Shake the WallsIf anyone’s paying attention you might have noticed that I wrote about Marcus Bonfanti earlier this year when he did an unplugged gig in the very un-blues setting of the Hippodrome Casino where he previewed some of the songs from his album “Shake the Walls” which is released on Monday June 17 on Jigsaw (SAW4).  The acoustic preview was a bit like a pencil drawing of painting; it gave a hint of the big picture but a lot of the colours and textures were missing.  With his classic blues band line-up of bass (Scott Wiber), drums (Alex Reeves) and Hammond organ (Paddy Milner) on the album, the arrangements are filled out perfectly, with the exception of “The Bittersweet” which was written as a solo acoustic piece and works perfectly in that format.

The album starts in the way I like albums to start, with a statement of intent.  “Alley Cat” opens with a rising guitar riff before the band kicks in followed by Marcus’s full-throated blues growl and we’re off and running with “Cheap Whisky” next up in a similar vein.  The album covers a wide range of blues styles from the electric high-powered blues of “Jezebel” to the acoustic “We All Do Bad Sometimes”, the country-styled “Blind Alley” and the solo classic “The Bittersweet”.  “Shake the Walls” demonstrates the full range of Marcus Bonfanti’s instrumental and vocal abilities from all-out raucous electric workouts to acoustic ballads and all stops in between.  The sequencing of the album is absolutely spot on as well; after every couple of stompers, there’s a change of pace with to an acoustic blues or something with a gentler country inflection.

If you wanted a perfect showcase for Marcus Bonfanti’s work, then this it.  He’s perfectly convincing as a player with all of the styles on the album from the opening riff-based electric songs to the solo acoustic album closer “The Bittersweet”.  What sets Marcus apart from the many great blues players around at the moment (and there are a lot of them out there) is the quality and power of his voice.  It works over the whole dynamic range of the album and he can do it live as well.  If you wanted a comparison for this album I think Rory Gallagher at his peak, in the “Calling Card” era, is about right.

The only thing that I’m not sure about on “Shake the Walls” is the quality of the lyrics.  I know that blues at the moment is much more about the poetry of the playing, but a lot of the lyrics here are the old blues clichés of whisky and bad women.  The chorus of the opening track starts with the lines “She got the claws out like an alley cat, she got the impact of a heart attack”.  It’s not quite as bad as Duran Duran’s “serious as a nuclear war”, but it’s going down that same highway.  But I guess if you wanted clever, meaningful lyrics you would all be listening to Jackson Browne albums and not British blues.

Anyway, it’s a small criticism because I love the playing, the arrangements and the dynamics of the album.  It’s not just one for the blues purists; there are lots of different musical styles on offer here.  Get the album when it’s released on Monday but, even better, go out and see Marcus and the band on tour from Thursday June 20.  You can get the dates and even a free download of “Cheap Whisky” from his website.


Marcus Bonfanti (Photo by Allan McKay)

I’ll be quite honest, The Hippodrome Casino is probably one of the last places in London I thought I’d be sitting in watching a British blues player. Marcus Bonfanti’s show is part of a solo tour which is mainly about trying out songs from the new album (out in May) live in an intimate setting.  The Matcham Room is on the first floor of the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square and you get there by making your way through the main gaming floor and lots of squeaky-clean and hyper-polite staff.  The room is set up cabaret-style with tables (table service only), small booths and a balcony; and don’t even ask about the drinks prices.  Ok then, I’ll tell you; over a fiver for a bottle of Corona.

All of this is irrelevant when Marcus Bonfanti ambles on stage; the audience are his and they’re very enthusiastic.  He’s best known for his guitar playing, so obviously he started his set with an unaccompanied blues holler.  He has a powerful blues voice but, the second he picks up a guitar, you know you’re in the presence of a huge talent.  The solo format leaves the performer with nowhere to hide on stage but it’s obvious from the outset that it holds no fears for Marcus Bonfanti.  He’s very engaging and self-deprecating, and casually throws out humorous anecdotes between songs which keep the performer/audience rapport alive during the inevitable guitar changes and re-tunings.

On this tour Marcus uses 3 guitars; a 6-string acoustic, a Telecaster and a resonator.  Although this is a solo set, there’s a huge variation in style and dynamics from the modern misery of “Sweet Louise” to the traditional stomp of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” and the rousing slide workouts.  During the 2 sets Marcus played, he demonstrated his mastery of finger-picking, bottleneck slide and Chicago electric blues (and the rest) using old and new songs including “Blind Alley”, “Jezebel”, “The Bittersweet”, “My Baby Don’t Dance” and “Cheap Whisky”.  As a taster set this works perfectly, because I can’t wait for the album now and the chance to hear the songs played live by the band when they tour to promote the album.

Marcus Bonfanti is a major British talent as a blues guitarist, songwriter and singer and this solo showcase emphasises his abilities while whetting the appetite for the full band appearances which will come in support of the new album.  If you’re even vaguely interested in blues, then you really should make the effort to see Marcus when he tours to support the album.