Review: Catfish Keith – Pacific Road Arts Centre, Birkenhead 17 Nov 2009

Posted on: Saturday, Nov 21, 2009

Catfish Keith


Pacific Road Arts Centre, Birkenhead: 17.11.09

As part of the 21st International Guitar Festival of Great Britain, a regular visitor over the years, the great Catfish Keith – from Iowa, USA – delivered a masterclass of pre-war acoustic blues to a most healthy and appreciative crowd at Pacific Road Arts Centre, over two mesmerising sets.

Catfish Keith has long been one of the most popular acoustic bluesmen from America, and on this 35th overseas tour, in support of his 12th CD release – “Live At The Half Moon” –he was on imperious form, twanging and sliding for all he was worth, with foot stomping and his voice hollering, hand raised like a preacher at times!

Armed with just his National Tricone steel-bodied guitar and his custom-made small bodied guitar, which he modestly said “plays itself”, he dipped into recordings from many of his releases, and songs by some of the pre-war blues legends he admires most such as Blind Willie Johnson, Bukka White, Skip James and more. Apart from his stunning slide work, his conventional fingerpicking coaxes some delicious tones and harmonics.

Not having seen Catfish Keith live for some five years, the only shock I got was a change in appearance – trusty hat discarded and now possessing flowing locks, but his playing and singing was as convincing and authentic as ever, kicking off on the slide guitar with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Tell Everybody In Your Neighbourhood”, followed by the haunting “Soul Of A Man” – the first Blind Willie Johnson tune of the night.

A change to the small guitar saw a personal favourite in the form of the late Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Eagle Bird” – a haunting Mississippi hill country piece, again from one of Catfish’s personal heroes, and also a good friend until her passing. He dipped into the Joseph Spence songbook for the uplifting “Gonna Live That Life – the Barbadian guitarist another big influence on him.

Other first set gems included some Rev. Gary Davis on “You Got To Move”, and a stomping slide piece, Bukka White’s “Daddy Where You Been So Long” – his guitar work exemplary as it was all evening. Indeed for such a big room, and just Catfish and his guitar the sound was pretty good . . . . well done to the soundman for that!

After a short break the second set commenced with the standard, “Preaching The Blues”, before the very, very old song from the Rev. Robert Wilkins, “That Ain’t No For Me To Get Along” . . . which may be more familiar to some as “Poor Boy”. He dipped a long way back for a request, the quirky “Hawaiian Cowboy”, which sounds like the title, a mix of Hawaiian and country flavours, but great fun nonetheless – and also his own “Mr. Catfish’s Advice”, from another early release.

The closing segment of the evening was possibly best of all, Bo Carter’s “Twist It Babe!”, and definitely one of the best interpretation’s you will ever hear of Bukka White’s oft-covered “Jitterbug Swing”, with his slide work and stomping foot kicking up a proverbial storm. Demanded encores were a brace of Blind Willie Johnson – the chilling instrumental “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground”, straight in to the lovely “Bye And Bye, I’m Going To See The King” – a brilliant end to a truly great night, from a blues master, and all-round nice guy!


Flickr photo by Paul Webster

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