all photographs copyright Liz Aiken
Blues Matter reviewed the festival that last year took place on a snowy Saturday afternoon in early February 2012, the festival got under-way with one of the hottest and original acts on the circuit Babajack. The innovative percussion from Becky Tate who uses a combination of an African Hand Drum, Djembe and the Cajon (Spanish for box) on which Becky sits with aplomb combines with her great voice with its vibrancy that Trevor Steger on Guitar (including Wine Box Guitars made by Trevor) and Marc Miletitch (Double Bass) build on to create the BabaJack sound. The set is a mix of self penned numbers including strong tracks from their much-anticipated third album “Rooster”; and their own arrangements of traditional blues from Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie Johnson et.al. BabaJack manage to conjure the deep south, traditional music. The use of the African drum also brings deep African rhythms evocative of heat, and raw emotions of slavery taking the blues back to its roots…… This band has a rootsy style that is drenched in the essence of the blues what a fantastic sound they create. The afternoon was crammed with acts, and next up was a young man from Shrewsbury, Blues Boy Dan with his Acoustic guitar blues harp and a stomp-box made from a shortbread tin covered in fabric! He delivered an accomplished set of well-known classics and his voice shone through with a fantastic range accompanied with skilful acoustic guitar playing. This young man is a blues-man in the making and will be heard on the festival circuit very shortly as talent shines through as he includes his own take on these classics. Then a contrast again, Andre and Dermont from Rhythm Zoo who organised the festival, have definitely thought about the sound and tempo as they mixed up the acts, repetition was not going to happen today. Northsyde stormed the stage next full of energy and life as the musicians support Lorna up front the second female lead vocalist if the day. Once again the set was a clever mix of Northsyde favourites such as Allman Brothers, ‘Whipping Post’, ‘Mercy’ and new tracks from their much-anticipated album including ‘Rocking Chair’……. Last act of the afternoon section was Dave Arcari bring to the stage his punk acoustic blues, bold sound from his National Resonators including his electric resonator. His slide playing is magic and as he leaps around the stage his energetic performance leaves the audience gasping for breath. This Scottish wizard of the blues is a bit like Marmite you either love or hate him and today he made some new fans and the crowd loved the tracks including ‘Devil’s Left Hand’, title track of his latest album and ‘Got Me Electric’. With a short break everyone gathered their thoughts and sat down for a well-earned rest and a catch up with the musicians who were all in the foyer all to happy to talk to fans both new and old. Rhythm Zoo opened the evening session producing a strong set with the third female lead vocalist Andrea Jones, who added loads of energy despite the stress of being integral in the organising of this exciting new festival. Andrea’s powerful vocals were supported by four strong musicians, a solid rhythm section comprising Dermot (Drums) and Dave (Bass); Carl (Guitar) and John on Flute and Saxophone making this band just a little bit different. They certainly lived up too their slogan ‘keep it blue, keep it zoo’; this was blues with confidence and animal magnetism. Andrea was witty and warm introducing the numbers with relevant anecdotes great set full of original material and a beautiful cover of Robert Cray’s ‘Playing In The Dirt’. For their encore they invited Blues Boy Dan to join them on the stage, now brandishing an electric guitar for a mini jam – ‘Shake You Money Maker’ demonstrating that his talents stretch beyond the acoustic fitting the band as neatly as a glove.
all photographs copyright Liz Aiken
Jon Amor strode onto the stage with Jon Amor Blues Group this set upped the tempo for the evening with a selection of numbers off their excellent album. The polished performance showed that all of Jon’s catalogue now belongs to The Jon Amor Blues Group, the band members Doherty brothers Chris (Bass) and Dave (Rhythm Guitar) and Si Small (Drums) complimenting each other creating a bluesy sound. ‘Juggernaut’ and ‘Repeat Offender’ from their début album had the festival rocking on their collective feet. Once again a great set at a fast pace with Jon letting the music do the talking and keeping the talking between songs to the minimum. Now with a festival hum around the theatre Big Pete from Netherlands introduced his band, he is a blues harpist with extraordinary talent and a lightness of touch. The set included self-penned numbers, traditional blues all performed with style, probably the most traditional act so far, a pleasant contrast to the more modern blues sounds that had preceded Big Pete. He was anything but staid as he varied the pace of each number from long-drawn out slow blues through to high-octane 12 bar-blues that got the dancers dancing and we heard the first drum solo of the day. This was a classy performance from a great band and superlative harpist delivering quality harp-inspired blues with very colourful style of harp playing from Big Pete, embellished by his smooth vocals.
All too soon the last act of the day Big Joe Louis and his Blues Kings, including Little George Sueref (Harp) took to the stage. What a sound Big Joe Louis produces, something very special that sets him out from the rest. There is an innate authenticity about his act. He delivered all the favourites you would expect from this accomplished showman including ‘Catfish Blues’ delivered in Big Joe Louis own indomitable style making the song truly his own. The audiences were delighted dancing with the great rhythm being offered whether Big Joe Louis renditions of old favourites or his own penned offerings. This band was the icing on the amazing cake of sound that went into making Theatre of Blues such a success. The sound and lighting were fantastic and the brilliant MC Lionel Ross who did a sterling job as last-minute MC introducing and thanking the bands. Above all great to see people out supporting and keeping blues music live, that is what it is all about. I am positive 2013 Theatre of Blues will be bigger and better if that is possible but on the evidence of this year as the standard has been set very high indeed anyway. Liz Aiken