Leek Blues & Americana Festival 2018

4 stars (out of 5)

3

Leek Blues and Americana Festival, 2018

Well, let’s get this one out of the way to start with; the main reason I found myself actually able to catch a whole chunk of the Leek B and A Fest 2018 was that I was due to visit Holmfirth Picturedrome with me old mucker and noted rock snapper Allan McKay in order to see Graham Parker perform with his band, the Goldtops, and elements of The Rumour.

They were indeed utterly splendid and absolutely what you’d expect from one of Britain’s most soulful singer songwriters with a great new album in “Cloud Symbols” and a back catalogue approaching legendary status.

But that was on Sunday night which gave us the opportunity of meeting up earlier in the week and taking in chunks of the aforementioned – and what a joy it was!

There can be fewer more pleasurable experiences than strolling about a smart and compact English market town with a few old mates, and wandering into various pubs, clubs and other spaces at pretty much any time of day and night, being reeled in by the lure of live music pouring out of an open door or window and the convivial attraction of good beer and the congregation of the like–minded. Sort of a bit like Memphis, or New Orleans, kind of (but a damn sight colder and with better beer and different accents on the vocals. Not to mention a significantly smaller risk of being shot).

The downside, of course, given the nature of the event (5 days, 20 venues, 60+ acts) is that it’s all a bit hit and miss. Some you are going to really enjoy, some are going to be OK and some you’ll be checking your watch. But beauty is in the ear of the beer holder and it’s best just to stick your pin in the copious and well–prepared guide, try and visit as many venues as possible and whatever you come up against, enjoy it for what it is. And have another beer.

Pre–festival warm–ups were worth a dabble in; Foxlowe Films kicked things off on Tuesday with “Sidemen; Long Road To Glory” which features the long and winding road of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters ‘sidemen’ Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, leading from sharecropping days through to winning a Grammy; after which Pine Top Perkins, then aged 97, virtually went home and died, his two fellow musicians all entering that great Juke Joint in the Sky in the same year. Win a Grammy; Triple Whammy. Ain’t that the blues?

And so we’re off and running with a nice low–key introduction with what K-Tel used to describe as Various Artists mixing and matching in a very agreeable fashion, ably curated by Mike Gledhill, who also presented the previous night’s film with similar aplomb. Labelled Leek Blues Acoustic Session, it was, sort of – and despite a few participants using various pieces of kit with mains leads stuck to them it would have been churlish and indeed probably a bit weird to ‘do a Dylan’ and start hollering ‘Judas!’ at those acts ‘cheating’ with the mains. However and be that as it may, a very lovely and convivial introduction to proceedings.

Friday was kick–off proper and for us it started at The Beerdock at half six–ish. The scheduled “Cold Heart Revue” was replaced at short notice by an amiable young gentleman whose name sadly escapes me with a gruff vocal style, an attacking but pretty limited repertoire on an acoustic guitar and a selection of self–penned songs which didn’t do much for me either but, as I say, if you do Blues Fest right you’ll wander about and some will hit your spot and some will miss but full marks to him for stepping up to the plate. Full marks to the Beer Dock, also, for their ‘cut out the middleman’ initiative where despite a lack of a urinal in the gents, they were creative enough to sell beer from what appeared to be one at the side of the bar.

On, then, to Rewind, where we were to meet Red Berryn and the One Dozen Berries presenting a Chuck Berry tribute act. You have to suspend disbelief a bit here as Chucker himself is white and has red hair. However after that there were certain similarities. Nobody in his life ever accused him of being a great singer, or indeed a great guitarist and so far we’re right with the programme there but the songbook is the best ever and well, you can’t miss with a Chuck, can you? Our ‘Chuck’ also displayed certain key Chuck Berryhaviours which drove audiences to distraction in his lifetime; like inviting the extremely tasty harmonica player forward to play a classy solo and then trampling and clanging all over his efforts with this huge thug of a red Gibson copy whilst he did….which the REAL CB was extremely guilty of, a lot of the time. Ask Keith Richards. It was good fun though….especially when I was taken by the creeping realisation that Santa was playing the drums. I kid you not – I saw the drummer being Santa Claus at a few local events last year! And seeing a white Chuck Berry with red hair doing the duck walk backed by Santa on drums in the middle of Leek is not something I will forget in a hurry. Roll Over, Beethoven.

Funk Station had started at Society at the same time and we’d decided to split our attention between these two acts so by the time we got to said venue the whole place had been effectively transported back to 1979. The décor of the place helped – I have never seen so many mirror balls in one place – and so did the band, who turned their trick with considerable dexterity and panache. Just in case you hadn’t ‘got it’ from the clue in the band name they are a Dance Band. They play late seventies / early eighties disco / funk covers with a few 60s and 70s soul classics lobbed in to the mix. They were dead tight and spot on right for both crowd and venue. 30 years back these people would have been earning a small fortune on the Mecca circuit. Their brass section is Brass Construction punchy, their drummer is as Funky As; and even though the vocalist was a bit ‘functional’ she hurled herself around with enthusiasm and did a great job of working what was for most of the time a packed dance floor of happy, smiling folks. Play That Funky Music, White Boy, indeed.

It was a difficult party to leave but leave it we did and headed to catch the dying embers of the Night Owls Blues Band at The Red Lion. This did indeed Take Me Back; these lads were exactly the type of band I’d be featuring some quarter of a century previously when I was presenting music from various ‘Old School’ R’n’B bands on various FM local stations around the Midlands. They sounded spirited enough and with plenty of grit and spit from outside the venue but once inside, oh blimey, were they sold short by the lack of a mixing desk and sound bod. Sometimes bands seem to manage this themselves OK; but sometimes you’re just left with a sibilant mess and the return of tinnitus which is what I took away from The Red Lion; which was a shame because if you stuffed your fingers in your ears, the guitarist was worth the entry fee alone and his mates weren’t far behind him either. My mate who collects guitars and has played on a bona fide American top five pop chart hit reckons it was pretty much the guitar of the festival. I wouldn’t know.

From there it was back to The Cock and Elvis Fontenot. Local people whose ears I respect had been prodding me towards seeing these folks before and I just hadn’t gotten A Round Tuit. Note to self; stock up on a catering pack of rotund Tuits with immediate effect. Elvis Fontenot – an explosion of manic cajun and punk–zydeco energy. The outside area at The Cock is long and quite narrow and so if you find yourself at the front, they are In Your Face in a big way. A gurning bundle of leering, squealing, careening, lurching riot, they are Big Fun. Combining the pace of a Ska band and the intensity of punk with squeeze box and scrub–board tricks and tuneage born on the bayou, this was full of vivacious kick and naughtiness but with extremely high standards of musicianship and let’s hear it for the sound man who kept the whole thing in beautiful balance. Absolutely the best thing at the Festival so far. Mama’s Got A Squeeze Box. Somebody Sign These People – Now.

And so to Saturday and the evening starts early for us at 2PM at The Roebuck. The place is rammed and we only get a passing scent of Pete Latham and Al Bruce but they sounded pretty damn good at long range. Over the road to The Cock and it is time for Steelin’ The Blues. Steve Ajao and Stewart Johnson were up from Birmingham and are we glad they made the trip. An hour of classic country blues and juke joint blues played on acoustic with attitude by a guy who should be doing voices for commercials in near industrial quantities, combined with some of the most appropriate and sympathetic slide playing I’ve heard for some time. It wasn’t just good, it was brilliant. You couldn’t possibly feel better listening to songs of misery and suffering. Cathartic. Just what the blues does for you when it is Right.

With a stunning lack of ambition we then crossed the road again to The Roebuck where Zacc Rogers was holding court. Now, he’s a bit of a ‘Marmite’ act, is Zacc Rogers. You’re either going to be unmoved and feel it’s just a bit weird, or you’re going to be fascinated by his act. He uses sound ‘looping’ tricks with beat box, heavily modified harmonicas and a variety of guitars which look like the bad kid from Toy Story has been doing unspeakable things to them. What comes out of the speakers is sort of Brian Wilson meets Bobby McFerrin at a punk gig whilst busking. Yes, I would agree it is stretching the Blues envelope a bit but Americana, probably fair enough. Dapper snapper Mr McKay was unmoved, saying he’d heard better in this genre, others in our party said they could see it was extremely clever but compared to what we’d just heard from Steelin’ The Blues – so what?

Me? I loved it. This guy has got rhythm in everything he touches and his sense of timing absolutely knocked me over. And was I entertained? You betcha. Go see Zacc Rogers. Make your own mind up. He’d convinced many at The Roebuck, though, who cheered him to the rafters.

We just missed The Extras at Benks and set out towards The Britannia. This is an old style seventies-looking town pub; just right for the sort of London ‘pub rock’ which back in the day would see the likes of Kilburn and the High Roads, Dr Feelgood, The Kursaal Flyers, The Motors and Eddie and the Hot Rods plying their trade. So Reefy Blunt and the Biftas were by no means a bad call. Guitarist does a good line in Wilko Johnson, drummer good and solid, bass player (five strings, not a good sign) seems to think he’s playing jazz and the vocalist is a good, raspy harp player. What you see is what you get. Beery, raspy R’n’B. Old School.

Back then to Benks and Malpractice are setting up. Clue’s in the name; expect solid Dr Feelgood and similar. Problem is they ARE actually setting up and the mixing desk, which is right in front of the PA, is being twiddled by the singer, who leaves the faders open whilst holding the mic right next to the PA stack. Dogs Began to Bark, Hounds Began to Howl.

However, once sound checks done, they fair tore into a smattering of Feelgoods leavened with a bit of Sam The Sham and The Pharoahs and Rory Gallagher, even, the singer staggering around threateningly in that Lee Brilleaux sort of style. Totally convincing guitar sound, nice unfussy bass, metronmic drumming. Solid Senders. We left that as the singer was asking me if I’d Ever Woke Up With Those Bullfrogs On My Mind. I was beginning to realise I would wake up with something like it.

A head–clearing walk across town to The Wellington, where local legends The Lester Hunt Band were amiably ambling their way through a set. I’d recently reviewed Hunter at The Foxlowe – but this was an entirely different affair, mainly rock and blues / rock covers for an audience who had seen the band on a number of occasions. It was a pleasant enough listen but some of the tunes just weren’t well chosen; “Summer of ‘69” didn’t work particularly well, a sort of Dire Straits plays “All Along The Watch Tower” didn’t seem like the best idea of the night and a positively soporific “Whole Lot Of Shaking Going On” almost had me ordering a round of Horlicks. However, they kicked it up a notch for Hunter’s Italian number 1, “Rock On”, despite being a fiddle-free zone, played with a bit of fizz, during which a young woman in the audience did the splits, I spotted Santa playing the drums again and that was pretty much your lot for Saturday.

As already explained we were set to head out for Holmfirth and Graham Parker but we’d been invited to attend Foxlowe Arts Centre at 2PM to see Mean Mary and Frank James and it looked like if we pulled our finger out we’d just about manage that. Mr Mckay is much in demand as a snapper these days and he was pleased to pull in a shoot with Lissy Taylor before we had to do a runner. And on both counts it was a good thing to be his ‘bagman’ as Mean Mary and Bro were Quality, writ large. Not only is she some banjo player – she’s some songwriter, too – and despite the warm and welcoming between track raps with the audience, these are songs with teeth and a voice with a real country soul, containing all the pride, pain and steel of a country diva. She’s more than a bit good and you really must catch her somewhere; she’s already being mentioned in tones of reverence at one of the radio stations where I occasionally ‘work’.

And finally before disappearing in a cloud of unfashionable diesel smoke we caught 5 minutes of Lissy Taylor – just long enough to wish it had been longer than five minutes as a ghostly waft of a certain Ms. Winehouse hung in the voice left back in the room.

Leek Blues Festival week is worth making ‘a bit of a do’ out of. It is never less than entertaining and you will, at various points, bump into some truly great music; and in other places you’ll bump into music which might be a bit less than great, but you might well enjoy it – and that’s the point really. Just like a well–stocked real ale bar, you’ll have choices. But you can’t exercise choice if you ain’t there.

My advice for 2019? Simple! Be there.

Steve Jenner, Live from the Denford Delta