Last-minute fears that the first Chester Blues Festival would be poorly attended were thankfully wide of the mark. Saturday’s crowd at The Live Rooms grew steadily as the day progressed until an exuberant stage-front gathering greeted the bill-topping appearance of legendary Stax main man Steve Cropper.
‘The Colonel’ though had some hard acts to follow. Billy Walton’s ferocious performance of soulful blues and rock was augmented in true ‘Jersey style’ with sax and trombone within a truly polished ensemble. Walton is an explosive player but does it with real soul in a near jaw-dropping exploration of the versatility of guitar and its master.
Walton finally taunted the audience with the intro to several classics before always switching groove. The panache he displayed tempting us with a few bars of ‘Waiting For The Bus’ made me want the whole Billy Gibbons. But the whole Billy Walton is more than good enough. Highlight was a tremendous thumping ‘Walking Blues’.
The bar had already been raised by Russell ‘Hitman’ Alexander and his wonderful band featuring the New York City Horns. The Hitman shoots from the hip and his group is the real deal. There’s wit aplenty in compositions such as ‘(Ain’t That) Blues Enough’ and ‘Better Class of Bums’ and his determination to relocate Ralph McTell’s best-known song to the ‘Streets of Downtown’ actually works well. But the real tour de force is when the soulful stuff gets the full treatment with trumpet, baritone and tenor sax (the wonderfully understated Michael Snyder). ‘Every Piece of Me’ is classy soulful heartache.
You Tube-ing acts you don’t know doesn’t always paint the right picture. So it was with the afternoon’s main act, MaKuini. A quick chat at the bar afterwards revealed the Maori ‘White Queen’ was happy to be considered an Etta James tribute act. But ‘tribute act’ doesn’t cover the real wealth of diverse talent here as she and The Hoo Doo Men, an outfit of seasoned rock stalwarts led by The Escape Committee guitarist Sarge Frampton, certainly pushed the excitement level up. Anyway, after a career which has included singing the NZ national anthem at rugby internationals and playing alongside Yul Brynner in The King and I, she is obviously a dab hand at this versatility game.
She phrased suitably well as Etta on a storming ‘Come to Mama’ but her own ‘Down on Their Luck -‘ written when she was touring South America and referencing the jungle city of Manaus – is just as convincing a showcase of her talents. Is this the first blues from the Amazon delta? ‘Corporate Man’ offered a chance for Frampton to stand in the spotlight. The finale ‘I Just Want to Make Love To You’ featured a riff heavy enough for an easy segue into ‘Born To Be Wild.’
MaKuini has been likened to Tina Turner, Billie Holliday, Janis Joplin and Etta James. But she’s simply a great voice in her own right.
Late on parade, I arrived as engaging singer-songwriter Lucy Zirins was near to completing her set. A newish song ‘Mercy’ was a subtle delight with a splendid slow blues slide show ‘Hours To Waste’ from her Chasing Clocks debut album an excellent finale.
A quick chat with the lass from Burnley revealed she was taught guitar by a member of another of the day’s headliners, Danny Handley of The Animals (and Friends) who actually had the job of following the effervescent Walton.
They slowly pulled it off with straight and convincing versions of most of the original outfit’s hits (with Handley doubling as both Eric Burdon and Hilton Valentine!). As Steve Cropper said later “I wanted to play with these guys when I was back stage listening to them and I heard hit, after hit, after hit.” And these are good enough songs to have not aged a jot.
A neat guitar solo from Handley came as surprise, being so used to the originals in which Valentine’s guitar contributions were memorable and crucial but effectively acting as second keyboard. ‘I’m Crying’ was a real highlight as well as ‘Baby, Let Me Take You Home’ and ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place.’ ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ perhaps missed the fuzz of the original but ‘House of the Rising Sun’ went down a storm.
Keyboard man Micky Gallagher squeezed in a stint with the original band in 1965, sitting in between founder Alan Price and replacement Dave Rowberry, before going on to playing with all bands Tyneside and The Blockheads and The Clash. But the real stalwart is original drummer John Steele, still laying down the beat as a sprightly 72-year-old, and it was he who took centre stage to do the introductory honours as The Animals became backing band to the day’s headliner.
Legend he may be but it was still unabashed nostalgia time as Cropper delved into the deep, deep well of Stax classics, most of which, of course, he co-wrote. “Flashing little stabs” is how he describes his strident, understated delayed backbeat on such as ‘In The Midnight Hour’ and ‘Soul Man.’ He sounds like absolutely no-one else. ‘Time is Tight’ and ‘Hip Huge-Her’ missed the chunkiness of Booker T and the MGs originals but they were still great versions while ‘Green Onions’ (“not the blues side, the dance side”) saw Cropper hit overdrive.
The hits just kept on coming. This was no singalong but the crowd couldn’t stop themselves singing the whole of ‘Sitting On The Dock of The Bay” – -but there was a warning from Cropper “you’d better get it right or Otis will come down and kick your butt.”
My night was complete when I met the main man and he signed the booklet of my ‘The Stax Story’ box set. Mission accomplished.
JOHN BOTTOMLEY (Words & pictures)