John Fogerty/Steve Miller @Bluesfest 2018

5 stars (out of 5)

0

Photo courtesy of John Hayhurst.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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