Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cornershop: "Soul School"

I've often thought of myself as a cartoon, but never thought I looked like this! Still, we look better here than in the flesh. Tjinder Singh on guitar and vocals, Ben Ayres on rhythm guitar, Pete Downing on lead guitar, me on sitar, Alan Gregson on keyboards and clever bits, Pete Bhengri on percussion, James Milne on bass and Nick Simms on drums.

The Answer: "The Avengers" & "How Can I Be Sure"

A real blast from the past: My favourite band that never made it - The Answer - performing a note perfect rendition of "The Avengers" followed by a very respectable bash through "How Can I Be Sure" - live at The Mean Fiddler, October 1985. Me on guitar, David Catlin-Birch on bass and vocals, Gordon Leach on guitar, Paul Ross on drums. David now toils in the saltmines of The Bootleg Beatles, where he has been for longer than he cares to think, sentenced to impersonate Paul McCartney in public for money until he has fully atoned for his teenage crimes playing Beatles songs in the school music room...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Natacha Atlas: "Mahlabeya"

From "Jools Holland's 'Later'" - March 1999 (no matter what it says on the clip). Gamal Awad on keyboard, Salem Bnouni on violin, Larry Whelan on woodwind, Keith Clouston on guitar, me on bass, Tim Garside on darbuka, Nick Simms on drums. We had to fly back in the middle of a tour to do it, hence we were all knackered and Madam was not in the best of moods. Also on the programme were Blur and Van Morrison. Blur were nice, Van was not.

Dust Galaxy: "River Of Ever Changing Forms"

This was fun: a sitar session I did for these friendly Californians - an offshoot project of Thievery Corporation. Thanks to producer Brendan Lynch for leaving my comment on the end...

Lunar Dunes: "Free To Do"

My favourite track from the Lunar Dunes second album, "Galax Sea" - recorded live at the Inn On The Green under the Westway in Ladbroke Grove. For this record Ian, Hami and myself were augmented by Krupa on vocals, Larry Whelan on sax and keyboards and Julia Thornton on harp.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Recidivists

This is a link to a page containing some info and demos recorded by The Recidivists - the band featuring myself, Ted Wood and Andrew Ranken. You have to cut and paste the link into the browser.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Cornershop: "Waterloo Sunset"

June 2007,  live outside the Royal Festival Hall. We must have done about 12 takes because Tjinder kept forgetting the words!

Errol Linton's Blues Vibe: "Bo Diddley"

This video has had embedding disabled. If you want to see it, cut and paste the link into your browser. It's one of my favourites. The "Bo Diddley" jam doesn't appear on any of our three albums but it's been a mainstay of our set for a good 15 years. This is a good version - recorded at Belper in about 2006. Errol on vocals and harmonica, myself on guitar, Jean-Pierre Lampe on double bass, Phil Myers on drums.

Charlie Gillett's Jukebox - Let The Music Speak

On 21st May 2011 an event was held celebrating the life of legendary broadcaster Charlie Gillett who died tragically young the previous March. Errol and I played amongst a bunch of musicians from various parts of the world. It was a joyful event and I am very proud to have been part of it. Charlie was only ever good news in my life and I miss him. My section with Errol starts at around 3:55

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Velvet Underground: "Live 1969"

“The Velvet Underground Live 1969” album has kept me company on more late nights and early mornings than any other person or thing over the last 20 years or so. There’s something, a true distillation of human compassion in that world-weary New York accent, the way he says: “Good evening, we’re the Velvet Underground, how are you?” and later in that little introduction: “you should give other people just a little chance”, before adding, in a typically laconic aside, “In football anyway”. Then: “This is a song called ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’”.

On September 11th 2001, I stayed up, like many other people, till I couldn’t stay awake any longer, listening to the news reports on the radio. Over the next few days I listened to the Velvets continually. To me, they represent New York, and the whole precious concept of what it means to be a civilised American. To observe without judgment, to remain skeptical and retain humour, to empathise, to search for wisdom, to be unafraid – or rather, to be afraid as hell, but to do it anyway. To be truthful and despise bullshit. Above all, to be human. To me, this is the best of that culture.

It must be some kind of testament to the 60s that the Velvets could ever have existed – such an unlikely mix of characters! Lou Reed, the singer and songwriter, the leader, who wanted to be a rock’n’roll star and who is, by all accounts, the most odious man, and yet the author of the most compassionate songs I know of. John Cale, the Welsh intellectual, the classically trained art-terrorist. Nico, Hitler’s ideal aryan master-race hausfrau as professional heroin addict and authentic goddess of doom. Sterling Morrison, all-American rock’n’roll guitar player, who also happened to be a professor of English literature and tug-boat captain. Doug Yule, the overlooked one who Lou introduces to the audience as "my brother". And my favourite, Mo Tucker, the Velvets very own Ringo, with her mallets and her upturned bass drum; beer drinking, pool playing, bullshit-free Mo, without whom the Velvets would not have sounded like the Velvets.

What is it like to be a white, educated, middle-class American? To know that your country was built on theft, genocide and slave labour? What is the appropriate response to that?
                                                 “Oh pardon me, sir, it’s the last thing on my mind…”
It’s in the way the guitars lock in with the organ on the nine minute “What Goes On” (if only it went on longer), it’s in the exquisitely gentle regret of the original “Sweet Jane” (so different and so superior to all the subsequent versions), it’s in the joy and ecstatic yearning of the end section of “Rock And Roll” (such commitment, it amounts to a manifesto). To me, it’s beautiful music. If you can learn to love it even just a little, it will be your friend and protect you from loneliness as much as you find you are able to allow it to do so. And that’s not bad for an old rock’n’roll record. 

The Detroit Cobras: "Baby"


For those who still haven’t received the memo, The Detroit Cobras really are from Detroit and they revolve around vocalist Rachel Nagy and guitarist Maribel Restrepo. Their modus operandi is to re-work long forgotten soul and r’n’b songs from the late 50s and early 60s, paying particular tribute to such great performers as Irma Thomas and Etta James. The way they tell it, there are too many songs in the world already, and a lot of good ones have fallen by the wayside. What makes them special is their attention to detail, and the fact that Rachel Nagy can really sing. 

But the Cobras will insist on living and breathing the classic rock’n’roll lifestyle, and this can result in a few, uh, LOGISTICAL problems. Like they’re not exactly prolific: this is only their third album in seven years, and, like the first two, it’s all over in less than 32 minutes. Nevertheless, when they hit the spot they truly hit it, and your heart and feet tell you that they really are the best (the only? the last?) rock’n’roll band in the world and that the wait has been worth it. Here, they do it just right on Billie Jean Horton’s “Can’t Please You” - which has a groove and a riff and a vocal straight from God (or the Devil, depending on your point of view). It’s completely impossible to keep still while it’s playing and when it’s finished you have to play it again. That one occupied me exclusively for some time but eventually I noticed that “Now You’re Gone” has a minor key groove not given a proper airing for about forty years, since the days of The Beatles “Not A Second Time”, or The Searchers attempts at Jackie DeShannon songs. Drummer Kenny Tudrick updates the twist rhythm like some mythological craftsman and Rachel Nagy’s vocals have never sounded better. Elsewhere, “Slipping Around” is a cool opener, with some nice East Coast harmonies, and “I Wanna Holler (But The Town’s Too Small)” is a bit of an epic in the swamp rock mode. An odd choice is Bert Russell’s “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” – at first I hoped it would be the Professor Longhair tune but it’s the same one that The Animals did and that Bob Dylan stole for “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”. It shows off the Cobras increasingly confident backing vocals, and the grain of Rachel’s voice on the intro is sublime. Steve Cropper’s “Weak Spot” is indeed a weak spot, and the original “Hot Dog” is fun but hardly exceptional. “Everybody’s Going Wild” sounds like an out-take from “Life, Love and Leaving” (second album) but that’s OK, especially the yodeling… Allen Toussaint’s “Mean Man” is more ambitious with it’s New Orleans funk lurch and 60s pop chords in the bridge – the Cobras sound like they don’t quite know what to make of such dangerous revisionism, but Rachel holds it together and it ends up being one of the stand-out tracks. Naomi Neville’s “It’s Raining” is this album’s ballad, and only a heart of stone could remain unmoved. Maybe one day the Cobras will do a whole album of ballads like this and we will never again have to worry about what to play when we’re maudlin drunk and alone at 3am. 

What else? “The Real Thing” rocks like a mother, Bobby Womack’s “Baby Help Me” is a good example of how the Cobras serve up classic soul, but by their standards it’s a filler. Over here in the UK, “Cha Cha Twist” – the monster opener of the first album – was used recently in a Coke Cola ad, so the Cobras have tried to capitalize on this by re-recording it and putting out the new version as a single. It’s nice but they needn’t have bothered: it’s bigger but no better than the old version.

Production (by the band) and engineering is spot-on. Sounds marginally better than the first two but they sounded just fine to me, so this is just more of the same with a slightly higher quality of fairy dust sprinkled over. The playing is impeccable throughout and Rachel’s vocals sound superb. Any suggestions that she was losing it are hereby completely rescinded. There really is no-one else in her league currently functioning. If you like real rock’n’roll then this is far and away the year’s most essential purchase, if you don’t, well, I’m sorry I can’t help you. Word to the wise: Play track 10 (“Can’t Please You”) first. Loud. Ask yourself: When did you last hear a better slice of the real stuff? Ain’t cha glad this stuff exists? As for me, I’m gettin’ down on my knees right now…   

Friday, December 23, 2011

Talkin' 'Bout A Spoonful (Eric Clapton & Hubert Sumlin)

For the record, I would like to state that my favourite bluesmen are Sonny Boy (Aleck “Rice” Miller) Williamson and Professor Longhair, neither of whom were guitar players.

But don’t get me wrong, I love a good guitar solo. I’m a guitarist after all, and it was guitar solos that I wanted to play when I first started to learn. Specifically (and I think we need to be specific), I wanted to play solos like ERIC CLAPTON!

I was about 12 years old when I discovered the music of Cream – the group that Eric Clapton formed with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce upon leaving John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1966. With true adolescent snobbery, I thought that their music was far more worthwhile than any of the contemporary music of the time and I remember saving up my pocket money to buy the double album called “Wheels Of Fire”. It cost £3.60 and when I got it I thought it was just wonderful, I even subjected my jazz loving father to it, and I especially liked the longest track which was a 17 minute version of a song called “Spoonful”, by someone called Willie Dixon. I would listen to it repeatedly and think about how interesting and clever it  was.

A couple of years later I bought a 2nd hand album called “The Blues” on the Marble Arch label. It cost me 25p and I bought it for the picture of the guitar on the cover. On the record was another version of “Spoonful” by someone called Howlin’ Wolf. It was only two-and-a-half  minutes long but it was definitely the same song: same lyric, same tune, same riff. But it sounded totally different.  Howlin’ Wolf was obviously a much better singer than Jack Bruce, this much was clear, then I noticed that the guitar solo was only about 15 seconds long but that it seemed to say far more than the 17 minute version I knew so well, or, indeed the six minute Cream studio version I had uncovered in the interim. I wanted to be loyal to my heroes so it took a while to sink in but eventually I was forced to acknowledge that Howlin’ Wolf’s recording of “Spoonful” was INFINITELY SUPERIOR to either of  Cream’s versions and that Hubert Sumlin – the guitarist on the track – was (gasp) BETTER THAN ERIC CLAPTON!!

OK. Calm down.  I know that the comparison is very unfair. Both Hubert Sumlin and Eric Clapton were playing what was appropriate for their respective audiences: Black America 1960, White America 1968 – and the point of all this is not to make snide remarks about Eric Clapton (heaven forfend!) but to illustrate the difference between worthwhile and worthless guitar solos. Clapton would never again allow himself such gross self-indulgence, and Sumlin’s work on “Spoonful” is particularly choice. So lets have a look at it.
A basic truth that is often forgotten in the enthusiasm of turning up and letting rip is that your guitar solo must have some relevance to the song. This is also true of instrumental music. As well as anticipating the harmonic and rhythmic circumstances one is likely to have to negotiate, one also has to ask oneself: What is the vibe of the groove? One must also try to remember the absolute golden rule of guitar solos: IF IN DOUBT, SHUT UP.

“Spoonful” was a song that was written by Willie Dixon specifically for Howlin’ Wolf to sing. It was one of a run of hit records that the mighty Wolf enjoyed around the turn of the 1950’s and 60’s and it was, to a certain extent, a pot-boiler. But what a fine pot-boiler! Lyrically it was a variation on a perennial blues theme, a bleak worldview where “ev’rything’s fightin’ ‘bout a spoonful” – of water, or gold, or coffee, or “your precious love” – because those little drops in the spoon can be precious, and people die for them. So it’s a heavy song. A mean, tough song. Musically, it’s a one-chord-wonder: a mid-paced chug on E with a steady rolling beat and a dark, brooding two-note riff – a setting that producer/ songwriter/ bassist Willie Dixon knew very well that Wolf was a master of.

Guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Wolf’s right-hand-man, may or may not be thinking about  this as he works the number, running it through with the band to get the groove to sit right. He’s playing his Les Paul and he has set up a tone with plenty of cut. His amp is set just this side of distortion and the sound is thick and weighty. Sumlin comes in on beat two of the first bar. He plays at the octave in standard tuning, basic blues scale, key of E.  He starts by bending an A towards B. He holds the bend just below B natural and lets the note sustain for around five beats.  A classic opening gambit: it says you’re serious. By ‘worrying’ the tri-tone (in this case E to Bb – Il Diabola Musica!)  you are immediately stating dark intent. Of course, it is also an arch cliché of blues playing and what saves Sumlin from predictability is his poise: he places the note perfectly, lets it howl, and lets it lie. This is called STYLE.

When the same rhythmic stress point comes round again he bends a D towards an E, holding it for two beats before following it with a clean E natural played straight. Playing off a syncopated triplet he then falls back on to the bent note between B and Bb and snaps the note off staccato.
This is a completely logical development which heightens dramatic tension for Wolf’s vocal entry by ‘worrying’ the tonal centre just below the fifth of the scale, and then ‘worrying’ the tonal centre just below the octave.

Did you get through all that? Sorry, but I get a little bit tired of writing about music that never writes about music. It’s not that hard to understand. What is much harder to understand is how Cream managed to inflate such a tight, economical and direct song to such a grotesque degree. Nobody ever talks about any of that stuff. It’s a taboo. Guilty males of a certain age choose to remain silent on such subjects as Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack, Keef Hartley Band, Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation. But come on, let’s name them, get it out in the open. Let’s put the analysis to one side for a moment, take a break, and think about all the American tours that these terrible groups undertook in the wake of the psychedelic era. Ten Years After, for example, for many years, held the record for the most American tours undertaken by any British group. Why did they keep going back? All those dope smoke filled dressing rooms, all those blow jobs in crap hotels, all that sordid rock’n’roll fag-ash mythology. And all that lovely money!  (Conspicuous by their absence from this indictment are, of course, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac – for reasons that must be obvious to anyone who’s actually listened to ‘Love That Burns’ or ‘Need Your Love So Bad’.)

 And where in earlier years the music that these English debauchees had been peddling was straight-forward pop, now it had developed overtones of meaningfulness as they gleefully plundered the songbooks of black American blues artists. Middle-aged, hard-working, professional black American musicians watched in amazement as these spotty, spindly, long-haired white English youths made off with their songs, played them excruciatingly badly, sometimes without even the vaguest understanding of the music’s forms and disciplines, and proceeded to make fortunes. A few bluesmen joined the party, when they realised that they could make some serious money, but many more just shrugged their shoulders and went to work as usual – playing soul more often than not, as blues had begun to lose favour with the urban audience. This process, of course, being monumentally exacerbated when black American audiences realised that their parent’s music had been annexed by a bunch of inept white guys from England. And who was to blame for all of this? Cream. The first kings of the English blues boom trough. 

Ironic, or what? Nobody could doubt Clapton’s sincerity about the blues, then or now. But Cream’s success and the wave it created made a material contribution to the death of the blues as a living art form for black American people. If decadence in an art form is its death knell, then I believe history shows that decadence in the blues began when the active bona-fide practitioners of the music realised that they could make a much better living from a white audience by aping the trappings of white English adaptations of their own cultural heritage. 

There’s a lovely story about a lesson in the blues - which may or may not be true, but I hope it is - concerning Eric Clapton and Hubert Sumlin. The time is 1969 and The Rolling Stones are bankrolling the recording of an album by Howlin’ Wolf that will become known as “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions”. It’s basically an opportunity for the Stones rhythm section and various other interested members of the rock aristocracy of the time to work with the legendary man himself. Wolf is old by this time, in his twilight, but still capable of greatness – when he can be bothered. His attitude on the record is decidedly nonchalant. Hubert Sumlin is still there on guitar, an added bonus for the guitar fanciers such as Clapton himself, who has studied Sumlin’s style at length in earlier years, and who has been invited to play lead guitar on the sessions - thereby relegating Sumlin to the rhythm section. But as it turns out, Clapton plays very well in front of his hero, the sessions gel nicely and everybody is in a good mood. So Clapton invites Sumlin round to his house in Surrey for dinner. 

On the evening in question, perhaps over brandy and cigars, Clapton suggests that Sumlin view his guitar collection. Filled with bon-homie, he offers Sumlin a gift of any guitar that takes his fancy. Sumlin studies the wall of fine instruments, fingering one or two, but there is nothing there that he really likes. On the floor lies a closed guitar case. “What’s in the case?” he asks. “Oh, nothing”, replies Clapton. Nevertheless, Sumlin opens the case and takes out a battered Stratocaster. Immediately, on playing a couple of notes, he knows this is the guitar. “This is your No.1 guitar, ain’t it?” he asks. Clapton nods. “Well, you said I could pick any one that I liked and I like this one”. So Eric Clapton sighs deeply and gives his No.1 guitar to Hubert Sumlin.

Shakin' All Over


(For Johnny Kidd and Roger Daltrey)

Transport caff
Scared waiter  
Egg sausage chips and beans
  -  two slices and a mug of tea
Capstan Full Strength
Spots, acne, pimples
Rat-face baby
Raised on rations
Greasy hair
Metal comb and flick knife
Smell the leather and petrol
Jukebox blasting
Roaring engines
Triumph, BSA, Harley Davidson
Does your friend sit too close riding behind?

Tasting infinity touching the ton 
So little time it’s no time at all

Pictures of girls with big tits
On the wall in the garage where you work

Saturday Night
Pissed up and sneering
Select a victim 
Someone to hurt
“When you move in right up close to me
That’s when I get the shakes all over me
Quiver down my backbone
I get the shakes in the kneebone
Quiver down my thigh bone
Shakin’ all over…”

Adam Blake interviewed - Spring 2009

This is an interview of me conducted in Spring 2009 by Sean McCarthy of the Auckland Blues Society:


In this interview I chat to a guy I am pleased to call a personal friend... Adam Blake, who is the guitar player with Errol Linton’s Blues Vibe, a writer, journalist and teacher.

After learning to operate the record player before the age of 2, and despite being dragged kicking and screaming to see a Hard Day's Night at the age of 4, Adam has also played bass with Natacha Atlas (the pseudo-Arabic diva) and sitar with Cornershop.

When I resided in the UK Adam tried his best to teach me something about playing blues bass, and every hour with Adam was always part music lesson - part history lesson.

ANBTB: Hi Adam, great to talk to you, thanks for making the time. How's business?

A.B: No complaints! I’m teaching in two schools and I have a bunch of private students. Plus, I’m working on Errol’s long overdue 3rd album, also about to do a UK tour with Cornershop to promote their new album (“Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast”) and I have a nice live album in the can from my pyschedelic space-rock band, Lunar Dunes, that’s waiting to be mixed. Busy, busy!

ANBTB: I mentioned above that you have played bass and sitar can you give me a run-down of any other various weird and wonderful instruments you play?

A.B: I tinkle with Tibetan Singing Bowls sometimes. 

ANBTB: I read your short bio on and it says that after you got the record “Rocking Goose” by Johnny and the Hurricanes you got full tilt into music, leaving school at 17 to become a musician. Growing up in the late 60s and 70s, who were some of the bands and artists that got you hooked?

A.B: Well I was literally a babe in arms when I got given “Rocking Goose”! It’s a great record. Sounds just as good now as it ever did. But it was The Beatles, The Beatles all the way. They got me into music. Everything came through them. My dad used to buy all the Beatles records as they came out in the 60s. He was one of those guys that The Beatles “got” – he liked jazz and classical, and The Beatles. It was a big event in our flat when dad would come home with the new Beatles lp.

ANBTB: The Beatles or The Stones...?

A.B: Ha ha! I didn’t get into The Stones until I was at least ten. “Brown Sugar” was one of the first records I bought with my own money. 

ANTB: Tell us a bit about Errol Linton Blues Vibe, it's not your typical blues band...

A.B: I think Errol is fairly unique in the way he combines Jamaican music with the blues. It’s a completely natural blend for him and we just go right along with it. I always liked reggae but it took me awhile to learn to play it halfway convincingly. It looks easy but it isn’t. I suppose you could say the same about the blues. 

ANTB: Errol is a fantastic harp player. You both have a love for Sonny Boy Williamson (aka Rice Miller) was he the common denominator that hooked you two up?

A.B: Yes actually he was. First time I heard Errol was from a distance. I thought someone was playing a Sonny Boy record that I hadn’t heard – and of course it was Errol. I knew I wanted to play with him immediately.

ANTB: I recall you tell me that you once jammed with Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, which must have been a cool experience. Of the all blues players you have played with over the years, any special favourites? 

A.B: The Gatemouth Brown thing was surreal. It was in Japan and I was jet lagged to hell and off my head on whiskey and painkillers as I’d done my back in. Gate got all of the musicians involved to get up and do a little solo with him. I kept thinking I must be dreaming. But apart from him, I played with Henry Gray once, Howlin’ Wolf’s old piano player. That was through Errol and Richard Rhoden who were backing him up. They invited me up on stage and Henry immediately left the stage. Ha ha! I did a number and then halfway through the second he crept back on. I’d obviously passed the audition.

ANBTB: Is there anyone in particular you'd like to play with? 

A.B: Aaah, they’re all dead. B.B King, I guess. Maybe Ernest Ranglin.

ANBTB: You must have seen considerable changes in the London gig scene since you first got going. Would you say things have generally got better, worse or just different? 

A.B: Oh much worse, I’m afraid. There used to be so many more places to play. And the stupid new music licensing laws have made it so much more difficult for anyone wanting to promote live music.

ANBTB: On a good day, what would you say is the best bit about being a working blues musician in London?

A.B: Getting paid and seeing pretty girls dancing to your music.

ANBTB: And on a bad day, what’s the worst thing about it? 

A.B: Not getting paid, and no-one dancing.

ANBTB: During our lessons you always actively encouraged me to open my ears and mind, but how has your attitude towards blues changed over time? Do you still get the same things from the music or has it altered and/or grown as you've gotten older?

A.B: It starts when you fall in love with the blues. Then the blues is something you grow up with, grow into and accept into your life. Having said that, I don’t want to live the blues life, it’s way too hard. Besides, I’m white and middle-class. I have a choice. But one’s love and understanding and respect for the culture of the blues deepens as you get older. I still love the music just as much as I ever did.

ANBTB: What do you think is the state of Blues music right now?

A.B: I think the blues has been dead as a vital Black American cultural force since the mid-60s. But the music goes on and each subsequent generation has a small percentage of people who get into it – to varying different levels. It’s a bit like Classical Music in that way: there’s a small but loyal core audience for it 

ANBTB: Do you notice a difference between different parts of the UK? Abroad?

A.B: In the UK they like blues more up North. It’s tougher and they like tough music. They see it as unpretentious and they like to see themselves in that way. Scotland too, unsurprisingly. We haven’t played much abroad so it’s hard to say. The Eastern Europeans love it!

ANBTB: Much is made about the question of authenticity in blues... you know... whether so and so, and such and such is authentic or knew or learned from someone in particular. How much weight do you give it?

A.B: It either comes from the heart or it doesn’t.

ANBTB: How about the 'authenticity' of us 'white boys' playing the blues?

A.B:  My opinion? The blues is black music and it doesn’t matter how good you are, how well you play, how sincere your blues are – you will always be just another white guy playing blues. You know it in your heart and so does everybody else. And THAT’S the White Boy Blues. But you do it because you love it, and that’s enough.

ANBTB: How do you see the blues evolving in the future? Any new blues artists you’ve been listening to?

A.B: I think, I hope, that the fashion for flashy playing is over. But new players? C’mon, are you kidding me? I still haven’t finished listening to Little Walter.

ANBTB: Any words of advice for aspiring musicians?

A.B: Listen to the music of the guys who inspired the music of the guys who inspire you.

ANBTB: Any plans for a new Blues Vibe album soon, or anything else in the pipe line?

A.B: Yes, yes, yes. Some nice stuff in the can already. Watch this space!

"Pigmeat" Pete Smith: A Personal Memorial

“Pigmeat” Pete Smith, blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, born 1951, died June 24th 1999.

It was with resounding shock, surprise, anger and sadness that I learned of the tragic death of Pete Smith last Thursday 24th June, aged 48, of liver cancer. Pete was a true gentleman of the road and of the blues - a fact attested to by any of the many musicians that had the pleasure of working with him over the years. 

I first encountered Pete in the mid to late 80s when he used to do a regular set in the “Poodle Lounge” at Club Dog at the George Robey in Finsbury Park. As a fledgling blues guitarist I remember being astonished at his command of complex ragtime country blues idioms, and at the nonchalance and humour with which he performed them. I remember plucking up my courage and asking him if he would let me sit in with him on a couple of numbers. He agreed, but not without some misgivings I felt. He was right. As he burst into a fast ragtime workout I remember the knot in my stomach as I tried vainly to keep up with him. Sensing my terror, Pete started to shout the chord changes over his shoulder even as he was attempting to sing the verses. That’s what I mean about a gentleman: most older players would have relished the pleasure of ‘cutting’ a young whippersnapper (as I undoubtedly was). But not Pete. Pete wasn’t into petty rivalries or pecking orders. He was all about playing good music and if he found himself saddled with someone who couldn’t quite hack it, he’d hold their hand for as long as it took for them to get into his groove.

A couple of years later, my band The Hipshakers were playing on the same bill as the Blue Rhythm Methodists – one of the many bands Pete fronted over the years – at the Dublin Castle in Camden Town. Pete’s band were on first while we sat drinking Guinness in the corner. The conversation came to a standstill as Pete flung himself and the band into James Brown’s “I Feel Good” – not the easiest song in the world to cover. Pete was always a better guitar player than singer but the way he attacked that vocal! After their set, as we were setting up, I went over and told him how brave I thought he was to even attempt such a thing. 
   “Well you’ve got to have a go, haven’t you?” Pete smiled. And in this unpretentious, modest way he gave me a dictum, a modus operandi, for my own attempts to play black American music: You’ve got to have a go, haven’t you?

Years passed, and I would see Pete playing solo here and there, or with his bands, or with Errol Linton’s band. I would meet musicians who had worked with him, or who were working with him. Always his name would bring a smile and it is worth pointing out that in a scene not without its share of gossip and backbiting I never heard anyone say a bad word about Pete Smith. Nor did I ever hear him say a bad word about anyone else. Sometimes, with his eyes tight shut and his mouth wide open during a particularly heartfelt solo, he might take a few liberties with ‘the one’, but nobody ever doubted his sincerity or integrity as a musician or as a good guy who’d buy you a pint if you were broke and tell you very funny jokes while you were drinking it. 

A bluesman to the core, Pete never attempted to be anything but what he was. That is to say, he played his own blues, even when playing someone else’s tune. Pete’s blues were about humour and English understatement: sardonic without ever falling into the trap of cynicism. He loved country blues, but he also loved funk and New Orleans r’n’b and he would attempt to inject what he had learned about all this rich black music into his own playing. A tall order for a tall white Englishman, but Pete never lost sight of his self-effacing humour and this saw him through all his wild experiments at marrying up the music’s he loved on a lone acoustic guitar.  

In later years, I played with Pete many times backing up Errol Linton and in time I came to replace him as a regular in Errol’s band. Some would have regarded this as usurping and I remember the first gig we did where the roles were reversed and I was onstage and Pete was in the audience. What could have been an embarrassing situation was immediately defused by Pete’s broad grin and pronouncement: “You’re not as good as me, but you’re not bad.” I could have hugged him. More memories come back: the tapes he made me (always full of great stuff I’d not heard before), the home-made Christmas cards that always made me laugh, the endless driving he would do in a band full of non-drivers – but I can’t believe I’m writing an obituary for Pete Smith. I can’t believe he’s dead. Thank God for all those tapes where Pete’s contribution to the strange and beautiful little church that is British Blues will live on. When I heard the news of his death I played “Farewell Leicester Square” – a title with some resonance for Pete, as he was a professional busker in Leicester Square for many years. I was struck again at how truthful and genuine the music was, how human and personal, funny and bittersweet – all the qualities I associate with the blues. I listened and heard all the elements of Pete’s eccentric musical foibles: his quixotic attempts to play a Thelonious Monk tune as country blues, or a Professor Longhair tune as a slide solo in the middle of a cockney folk song – his imagination dancing as his fingers struggled to keep up with his flow of ideas.

The last time I saw him play was at a festival where Errol and the Blues Vibe were booked to play on the main stage. Pete was doing a solo set on the acoustic stage. Errol, Richard Rhoden and I went along to watch. Pete unfolded his tunes, told his stories like the masterful raconteur that he was, revealing once again his love and devotion to the memory of Max Miller and then, at the end of the set, launching into a fast one-chord boogie shuffle at a tempo so punishing that Errol, Richard and I glanced at each other with trepidation: “he’ll never be able to keep that up”, was the unspoken comment between us. Well Pete kept it up, and sang himself hoarse, and left the stage to tumultuous applause. And we applauded and whistled and shouted right along with them because Pete’s rhythm was safe, safe as houses. 

Pete, wherever you are, we spilt a taste for you, we played some blues for you and we’re gonna miss you bad, brother. Still, you’ve gotta have a go, haven’t you?  

Photograph by Ringo Starr


Every day I used to walk to and from school down a little side street named Boston Place which runs alongside the back wall of Marylebone Station.  In 1968, The Beatles had leased a building in this street and housed Apple Electronics in it – presided over by the notorious Magic Alex. But by the 70s, he had long gone and the building seemed to be completely deserted. Every day I would look at the Apple logo on the bellpush and wonder if I would ever see a Beatle coming in or out. It seemed like a pretty remote possibility but I was very excited once when I saw a note in the window that said: “Have gom to the Apple” signed J. Of course, I was convinced that J stood for John – even though he was in New York. But the most exciting thing that ever happened was one day in Autumn 1973 when I walked past on my way home from school and saw that the door was open and that there were a couple of guys removing a whole bunch of tapes and putting them into a van. I couldn’t resist it, I walked in and asked if they needed any help. They were very friendly and said sure, go right ahead. So I started lifting these big boxes of multitrack master tapes and putting them in to their van. I noticed that these tapes were labelled with things like  “George jam” and I felt sure that they must be the original tapes for the jam session that made up record 3 of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album. I could barely contain myself. After we had finished loading up the tapes, the two guys thanked me for my help and one of them asked me for my name and address and said he would send me the latest Apple release. You can bet I gave it to him. And sure enough, within the next few days, a 45 shaped package came through the post and this is what was in it: “Photograph” by Ringo Starr. A dreadful record in many ways but to me it will always be wonderful – because it was my wages for working for Apple records for ten minutes or so one afternoon in October 1973. 

Patti Smith: Live in London July 3rd 2004

London, Brixton Academy, July 3rd 2004

She looked good. Thin, as ever. Hair just as wild and not noticeably grayer than last time, a little shorter perhaps. She opened with the title track to her new album, “Trampin’, which with anyone else would be a cliché but with Patti Smith  means a short and slightly eccentric little ditty for voice and piano. This dispatched, she bounds into the business proper with the full electric guitar onslaught of “Stride Of The Mind” – also from the new album – which the visual backdrop reveals to be a song about Simon Of The Desert, the biblical character who was the subject of a short film by Bunuel. Patti always wears her cultural references on her sleeve; she revels in them, and invites her audience to do likewise. This is no small part of her appeal and her uniqueness. Her voice is a tad road-weary but she’s in a good mood tonight, grinning broadly, eyes shining, and she seems genuinely tongue-tied with pleasure at the love that emanates from her audience - which is split roughly equally between male and female, old and young. That’s a shame in a way, because a lot of us love to hear Patti talk and tell a few yarns. Never mind. “People Have The Power” yells out a solitary drunken bozo at one point, and at this Patti stops everything and responds: “I remember that,” she says, “I remember that. I remember a million people in London marching in the cold. I hope you do that over and over and over and over...” her voice trailed from the microphone. Then deadpan: “maybe you could have a barbeque…” 

This changed the mood and Patti worked herself into a frenzy on a long rendition of “Gandhi”, another tribute to a hero off the new album. It was a surprise in that the last couple of times she has played London, she has been relatively calm, and now she was getting quite dangerous as she flailed around, breaking strings and knocking things over. Earlier, she had recalled glory days with a version of  “Break It Up” from her very first album “Horses” – which she dedicated to Jim Morrison - it being, as she pointed out, the anniversary of his death. As she pounded her own breast for the weird vocal effect in the last verse, I thought how magnificently brave she was, and still is. She is a complete original who has maintained a reasonably successful career in the music business for nearly 30 years and who has never sold out: she has always remained true to her particular vision of poetry and rock’n’roll. That in itself is remarkable enough, but on the basis of her performance this evening, it would seem that, at 58 years old, she still has sufficient energy and passion to create work that can stand comparison with her best early songs.

Still, it’s the oldies that get the crowd and no mistake. Whilst the new material is listened to and received respectfully enough, “Free Money” is wildly acclaimed as the anthem it always has been and the final encore of “Gloria” is a terrific blast of purest rock’n’roll faith and devotion. The notorious blasphemy of the opening manifesto is delivered clearly and defiantly. I’d heard that Patti had had problems with it in the past. Maybe she has lost her faith in light of the extraordinary damning denunciation of the Iraq war that is “Radio Baghdad”.  I can think of no other comparably successful artist in the rock field who has made such a powerful statement of condemnation. Against a startling backdrop of images from the Ancient Middle East, Patti and her musicians (Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray on guitars, Tony Shanahan on bass and piano, J.D. Daugherty on drums) work up a Shamanistic improvisation with Patti alternating between half-sung, half-spoken poetry and very odd but strangely effective clarinet playing. Finally she arrives at the phrase: “Robbing the cradle of civilization” and she repeats it over and over. It’s very effective: it’s good poetry and it’s powerful music. It’s been a very long time since anyone tried to incorporate John Coltrane into a rock’n’roll setting – in fact, I think the last person who tried was Patti Smith. When it works, it’s superb and when it doesn’t, it’s just a noise. But it’s a brave noise, a tough noise, a noise that means what it says. Talking about the music, it’s a delight that Patti is using piano again, if only sparingly. Maybe next time she’ll revive “Birdland”. Let’s hope next time isn’t too long because Patti Smith really is a performer to treasure, and she is very much loved and appreciated in London

Adam Blake. London

From Dusty In Memphis: No Easy Way Down

Put on "No Easy Way Down" just a bit louder than you really ought to: listen to the way the piano establishes tempo, listen to the tone of that Hammond, the perfection of the drummer's groove, the way the strings and brass blend, that little guitar figure suspending the 6th and 9th in that hammer on/pull off that sounds so easy and is actually so hard, the choices the bass player makes, then that outrageous key change down to E major in the bridge, like a wave hitting you in the face, and then back to G major for those gospel changes taking in the chord of the flat 7th and that magnificent dominant 11th chord taking you back to the last verse. Listen to the words: the best lyrics about the 60s anybody ever wrote. Listen to Dusty's vocal. Imagine you were the producer listening to the final playback in the control room... Now listen to it again. Nobody's ever done it better.

Hubert Sumlin: Incurable Blues

INCURABLE BLUES: The Troubles and Triumph of Blues Legend HUBERT SUMLIN by Will Romano (Backbeat Books - $17.95)
For those who don’t know, Hubert Sumlin played guitar and right-hand-man to the legendary bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, and played on nearly all of Wolf’s classic recordings as well as being a stalwart of his live band from the mid-50s right up to Wolf’s death in 1976, since which he has recorded and performed sporadically under his own name and with hosts of ad-hoc blues bands in Austin, Chicago etc. 

But if you’re reading this then you probably know who Hubert Sumlin is, and if you’re tempted to buy a book about him then the chances are pretty good that you are a guitar player. Will Romano, author of this volume, writes regularly for magazines such as Guitar Player, Bass Player and Modern Drummer, so it’s particularly perplexing that, time and time again throughout this otherwise laudably thorough study, he shrinks from grasping the nettle and actually detailing what it is that Sumlin is doing on classic solos such as “300 Pounds Of Joy” or “Louise” or so many others. It really isn’t enough to just pile on the purple prose when describing playing which obviously Romano feels very emotionally involved with. As a guitarist myself, I was hoping for a slightly more musicological approach that would tell me in specific detail what was going on records I’ve known and loved for many years. This doesn’t have to get prohibitively technical or academic, it just needs to be a bit more specific. The trouble with piles of superlatives and poetic adjectives when used to describe music is that after awhile they all become meaningless and you forget what it is that you’re actually reading about. This is a common problem with blues books written by enthusiasts who are basically trying to proselytize. Romano obviously feels that Sumlin has been somewhat unfairly overlooked and this book definitely has the flavour of a labour of love about it. Romano loves Sumlin deeply, the man and his music, and the book is at its best when he is describing small anecdotes – either from personal recollection or from his many interviewees – which offer a touching and genuinely engaging portrait of an obviously complex and unique individual.

The biography aspect is all present and correct: as a reference book this is a valuable footnote to any reasonably thorough history of the blues – and certainly a pleasure for any Howlin’ Wolf fan. The stories of Wolf’s relationship with Sumlin are the stuff of blues legend and they are well told here. The problem is that Sumlin, however talented, is essentially a sideman who has been thrust most unwillingly into the spotlight since Wolf’s death.  He has been poorly served by a blues community who, with the best will in the world, seem to be incapable of getting the best out of him and onto a record that is sympathetically produced and properly distributed. It may be that his notoriously mercurial approach to his art just doesn’t translate into a modern context. More likely, however, is the inescapable conclusion that Hubert Sumlin has never succeeded in emerging from behind the enormous shadow of the mighty Wolf. There is one particularly moving account of a recent festival appearance where Sumlin froze in mid-performance and had to leave the stage. “I got too emotional. I was overcome”, he tells Romano after the gig. “I saw Wolf’s face up there, man. I saw him. He was looking at me and I just couldn’t go on. I couldn’t do it.” This single anecdote, coming as it does right at the beginning of the book, provides the underlying motif for the whole story. To be fair to Sumlin, Wolf was such an enormous presence, so overwhelming a performer and artist, that no-one could have done better under the circumstances. Since Wolf’s death, Sumlin’s career has been one long diminuendo – even as hordes of guitar players, old and young, black and white, have struggled to figure out just what it was that made his contributions so undeniably riveting and unique. 

On a more prosaic level, I would have enjoyed a compare and contrast of Sumlin’s style with some of his contemporaries: Albert King, for example, or Freddie King, or Albert Collins. But I don’t want to gripe too much at such a worthy and worthwhile project as this. If you’re a blues buff, buy it by all means – the stories are worth the price of admission, and the discography is very useful – but don’t expect to discover any of Hubert’s secrets. He’ll be taking them with him when he goes.