Review by Paul H Birch and photos by Rich Ward
By my calculations, Toby Lee isn’t old enough to buy a round at the bar, but he’s been making a name for himself since he was ten, playing guitar at BB King’ Blues Club, and putting in US TV appearances thereafter. Tonight, the Oxfordshire-born lad is fronting a four piece and promoting his debut album Aquarius, to a pretty much fully-seated audience on this guest slot.
They launch into a hard throbbing blues rock number going by the handle of ‘You Don’t Know My Name’, the punchline to its chorus hook I’m pretty sure you can figure out for yourselves. Gibson Explorer in his hands, his foot depresses a wah-wah and he blasts into solo mode. From being merely polite the audience’s focus grows more attentive.
The next number may well have been titled ‘Green Light Girl’ and comes across a little like Eric Bell-era Thin Lizzy mixing it up with a toughed-up Chicken Shack. His second guitarist tending to take licks and lead lines while Lee sings and taking most of the solos.
The guy beside me reckons Lee looks like a young Dave Edmunds. I’m not so sure, but I’ll give him he’s cute, exuding a blushing shyness when offering introductions, that a certain quota is going to find appealing. Save for when he edges stage-front during the odd solo, none of the band move about very much, and once we put his youth aside, ideally, we could with a little more razzamatazz visually. That stated, the HMV Empire’s got a hugely impressive and expensive looking lighting rig that’s getting a nice workout tonight.
There’s a pace change with the infectious ‘Take The Wheel’ where there’s a latter-day Beatles come Oasis crunch to the guitar over an underlying dance groove with subtle psychedelic nuances. A lengthy number, with various solos, styles and a few tricks-of-the-trade applied – His overall sound tonight tends to incorporate a classic Bluesbreakers tone, a little Johnny Winter, some Stan Webb, some spacious skipping runs and a nice deep vibrato, all combined with a fluid flow. The band, working well together, and coming across decidedly more heavy-groove orientated than the Aquarius album would suggest.
The final number, ‘It Could Be So Easy’ is fuzzy on the guitars, the drums beating out loud; rocking out with some nice harmony vocal and guitar hooks. Not too far removed from the kind of radio-friendly stuff the Steve Miller Band used to put out, and a good song to end on.
Apparently, the show started a little earlier than expected, but as I mentioned, most folk were already seated. And Toby Lee received healthy applause throughout his set. When Joanne Shaw Taylor performs her set that clapping is magnified, and, as the evening progresses, I can see feet tapping in time to the songs, but self-aware that I’m singing along to those tunes I know I’m confused why I seem to be doing so on my lonesome. They surely know her work. Is it that we’re all seated? Too covid-cautious to breath out deeply? It makes no sense to me, not least because the lady and her band have come here to party – It can’t just be because it’s the last date on the tour that has them smiling and laughing as they look to each other.
The band walk on, cap-toting keyboard player Dorian Ford and bi-focal drummer James Edmunds work the back-line’ decked in shades, black leather sports jacket and a big semi-acoustic guitar is guitarist Michael Bradford, while quietly roaming the other side of the stage is the tall, long-hair-and-bearded frame of bass player Steve Lehane; the latter two adding backing vocals during the night. The lady who’s here to sing the blues walks on last, to applause, and a guitar handed to her on stage – I’ve noticed this with a few female guitarists in recent years – as long as they can play then I’m unconcerned by such little diva touches – and in the case of Joanne Shaw Taylor she sure did play tonight.
Decked out in jacket and bellbottom loons that have a snakeskin style pattern, but look to be made of other materials, the colours change often as the spotlights fall across her during the night. The bellbottoms of her trousers catch the eye often, bopping about playfully as her legs shuffle to the rhythm, predominantly soldiering her cream-coloured Fender Esquire she strides the stage ensuring the whole crowd get to see the entertainer they’ve paid for, while interacting and playing off assorted band members. She’s also focussing a lot more on her singing these days, hands tellingly holding onto microphone stand, at such times leaving the guitar work, albeit subtle in its approach, predominantly to Bradford.
They kick off with ‘Stop Messin Around’ – He right arm strikes her guitar strings, the left pulls hard bending out squealing notes but she’s soon letting out with throaty aplomb at the mic. A boogie piano solo gives way to Taylor’s guitar vibrato, roaming the stage she solos with gusto, standing on the edge of the stage, just her left leg stomping and keeping time at this stage.
‘If That Ain’t A Reason’ follows swiftly, the increasing vintage soul influences on her vocal stylisations becoming apparent from hereon in, and in contrast to the tortured notes wrenched forth during her first guitar solo, the second slowing things down with more precise picking.
All smiles, she greets the crowd, “How you doing, Coventry?” Laughing, she remarks that it’s been a few years since she’s been able to say that, and with a Midlands accent still ever-present in her speaking voice, notes it’s as close to her hometown of Solihull that she’s getting on this tour. Band members are introduced, and she informs us we’re due for quite a few numbers from The Blues Album, that’s reached No. 1 hit on the US Blues Charts.
To that end, we get Otis Rush’s ‘Keep Lovin Me’, Edmunds and Lehane set up a suitable groove over which the woeful expression in Taylor’s voice croons in a heartfelt expressive torch singer manner. Taking things a step further vocally comes ‘If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody’, opening with an organ solo from Ford, halfway through Bradford introduced as he solos, followed by Taylor’s own more biting attack on six string – Again, close-up it’s quite fascinating watching her right hand strike savagely like a rapier across her guitar, then intricately fence between individual strings, while her left seemingly dances to a different beat up and down the fretboard yet the overall sound emitted resounding in its singularity. Well into her playing now, we get extended soling as she tours the stage, kicking a leg out here and there, long bold hair flailing about, on the Albert King number ‘Can’t You See What You’re Doin To Me’.
Taught, gritty boogie as itch-scratching singalong comes next with ‘Two Time My Lovin’’, and the lack of audience participation is an indictment of our times, especially as those sitting either side of me could do without hearing my out-of-tune rendition. Slow blues with soul, and a little country on the side, on ‘Let Me Down Easy’ is another number where the soft embrace of her voice gives way to a most ferocious guitar solo. Then, as if we’re counting, ‘Three Time Loser’ brings us back into a more routine 12 bar boogie, piano rolling away and taking in a solo along the way, the band visibly loosened and enjoying themselves with little asides and big wide grins in equal measure as they check each other out. Musically not too far removed comes a stomping ‘Dyin’ To Know’ with three voices face-front giving out on the harmonies, with an echo on Taylor’s own solo verses.
Taking us all the way back to her debut album, White Sugar, the rhythm section set up a rolling groove for ‘Just Another Word’, invoking equal measures Al Green and George Benson along the way, and all the more seductive as its melodies creep up on you. Taking that tenderness to extremes ‘I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long’ sees Miss Taylor veer between vocal histrionics to sweet harmonies alongside Bradford and Lehane. She digs deep when soloing, returns to the mic for a brief a cappello, the number concluding with a big blast of guitar fireworks.
Delivered with sassy no-messing attitude is ‘Watch Em Burn’, its Free-like pace suitably embellished with one of several extended solos imbued with the spirit of Kossoff as is the tough love slow blues of ‘Time Has Come’ that following a fearsome drum roll splatters into a guitar frenzy.
The Dirty Truth album’s big riffed ‘Mud Honey’ proves infectious and the funkier grit of ‘Bad Love’ declares time on main proceedings on a high. Returning for just one number as encore, country picking and weary sighed vocals lead us into a somewhat epic rendition of ‘Going Home’. No standing ovations (far too polite this crowd) but with much applause, a small group are called forward as plectrums get handed out, then blowing a kiss Joanne Shaw Taylor exits stage right… More than a little impressed it takes me a while to get off my backside and make the long journey home.
1. Stop Messin Around
2. If That Ain’t A Reason
3. Keep Lovin Me
4. If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody
5. Can’t You See What You’re Doin To Me
6. Two Time My Lovin’
7. Let Me Down Easy
8. Three Time Loser
9. Dyin’ To Know
10. Just Another Word
11. I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long
12. Watch Em Burn
13. Time Has Come
14. Mud Honey (White Sugar)
15. Bad Love
1. Going Home.