John Lee Hooker Jr + Albany Down @ The Robin 2, Bilston — Tuesday 18th June 2013

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Review by Will Harris and photos by Rob Stanley 

John Lee Hooker Jr has a history with the blues — and not just because his father’s legendary status within the musical genre. Fighting an apparently losing battle with addiction, he drove his life to the very brink during the 90s, and, peering hazily over the edge of the abyss, he decided to turn back and get clean. His latest album, last year’s All Hooked Up, refers to his continuing sorted-and-sober life, and he appears tonight at The Robin 2, as part of a world tour in support of the album — the perfect chance for him to prove the benefits of clean living.

The first ones tasked with getting the sparse audience moving, however, are rising blues-rock Londoners Albany Down, who despite some grooving pentatonic riffs and let’s-have-some-fun likeability find it a challenge to really get much back out of the audience. Not disheartened by it, the four-piece confidently plough through with some sensational guitar solos and impassioned vocal delivery. They’re enjoying it: by song seven, the Hendrix-esque ‘It’s Not Over Yet’, bassist Billy Dedman has transformed from a reserved, uneasy session player into a rocking, mop-flopping jam-man in power stance. Some of AD’s extended guitar-led explorations seem to follow the same formula, diminishing their efficacy, but by the close of ‘South of the City’ all valves are sufficiently warmed.

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By the time John Lee Hooker Jr dances on to join the rest of his already-vamping band onstage, the room is sweltering, and it’s about to get even hotter, as Hooker’s first action as frontman is to enthusiastically invite the distanced audience closer right up to the stage — we comply. At 61 he’s no spring chicken, but that doesn’t stop him from jiving continually and unabashedly from the very start, growling through the rhythm and blues of opener ‘Tell It Like It Is’. The following Chicago-heavy groove keeps things moving (not least Hooker himself), before giving way to the minor key blues of ‘Hard Times’, during which he gestures with the power of every painful word and delivers some real down-in-the-gutter blues.

9112273304_0d944a310c_nHooker doesn’t want to dwell in his hole though, and provides the perfect antidote with the funky ‘Tired Of Being A Housewife’, during which he showcases yet more unrestrained dad dancing. What really carries this show is the singer’s loveable, gleaming personality and boundless enthusiasm, which is enjoyably infectious: it’s no mean feat to get the majority of a predominantly middle-aged British audience dancing on a Tuesday night. That’s not to say he isn’t well-armed; his backing band is exceptional. Thibeaux (just Thibeaux, apparently) on bass has a powerful and lively handle of groove and rhythm, throwing in some jaw-dropping popping and slapping occasionally; Jeffrey James pulls off some stunningly expressive lead guitar during a cover of ‘Stormy Monday’; Gabe Anderson on keyboards seems to only get more and more virtuosic as the show goes on. There’s no doubt about drummer Mike Rogers from the very beginning, as it’s he, the size of a god, who opens the show with a hammering, funky beat.

9112271974_2e1c37fc6e_nThere’s a lot of personality in these figures too (like Thibeaux, who throws rhythmic kicks in the air and occasionally spins on the spot), letting everyone, audience and band, just lose themselves in the performance. One of the great things about Junior is that his music has always been its own thing; sure, he got the blues from Pop, but the deep funk and R’n’B inherent throughout is all his own. This doesn’t stop him from paying tribute to the Chicago legend though: he proffers both a cool, jazzy version of Hooker Sr’s ‘Dimples’ and a faster, funked-up rendition of ‘Boom Boom’, proving reinterpretation, not imitation, as the best form of flattery.

When the electric boogie of his last number comes to a thundering finale, the applause is ecstatic. Usually, at bigger gigs with a larger crowd, the cheers for an encore can feel half-hearted, or that only half the audience is asking for it. Here, everyone is demanding. Tommy Tucker’s classic ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’ pushed to the highest tempo all night proves the perfect showstopper. If this is Hooker ‘all hooked up’ and off the bad stuff, then I’ll have what he’s having — it’s clearly working for him.

 

See more of Rob’s photos here;

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