Keeping the blues alive

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Geoff Achison & the Souldiggers Hawth 17/3/17 Blues in Britain May 2017 Issue 185

Geoff has a long association with Crawley Blues club having first played in ’99 accompanied by Richard Studholme, who later produced the eponymous ‘Souldigging in the UK’ at his studios in Kent. I was fortunate to be in the audience for what was a single take, live recording and I was overwhelmed by the virtuosity of Geoff as a solo artist and the way he seamlessly segued into the blues/funk groove with the band, ably assisted by the best drummer in the business, Sam Kelly.

Looking back over the records I saw that it was seven years since the band played and five since Geoff played solo. Therefore, there was much anticipation on my behalf and that of the packed audience. There was a new album to check out, “Another mile, another minute”, with the Aussie Souldiggers.

Often at the club we have a support, however Geoff does not need support and effectively he provided it my playing a short solo set. He started with an old favourite, which was the first track recorded, 18 albums ago, ‘Don’t play guitar’. This should be a cautionary tale to any would be musician, but it’s also indicative that if you stay at it and work very hard you can achieve great things. I say this with conviction as I regard Geoff as one of the finest guitarist I have ever heard, however he is much more than that he is a clever lyricist who capture the zeitgeist essential in any good song, coupled with an amazing voice. Someone in the audience had seen him the previous night on his first gig and asked for ‘Train song’, which was not possible due to technical difficulties. This is effectively a reworking of ‘Mystery train’, which is one of many of his tour de force tracks, however that does not do justice to what is truly phenomenal guitar playing, which was brave this early in the set and the tour alike. However, what it did was set the bar for what was to be one of those gigs when you say in later years “I was there”. The mood changed for the first new track called ‘Delta Dave’, which was a biographical track of a musician friend who played back in Melbourne, who was clearly a philanthropist at heart and Geoff caught the essence of a man many of us would never know. At this point, Geoff, had been joined by the band and we had a taste of the adroit keyboard playing of Paul Jobson and subtle bass playing of the newest recruit Andy Hodge. I mentioned earlier blues/funk and both genres were showcased with a cover of ‘When you gotta a good friend’ and their signature ‘Souldigging’.

If you have ever seen the band you will know that if they had a set list and possibly kept to it, no two nights would be the same. Essentially, and this is what makes the band so hot, is they take risks and they like to jam in the most professional sense. ‘High wire’, another track new to us showed the tightness of the band and the ability of them all to drive the melody along, whilst leaving space for virtuosity. It also showed another facet of Geoff’s breadth with wah wah peddle playing to augment the groove.

The second set opened with an old classic ‘Adam & Eve’ and the band were back in the groove. Geoff went into a slow blues theme on ‘Be careful what you wish for’, which showed his blues licks off to a tee but it also gave further evidence of the interplay with the key in a call and response, all the time kept in sync by a wonderful rhythm section. What was particularly enjoyable with such an understanding audience the allowance for light and shade, without hearing anything but the musicians at the top of their game. Geoff showed his ability as the consummate entertainer when he introduced what life is like playing in juke joints in the USA. In this case the Blues Tavern in Mobile Alabama. Clearly you had to win the audience over in their own back yard as an interloper. The band had travelled a vast distance for not much money and without the safety net of the ‘love bucket’, that would be the repository of dollar bills, only if the audience digged what you were playing. Throughout the story, Geoff was playing some tasty licks. The punchline was the point at which the owner, midway through the first set, stood in front of the audience with fistfuls of dollars and threw them into the air. Some audition, who said that the road was a romantic place to be. The audience went wild and the place was rocking. We could only imagine what it was like but it was one helluva introduction to the blues soaked to ‘I’m going to ride’. This further illustrated the bands ability to transport you on a journey that very few of us have experienced first-hand.

With many bands, you can tell when a set is coming to the end, however with the Souldiggers you firmly believe that they would play all night. About 40 minutes before the end of the gig Geoff inquired what was the deal at the Hawth in terms of finishing. The reply was to keep on grooving, which was the overwhelming response from the audience. The band responded with ‘One ticket, one ride’ a soulful, funk infusion and we were off again. Geoff paid tribute to his bandmate Paul with ‘Make my stand’, which enabled both musicians to play off each other. Another shift in tempo was ‘Front porch farewell’ that Geoff played on an acoustic, having recently bought himself a resonator for a significant birthday. The instrumental was for long lost friends and epitomised the subtlety of the artist to a tee, so melodic it ached. The band re-joined him for the last number mentioning that it was a long association with the club and the fact that this was a number that featured regularly in the set. The request was for the ‘The sky is crying’, which was played with such a depth of feeling that as the last chords died away the audience as one rose to their feet having witnessed a seminal gig.

In conclusion, I went to see Geoff on the following Sunday at the Blues with Bottle @ the Anchor Sevenoaks, where it all started 20 years ago, Geoff had come over to the UK to try and make a breakthrough, however he was ripped off by an irresponsible promoter and had mentally given up on this country. Fate took a hand as a fellow Aussie was unable to play the gig and put Geoff forward, luckily for all concerned John Adams from the Bottleneck was in the audience and convinced him to come back. The rest as they say is history and keep your eyes and ears open as the word on the grapevine is that he will be back next year. As you are reading this you will have missed one of the best live acts in the business, do yourself a favour get hold of some of the live albums and check out the mags when he is returning.

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Paul Jones & Dave Kelly @ the Hawth Crawley W Sussex, 26/1/17 BiB March 2017 Issue 183

First gig of the new year and what a way to start with Paul & Dave and a full house, which was sold out 6 weeks in advance. The atmosphere was relaxed and the audience expectant for two consummate professionals with a combined, encyclopaedic knowledge of the many subtle variations of the blues genre.

Dave kicked the show off with ‘San Francisco Bay blues’ taken from the wireless album recorded at Snape Maltings. Immediately we knew that it was going to be a memorable evening. Paul replied with a Muddy Waters classic ‘Your too young to know’, which tells the story of the womanising character leaving town to mixed reviews, epitomized by the line “two girls say let him leave? Fourth one says you is all too young to know!” Paul tells us that the original had Little Walter and Big Crawford. Dave is recognised as one of the finest slide guitarists around which was exemplified by Skip James’s ‘Hard time killing floor’, however Dave did point out that none other than Honeyboy Edwards disagreed, who are we to argue.

What makes these evenings so enjoyable and intriguing is the interplay/banter between two artists comfortable in each other’s company and at ease with the audience. Dave remarked that Paul got a glass, who replied that they do not trust him with water, then on reflection perhaps they do not trust Paul with beer. You had to be there! Dave launched into the Robert Wilkins classic ‘Old Jim Canaan’. However, Dave tells us that it is in the style of Memphis Minnie and that Nick Perls the founder of Yazoo Records had rediscovered Wilkins, who like many other experienced a renaissance in their careers.

Paul does not write many songs, however in the biographical ‘Noah Lewis blues’ he is able to put into words a biopic of a tragic artist, not uncommon to many in the blues arena. He prefaced the number by stating in his humble opinion that Noah ranked among the best of harp players in the halcyon ‘acoustic’ period. This includes both Williamsons & Little Walter, praise indeed. Noah played with two harps simultaneously, a technique employed today by Giles Hedley who appears later in the year. Paul tells us that for all Noah’s prowess on harp his life was tragic. The lyrics summed up this eloquently “walked all night in the freezing snow, with no bottom to his shoes” resulting in both feet being amputated. A passage in the number gave a fleeting glimpse of Noah’s ability with a section from Viola Lee blues.

Dave played a wonderful instrumental entitled ‘Slide guitar rag’ changing it to guitar and harmonica which showcased their considerable talents as musician’s par excellence. It’s only when the vocals are removed do you fully appreciate the breadth of their repertoire. Add to this prowess two terrific vocals individually or in harmony and you have the perfect duo. Dave recorded this many years ago, and reissued it as ‘Dave Kelly & friends’, which spanned decades and came to light in a recent visit to a club he frequented playing solo gigs in Germany. The sound tech arrived with boxes full of reel to reel tapes including the Dummer band with Howlin’ Wolf. The friend on the original track was Sonny Black, well worth listening to the album. Dave also played it at the Hawth in 2009 accompanied on the main stage with Mike Dowling. Another rediscovered track that has made its way into the Blues Band set list is ‘Get right church’, which is a stellar gospel track with Dave taking lead vocals and Paul accompanying him in as low a register as I can recall. The whole track was spellbinding and the audience rose to give a standing ovation. As a footnote, I remember this track being covered by Delta Moon based out of Atlanta GA.

Not to be outdone Paul covered a self-penned track from his solo album entitled ‘Suddenly I like it’, he was not wrong! This was taken from a PJ & friends CD which had top session musicians who have worked with the likes of Neil Young & Stevie Wonder. The friends included Jools Holland & Joe Bonnamassa, blatant self-publicity and we liked it. It was if we were in the company of blues royalty. Dave laid down some mean bass chords to Paul’s trilling harp for a solid twelve bar in the old tradition. Paul called for audience participation and the actor in him came to the fore and had the throng singing for their supper.

It’s hard to summarise such a perfect gig other than say you should have been there or catch them this time next year when they perform their duo tour. Fortunately, we do not have to wait too long for a reprise as Dave is back at the Hawth solo on 28/6 and the Blues Band on 28/11. One final footnote the gig marked 19 years for Crawley Blues.

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Red Butler, 28/4/17 Hawth Crawley, BiB May 2017

The band have a close association with the club with Alex Butler & Dan Spellman having played an acoustic set to support Aynsley Lister earlier in the year. This was however the first time the new line-up had graced our stage and it was apparent from the off that they are a tighter unit now, clearly enjoying every minute for a highly appreciative audience. Evidence of the cohesion within the band was an old favourite, a cover of ‘Shakin’ all over, which was played in a slightly slower more emphatic delivery. Every good band needs a solid rhythm section, which is the case with Charlie Simpson on drums and Mike Topp on base. Twenty years promoting music allows me an opinion and these young guys are the real deal and can only get better, a frightening & exciting prospect. For a band to be effective you need light and shade and their rendition of ‘Old love’ was stunning, showcasing Alex’s exquisite playing, this from a devoted Clapton fan. Earlier in the evening the audience were treated to a DVD of SRV and Albert King, therefore it was a fitting tribute to play ‘Pride & joy’. What made this track particularly appealing was that the band made it their own. The band played several previously recorded tracks including ‘Say hello’, however in every case they have given it a new lease of life with Dan’s distinctive vocals.

At the start of the second set the chairs came out onto the stage indicating an acoustic interlude. I like to see this in a young band, willing to make changes and keep the audience on their feet. Initially it was Alex & Dan who were then joined by Charlie & Mike. The stand out track was a tribute to a good friend and a fellow Uckfield lad, Rory Graham aka Rag n Bone Man, covering his signature song ‘Human’. This was a difficult undertaking; however, this indicates how accomplished the band have become as you would believe it was written by the band. ‘Last page of the blues’ appeared on their first album “Freedom bound” and I have never heard it played better, blues at its best, wringing every ounce of emotion out of the audience. ‘Belly of the blues’ appears on the latest album “Nothing to lose” another stand out track played with such feeling with the audience roaring their approval. If live music is to is to prosper then it needs to be entertaining, which requires and empathy & rapport between the audience and the band. This was epitomised with ‘big bad wold’ which saw Mike don a prosthetic wolf’s head to add to entertainment without diminishing the professionalism which belies their age. Clearly a young band enjoying every aspect of the music industry. All that is required is a slice of luck and good judgement by a music promoter to see the true potential of this band. The evening concluded with the audience as one rising to their feet in unison, something I have never witnessed before, but justly deserved. They came back to a medley encore which included ‘Purple haze’, which left the audience on their feet wanting more. It is hoped that the band will return next year and it is mooted that a ‘live’ album is possible, one to watch out for. Blues/rock at its best.

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