Recorded at St Lawrence Church, Caterham
Take an experienced and popular British blues guitarist who can play and gurn with the best of them and has aided Robert Plant and Ben E King amongst many others; add in a harmonica and slide player of similar stature who played with, to name but two, the Yardbirds and Nine Below Zero, put them in a venue of remarkable acoustics and hit the record button. The players are the skilful Robin Bibi and Alan Glen, the venue was the beautiful Church in Caterham, dedicated to Saint Lawrence who is the patron saint of the poor and of cooks…although I don’t think that is relevant here. The church, by the way, was built in 1089 and Lawrence was one of seven deacons of the Roman Church serving Pope Sixtus II, all of who were martyred i.e. executed by Emperor Valerian.
After numerous releases with their own bands, the two bluesmen got together at this wonderful venue and recorded a set of eleven songs without any fancy studio trappings or trickery; just acoustic guitar and voice from Robin and harp from Alan who, on this occasion, left his bottleneck at home.
Hey Mama opens the show with gentle, precise picking and subtle harp and they give the space for Robin’s strong and suitable blues voice to shine before we get a harp solo that is absolutely perfect for this style of true blues. Then my guitar geek is in raptures as we are served up a (too short) slide solo of such invention and variations that I rushed to my guitar and totally failed to get anywhere near it! A smattering of applause and, without introductions, we are straight into Fast Life Songs. This has a chord and picked sequence intro that is so clever and the lyrics grab you straightaway as he sings of sitting on his grandma’s bed drinking cider…the story develops brilliantly, but you’ll have to listen to get the full details as this troubadour of the blues weaves some lovely guitar around it all. The harp stays muted behind all of this even for the solo when it sounds like a mic too far away as it is so quiet but that doesn’t actually detract from this fine example of modern acoustic blues. Next up is Play, a six-minute slice of blues that will send shivers down the spinal cord as the strumming and harp puts the shade behind the vocals and the guitar (especially the slide) and harp runs complement each other throughout. The outro is worth the wait as Robin combines some superb picking with chord work and a final slide piece. Things I Used To Do, written by Guitar Slim and covered by Buddy Guy and SRV (in my collection at least), is superb slide and picking and shows how adept Robin is on the acoustic in all of its forms…even being able to hear the bottleneck on the wound strings only makes it better. He takes a classic and makes it one of the best interpretations out there as Alan again uses psychic powers to insert phrases on the harp that fit so well. The solos from both are imaginative and simply superb. No More A Secret has a complex and rocking intro as Robin makes the acoustic show how to do blues-rock without amps or attitudes. This could easily, in electric form, have come from the proper ‘Snake line-up and it does remind me of Bernie Marsden in its style and deftness of touch as well as the construction. An audience participation section is fun if a tad unnecessary, to the listeners that weren’t there. Down To The Harbour has wickedly clever guitar and is the only time technology shows its head, as Robin uses echo in the intro to great effect on this lovely, lovely country-ish blues song. The harp supports with Alan’s trademark ability to read everything and fit in perfectly. It does fade rather than end which makes me wonder if it was a segue into the next track, Fast Lanes Busy. If so, I would have preferred to have let it run as it was on the night as a live fade seems a little strange to me. Whatever, it doesn’t spoil the album and Fast lanes Busy fades in with another marvellous piece of picking and develops into a Neil Young sounding chord backing but as Robin plays and sings better than him, this is easily forgiven! The short harp and guitar solos also make any comparisons fade completely and even the Frankie Goes to Hollywood references don’t spoil it, although it does fade again. You may recognise Stone Fox Chase if you’re of an age to remember the only show on TV that catered for rock music…The Old Grey Whistle Test for it is this Charles McCoy number by his band Area Code 615 that provided the title music that played over the animated man of stars (known as the ‘Star Kicker’) titles. Apart from the wonderful nostalgia this engenders (pictures come to mind of a tattoo free Rob Halford looking angelic with blond hair and floaty sleeves to Alice Cooper’s first UK TV appearance and so many more) the harp playing by Alan is majestic and the whole interpretation is fabulous with the slide guitar stunning especially during the duet toward the end and all together it makes, for me, this better than the original. Down In The Valley is a traditional song that can be traced back to 1867 and first appears as a song called The Good Old Way, although my knowledge of it is from Leadbelly’s version. This duo makes it into a perfect, modern evocation of the song whilst recognising its origins. The guitar solo, with its complex picking/slide combination just left me jealous with its complexity and precision….but it fades again. The title of the next track awakens The Grinch in me but as Christmas Day (the song!) unfolds, I can forget being bah-humbug as it is actually about that day during the First World War, and just listening to the instrumentation in all its finery is sufficient payback. Junior Parker’s Mystery Train has also had quite a few versions although I prefer the slightly modified cover by The Band. It closes this set with another superb intro of picking brilliance and the first two minutes should be required study for all budding guitarists…it’s too late for me! It develops into a great version of a train song that gives Alan chance to do his best steam impersonations. This is as good an interpretation as any and will get your feet tapping. The harp solo is so clever as it plays around the melody and makes you feel all aboard. Likewise, the guitar solo keeps the pace up and you just have to marvel at the skills on display as robin travels the fretboard err, like a train.
In summary then, what you get here is over an hour of superb acoustic blues…some may find that a little much in one sitting but not me; repeated listens means I more fully appreciate the skill and emotions wrought from six strings all the while remembering that this was recorded live and he was singing at the same time. A thoroughly enjoyable album that will always be welcome and I’m sure fellow acoustic connoisseurs and blues lovers will agree.
Worthy of note is the comment on the CD cover… for each CD we sell we will contribute £1 to the Church.
(As the iPod went onto the next track unbidden, I was treated to Bridge of Sighs by Robin Trower who, with a touch of serendipity, is very like Mr. Bibi when he is in full electric flow)
EIGHTdoodle paws out of TEN …
- Hey Mama – Brian Homes
- Fast Life Songs – Robin Bibi
- Play – Bibi
- Things I Used To Do – Guitar Slim
- No More A Secret – Bibi
- Down To The Harbour – Bibi
- Fast Lanes Busy – Bibi
- Stone Fox Chase – Charles McCoy
- Down In The Valley – Traditional
- Christmas Day – Bibi
- Mystery Train – Junior Parker
Robin Bibi – Guitar / Vocals
Alen Gen – Harmonica
RecordedSt Lawrence Church, Caterham
Engineering & MasterBlake Powell