Hunter @Foxlowe Leek and The Blue Train @Trent College Long Eaton

4 stars (out of 5)

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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