Mike Vernon & The Mighty Combo – Beyond The Blue Horizon

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Mike Vernon, the man behind the Blue Horizon record label and record producer for those British boys who took the blues all the way back to the US of A. Names like Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack and The Climax Blues Band felt the twitching of his knobs, and most famously he was there at the birth of its messiah’s full length studio recording in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. He also captured David Bowie on tape, further mainlining the masses in the 80s working with the likes of Level 42 and Roachford.

That he was a singer himself caused some scratching of the head, but he brought out his first solo album Moment of Madness back in 1973 and has sung with assorted bands since – Apparently, allegedly or whatever we take as fact on press releases and to go no further in our own journalistic research than a quick Google internet search. This year he signed to Manhaton Records and brought out Beyond The Blue Horizon. The name suggests we can expect burly 12 bar guitar mangling, or possibly more.

But even the real blues (from over there) wasn’t all about all bad black men making deals at the crossroads to get through their crop-sharing despair. Like everyone, everywhere, there’s that need to party, jump and shout, have a good time and feel that maybe there are a few moments in the world when it’s actually alright. Those smoother sounds also got them gigs in the white man’s palaces and sure they still had to use the tradesmen’s interest, but times what they were they’d trade the insults for an honest dollar. Over here, our granddads didn’t know if it was little green men from Mars playing those songs, radio being colour blind. Brits liked the sound, called it folk before marketing men could rephrase it as world music. It was rhythm and blues, a little like the jazz they’d been playing so guys like Cyril Barber and Alexis Korner started adapting their sets, leading to Blues Incorporated and all that came thereafter.

Mike Vernon, was borne of those earlier times and listening to the twelve tracks on this record it would appear he has a hankering to go back to them. With three covers, the rest self-penned they are to be frank tempered treatise on such avowed influences as Fats Domino and Louis Jordan – Though there’s a distinct tongue-in-cheek lyrical wordplay that ticks that Little Richard box.

The cover gives concern or forewarns you not to expect anything heavy (in the old sixties vernacular). While Vernon’s a decent enough looking silver fox his finger clicking pose and the overall design isn’t camp it’s naff. From the off, musically you presume it easy listening, and let us be frank here – if of my age group – you may be perceiving a Two Ronnies or Benny Hill Orchestra style pastiche. It’s not too far off the mark, but there’s no denying the music is played well, with precision and some inspired performances along the way, with The Mighty Combo featuring guitarist Kid Carlos, Ian Jennings on upright bass, Matt Little on keyboards, Paul Tasker winging away on sax, and Mike Hellier on drums and the band having just completed a UK tour suggesting there’s mileage in this.

The good time ‘We’re Gonna Rock The Joint’ opens proceeding as their mission statement. Strictly ballroom blues, the horns do make it swing while our initial impressions of Mike Vernon’s voice is that it is articulate and makes all the right noises rather than being an instrument of beauty itself, however it’s that clear diction that’s going to stop you pressing the eject button and actually smile at some of the crazy shit he’s going on about.

Is ‘Kiddio’ tongue in cheek, too twee to be true, or simply the kind of patter we’ve sadly mislaid in too recent a decade? Possibly a bit of all three. Between the bluesy intro and classy solo from Kid Carlos there’s an Elvis like bop and bounce and some fun lyrics, intended or otherwise. The guitarist similarly applies some deft Duane Eddy touches and adopts an appealingly clanking sound over his solo on the boogie woogie piano country textured cover ‘I Can Fix It’. Carlos also wraps his guitar lyrically round Tasker’s sax solo on ‘(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do’ and while I admit the song is genuinely a bluesy take on the number, Vernon comes across as far too Frankie Vaughn and not enough Tom Jones here for me.

Far better are numbers like the upbeat 12 bar blues of ‘Jump Up’ where he sings lines like: “I got something in my pocket I want you to see.” Now I’m not sure if he’s going on about a dog or a woman but it’s rather amusing to me either way.  Ambiguity comes out to play with ‘Your Mind Is On Vacation’ too – Your first impression may be that it’s a misogynist slow blues whose time has passed, but neither the identity or sex of the individual is revealed and I’d like to believe Vernon’s been around the block long enough and knows exactly when and why he’s delivering these lines.

‘A Love Affair With The Blues’ is a tipsy slow waltzer of a tune, while the most convincing blues number as we’ve come to accept it in its modern form is the urban US nightclub feel of  ‘Old Man Dreams’ and ‘Hate To Leave (Hate To Say Goodbye)’ as a vibrant farewell to proceedings.

Best of the bunch for a feel good vibe is ‘Be On That Train’ a rocking jump blues that will get your foot tapping and your fingers clicking.  It’s distinctly from the Glenn Miller school of groove rather than Bo Diddley, despite Carlos laying in an enticing deep sliding roll at the start of a fine repeated guitar riff.

A dichotomy if not a perversion of what might be considered as music of good taste? There’s no doubt the intended audience for this is the older music fan but open (and dirty) minds might actually raise a smile listening to it over this coming festive season.

Review by Paul H Birch

Track list:

  1. We’re Gonna Rock The Joint
  2. Kiddio
  3. Heart & Soul
  4. I Can Fix It
  5. (I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do
  6. Be On That Train
  7. Your Mind Is On Vacation
  8. Old Man Dreams
  9. Jump Up
  10. Red Letter Day
  11. A Love Affair With The Blues
  12. Hate To Leave (Hate To Say Goodbye).