Review: Carlisle Blues Festival – 21-23 November 2008
Posted on: Saturday, Nov 29, 2008
This was the second Carlisle Blues Festival, following the spectacular success of the first festival twelve months ago. The venue was the Swallow Hilltop Hotel, which was fully booked for the event and substantially supplemented by a large number of non-resident punters.
The festival was opened on Friday evening by the Sean Webster Band with a mix of rousing blues rock and angst-filled ballads. Sean led the charge on vocals and guitar, ably backed by the ubiquitous Dave Raeburn on drums and Tom Latham on bass guitar. The trio took no prisoners and ended their powerful set with an excellent vocal rendition of “I’d Rather Go Blind” and the slow blues, “Have You Ever Loved A Woman?”.
The Kyla Brox Band provided a complete contrast with a sophisticated, jazz-tinged set, which included “She Knows”, the title track of their latest album, featuring a superb sax solo by Tony Marshall. “Too Long” delivered an excellent guitar solo from Marshall Gill, while the pace was increased with “Guilty” and “What’s Left On The Table”, which afforded all the band members the opportunity to strut their stuff, not least Danny Blomeley on bass guitar and Phil Considine on drums. The set underlined Kyla Brox’s impressive vocal quality and her considerable songwriting skills.
Nine Below Zero presented another aspect of the blues spectrum with a storming set of rock and roll right from their opening number, Canned Heat’s “On The Road Again”, with some excellent harp playing from Mark Feltham. They dragged a couple of well-received selections from their 30-year old album, Live At The Marquee before a fine version of the Four Tops’ favourite “I Can’t Help Myself”. Dennis Greaves was in fine form on guitar and Mark Feltham took the vocals on “Bring It On Home”, the band’s new DVD. A rocking set was completed with a bouncing delivery of Woolly Bully”.
It is never easy for a headlining act to provide the icing on the cake of a lengthy programme but Rab McCulloch and his band pulled it off with ease with the festival’s first real helping of blues. His rasping vocals were brilliantly complemented by his superb guitar playing, not least on the slow blues, “Too Many Dirty Dishes”. The upbeat rocking blues, “Louisiana Bayou”, was contrasted with the slow shuffle, “Travelling Blues” and a fabulous performance of a vibrant boogie. The man from Ulster completed a marvellous set with “Voodoo Chile” and a tasty helping of jump jive. Credit must also be given to Rab’s splendid band, which comprised Rab Braniff on harp, Seamus O’Neil on drums and Sumi Kal on bass guitar. All in all, it was a great start to the weekend.
The Saturday afternoon session began with a terrific set from Californian Guy Tortora, backed by three excellent musicians: Janos Bajtala on keys, Brendan Canty on bass guitar and Adam Roman on drums. Their nicely varied programme included “Living On Credit” (the title track of Guy’s most recent album), a lively jug band number and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, which featured a marvellous piano solo. There was a heartfelt tribute to the exploited plantation and mill workers in the form of “When Cotton Was King” and a fine version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”. The set was concluded with the Eric Bibb/Dave Bronze composition, “Too Much Stuff”.
Yet more variety was provided by Two Timers – singer/percussionist Sarah James and guitarist Gordon Russell. Their combination is an archetypical blend of opposites with the seated Gordon playing the undemonstrative foil to the flamboyant Sarah, who switched effortlessly between drums, tambourine and harmonica. The talented duo delivered a range of musical styles covering down home blues, pacey rockers, “The Devil And The Deep Blue” (a poignant lament) and, to end the set, “Good Glasses” with its driving rockabilly beat.
Headlining the afternoon proceedings were Nicky Moore and The Blues Corporation, comprising Timmy Moore on guitar, Daniel J Kyle on acoustic guitar, Ed Collins on drums and Peter Shaw on bass guitar. They performed a mix of well-loved favourites (“Resting In he Blues”, “Statesboro Blues” and “Sea Of Blues”) with some newer compositions. The latter selection included “Northern Girl”, a love song for his wife, who hails from Workington, “Hog On The Log”, the title track of the band’s latest album, and “Picture” – another love song! Does this mean that Nicky is becoming sentimental as his dotage approaches? The answer, perhaps, is in the title of his closing number – “Hear Me Howling”. Back to normal then.
When Jon Amor was introduced as the opening act for Saturday evening, it was reported that he and his band had just returned from a three-week tour of Canada – an announcement that evoked an “ooh” from the well-impressed crowd. Jon was backed by an excellent young band that combined brothers Dave and Chris Docherty on guitar and bass guitar respectively and drummer Si Small. They began with a heavy rocking instrumental contrasted with a couple of slow and moody numbers. “Can’t Keep Living Like This”, from John’s debut album, made way for a boogie, which afforded Dave Docherty the opportunity to deliver a tasty solo. The heavy rocker, “If I Were You”, provided a sample of Jon’s Unknown Soldier album, while “Feeding Time” moistened many an eye as it elicited very fond memories of The Hoax. A brilliant set was concluded with “24 Hours” and “Changed”, both embellished with trademark solos from the maestro.
Next up were local heroes, the Olly Alcock Band. Olly is not a native Cumbrian, being originally from Yorkshire, but he is held in great esteem and affection in his adopted region. The band set their stall out with “He Always Wants Something For Nothing” as a bouncing opener and went on to deliver an enjoyable mix of shuffles and upbeat funky blues. They also performed an excellent version of Paul Butterfield’s slow blues, “Driftin’ Blues”. Backed by bass player Eddie Chicken and newly recruited drummer Harry Harrison, Olly and Roz Sluman alternated to great effect with guitar and sax solos respectively. The set was also enhanced by Olly’s laid-back patter between numbers.
Ian Siegal returned to the stage on Sunday afternoon, this time in solo, acoustic format. To no-one’s surprise, he delivered a magical set, opening with “The Silver Spurs”, followed by a Delta blues number and a terrific version of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”. The wonderfully varied mix also included songs by Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle and Tom Waits. But the number that raised the roof more than any other was a dramatic saga of a Mexican fighting cock. Ian Siegal is a captivating performer, who possesses one of the very best blues voices of the present era – deep, rich and with a gritty edge, it is as near as you can get to the legendary Howlin’ Wolf.
The honour of topping the bill on Saturday evening was granted to Louisiana-born and Texas-raised bluesman Sherman Robertson, who was magnificently supported by Jules Grudgings on keys, Gary Rackham on bass guitar and Jamie Little on drums. He began with a hard-driving rocker before delivering a superb rendition of “Tin Pan Alley”. A funky ballad led to “Dust My Broom”, another high-paced rocker and the driving, funky-edged “She Rocks My World”, which featured some lovely slap bass and tremendous solos from Sherman and Jules Grudgings. The rest of the vibrant set mingled rocking and slow blues, incorporated a couple of walkabouts and ended with a rip-roaring boogie. It was a fabulous show that admirably showcased Sherman Robertson’s excellent vocals and dazzling, seemingly effortless guitar playing. An indication of the crowd’s wish to delay the end of the set (and of the day) was the call for no less than three encores.
Aynsley Lister provided another change of mood with a predominantly fast-paced set of home-spun blues rock. The slow blues, “Always Tomorrow” was balanced by “Upside Down”, a heavy-driving rocker with pounding drums and bass, and “Balls Of Steel”. “Running Out On Me” was a medium-paced shuffle with a tasty guitar solo while the excellent ballad, “Rain” was embellished with top class vocal harmonies from drummer Richard Spooner and bass guitarist Midus (pronounced Midoosh), who formed yet another brilliant rhythm section. It was a polished, well-delivered performance that was warmly received by the appreciative audience.
What a weekend! From start to finish the quality of the music never wavered and the organization was unfailingly slick. Nick Westgarth and his tireless team of helpers deserve enormous credit. Thanks and congratulations are also due to MC, Mark Singleton, who fronted the festival with commendable warmth and good humour. Surely the incredible standard cannot be continued for another year – but isn’t that what we said last year? Over to you, Nick.
[Note from Editor: The excellent pictures were provided by Paul Webster – thanks Paul. He will be publishing his full set to his Flickr account as soon as he has a couple of hours free.]