Christmas is coming, innit? It’s time for a party, and Nine Below Zero are just the band for the job. There’s eight of them crammed onto the Stramash stage, but they still deliver a good-time cracker of a performance, mixing originals and covers and blending blues’n’soul styles with consummate ease.
They open up with a breakneck version of ‘Tore Down’, with stinging guitar from Dennis Greaves, followed by the good-time soul’n’r’n’b, which are good pointers to their origins as fired up, New Wave-ish rivvum’n’bloozers. And the set duly includes rollicking readings of
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They have a likeable way with pree-zen-tashun as well. Greaves may play a rather battered-looking red Tele, but he’s turned out all Mod-like in black shirt, skinny white trousers, and a cream-coloured long coat, while Mark Feltham on harp is all in black, with shades and a smart black titfer for good measure. And the sharpness extends to the repartee. Early on Greaves demands that the crowd squeeze forward “close enough so I can smell ya”, before expressing disapproval of a punter’s apparel. “You’re wearing the wrong t-shirt,” he says, deadpan. “It says Dr Feelgood. That’s like going to a Tottenham match wearing an Arsenal shirt. Wrong!”
Geezer-ish isn’t their only modus operandi though. Their version of the classic ‘Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)’ is itself a classic, singer Charlie Austen doing a wonderful rendition of anguished youthful heartbreak, with the counterpointed backing vocal from Feltham of the “darling I love you” lie. It’s one of those perfect, hurt-ridden soul songs, and they do it justice. As they also do the smooth, slow funk of ‘You’re Still My Woman’, with a trumpet solo from Paul Jordanous, and the later ‘Never Too Late’. On the latter Feltham delivers a magnificently sweet, bird-like harp solo, which Greaves follows with pinging, popping guitar, before Mickey Burkey weighs in with a witty drum solo – although, brevity being the soul of wit and all that, sixteen bars less would have been just dandy. And they're delightfully sunny on the much more English, Kirsty McColl-like ‘Do We Roll’, with Austen again supplying the vocals.
But if it’s blues you want they’ve got it, notably on ‘Riding On The L&N’, where the quality of Burkey and his rhythm partner Ben Willis leaps to the fore, the latter whacking out tremendous bass runs. And that’s just the foundation for a wild Feltham harp solo, some big
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Fun is their trademark though, and they close their main set with a suitable knockout punch in the turbo-charged form of Wilko Johnson’s remarkably ska-like ‘Twenty Yards Behind’. In the hip-hop parlance of yer modern yoof, I think the right word to describe Nine Below Zero would, aptly, be “cold”.
Support band Delacroix fit the bill nicely too, parcelling up some tight and sturdy R’n’B that’s solid on all fronts. Tomlin Leckie is an engaging front man with a good voice, bobbing and weaving and playing with a smile on his face as he switches between harp and rhythm guitar. They deliver an energised reading of ‘Crossroads’, driven along by impressively punchy drums and grooving bass. The soulful slowie ‘Sarah Smiles’ has a catchy descending riff, and if Harry Higgs overplays a bit on his guitar solo then he redeems himself later with a smarter, more dynamic effort on ‘Blues With A Feeling’. He and Leckie also contribute a convincing guitar/harmonica face-off on the venerable ‘Shake Your Hips’, peaking with a clever discordant harmonised moment between them. I liked ‘em.