Review: Fifth Carlisle Blues Festival – 11th-13th November 2011
Posted on: Saturday, Nov 26, 2011
THE FIFTH CARLISLE BLUES FESTIVAL
at The Swallow Hilltop Hotel, Carlisle
11th -13th November 2011
Following the first Carlisle Blues Festival in 2007, each subsequent event has been acclaimed as better than the one before. Whilst it is fully understood that there has to be a realistic, ultimate limit to perceived excellence, this year’s festival still managed to raise the bar that little bit further. Once again, it was a magnificent weekend of blues-based music.
Fronted by exuberant singer/guitarist, Julian Burdock, London-based 24 Pesos started the ball rolling on Friday evening with a thoroughly energetic set of rocking blues. As winners of the New Brunswick Battle of the Blues 2011, they appeared at the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada in September – an indication of the band’s growing reputation.
The Revolutionaires then took the baton and raised the energy levels even further with a monumental set of breakneck rock and roll and r ’n’ b. They raced through a programme of favourites that included superb versions of “Shake Your Hips” and “Cell Block Number 9” and some Chuck Berry and Little Richard classics. All-action Ed Stephenson led the charge on vocals, guitar, keyboards and harmonica, ably supported by brother, Rich, on upright bass and bass guitar, saxophonist Gary Hoole, and drummer Mark Matthews. They delivered a terrific performance that left the highly-appreciative audience breathless.
If anyone could remain unfazed and follow that, Larry Miller would definitely be in the mix. Exuding warmth and offbeat eccentricity, the highly-skilled guitar-slinger and his band produced a vibrant programme of blues-rock, which included a heartfelt tribute to his major influence, Rory Gallagher.
Headlining the Friday evening session was Eugene Hideaway Bridges and the man from Louisiana entranced the assembled throng with his honey-coated vocals and fluent guitar playing. He was backed by a splendid band that fully complemented his considerable ability, to complete a marvellous evening, bringing to life a selection of numbers from his latest album, Rock and a Hard Place.
The Gary Fletcher Band opened the Saturday afternoon session, with the Blues Band’s bass guitarist moonlighting on lead vocals and acoustic guitar. He was admirably backed by his son, Jack, on bass guitar, Steve Ling on lead guitar and ex-Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers. Gary also displayed his considerable skill as a songwriter, his set comprising, almost exclusively, original compositions, many of which have been recorded by the Blues Band.
Dale Storr and his band took the party to New Orleans with a comprehensive compilation of the different flavours of that exotic Mecca. There were tastes of, amongst others, Fats Domino and Dr John, as rock and roll, funk and boogie were tastefully interwoven. The maestro’s superlative keyboard skills were impressively underpinned by a first class band, which included Kim Mayhew on sax and Dave Raeburn on drums.
Patrick Sweany then fronted a trio that was completed by the excellent Matt Beable and Craig Bacon on bass guitar and drums respectively. The singer/guitarist from Ohio delivered an in-your-face set with rough-edged vocals and spiky guitar work and charmed the audience with an easy rapport and a stream of throw-away humour.
The afternoon session was headlined by another visitor from the USA, singer/guitarist Gregg Wright. He provided a mixture of well-crafted original numbers and covers that included terrific versions of “Born Under A Bad Sign” and “Crossroads Blues”. A particular feature of his performance was the phenomenal speed of many of his guitar riffs. He was comfortably “Shredder of the Festival” and loudly applauded for his dexterity.
Chris James executed a brilliant start to the Saturday evening session with a highly entertaining set of acoustic blues, complementing his powerful vocals with intricate finger-picking and a fine line in humour.
Chris was followed by The Deadstring Brothers, a quintet originally from Detroit, Michigan, but now based in Nashville. With Kurt Marschke on vocals and guitar, the band, dressed in hillbilly mode, presented a mixture of country-blues and folk-rock with the minimum of fuss. In complete contrast to the engaging patter of Chris James, however, they avoided any attempt to develop a direct rapport with the audience and remained something of a mystery.
Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat, on the other hand, made an instant impression on the crowd and comprehensively usurped the previous act’s ante-post status as the surprise package of the festival. Suhler’s effective vocals and slashing slide guitar work were mesmeric and his relaxed banter enthralled the attentive audience. The Texan and his terrific band raced through a blinding set of TexMex/Border blues and, like Larry Miller on the previous evening, played a tribute to Rory Gallagher. A belting rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Everybody Must Get Stoned”, complete with enthusiastic audience participation, climaxed the magical session, which was greeted with a unanimous standing ovation.
Not for the first time at Carlisle, Earl Thomas was faced with the ultimate challenge of following a tour de force. To nobody’s surprise, he rose to the occasion magnificently and fully justified his top of the bill listing. Superbly backed by Paddy Milner & The Big Sounds, he soon had the punters in the palm of his hand with his exquisite vocals and his warm patter. Highlights included an a capella sequence, during which the proverbial dropped pin would have been clearly heard, and cameo performances from each band member, which particularly showcased the spectacular skills of Milner on keyboards and guitarists Marcus Bonfanti and Randall Breneman. In short, it was another triumph for the soulful showman.
The Sunday afternoon session was opened by another highly-skilled exponent of the art of acoustic blues. Al Hughes, who is equally at home as the frontman of Lights Out By Nine, delighted another full house with a masterly performance. Like Chris James on the previous day, he combined powerful vocals with lovely guitar work, especially on a splendidly-toned twelve-string steel model. His song-writing expertise was also demonstrated, cleverly integrating social comment with tasteful humour.
The second session on Sunday was another of the highlights of the weekend, as Marcus Malone reminded everyone of his exceptional talents. The streamlined vocals of the man from Detroit are out of the top drawer, as are his songs, and he is a more than decent guitarist. His fabulous set was largely drawn from his Hurricane and Let The Sunshine In albums, but a particular highlight was a cracking rendition of his well-loved ballad, “One More Time”. Full credit must also be paid to the main man’s wonderful band, comprising three tremendous musicians: Chris Nugent on drums, Johan Buys on bass guitar and the superlative Stuart Dixon on guitar.
The doyen of British blues harpmen, the eponymous leader of Paul Lamb & The King Snakes, is held in the highest esteem among the UK’s blues lovers, having graced the stages of Britain and Europe for many years. In addition to long-standing members, singer/guitarist Chad Strentz and bass player Rod Demick, The King Snakes featured Paul’s son, Ryan, and drummer Dino Coccia. They delivered a well-received programme of blues, which included a generous helping of chromatic harmonica and intermittent, trademark whooping from the maestro.
If The Deadstring Brothers represented a journey into the unknown, King Mob took the quest a step beyond. Although they had recorded an album (Force 9), the band’s appearance at the festival was to be their first live gig. However, the individual pedigrees of the band’s members were sufficiently impressive and the project so intriguing that booking them, albeit unseen, proved to be irresistible. The line-up comprised guitarist Chris Spedding (Roxy Music, Elton John et al), bass guitarist Glen Matlock (The Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop and The Faces), drummer Martin Chambers (The Pretenders) and singer Stephen W Parsons – aka Snips – (Sharks). The legends were supplemented by young guitarist Sixteen. In truth, the band’s punk-influenced set was only marginally in touch with the festival’s theme but it provided an interesting diversion and was generously received by the punters.
Normal service was resumed by King King, who concluded a fabulous weekend with a vibrant helping of blues-rock that tested the speakers to breaking point. The highly-talented quartet boasted the kilted Alan Nimmo on vocals and guitar, Lindsay Coulson on bass guitar (sporting a somewhat dowdy grey skirt), Jamie Little on drums and Bennett Holland on keyboards. Highlights among the varied presentation of songs were excellent versions of John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain” and the bristling “Gravy Train” and a heartfelt acknowledgement of Stevie Nimmo with a terrific delivery of the poignant ballad “Old Love”.
Now firmly established among the very best of British blues festivals, the Carlisle event continues to surprise and delight. In addition to the contributions of the artistes, credit is also due to Robin Bibi, who expertly organised the late night jam sessions, and to hard-working MC, Mark Singleton. However, no praise can do justice to the superlative efforts of organiser, Nick Westgarth, and his tireless team of supporters, to whom a great vote of thanks and congratulations are owed by those of us who were lucky enough to be there.