Theatre of Blues, Shrewsbury — 5th and 6th April 2013

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Review by Will Harris

TheatreOfBlues

Friday — The Lion Hotel

It’s a kind of a weird place to kick off a blues festival, in the Georgian-style ballroom of The Lion Hotel, but that’s just where the second-ever Theatre of Blues is about to begin, and the high ceilings and hardwood floors do an astounding job of making the opening power chord of Hooson’s set all the more thunderous, tearing into the uncompromising blues-rock of Susan Tedeschi’s ‘Rock Me Right’, performed by singer Jenna Hooson with a thrilling soul twist. There are a few more hard-rocking blues numbers, as well as some impassioned balladry. Jenna turns out to possess one of the most technically astounding voices of the weekend, but the impact of these wonderful pipes is hindered by some hackneyed cover choices (such as 4 Non Blondes’ ‘What’s Up?’) and a backing band who, though very talented, lack the presence and vitality to match their effervescent vocalist.

Next, classic rockers Slack Alice present a set straight from the 70s, evoking groups like Bad Company and AC/DC, but lacking the hooks and energy of either to really put on anything outstanding. Cliff Stocker’s throaty growl certainly fits the bill and lead guitarist Chris Preston plays like a hairless Billy Gibbons, and the last three songs (following an entirely incongruous, if impressive, prog bass solo) are sure-fire winners with the audience, and their response summons a kind of anti-climactic encore of ‘Take Another Little Piece Of My Heart’.

24 Pesos, however, are shooting solely to thrill, diving straight into an upbeat jazzy rhythm and blues rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Red House’. Frontman Julian Burdock not only demonstrates himself as an energetic and persuasive performer, but also a blues guitarist with an impeccable talent for brilliantly-phrased licks and solos, not to mention some nice harmonica skills too. To his right, Moz Gamble attacks the keyboard with speed, precision and manic enjoyment while the rhythm section prove themselves to be fearsome musicians long before their respective solos at the end of the set. Whether fast or slow, 24 Pesos are persistently entertaining and have most of the audience dancing throughout; their 2012 nomination for Best Band at the British Blues Awards is well-deserved.

Saturday — Theatre Severn

“No more seating? That’s outrageous!”, complains an American tourist to the doorman of the Walker Theatre. “You expect us to stand until 11.30?!” At this point, the man’s quarrel is, to my annoyance, the only thing between me and the start of The Drivetones’ set. Once he’s stormed off, I enter to hear the bar-room blues of the Whitchurch, Shropshire-based group, and it’s clear that the Yank’s got it all wrong: the expectation is not to stand, but to dance. Though few are actually dancing at this point (it is 2pm), this boogieing, shuffling, Chicago-inspired set, led by the husky-edged vocals of Cleo Hill, has me feeling once thing: if this is just the opening act, then today is going to be good.

When London-based singer-songwriter Bex Marshall, bedecked in a raggy skirt, knee-high boots, leather jacket and broad-rimmed cowgirl hat, steps into the spotlight and begins finger-picking her steel guitar, my prediction appears to be correct. With an outstanding style blending rhythm and lead in a way that Lightnin’ Hopkins could be proud of, Marshall strums, picks and slides her way through a collection of songs covering love, loss and lust. Between the sweet tone of her guitar and her impressive voice, no one stirs. Sometimes an acoustic act can feel somewhat underwhelming following the volume and vibe of a full band, but this is captivating.

From subtly impressive acoustic blues we go to full-on wowing electric entertainment with Tim Aves & Wolfpack, an Essex-based four-piece led by hard-working British blues scene mainstay Aves, who shines confidence as they fly into ‘Robert Johnson’s Shoes’. The charismatic, enthusiastic frontman swings and struts around the stage, loving every second, and through classics like ‘I Ain’t Superstitious’, the traditional ‘Forty-Four’ and ‘Down In The Bottom’, he wails and moans like a white Howlin’ Wolf. Which is exactly his intention; he declares Wolf his idol, and pays tribute to him through a good helping of covers plus one of their originals, the superb, funky ‘Never Met Chester’. The Wolfpack are exceptional too: Joel Fisk (Blues Guitarist of the Year nominee at the British Blues Awards 2012) shows an amazing and unique talent; Paul Lester proves a demon behind the kit, and Robert Barry can quite plausibly carry Aves’ given title of “the steadiest four strings in the UK”. For the encore, the frontman strides back onstage and, energised from the encouragement, gives a storming rendition of Wolfpack’s own ‘Hidden Charms’.

Shoehorned in afterwards is Shrewsbury’s own “Blues Boy” Dan, who’s been garnering attention from all over the world for his outstanding ability on the guitar and harmonica and his deep, gravelly renditions of blues songs with an understanding — and voice — that would suggest someone 30 years his senior. Stomping, sliding and blowing across the four songs he has for this afternoon, it’s clear from the energy, the multi-faceted technical ability, and that brilliant growl that there’s no reason the 20-year-old shouldn’t go far.

It’s back to electric with Manchester four-piece Fuschi 4, a more diverse, predominantly funk-influenced blues band who work in some rock, soul and even reggae into a fun, heavily danceable set of originals and blues standards. With good humour and an immense rock ‘n’ roll shredder in guitarist Tim Moscrop, Fuschi 4 present a fantastic show that, symbolically, gets the best sing-along of the night so far.

The penultimate act for tonight is the hard-touring blues and soul princess Dani Wilde, a young guitarist and singer who can proudly claim to have played on the same bill as international stars such as Johnny Winter, Bobby Womack and Taj Mahal. Not only can she rock the blues with the best of them, her playing is fantastic and her voice exceptional; shown best on her third song, a hair-on-end rendition of Johnny Copeland’s ‘Ghetto Child’. Loud and sassy tracks like ‘Red-Blooded Woman’ see her rocking out like the best of them, while the steady walking blues of closer Eric Bibb’s ‘Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down’, has her lead the audience in the repetition of the song’s title, resulting in an uplifting, almost gospel feel to the final chorus. Her backing band is strong, with some brilliant keyboard solos from Jason Knight and appropriately generous spots for the rhythm section too; it’s a real all-together, feel-good blues show with Wilde, and one not short of stunning musical performances either.

Buddy WhittingtonI guess it stands to reason that Buddy Whittington, the internationally-renowned Texan blues guitarist and former Bluesbreaker, should headline a festival of this size, but the visual and aural impression of a band of three members is at first a little underwhelming, even if Whittington’s playing is sensational. And the playing, by the way, really is: he pulls off his sophisticated, twiddly riffs with ease, and the solos are phenomenal; the Texan easily stands as one of the most talented and electrifying blues guitarists around today. Pete Stroud (bass) and Darby Todd (drums) are similarly masters of their craft, as their respective late-show solos will attest, but still: after so many multi-instrumental performances, how can Buddy make up for it?

Easily, as it happens, because he knows exactly what makes a good show: across his 20-plus songs are perfectly-executed, face-melting solos, a good range of rhythms, keys, feels, styles that somehow all manage to fall within the genre of blues, and never tire. And when he’s sure he’s got the entire audience on his side, he even throws in a Led Zep couplet of ‘Heartbreaker’/’Since I’ve Been Loving You’, the former sounding so good you might’ve believed Whittington wrote it himself.

Amongst all this is a great rapport with the audience, the amicable Whittington shares brief, funny anecdotes from his career plus no shortage of self-deprecating humour: “I think everyone has something that they do too much which is bad for them; guess what mine is,” quips the portly Texan. When he’s brought back for the encore, Whittington ventures to accept a request from the audience, and someone shouts ‘Johnny B. Goode’, to which he replies, “This isn’t your high school prom!”, and tears into the Chuck Berry number anyway, followed by a faithful rereading of ‘All Your Love’ and a suitably southern interpretation of Delbert McClinton’s ‘Every Time I Roll The Dice’. With such an astonishing, all-encompassing set, it’s unarguably clear that Buddy Whittington was indeed the only act that could’ve headlined this year’s Theatre of Blues. Same time next year?

Set list: Black Cat Bone, I Had To Go See Alice, Jacksboro Highway (John Mayall cover), Ain’t No Brakeman (John Mayall cover), Back When The Beano Was Boss, Ain’t Got The Scratch, Deadwood And Wire, Please Send Me Someone To Love (Percy Mayfield cover), Woman Across The River (Freddie King cover), Instrumental, Can’t Be Good For Me, Stevie Rave On, Heartbreaker/Since I’ve Been Loving You (Led Zeppelin cover), I’m Going Home (Ten Years After cover), Second Banana, Instrumental, Grits Ain’t Groceries (Little Milton cover)

Encore: Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry cover), All Your Love (Otis Rush cover), Every Time I Roll The Dice (Delbert McClinton cover)