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From St Helens to the Mississippi Delta....

November 18, 2018

 

Billinge, in the Metropolitan Borough of St Helens (Merseyside) doesn't rank highly in the history of American blues, but for John Fairhurst it was the birthplace and the cradle of his blues experience. Here John was exposed to the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sleepy John Estes, Muddy Waters et al. At his recent Newcastle gig, more of which later, John told me that experimental / blues rocker Captain Beefheart was a big influence and that Beefheart's 'Trout Mask Replica' had been "his set of nursery rhymes" when he was a child, courtesy of his Dad.

 

Keighley, West Yorkshire was the place where I first encountered the blues. It was there in the early seventies, during my school days, where I first began to hear the exotic names of  Leadbelly, John Lee Hooker, Lightenin' Hopkins, Skip James, Son House, Jimmy Reed and Robert Johnson. These names were gleaned from the back covers of albums by Cream, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and Bob Dylan. At the same time the pages of my weekly 'bible', the New Musical Express (NME), were filled with features about the very same people. I was Intrigued from the start and felt drawn to these hugely attractive but mysterious musical Titans. In those pre-Internet days the only way to actually get hold of any recordings of these legendary artists was to either travel the 20 odd miles to Leeds or Bradford or order them from my local record shop and wait two weeks for a delivery. Perhaps it was a feeling of some sort of exclusivity that drew me in to their now obvious charms. Today, everyone knows about the influence that these artists had on The Stones, Eric Clapton and Cream, The Beatles, The Who etc. Back then though, it was a different story and those Guardian's of the blues languished in relative obscurity. So it was that that I came to become acquainted with the music that came out of the Southern American states and the harder edged blues of Chicago and Memphis. 

 

How did it come to be that a soundtrack of poverty, hardship, unemployment, drinking and death should hold such a grip on the hearts and minds of a bunch of schoolboys in Merseyside and Yorkshire? Does it seem too obvious to say that that music did in some degree (apart from the drinking!) actually reflect the lives of those school boys? Well, perhaps that is something of a stretch but there was some of that mixed in but the more likely reality is probably more that when I started to listen to that type of music I heard honesty, passion, commitment, magic and spirit. All qualities that I still look for when I listen to any music today but, for me, the real magic of the blues was that although the form is limited what artists can do within its parameters is almost wonderfully limitless. That limitlessness is really apparent to me still and I think that is what continues to keep the blues alive and vital and that flexibility enables a huge diversity of artists to live within the blues so that the great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure can be bracketed alongside John Lee Hooker and then there's a lineage that connects them to artists that that have emerged over the years since. 

 

The start point for me though was the great Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson who was travelling around Mississippi in the early 1930's playing anywhere that would have him. In his brief tragic life he only recorded 42 songs but in that time he sent an electric shock through the blues and laid the foundations, with his high plaintive vocals and crude slide guitar, for the many that followed from the classic artists like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and B.B. King through to Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, Gary Clarke Jr, Joe Bonamassa and right up Joanne Shaw Taylor today. These artists represent, at least for me, a trip through everything great about wonderful inventive music from fantastically inventive musicians. 

 

 

Robert Johnson's playing was rough and ready with a high wailing tone that revealed depths of suffering and despair that his music was grounded in. It revels in poverty and hardship and represents the archetype of the bluesmen against the world. Johnson penned a number of songs that became classics and, even if you haven't heard his name, you will know his songs. Songs like 'Sweet Home Chicago' from the Blues Brothers film, 'Cross Roads Blues' from Cream's barnstorming live album, the Rolling Stones cover of the poignant 'Love in Vain' and ''Walkin' Blues', covered by many.  Johnson even invented a bit of blues folk-lore when he was reputed to have sold his soul to the devil at a midnight rendezvous at a dark cross roads in return for his astonishing talents. Muddy Waters claimed to have seen Johnson playing on the streets in the 30's and he took Johnson's structures, melted them down and forged the electric blues alongside Buddy Guy in the 40's and 50's. Their music though was termed 'Chicago Blues' and was always made alongside other musicians like The Muddy Waters Blues Band who set the template for all the rock bands that followed in the sixties - vocals, guitars, electric bass, piano and drums often with the blues wailing harp of Little Walter. Muddy's songs borrowed from Johnson's delta blues in terms of structure but his music was made for Friday nights after the car factories closed. It was wild, exciting and loud with a stinging slide guitar and thumping bass. You were in no doubt about what Muddy was singing about when He growled "I'm a Man, I'm a rolling stone..." Giving that famous band not only a name but an attitude too.

 

Buddy Guy's blues on the other hand were sharper, more sophisticated and nimble with added excitement due to his talent as a fiery dynamic lead guitar player. He was much loved by Eric Clapton and is still recording today in his 80's. Dip into any of his albums and you will hear blues at its best and you can hear that dynamism and showmanship on his 1991 comeback album titled 'Damn Right I've Got The Blues'. He made that album with a host of superstar guests but in reality their presence barely mattered because Buddy has ability, talent and skill bleeding out of his finger tips. You can see that raw talent again when he guests with the Stones on their classic live 'Shine a Light' DVD. Buddy burns Ronnie Wood and Keef pretty badly when they tackle Muddy a Waters debauched song 'Champagne and Reefer'; Buddy is a true master. 

 

 

Now much has been said and written about Eric Clapton and he may well have said and done some questionable things in his life but when Eric focuses on the Blues he is undoubtedly one of the greats - absolutely no doubt about it. He started early and shines on the legendary Yardbirds album 'Five Live Yardbirds' released in late in 1964. Eric doesn't waste any time on niceties and is firing on all cylinders on the opening 'Too Much Monkey Business' with a fast and fiery solo. On the same album 'Smokestack Lightening' builds up into a huge slab of psycho blues rock. Jimmy Page took all that on board and imported it wholesale to Led Zeppelin five years later. Clapton quit the Yardbirds just as they hit the big time claiming they were "too commercial"and joined forces with John Mayall, the so-called 'father of British blues' on their seminal 'Bluesbreakers' album. Clapton writes another chapter of blues history with his fiery playing on 'Have You Heard' and electrifies B.B. King's storming instrumental 'Hideaway'. If Clapton hadn't recorded another note after that album he would still be talked about in revered tones today. Instead he went on to form Cream who altered the way that bands played for a couple of decades (it's not their fault if some of em were lousy though!) and then with Derek and the Dominoes he recorded 'Layla' one of the greatest albums about unrequited love ever recorded and steeled in raw and emotional blues with Clapton's playing at its finest.

 

 

Clapton, of course, took his cues from those earlier bluesmen and his star-power and the kudos of the Stones re-ignited the careers of the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and heightened the cross-fertilisation that has always fed and watered the blues. Rory Gallagher was another pupil who matured to be a teacher too and began his career with the power trio Taste who stomped all over the blues with the likes of 'Blister on the Moon' and 'Born on The Wrong Side of Time'. He then he broke free of that group incumbent with the launch of his solo career in 1970 with a ground breaking bluesy self titled solo album (strangely titled 'Rory Gallagher') that contained material heavily influenced by Albert King. Rory was a phenomenal player drawing influences from ragtime, blues, folk and country. It was as an electric blues guitarist and his use of the glass bottleneck where he really excelled. These talents are best heard on live cuts like 'Too Much Alcohol' and 'Going to My Home Town' and on his posthumous acoustic album 'Wheels Within Wheels'. For prime Rory though 'Irish Tour '74' is the truest source with songs by Muddy Waters and Tony Joe White as well as Rory's own. 'A Million Miles Away' on that album is where he really tears it up where his playing is smooth, melodic and precise but then he breaks away delivering perhaps the finest blues-rock that it's been my privilege to hear. When you hear playing like that then you understand why Jimi Hendrix, when asked what it felt like to be the "greatest guitarist in the world", shrugged and said "I don't know - why don't you ask Rory Gallagher".

 

 

People have been predicting the death of the blues since the sixties but new players always emerge and give the format a twist and stimulate a new burst of creativity. When Robert Cray walked out in the early 80's his fiery licks were enough to place him in the top rank when he played alongside the likes of Clapton and Mark Knopfler and shared recording studios with Albert King and Johnny Copeland. Cray's twist was a soulful edge provided by his silken voice and lyrics that were wedded to more appropriate language that dripped with humour and some loss rather that the grinding poverty and some misogyny with those earlier artists and his playing too had a more sensitive edge to it. Stevie Ray Vaughan, another white exponent, brought a little funk along to his jagged playing and his loss in 1987 was a huge one. More recently Gary Clarke Jr has walked onto the stage synthesising influences from Hendrix, Albert King and the British players and shaping them into a psychedelic blues that's given the blues a younger audience and a stage at festivals like the Hyde Park Calling shows. A quick listen to 'When My Train Comes In' talks you all you need to know about his ability, feel and talent. More recently Joe Bonamassa has been selling out stadiums and arenas with his mix of originals and alongside a big splash of British blues. Joe is easily the finest blues artist I've seen live in recent years although isn't the best singer in the world but when he plays as well as he does on 'Sloe Gin' it's impossible not to be impressed. Traditionally, guitar blues has almost exclusively been the territory of men but recently Joanne Shaw Taylor, a young British player, has been making waves and touring extensively. She's certainly influenced by the likes of Buddy Guy and Hendrix but finds room for solidly British players like Peter Green and Paul Kossoff. Her playing has that hard biting Chicago blues edge and her rasping vocals recall Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt. She's not afraid to take things in a different direction too on her last album she covered 'Wild is the Wind' turning it inside and making you forget all about the Thin White Duke's own cover. 

 

 

Reflecting then on this hierarchy of great blues musicians stretching back almost eighty years it seems to me that this chain will continue to have new links added - there's always room for new talent and I'm sure that newer artists will continue to do great things with a label that will always say 'blues' on it. The sources now won't be constrained by geography or gender and this was evident on 14th November at Cluny 2 in Newcastle. Right there in front of a meagre crowd on this dark Wednesday night John Fairhurst, stepped onto the stage playing 70 minutes of the wildest psychedelic electric blues it's been my pleasure to witness for too many years. Accompanied only by a ferocious Toby Williams on drums Fairhurst whipped a blues storm with a burning talent and a set of astonishing long form pieces that were chiselled out from the solid rock of ancient and modern blues architecture. There's touches of Hendrix, Sleepy John Estes, Muddy Waters and Rory Gallagher alongside more recent artists like Prince and Gary Clarke Jr. Despite his pure English ancestry there's no doubt that Fairhurst has something unique to add. With tunes like 'Breakdown' ("about the end of society as we known it") and 'Blood and Fire' ("an edifice we've been working on for sometime") he leaves the meagre audience enthralled and open mouthed. Fairhurst's blues are loud and powerful and his gravelly voice recalls Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. He employs a ferocious slide guitar and strums loudly with fingers and plectrum utilising a variety of styles and the songs contain familiar bluesy themes as he sings of being "so hungry I'm gonna die" ('Hungry Blues') and in the title track of his current album 'Saltwater' he tells us he's "an unrepentant sinner, I regret nothing I have done" before leaping on to the bass drum and playing his customised guitar ferociously behind his back Hendrix style. He finishes his storming set with a 15 minute tour-de-force titled 'Himalaya' that has some Africa desert blues influences and draws power from other 'world' sources. It's simply astonishing and he leaves the stage after it with enthusiastic applause and cheers from the crowd ringing in his ears. His playing is raw and loud and hits you right in the gut and if there continues to be musicians of his calibre around then 'The Blues' remains safe and viable and still has enough juice to run a few more decades yet because the blues is the very blood of life.

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