Robert Cray’s 1986 album “Strong Persuader” is the second best sounding album on vinyl I have: the space, the soundstage and that glorious picking leaping out of the turntable to fill the room are all fantastic. If I want to sing and dance and play the air guitar, on it goes: my neighbours hate it, needless to say.
I’ve not been a huge fan over the years, but didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see him live, so here I am. It’s a terrific gig because of the quality on offer. Cray has the archetypal blues voice, pitch perfect and with a huge range; and, of course, he’s a quite brilliant guitarist, one of those players who is so distinctive, he can be recognised within a couple of bars. Everything about his picking is clean and clear, and every single note seems to be given its own space. At times, he plays so sensitively, it’s almost as if he’s turned the amp off; at others, he plucks those strings harder than I’ve ever heard. He’s a big guy – I can only remember one other guitarist, Booga from Ezio, who makes a guitar look so small – and he has huge hands that just dwarf the fretboard; that, along with the fact that he holds his guitar in a quite unusual fashion, on his right hip, the fretboard jutting out like an M16 rifle barrel, gives the impression that he means business, and there aint no messing with him
I have a couple of friends who are slightly critical of him for being a bit too MOR; thankfully, I’m not with them tonight, but with my pal Donald who is undoubtedly a fan and who goes home on a considerable high. I think I can see their point a bit; there is constant technical brilliance from Cray and his excellent band, but they’re so good and they’ve been grooving so long, occasionally one number does seem a little indistinguishable from the next. But there are some clear stand outs that make any samey-ness in the other numbers totally forgivable, including “The One in the Middle”, in which keyboard player Jim Pugh does an astonishing Hammond organ solo that almost brings the house down.
Best of all is the last of the night, the huge ballad “Time Makes Two” during which the very best of that wonderful voice and sublime guitar raises the roof again. It would have been criminal to follow it with anything else, it was just that good. Easily one of the numbers of the year.
Indiana-born Delta-blues guitarist Catfish Keith is an unknown quantity to me, but I’m delighted my pal Kenny thought this would be up my street; it’s so up my street, it’s parked outside.
Catfish is dapper in brown suit, brown felt hat, tan loafers and cool tie, and he’s gracious and charming: when he opens his mouth to sing, though, his voice has tremendous power and richness and versatility. What’s great is the undercurrent of menace he imbues every growl and holler and bellow with, giving his singing a charismatic edge like the snarl of the 1930s bootlegger he may well have been in a previous life.
And holy shit, can he play the guitar. He switches between three. I’m no guitarist so I have no idea how he does it, but what is noticeable to me is how much work his left hand does to create the sound. Whether on slide or picking or blocking or bending the strings halfway back to Mississippi, the fretboard is frequently a blur. His steel-bodied National is used for songs that are steeped in the slide work of the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, and he’s easily the best slide guitarist I’ve ever heard. His six string, too, is similarly brilliant; his version of Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Eagle Bird”, with its fractured and staccato accompaniment, beautifully conveys the heat and sweat and torpor of a Delta summer.
The star guitar, though, is a big twelve string he’s recently acquired from Ralph Bown in York. It’s a beast of an instrument: on “When I was a Cowboy”, it’s utterly mesmerising, creating complex rhythms and deep rumbles like thunder on the plains. It’s a fucking Howitzer, and every time he picks it up, the audience delightedly hunkers down behind their sandbags waiting for the next glorious onslaught.
Of course, his performance is full of the pain of the Deep South, but the wit too, full of big fat mommas and gallons of moonshine and far, far too many reefers: not surprisingly, he’s incredibly knowledgable and every song is an education about the people and history of the blues.
This gig was sparsely attended, but at least there were lots of real fans there. Kenny is hoping to negotiate Catfish Keith’s appearance at the Lanark Music Connections Festival next year; if he pulls it off, anyone with a penchant for Seasick Steve to Tom Waits, from Lucinda Williams to Bonnie Raitt, should get tickets and give the guy a sell out crowd. He’s a genuinely nice guy who’s obviously devoted to his lovely wife Penny, and he’s an awesome, awesome musician.
You wait fifty-two years to hear a young, female blues guitarist playing live, and then, like buses, two come along in the same month.
A trip through to Edinburgh to The Caves (good venue) to see Joanne Shaw Taylor. I’d recommend her first album, “White Sugar”. She has a classic soul voice, all husk and grit, and her guitar playing is gorgeously mature, capable of pyrotechnics but also easily capable of driving a song with a sexy slowhand: I think “Heavy Heart” is a stonewall classic.
Live, she’s wonderful, but it’s all just a little bit flash and thrash for me. Going for the traditional power trio approach, songs are generally played at a hundred miles an hour and at level 11 on the amp; she batters the life out of “Who do you want me to be?”, “Watch ‘em Burn”, and a Hendrix cover, “Manic Depression”. There’s nothing wrong with that because it’s great fun, but when she slows it down – such as on “Time Has Come” – her guitar really steps up and takes a bow and, just as importantly, the sound mix (complete with crackly connections) lets us hear that fantastic voice.
She’s a confident young woman; “Kiss the Ground Goodbye” is about her frustration at the lack of progress in her career and her stalled potential, probably written at four years of age. She leads her band – two thirds of the support act, so I hope they get paid double – effortlessly too. She plays a few numbers from her new album, “Diamonds in the Dirt”, which suggest it’s well worth investigating.
“Blackest Day” – another absolute cracker from “White Sugar” – begins in a laid back fashion, but develops into a show-stopping solo. It’s a great set, despite the fact that I think there are occasions when less would be more, and I’d definitely catch her again. Both she and Chantel McGregor are gathering lots of attention from the music industry: I hope it’s not the gimmick appeal of pretty blonde lassies playing the blues, because both are excellent musicians. It’ll be interesting to see if the machine allows them the longevity of male blues guitarists; it’s great to think that, in their 70′s, they’ll be doing a BB King in stadiums across the world. Pity I won’t be there to see them.
Chantel McGregor wanders on like a wee lassie, wearing a dress that would look more at home at a sixth year prom than on stage at a rock venue; her face swollen by problems with her wisdom teeth, you’d be forgiven for thinking, “Oh dear, what have I got myself into?” Then she picks up her guitar and, as the song says, plays. And the girl can play.
Backed by Martin Rushworth on drums and Richard Ritchie on a really cool orange-stringed bass, this is a tight set from a young woman who is very, very gifted. She has a perfectly acceptable voice, but, live, her guitar is the star of the show, and she rips through some cracking tracks, including “Help Me” (an insane version of which appears on Joan Osborne’s “Relish”) and her own “Fabulous” and “Freefalling”. There are plenty of crowd-pleasing covers too, such as “Voodoo Child” and “Lenny”, all of which she solos with aplomb. Unaccompanied, she delivers lovely versions of “Along the Watchtower”, “Rhiannon” and an excellent, bluesy “I’m No Good for You”. The small audience – all the better to interact with, which she does charmingly – enjoy the show immensely.
She is a terrific talent and, guided by her parents, by blues heavyweights such as Joe Bonamassa and by her own lack of pretentiousness, she has a bright future. At the moment, I’m not sure whether she’s a rock child or a blues gal (I’d prefer the blues, myself), and she perhaps needs time to develop her own unique sound and style. A lot of the numbers clunk a little into big set piece solos, and it needs to be just a bit more seamless; a rhythm guitar might help, but I’ll accept that she knows best. And, of course, a few more years under her belt will give her the technique and gravitas essential for credibility amongst an audience that still might find it strange to see a woman playing lead guitar, though thankfully that’s a dying breed thanks to new artists like Ana Popovic and Joanne Shaw Taylor.
However, that’s beside the point. She’s up there for the best part of two hours, toothache and all, and smiles and belts her way through her playlist like a trooper. Her album, “Like No Other”, is obviously aimed at a record-buying market, and the production values foreground her voice; but the version of “Help Me” which ends the disc and the epic “Daydream” are a terrific taste of what she can do on a guitar – and that’s something pretty special.
“A splendid set,” as one of our company remarked. And a splendid young musician.