Getting to Birmingham by boat is a bit of a struggle. You have to cover a lot of water the day you set out, as you have quite a few miles of ‘badlands’ to get through before you reach the ‘safety’ of the city centre and Gas Street Basin, which is extremely lovely. Not to mention a steep watery climb up to the summit almost underneath the city itself, which in heavy rain, constitutes something of a challenge. But it is extremely lovely in the way the BBC think ‘heritage’ is really lovely and consequently it is worthwhile getting slightly off the beaten track once safely moored up and in possession of your weekly spending money.

About 600 yards off said ‘beaten track’ stands The Prince Of Wales, an old-school city boozer selling pies, pints and on occasion, there’s a ‘turn’, often at slightly odd times of day and it is with some surprise we stumbled upon a spirited, reggaefied version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” pouring out of the door. Intrigued, in we went, to be confronted by a pretty much full house of late Sunday afternoon drinkers all giving it plenty and a six piece band (on average) grooving away in a most delightful way. Pete Hyde and The Vieillards may be past the first flush of youth – indeed ‘Vieillards’ are old folks, rather than some strange mythical wossname born on the bayou, but they are warm, sinuous and very much ‘alive’ live musicians. I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching the living embodiment of the lyrics to Dire Strait’s “Sultans Of Swing” as this bunch weaved effortlessly through reggae to blues standards such as “The Thrill Is Gone”, classics like “Summertime” and some rock n roll standards, many illuminated with fine, fruity saxophone fills provided whilst said musician wandered off to the bar, almost as an afterthought whilst ordering a round. Indeed, at one point he was interrupted mid-noodle by someone who had just walked in off the street to enquire where the bogs were (note to person; if you’re going to creep into a pub to enquire the whereabouts of the rest room without purchasing a beverage, perhaps best not to broadcast this by interrupting a band member whilst about their business, even though your business may appear equally pressing) and evocative, rich keyboard work reeking of Booker T Jones at times, Dr John at others, shades of Georgie Fame also.

And not just the flipping obvious in the repertoire. As well as Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road” which is very easily played badly but in this case wasn’t, we are treated to his lesser known but equally lovely “Cleaning Windows”. And the crowning glory for me, Ry Cooder’s magnificent “Little Sister”, complete with that wonderfully ‘aged’ and rubbery guitar sound and fabulously complimentary harmonies.

One of those marvellously ‘accidental’ Sunday gigs where you really didn’t need a drink to appreciate what was going on – but it was very thoughtful of the management to provide some. Bit more Ry Cooder and perhaps some more Toussaint, and maybe some Lee Dorsey perhaps, would have been nice but they’re musicians, not a human jukebox. And between sets, how wonderful to hear Smokey, The Crusaders, The Temptations, etc., underlining the importance of the stuff played in and around a live band’s set to maintaining a groove. And they played for a couple of hours or more. Sultans of Swing, in very deed.

4 Stars and a bit.

MojoDeluxeCover TitleYou would never guess that “Mojo Deluxe” is Bob Malone’s seventh album; granted it’s packed with the kind of accomplished playing, tipping over into virtuosity, that you would expect from seasoned players, but there’s a vitality and freshness here that wouldn’t be out of place on a debut album. There’s another magic ingredient as well; fun. There’s the odd studio comment left in on an intro or outro, but it’s more than that; this album sounds like people having a good time; the kind of fun you have when you’re doing what you do best, with a bunch of musicians who are tuned in to what you do.

Just like the “Mojo EP”, a sampler for the album released in the UK a year ago, “Mojo Deluxe” kicks open the doors with an electric piano riff and pounding bass on “A Certain Distance” that say ‘Go on, just try and ignore me’. Don’t even try; just surrender to the rhythm and enjoy the ride. You might be willing to forgive a jaw-droppingly good keyboard player with a classic gravelly blues voice if he just phoned in some lyrics to fit the great tunes but, guess what, Bob Malone has that covered as well. “A Certain Distance”, “I’m Not Fine” and “Rage and Cigarettes” all tap into the malaise that afflicts gifted musicians confined with others like themselves on tour; you’re locked into a dysfunctional world where you come to hate your travelling companions, but you hate outsiders even more. It’s not as snarky as Donald Fagen, but then what is?

But, there’s more to life than snark. “Paris” is a gentle love song, overturning the clichés with the message that Paris is all very well, but doesn’t mean anything if your lover’s somewhere else; there’s even the irony of an accordion solo. “Toxic Love” is a love song in its own brooding, menacing way with slide dobro and sinister hissing vocal; it’s an affair you wouldn’t expect to turn out too well. There’s a couple of blues covers as well, the Ray Charles classic “Hard Times”, which gets a very clean modern workout with a punchy guitar solo, and a lo-fi, piano-led version of Muddy Waters’ “She Moves Me”. The instrumental, “Chinese Algebra” is a demonstration of Bob’s piano technique which works equally well with the band arrangement or the solo version that you can find all over YouTube; it’s another one of those bits of fun that spice up the album.

“Looking for the Blues” and “Don’t Threaten Me (With a Good Time)” are both uptempo blues numbers with all the trimmings including horns and backing vocals (even a funky clavinet on “Don’t Threaten Me…”); great fun again. “Watching Over Me” and “Can’t Get There from Here” both have a world-weary gospel feel and bring the album to a satisfactory if slightly melancholy close. And that’s it for “Mojo Deluxe”; it’s an enticing stew of Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Dr John and mainly Bob Malone. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll be coming back for more.

Bob will be touring the UK with his superb band later this year. Go and see him at any of these venues and see what all the fuss is all about:

Friday October 9                     The Railway Hotel, Southend-on-Sea

Saturday October 10              Boogaloo Blues Weekend, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight

Sunday October 11                The Navy Club, Maryport

Wednesday October 14          Dusty’s Blues Club, High Wycombe

Thursday October 15              The Green Hotel, Kinross

Friday October 16                   The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen

Sunday October 18                Hope Tavern, West Lindsey

Tuesday October 20               Blues Café, Harrogate

Wednesday October 21          Railway Venue, Bromley Cross, Bolton

Thursday October 22              The Jam House, Birmingham

Friday October 23                   Keighley Blues Club

Saturday October 24              Catholic Club, Peterlee

Monday October 26                The Bullingdon (Haven Club), Oxford

Tuesday October 27               The 100 Club, London

Wednesday October 28          The Jazz Café, Cardiff

“Mojo Deluxe” is released on August 21.