So here’s a question for you folks. When was the last time you heard a singer announce, before a note has been played, that “We’re gonna get butt naked about 10 songs in”? Not an everyday occurrence is it? But what this gig demonstrates is that Sugaray Rayford is not your everyday live performer. Oh no. He’s a colossus.
When he’s finished warming up the packed crowd with a getting-to-know-you preamble, and his band get down to business, it’s with crunking funk guitar from Alastair Greene, a gut-thumping backbeat from drummer Lavell Jones, honking horns and whatever else they can
chuck in as a platform for Sugaray to get to hollering – and boy does he holler, like a soul locomotive. Not only that, but when Greene rips into a screaming solo, and Drake Shining takes over with rattling piano, the Sugar fella likes to get his groove on. We are talking about a seriously big black dude – and he will not object to that description – who likes to get on down, and wants the audience to get down with him. As he says, this is not a concert, this is party time.
|Sugaray checks if Edinburgh is on the soul train|
If you want a blow by blow, track by track account, then go find another reviewer. But there’s strong evidence for Sugaray’s assertion that he has a band who can play anything he wants at the drop of a hat. One minute they’re playing something as mainstream as ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, but with a whacking horn sound, and throbbing keyboard runs from Shining ahead of a freshly-laid-this-morning organ solo. The next, just to make a point it seems, they deliver a slab of floor-shaking reggae. And then, for no apparent reason other than that the big man fancies it, they launch into ‘Comfortably Numb’, with Shining delivering most of the vocals, and Greene going for broke on an eardrum melting solo.
For the most part though, it’s a feast of funk, soul and blues – I was going to say a diet, but that’s not a word that fits in the same sentence as Sugaray Rayford. I reviewed his stylish album Southside a few years back, but didn’t foresee the degree of energy that he musters on stage from listening to that recording. The reason, I think, is that digital ones and zeroes, or flimsy magnetic tape, simply do not have the capacity to capture such a huge personality. Whether it’s the big fat soul groove of ‘Blind Alley’ (at which point I notice a woman in a parka and big scarf, dancing but somehow not melting), a rollicking ‘Beans And Cornbread’ with walking bass from Alan Markel, or an explosive version of ‘Grits Ain’t Groceries’ (“Ready for something soft?” he asks beforehand), they’re all driven along with the force of an avalanche, with Rayford’s rich, mountainous, soulful voice to the fore.
On a slow blues he resumes after an instrumental solo without the aid of a mic, and goes walkabout in the audience, out the door and into the front bar, singing all the way out and back. But then it’s back to top gear with Al Kooper’s ‘Nuthin’ I Wouldn’t Do (For A Woman Like You)’, with a great horn riff and a cracking little solo from Alastair Greene, before they close out with ‘Cold Sweat’, the chemistry between the band as they funk it up to a drum-thrashing finale – and still leave room for a mellow interlude, and a sax showcase from Aaron Liddard when he too ventures offstage to cook up a call and response passage with the crowd.
As Steve Van Zandt would put it, “Gabeesh?” You get the picture? Sugaray Rayford is a Blues Award nominee for BB King Entertainer of the Year, and no wonder. Frankly I think they should just hand it over now.
Earlier that same evening, I arrived in time to stand at the doorway of the already jammed
ballroom, and catch another outfit in the middle of a damn fine reading of ‘As The Years Go Passing By’, with a rather cooler and younger black dude catching the mood nicely on vocals. This was support band Bourbon Street 5, and the singer was Emmanuel James Mathias.
|Bourbon Street 5 set light to 'Matchbox Blues'|
Their delivery of the Fenton Robinson classic is in keeping with a set of old-fashioned electric blues revolving around the likes of Bobby Bland’s ‘I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog The Way You Treated Me’, a trio of Albert King tunes including a strong version of ‘Matchbox Blues’, and their own, well-penned ‘Heart Mending Blues’. They combine in a satisfyingly tight-but-loose sound, underpinned by the supple rhythm section of Rod Kennard on bass and Stuart Spence on drums. Guitarist Louis Crosland is an effective foil for Mathias’ spot on phrasing and interpretation, extending himself with some well-judged soloing without ever becoming aimless, while Guilhelm Forey on keys proved adept at switching from jazzy little piano soloing to soulful swells of organ on ‘Matchbox Blues’. It’s all good stuff, and the rousing reception they got was well deserved. Their contribution to the night could be easily forgotten in the wake of the Sugaray experience, but I look forward to seeing more of them.