Review: The Third Carlisle Blues Festival – 13th-15th November 2009
Posted on: Tuesday, Nov 24, 2009
So high was the quality achieved by the first two Carlisle Blues Festivals, it was always going to be a considerable challenge for the organisers to maintain the standard. It is very much to their credit, therefore, that, if anything, they managed to reach an even higher peak. Given the presence of an abundance of reviewers at the event, I decided to keep pen and notebook firmly under lock and key. In retrospect, however, I feel compelled to scribble a few words of praise, albeit without the aid of any notes.
The opening act of the festival, Hokie Joint, were the first of four weekend surprise packages. Fronted by the charismatic, JoJo Burgess, complete with Tom Waits-style rasping vocals and an air of mock menace, and embellished by the harmonica artistry of Giles King, they grabbed the audience by the throat from the outset and refused to let go. They were followed by Sam Kelly’s Station House, who were sadly depleted by the absence of two band members: singer/guitarist, Tony Qunta, was caught in traffic, and keyboard player, Paul Jobson, was recovering from surgery. However, undaunted, the band delivered a largely improvised set, with Sean Webster filling in on guitar and vocals to supplement Sam and bass guitarist, Spy.
Connie Lush and Blues Shouter were on the top of their game, combining an excellent performance with Connie’s customary humorous asides. A selection of superb original compositions were nicely mixed with a great choice of covers including ‘Twenty Four Hour Blues’ and a performance of ‘Feeling Good’ that Nina Simone would have died for. Headlining the first day were The Nimmo Brothers, whose less frequent appearances these days are even more eagerly savoured. Backed by Matt Beable on bass guitar and a very talented new drummer, they powered their way through some old favourites and a few numbers from their most recent album, Picking Up The Pieces, and finished with a tremendous version of ‘Black Cat Bone’.
The after-show jam session in the bar was organised by Sam Kelly with solid support from the finally present Tony Qunta, Sean Webster and Matt Beable and an unexpected guest appearance from Jon Amor.
Errol Linton’s Blues Vibe set things in motion on Saturday afternoon with a vibrant set of reggae-infused blues, which was lapped up by the highly appreciative, sell-out audience. John O’Leary’s continued the harmonica-led charge with a lively Chicago-oriented programme. John shared vocals with newly recruited guitarist, Dave Day, who has settled comfortably into the line-up in place of Jules Fothergill (or Giles Fotheringale, as one nameless, north-western promoter called him). The band was completed by a keyboard player and the splendid rhythm section of Roger Inniss and Wayne Proctor.
The afternoon session was headlined by the second surprise package of the festival, The Mark Butcher Band. Led by the ex-England cricketer on guitar and vocals, the band comprised an impressive array of musicians: the aforementioned Inniss/Proctor combination, Jonny Dyke on keys and Matt Taylor on second guitar. The impressively tight ensemble performed a pleasantly mellow set much to the delight of the punters.
The evening session was opened by Storm Warning, another relatively unknown band, who significantly enhanced their reputation with a beautifully delivered set. The fine, husky vocals of Steve Norchi were enhanced by Bob ‘Mad Dog’ Moore on guitar and a highly effective rhythm section of Derek White on bass guitar, Roger Willis on drums and keyboard player, Ian Salisbury.
The benefit of the doubt must be afforded the festival organisers that they deliberately chose Storm Warning to open the session as much for their name as for their ability, for what followed was nothing less than a gale-force assault. The Stumble were right at the top of their game, with singer, Paul Melville, in superlative form. His magnificent vocals were admirably supported by what is now, without doubt, one of the very best blues bands in the country. Guitarists, Colin Black and Johnny Spencer, were magnificent and Simon Anthony supplemented his saxophonic skills with an impromptu circuit of the concert room while drummer, Boyd Tonner, and substitute bass guitarist, Cameron Sweetnam, provided a flawless backdrop. In short, it was a knockout performance.
Just about everybody must have been wondering how on earth Earl Thomas was going to follow that – not least, Earl Thomas himself. But, when the going gets tough . . . He simply delivered a masterclass in audience manipulation. Backed by a terrific band, Paddy Milner and the Big Sounds, which included Milner on keys, a three-piece horn section, two guitarists and a rhythm section, he proceeded to charm everybody with his smooth vocals, warm chat and vibrant energy. It was a tour de force that suffused the whole room in enchantment to cap a fabulous day’s entertainment.
So, fully sated, the bewitched punters filed off to bed for a good night’s sleep. Oh, no, they didn’t! They relocated to the bar in readiness for another jam session, this time led by OV8 (Chris Roach, Rick Lacey and a newly recruited bass guitarist) and harmonica maestro/singer, Junkhouse Dog. The highlight of the session was a highly-charged duet by Connie Lush and Ian Siegal, who had already arrived in preparation for his set on the following day.
The biggest surprise of the festival took place at the start of the final session. Unbilled and largely unknown, Marcus Bonfanti took the place by storm – without any warning. He was one of the guitarists who had supported Earl Thomas on the previous evening, but his relatively subdued role in the band had given no hint of his true potential. His powerful bass-baritone vocals and his dextrous acoustic guitar playing, wrapped in wonderfully off-beat and self-deprecating banter, was a revelation. Combining songs from his brilliant debut album, Hard Times, with a selection of songs from his forthcoming second release, the extent of his impact was confirmed by the subsequent, extensive queue at the CD counter.
Next up were the recently reformed Producers, fronted by the hugely talented Harry Skinner on guitar and vocals and completed by founder member of the band, Dave Saunders, on bass guitar, and the newly recruited Ray Drury on organ and piano and Biff Smith on drums. They delivered a great set that comprised new songs and old favourites, and the reaction of the crowd made it very clear that their return to the UK blues scene is very warmly welcomed. Harry Skinner is undoubtedly one of the class acts of British blues.
The final surprise package came in the form of the Washington, DC-based trio, Tom Principato’s Powerhouse, on their first visit to the UK. Despite their Eastern states location, their music is predominantly New Orleans-oriented with a strong funky flavouring. Tom Principato is a tremendous guitarist, with the legendary Roy Buchanan as one of his influences. He switched between Strat and Telecaster to provide a stunning set with ‘Too Damn Funky’ off his latest album, Raising The Roof!, particularly well-received.
The marvellous event was brought to its climax by festival-favourite Ian Siegal, who began with a splendid solo set on steel and acoustic guitars, including his popular rendition of Gallo Del Cielo. He was then joined on stage by bass player, Andy Graham, and drummer, Nicolaj Bjerre, to perform a substantial selection of songs from their excellent, latest album, Broadside. It was a wonderful end to a marvellous weekend, which left everyone fully contented and already looking forward to next year.
No praise can be too high for organiser, Nick Westgarth, and his tireless team. The quality of music and the organisation of events were top class and the atmosphere relaxed and friendly. The Carlisle Blues Festival is among the very best in the country and long may it continue.