“Blues!” has been offering a variety of blues music shows on the Edinburgh Fringe for a few years now, but Roots Of The Blues is a new addition to the family. Hosted by Toby Mottershead from Edinburgh blues outfit The Black Diamond Express, it’s a little gem of a one-man acoustic show, in an intimate studio setting.
Presenting a selection of songs from some of the early blues masters, with a few curveballs thrown in for good measure, Mottershead’s love for the music shines through. He’s knowledgeable, witty, and sensitive to the material – and that’s just his between songs chat.
|Toby Mottershead - fingerpickin' good|
Pic courtesy of Stuart Stott
He starts the proceedings with an a capella version of Dillard Chandler’s ‘Short Time Here, Long Time Gone’, an Appalachian ballad that demonstrates he doesn’t feel constrained by narrow-minded definitions of the blues – and also shows off his strong voice. Then he picks up his Dobro and sets off into slide guitar territory, opening up with Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’, a song famously included on an album of music played on the Voyager spacecraft, and a excellent introduction to Mottershead’s great fingerpicking. He segues it into a variant of ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’, and it’s interesting to follow the rhythm in a solo version of something that would often feature a distinctive “shave and a haircut – two bits” beat on drums.
He follows up with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ‘I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down’, before switching guitars and ditching the slide for a batch of straight-ahead acoustic songs. First up is Mississippi John Hurt’s delightfully titled, folksy ‘Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me’, which Mottershead introduces as “a classic blues fusion of sex and death” (you can here the original here). Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Dying Crapshooter’s Blues’ is perhaps more down to earth, but features equally imaginative lyrics.
Mottershead drives these songs along with a great sense of rhythm, but he also demonstrates his grasp of the tradition as a writer as he plays his own ‘Good Woman (You Can Do No Wrong)’ – intended, he says, as a corrective to the bad rep women tend to get from many blues songs. He then offers up another modern day example of the style, with ‘Jailhouse Blues’ by Australian singer C.W. Stoneking.
No good blues set should be without a ‘train’ song, and there are two to choose from here, the pick being Charlie McCoy’s rattling ‘That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away’. Along the way Mottershead switches to another guitar, which he describes as “a piece of shit he got for a few quid on eBay” and says is more typical of the kind of instrument these blues originators would have played. Frankly I think it’s still a cut above what those guys might have had at their disposal, but that’s by the by. He coaxes some damn fine slide out of this model, before going back to his Dobro for Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ‘Write Me A Few Lines’ (covered in recent years by Seasick Steve, with some help from Jack White).
He closes with another a capella song, ‘The Parting Glass’, a folk song of obscure Scots/Irish origins which may not obviously be connected to the blues, except that as Mottershead rightly points out, cross-fertilisation was part of blues, country and folk music in America. And it’s also interesting to contemplate the evolution of the blues over the decades from these stripped down beginnings.
No time for an encore on a tight Fringe schedule, but this is an hour well spent, in the company of an excellent guide.