written at a pivotal and emotional point in their lives. The context of the album is made fairly clear by the narrative, but in the live setting Carrie and Danny added observations and anecdotes to flesh out the picture; some are poignant, some are just hilarious. Their set featured a couple of covers, Paul Simon’s “American Tune” (featured on the album) and Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” with the remainder of the set coming mainly from the new album, including “New Mexico”, “Always on the Run”, the hauntingly beautiful “And Then the Birds Came”, and “Live Wire” and “Tilt-a-Whirl” which explore different eras in the process of growing up. Carrie’s energy and good humour would pull you in to her orbit even if the songs were average (they’re not), and the fun between songs acts as a a counterpoint to the seriousness of the material.

Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt poured heart and soul into creating a performance that kept the audience transfixed and lifted the spirits of everyone in the room. They even dispelled the gloom of public transport in London late at night. Good work Green Note for promoting the show, and you can still see Carrie and Danny around the UK until Sunday June 11.

The Blue Train Scroller‘And why lump two gig reviews in different counties on different days together?’ I hear you ask.

  1. I am bone idle.
  2. These gigs are thematically linked. Bear with.

It has been a weekend of musical ‘barn finds’. This is where you stumble across a classic car hidden under a bale of straw in a barn somewhere and begin to unravel a story, finding in the process something which is rare and worth saving. And yes, this has happened to me a few times so I do know what I’m on about in that respect.

Hunter

Never, ever, give your band a name which ends in ‘er’. Look throughout musical history of the last century. It is simply the quickest way to buy a return ticket to whatever you wanted to escape from in the first place. 

Hunter is a bit of a local leg end in Leek. The band played the first Leek Festival 40 years ago when the world was new, back in 1977. They absolutely sizzled about 5000 folks in a local park before disappearing off as Leek’s one and only truly international rock band. Which is why they’ve returned for a hometown reunion gig – as a highlight of the Leek Arts Festival, 2017.

There’s is a strange story. A very competent pop / rock band of the kind that were just blown away by punk, they had a nice line in some decent tunes, a ‘novelty’ USP in that they had a fiddle player in formal dress (albeit with a less – than – formal – fiddle; this one has a Golden Virginia tin built into what might be described as ‘bespoke’ lines). They signed with one of the last pre – punk ‘pop impresarios’, Larry Page, and his Penny Farthing label which as I recall had the likes of Paul Da Vinci, Shocking Blue and Daniel Boone recording for it.

They struggled to make a breakthrough in the UK and always seemed about three months ‘off trend’ somehow; and were more than a little surprised to hear, in 1978, via a phone call from the label owner that a tune called “Rock On” that they’d knocked out as an amusing set closer and that none of the band members much cared for had gone to number 1 in Italy.

There followed hits and foraging parties to Australia and Japan; but time had caught up with them and the punk revolution did for any chance of being anything other than local heroes in the UK, despite an appearance on Tiswas.

But you can’t keep good musicians down; front man and prodigiously talented guitarist Les Hunt went on to join the Climax Blues Band and tonight, all of the original members bar the bass player have come together – and the current bass player has been playing with them for years – to play this reunion gig in front of a packed house.

I must admit to a enormous faux pas here; despite the consumption of nothing more than a very rock ‘n’ roll small bottle of Aldi water – much favoured by the gigeratti these days I think you’ll find – I somehow contrived to lose my notes including the set list; and so I’m restricted to overall impressions here, but really, I don’t think it matters all that much. The tunes are likeable enough, the sound authentic and engaging. Les Hunt plays a guitar which is warm and melodic when it needs to be and also a seriously blunt instrument when it needs to be; and it plays to best effect when weaving in and out of the extremely supple layers of sound from the keyboards. Indeed, as the set progressed it became more apparent that this is the key to how these lads seem to ‘bottle’ the spirit of the seventies; the keyboards could run the gamut from a funky “Superstition” – type vibe, a classic Steely Dan – style ‘smoking jazz’ rework, through the ‘old school’ Moog squeaks and blasts to a cheeky nod to ‘Close Encounters’ at the close of “Do You Believe in UFOs”. And the rhythm section was as solid as a rock and the two guest singers, who had also doubled up as the support act, really added some nice tonal touches to proceedings.

Re. UFOs; that title, though. You have to laugh. We don’t now, we did then. That’s because we know everything now. Which sort of spoils everything a bit. Destroys wonder.

And not because they played a string of covers by Mud, Sweet and Slade, because they stuck to their course of playing their own original body of work of their album tracks and singles released in different territories, I came away feeling more like I’d been immersed in the spirit of the seventies than if I’d been to a ‘revival’ show full of household names. And in for the kill they went at the end of the set with a lively blast through their Italian number 1 hit – the one they never really thought that much of. And to be honest, there isn’t much to it; a seventies mash – up of Sailor (Glass of Champagne, Girls Girls Girls etc circa 1975ish) and the Wombles, complete with that scraping, screeching but somehow compelling fiddle all welded to a sort of three minute schlock and roll pastiche (you may recall recalling the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll was a favourite musical pastime in the seventies). And the audience went bananas and danced in the aisles and all went home smiling. There are times when 40 years maybe doesn’t feel as long as it really is. Music can do that, when it so pleases. And as I made my way back home I couldn’t help but recall the lyrics of Kevin Johnson’s one – hit wonder ‘Rock n Roll (I Gave You All The Best Years Of My Life)….when he says of the music biz….

’You were changing your direction, never even knew…

..that I was always just one step behind you’.

And that, I think, is why the members of Hunter are very, very, very nearly men. And the fact that they are great musicians and they turn their trick with justifiable pride makes them a four-star listen.

The Blue Train

Saturday night and off to the leafy Nottingham suburb of Long Eaton to see The Blue Train go through their paces for the first time in donkey’s years.

There’s is another strange story.

It’s 1991. Having a hit in America is the Holy Grail for most musicians. As a territory – especially back in the days when people bought lorry loads of physical product – the numbers an American hit could generate were truly eye – watering. And once the juggernaut starts to roll…..it all makes the UK market look like a lightweight. Culturally important and yes, absolutely essential if you aspire to play Butlins one day, but tiny compared to The US of A.

Which would be fine if it was easy. Ask Robbie Williams. Ask the Specials. Etc etc. America has been the graveyard of dreams for generations of musicians. Many careers have collapsed while this particular ace was being chased.

But, quietly and inexplicably, The Blue Train did it.

They absolutely cracked it, first time out of the box.

Virtually no UK success to build on, no “Big In Japan” to open a few doors….signing to a small company which was a subsidiary of a bigger company, they released an album entitled ‘The Business Of Dreams’ from which the company, rather tentatively and with a modest budget in American terms, released a single entitled “All I Need Is You”.

Now, at that time in the UK, a song was released, entered the chart and if it was going to get anywhere it would be up there and doing fine, thanks, pretty much nationally with a few exceptions, within about 4 to 6 weeks, often less. 

In America, the sheer scale of the place means you have to stooge around as many of the states as your budget will allow, playing acoustic sets in radio studios, talking to journalists, appearing in record stores etc etc on a state-by-state basis. And as a consequence it is quite possible to have a hit on your hands in one state whilst being unable to get arrested in the next state. It’s a bit like trying to get elected as President but without the stupid haircut. The whole thing has to roll out across the country and build. Build a momentum.

And amazingly for this bunch of lads, that’s just what happened. Within a few months the single was at number 3 all the way across Los Angeles and was top 3 in Austin, Texas and Denver in Colorado, sharing the upper reaches of the charts with the likes of David Bowie and Tina Turner. And then it broke into the Billboard Top 30 nationally.

In just 3 weeks, this very English export had clocked up 83,000 plays on radio stations across the USA. That’s around a quarter of a million minutes of exposure to the biggest market for anything in the world at that time. The tune was then picked up by the producers of ‘Baywatch’ and as such still turns up at various far – flung locations around the globe in a thoroughly unlikely setting.

The record company was thereby presented with an open goal and for various reasons which need not detain us here, they ‘pulled’ the follow-up single when it was at number 15 on the US breaker’s chart and the whole thing fell to pieces.

Over a quarter of a century later and it is drummer Paul Betts’ birthday. The Blue Train decide to play a reunion gig at his party……and a few hundred people are to get the chance to see and hear what the fickle musical gods decided the UK would barely get to hear of or from.

The band open their set after a ground barrage of late 80s – early 90s American FM radio hits has been laid down by the DJ. They start with “Rain On The Way” and what immediately strikes compared to the slightly metallic and ‘automated’ sound on some of the album is the way in which there’s more reliance on a more ‘natural’ sound with singer Tony Osborne’s acoustic really ‘plumping up’ the overall ‘feel’ of the songs.

They really are an unusual sight to behold; both the above and lead picker Alan Fearn are southpaws and it feels at times as if you’re watching the gig ‘upside down’. Nothing ‘wrong way up’ about the sound, though; the lead weaves deftly in and out of the thick keyboard layers and the acoustic chops just serve to sweeten the mix. Birthday boy Paul Betts and newbie bass player James Hartley had clearly decided ‘they’re having it’ and don’t miss a thing all night. Indeed, one – off reunion gigs have something of a reputation for being messy, under – rehearsed affairs; no evidence whatsoever of that here.

Keyboard player Simon Husbands now lives in Minneapolis and has flown in especially for this gig and it doesn’t take much time to work out why. His contributions add drama and striking effects and contrast to the songs – like in “Hero Of The Hour” where the keyboard absolutely propels the song forward and his vocals are a great counter – point to the lead voice; and Tony Osborne’s voice is absolutely crystal and a fabulous vehicle for these songs.

Set highlights are a thunderous, anthemic “Hungry Years”, the aforementioned ‘Hero’ which gained some traction on the airwaves in the UK but nowhere near what it deserved, the spiky, Britpoppy “Fools” and an absolutely gorgeous version of “The Hardest Thing”, recently heard by millions of people worldwide propping up some video of Piers Brosnan on YouTube (and of course at the moment of absolutely no financial advantage to the band themselves). 

The band take a break after a spirited dash through “Reason” and return for a well-earned encore to play the hugely infectious “Wild Heart” and then, yes, it’s That Tune…..the huge American FM smash of “All I Need Is You”. And the crowd are up and they’re dancing and suddenly, and for just a few minutes, The One That Got Away has finally come home.

Conclusions to draw?

Here are two bands who, in their own times, enjoyed huge success in two different markets, but the problems they now face are remarkably similar. If you base yourself in Blighty, you really need to convert the success abroad into a homespun hit or two; but for their various different reasons, for these bands it just wasn’t to be.

But something else was and fair play to them for what they’ve achieved.

Both bands still play their own, original music and whilst various musicians in both bands make a living out of playing music which isn’t original to them, it is quite clear they both realise and understand the privilege and responsibilities of being able to play their own body of work.

Hunter will no doubt go on as a live entity, playing one-off showcase gigs in the Potteries for as long as they’re able and for as long as they enjoy it. And they’ve managed to ‘freeze’ that sense of the time which produced this music and they seem to take it with them.

The Blue Train, on the other hand, seem to have evolved their sound into something which to these ears sounds contemporary and in a way almost timeless, and because of this it would be a shame and something of a loss if this proved to be ‘just’ a one – off gig to celebrate a band member’s birthday.

Musicians can be extremely frustrating people. But, in turn, it must be extremely frustrating being a musician at times.

Especially when the ‘it’ you made when you ‘made it’ is an ‘it’ which doesn’t show up in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles and doesn’t turn you into the answer to a pop quiz question, alongside Chicory Tip. But compared to the journey both of these bands embarked upon, and are still on….does it really matter that much?The Blue Train Scroller

NGG Scrolleribbles and fizz in Soho on a Friday evening, followed by an intimate gig in The Library in St Martin’s Lane; you’d be mad not to. The point of this little intimate soiree was to focus our attention on GG, a Russian singer-songwriter trying to make an impact in the UK. GG did all the meet and greet with genuine warmth, entertaining us grizzled old music business hacks and winning them over her sense of humour. All very civilised, but then it was time for the showcase at The Library. Now, I like a bit of variety as much as anyone, but a bearded Scandinavian singer/songwriter performing songs about how much he loves his sister in an Estuary/Bob Marley accent is outside my comfort zone – the audience weren’t too keen either.

So, up next was GG, stripping her recorded arrangements back to just her vocal and the subtle and delicate piano backing of Molly Laws. You could hear elements of Tori Amos, or maybe even Kate Bush in there; the songs were strong with almost mesmeric repetition of half-lines, the piano providing the perfect musical setting for GG’s hugely charismatic and theatrical performance. Showcase gigs can sometimes be bearpits, with audience factions only interested in the artist they’ve come to support, but from the moment GG started to sing the background chatter stopped and all attention focussed on the stage. You get four stars just for achieving that in a showcase environment.

GG’s single “4 Days” is out now.

Nuala ScrollerSometimes it feels like every time you turn around, another iconic venue vanishes, but it’s not all doom and gloom; some entrepreneurs are bucking the trend and I had the chance see the opening night at a new venue just off Pentonville Road this week. From the outside, 2Northdown looks completely anonymous. Only the presence of security staff hints at something interesting inside; there wasn’t a green door, but I told them Ray sent me and someone laughed out loud but I was in. the priorities of the management team are obvious as soon as you walk through the door. The bar is basic, and cash only, but the sound system is good and the stage is very photographer-friendly with a completely uncluttered black backdrop and some basic but effective white floods to light the stage. Top marks there.

For the opening night of Acoustic Sex, Ray Jones (formerly of Time Out) put together a bill of artists who have been attracting attention for some time now. Nuala’s mix of busker attitude, a huge voice and the ability to incorporate distractions like a phone ringing and breaking a string into her lyrics was a great start to the night. The string-breaking incident gave Ray a chance to hustle a quick guest spot from Steve Young, who also loaned Nuala his guitar to finish the set. Next up was Lisa Marini with her fusion of traditional singer-songwriter and smooth jazz (featuring Arthur Newell on drums and Jack Tustin on upright bass). It was eclectic, with Lisa starting the set with a uke before switching to a lovely nylon-strung Godin guitar for the rest of the set. The audience were completely engrossed and you could have heard a pin drop, or the shutters of half a dozen Nikons on burst mode.

To close the evening out, the final set was from Joe Slater, down from Liverpool for the day, full of cold or flu germs, but still game for a raucous half-hour set. As always, in the words of Ray Jones, he knocked it out of the park. He’s a natural songwriter and his voice and delivery are huge. His penultimate song, “Rainbow”, is what “Imagine” could have been if John Lennon had still been hungry and not living in a mansion in Weybridge; this guy has talent, and the balls to finish with a cover of “Champagne Supernova” which had the entire audience singing along.

Great venue, great atmosphere and great performers; what more do you need to know?

If you want to see some pictures of the event, go to Nuala, Lisa or Joe.

Winter Mountain Review scrollerWinter Mountain’s album “I Swear I Flew”, which was released in mid-November last year was one of those that worked perfectly as a coherent, self-contained project; you should really listen to it. It was also one of those that made you want to hear the songs played live. I got the chance to do that at 229 Venue 2 and I was absolutely right; it was exceptional, but not quite in the way I’d imagined. The album is mainly (but not completely) quiet and introspective but the live show was a very different beast.

Support on the night was Cornish singer-songwriter Josiah Mortimer, who warmed up a gradually-increasing crowd with a mix of the traditional (“Cadgwith Anthem”) and twenty-first century protest songs like “Build a Wall” – you can probably guess what that one’s about. With a decent voice, some interesting chat between songs and a playing style that uses a thumb instead of a pick (anyone remember Richie Havens?), Josiah got the audience onside and ready for the headliners.

Winter Mountain’s set opened with the wistful, impassioned romanticism of “Girl in the Coffee Shop”, a chance to set the tone for the evening, demonstrating Joe’s soulful voice and allowing the band to ease their way in before the Springsteenesque roar of “Sunlight, Good Roads”. Joe Francis has created a unique mixture with Winter Mountain, blending influences from the worlds of folk (mainly Gaelic), roots, country rock, southern boogie, straight ahead rock and many others. Springsteen aside, you can hear echoes of Hothouse Flowers, The Waterboys, Rob Thomas and Gin Blossoms (remember them?). The set had its quieter, more reflective, moments, particularly the (almost) solo interlude featuring “The Morning Bell”, the poignant “January Stars”, “Lucky Ones” and “Stronger When You Hold Me” but the set really caught fire when the band were playing full-tilt songs like “Things That I’ve Done Wrong” in balls-out Lynyrd Skynyrd mode as Joe started throwing lyrics from Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” into the mix. So hats off to Alik Peters-Deacon (guitar), Jake Galvin (bass) and Garry Kroll (drums) for a great, dynamic set and also to 229’s sound man, who did a lovely job in a venue that was barely half full.

Anything else you should know? The songs were split almost evenly between the first and second albums and the set ended with a Beatles cover, the early “Oh! Darling”. The audience was completely silent during the quiet songs and went bananas during the raucous ones. The band covered all the bases of the glorious musical mash-up perfectly, while Joe’s powerhouse voice left you in no doubt that he has a massive rock voice as well. It wasn’t quiet the night I‘d expected, but it was a belter; that’s the way to spend a Thursday night in London.

Coming to a festival near you soon, I imagine.

You can see some photos from the gig here.

Rackhouse Pilfer review scrollerIf you look at the star rating at the top of this piece, you might think I was a bit lukewarm about Rackhouse Pilfer, but the band was very good; that wasn’t the problem. There are a lot of other things that can take the shine off a potentially great evening, so let’s get those out of the way before we go any further. There are notices all around the venue reminding the audience not to talk during performances; it didn’t make any difference, particularly during Elly O’Keefe’s support set. To add insult to injury, the sound, particularly the vocals, was pretty muddy throughout the night (maybe the position of the sound desk, to one side of the stage, doesn’t help) which isn’t helpful when there are six instruments and some lovely vocal harmonies featuring all six band members. And that’s before we mention the snare rattling constantly throughout Elly O’Keefe’s set. So what about the good stuff? 

Well, Elly’s set was solid singer-songwriter material delivered, mainly her own songs with one cover, John Martyn’s “Over the Hill”. Her chord progressions were interesting, she strummed and picked and her voice went all the way from a delicate whisper to a bluesy shout. As the audience chatter got louder, so did she and eventually she won the contest. 

Rackhouse Pilfer was another proposition entirely; six musicians, all of them singers as well, is a very different kind of sound. With various combinations of drums, upright bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle, slide resonator and banjo the band is totally at ease with a variety of textures and they sounded convincing across a spectrum ranging from Irish traditional through bluegrass, Hank Williams country (“Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?”), the seventies Laurel Canyon scene and Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”. I missed murder ballads, didn’t I? 

The original songs from the last album, particularly “Angela” and “Two Oceans” are powerful live and the playing (individually and as an ensemble) is spot on, but Rackhouse Pilfer have one more trick. When all six members sing and when all the voices are working together perfectly, it’s something very special indeed; it’s hard not to make that Eagles comparison when you hear those harmonies. The niggly little things that tarnished the night a little were out of the band’s control and only made me determined to see Rackhouse Pilfer doing their eclectic mix in a more congenial environment next time. You should keep an eye out for them.

Here are some pictures from the gig.

Howard Jones Gallery ScrollerWell, that was an interesting experience. For most of the evening I felt like a gatecrasher at a meeting of a benevolent religious sect. I never felt unwelcome but, as an impartial observer (I liked the run of singles between 1983 and 1986) I couldn’t share the devotion of the fans who had all the albums, knew all the songs, B-sides included, and had stayed with Howard Jones for over thirty years. And I’ve never seen so many couples in their forties/fifties cuddling at a gig. These were people who had grown up with Howard’s music and made it part of their lives. Taking their cue from his Buddhist beliefs, they were ready to welcome outsiders to the celebration; they certainly extended their welcome to Rachael Sage as a support act.

I’m slightly biased; I saw Rachael a couple of times last year and loved her “Choreographic” album. Accompanied by her usual duo partner, violinist Kelly Halloran, she played a short (thirty minute) set taken mainly from the latest album, featuring “Loreena”, “I Don’t Believe It” and “Heaven is a Grocery Store Clerk” and a new, unreleased, song about the Dakota Access Pipeline and the plight of the people of Standing Rock Reservation. The Howard Jones fans warmed to Rachael’s very personal style of writing and the powerful performance of her guitar and keyboard-driven songs punctuated by Kelly’s violin (ever heard wah-wah violin before?) and occasional backing vocals. A great audience response and the stage was set.

Howard Jones performs solo, with only a digital piano as accompaniment and it’s quite a challenge to deliver a set featuring songs that were mainly driven by big eighties synths, but he’s worked hard to pare down the arrangements for this format. Unlike a lot of eighties nostalgia acts, he sticks to his own material (with one exception) because he knows his audience and he knows what they want to hear. He knows what they want to hear because they’ve been emailing their requests for months and the set’s based on those requests. Value for money? It’s a full two hour set with the songs (including “New song”, “What is Love?”, “Like to Get to Know You Well” and “No One is to Blame” and lots of album tracks) interspersed with Howard’s anecdotes and the fans’ reasons for requesting particular songs. And that’s the only real problem for me; the stories of people’s lives, with the triumphs and tragedies, attached to particular songs evoke memories of the sickly Simon Bates “Our Tune” feature which premiered on Radio One in the eighties.

That aside, Howard Jones’ solo piano accompaniment works perfectly and his voice is holding up really well. I probably wouldn’t have chosen this gig, but I was entertained without being totally engaged and it was fascinating to see such a loyal audience. And the one non-Howard Jones song was a George Michael tribute – “Careless Whisper”.

You can see photos of Rachael Sage here and Howard Jones here.

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

Mike & the Mechanics ScrollerValentine’s Night in Buxton. You can’t get a table for a pre-concert meal without somebody thrusting a bunch of roses up your nose and insisting sir has the pink almond parfait cluster as a starter and you can’t get to the bar for snoggers, both the partnered and the furtive. Why do we keep foisting these ridiculous American celebrations of nothing in particular upon ourselves? Anyone for Black Friday….!

Gratitude, then, that tonight there’s a very trad Brit serving at the Opera House and not some awful American import. Bah, humbug.

Ben McKelvey has the task of opening for the rude mechanicals tonight and he’s clearly still trying to get over the shock of being asked to do so. His debut album “Life and Love in England” did rather well on the I-Tunes songwriter chart and you can see why. There are a couple or three contenders in his short set, hammered out with gusto and conviction on acoustic guitar, voice and tea-chest, including the rather lovely “Sunday”. Ben McKelvey inhabits a somewhat overpopulated sector of the musical universe and it is difficult to cut through the mediocrity and the ‘heard-it-all-before’; but he’s refreshingly honest, clearly delighted to be given a shot at playing some decent venues on a ‘proper’ tour and worth a listen.

And so, we present – Mike and the Mechanics. Pretty much an FM radio staple in the UK. They have been since the late 80’s. They seem to have been built on the same principle as Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, in that the Mechanics seem to change and adapt to personnel changes and the requirements of that whilst also adapting to the demands of the songs which Mike Rutherford is writing at the time, with a variety of collaborators.

The first point to note is that if you’ve come out to revel in a night of Genesis nostalgia, this probably won’t be for you. There are Genesis tunes in the mix; specifically two tonight, “I Can’t Dance” and “Land Of Confusion” but their own repertoire is too wide and varied to become overly taken up with that; both songs were extremely well played but felt rather like a crowd-pleaser for the many Genesis fans in the audience; indeed, at one point Rutherford, rather endearingly, referred to Genesis as his ‘school band’. There was also a brief interlude where Andrew Roachford, now one of the Mechanics, sang his big solo stadium anthem ‘”Cuddly Toy”; the rest, however, was an interesting mash – up of Mechanised classics and tracks from the forthcoming album “Let Me Fly”.

If I might be permitted to deal with the matter of “Let Me Fly” first, the tracks from this which were given an airing seemed extremely tidy and show yer man Rutherford still knows how to pen a tune which flatters the FM medium beautifully; “The Best Is Yet To Come”, “Are You Ready” and the gloriously optimistic manifesto title track “Let Me Fly” are well worth a listen, preferably in an open-topped car (serving suggestion).

The Mikes’ classic hits are played with verve and a tremendous ear for detail and are a timely reminder that Mr Rutherford knows the difference between an airplay confection of the highest order (eg. “All I Need Is A Miracle”; check the intro. Music radio hour-starter all century long, trust me) and a stadium anthem (eg. “Word Of Mouth”). And of course the show-stopper, “The Living Years”, which I suspect is probably a ‘Desert Island Disc’ for a massive number of people who would only claim to have a passing interest in music. And in fairness, I think this is probably the biggest greatest achievement of Mike and the Mechanics; without a screamingly strong or obvious image and with a devoted but understated fan base, they do attract an audience who, along with the expected Genesis diehards and fans enjoy the music, don’t necessarily think about it too much, wouldn’t claim tribal allegiance to any particular ‘type’ of music or specific band, but like what they like and they like this. A bit like being an ELO fan, I suppose.

Probably the greatest compliment I could pay to the current line – up is that the phenomenal talent that is Paul Carrack is not missed in the slightest. Tim Howar and Andrew Roachford bring an excellent rock / R’n’B balance to the songs and Roachford definitely adds a whole slice of soul to tunes which, in their studio manifestation, might to some ears appear as a little sterile on occasion. On “Get Up” they even seem to create a sort of Sam and Dave vibe – and when Roachford disappears off into a seemingly-effortless vocal ‘fill’, the ghost of Sam Cooke suddenly enters the room. Which might appear to be a bit weird in the context of this kind of party – but the apparition is strangely appropriate and indeed welcome.

And that’s pretty much what you get; an extremely professional, fabulously well played body of largely original but familiar hit music and some nice new tunes thrown in. If you’re looking for ground-breaking creativity, probably not for you, but only the most churlish would be unmoved by the remarkable musicianship, finely-crafted songs and careful onstage recreations of productions of the highest standard. They’re touring the length and breadth for the next thirty dates and if you miss them, it’s your loss. I will also admit I might now wish to catch Andrew Roachford on his solo tour this autumn.

 What’s not to like?