Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Scottish Blues Weekend - St Bride's Centre, Edinburgh, 7-9 February 2020

There are weekends, and there are long weekends.  The second Scottish Blues Weekend, organised by the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, is one of the latter, with 10 gigs taking place over four days from Thursday.  I managed to get along to three shows, and very good they were too.

Nicole Smit Band, with Delightful Squalor

Singer Nicole Smit and her band entertained a sold out crowd on the Friday night with a largely R’n’B centred set, grabbing the attention early on with a swinging take on Junior Wells’ ‘Little By Little’, and Koko Taylor’s swaggering ‘Wang Dang Doodle’.  And as anyone familiar with Smit’s voice would know, she has the range and power to bring a punch to both tunes without, it has to be said, resorting to Taylor’s throat-scrapingly guttural approach.
Taking a different turn, they belt through Wanda Jackson’s ‘Fujiyama Mama’, a country-rockabilly affair on which Smit bounces around with the same kind of glee that she gives to the yelps of the title line.
Charlie Wild and Nicole Smit do some wang dang doodle
The band depart while Smit is joined by Cera Impala from support act Delightful Squalor on acoustic guitar, for a duet on a subtle original – ‘Release’, I think – that they’ve recently co-penned, the pair of them blending their voices in sublime fashion.
There’s reflective emotion too in Smit and the band’s rendition of Billie Holliday/Nina Simone oldie ‘Tell Me More’, but also a ton of energy on uptempo numbers like Sugar Pie Desanto’s ‘Witch For A Night’ and Marie Knight’s rattling ‘I Thought I Told You Not To Tell Them’.  Guitarist Charlie Wild contributes rock’n’rolling guitar breaks to add extra spice, and on the latter Smit also shows off her diction with the rat-a-tat delivery of the lyrics.
One of Nicole Smit’s specialities is foraging for overlooked barn-burners by female artists, as evidenced by most of the songs listed above.  The result isn’t just a refreshing change from the standards that many blues artists would lean on, it’s the basis for a belter of a show.

Delightful Squalor are a duo comprising the aforementioned Cera Impala, who mostly employs banjo as her weapon of choice, and Texan singer-guitarist Lake Montgomery, who together offer a selection of old-fashioned roots tunes featuring exquisite, breathy harmonies.  They also produce a couple of ukuleles at one point, and to paraphrase Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, “I hate ukuleles, Jock – I hate ‘em!”  At times they’re a bit twee for my tastes, but to be fair, at their best they conjure up echoes varying from Steve Earle in his breezier moments to early Joan Armatrading.

Blues Afternoon – Dana Dixon Band, Liz Jones Trio, and Charlotte Marshall & The 45s

Storm Ciara is approaching Edinburgh on the Saturday afternoon, but there’s shelter from the storm as a full house welcomes a trio of female-led blues acts.
Dana Dixon - harp at the ready
First up are the Dana Dixon Band.  Ms Dixon is pretty much your archetypal blues belter of a vocalist, but she’s also something you don’t find every day – a female harp player.  She
duly gets her wail on when they crank out John Lee Hooker’s ‘Good Rocking Mama’ to good effect.
This kind of uptempo R'nB is their natural beat, as on a crackling version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Sweet Little Rock’n’Roller’, with Dave Dixon producing some nifty guitar picking along the way.  He’s a mite overfond of his trick of sticking his right hand at the top of the neck like a capo, while shredding away with his left below it.  But that takes nothing away from the vitality of their rakish, garage band-like closer ‘The Boy From New Orleans’.

The Liz Jones Trio are essentially half of Liz Jones’ band Broken Windows, in semi-acoustic form with Jones accompanied by John Bruce on guitar and Suzy Cargill on percussion.
John Bruce and Liz Jones search the floor for the lost chord
Their 45-minute sets deliver something rather more reflective, Jones’ songs lending themselves well to a stripped back format.  ‘Strum’ alternates between a hypnotic shuffle propelled by Cargill’s pattering djembe drum and the urgency of the chorus.  ‘No Classic Love Song’ is jazzier fare, swinging along effortlessly on its delicious melody with a lyric that’s an evocative tribute to a maverick couple of Jones’ acquaintance.
My favourite on this occasion though, is the 2018 single ‘Lover’, with its catchy, ringing guitar line over Suzy Cargill’s mandolin, its complementary ascending middle eight, and Jones’ thoughtful vocal floating patiently over the top.  A new album from Broken Windows is in the works, and I look forward to its arrival for another helping of something out of ordinary.

I have no idea whether Charlotte Marshall & The 45s are assembling a debut album, but if they aren’t then they damn well should be.
Charlotte Marshall marshals her troops
It’s probably a bit hackneyed to tag the diminutive Aussie chanteuse as the Divine Miss M, but her performance sass does bring to mind Bette Midler.  More to the point, she knocks out high quality original songs across a range of genres, from New Orleans moodiness on ‘Full Moon’ to fun country on ‘Baby Say You’ll Be My Valentine’; from a James Brown-style funk refrain on ‘Do You Remember’ to the no messing R’n’B raunch of ‘Mama’s Spring Cleaning (And You’re The First To Go)’.
The songs are the subject of clever arrangements, delivered with conviction by the 45s, who are clearly well, er, Marshalled.  Comprising sax, trombone, guitar and keys in addition to the rhythm section, they whack out a tasty miscellany of solos throughout the set, and turn on a dime at the wave of a hand from their boss.
Marshall, meanwhile, gets right into character to inhabit the songs, winding up the set with more stylistic variations in the form of the warm and soulful ‘Dig My Love’ and the NOLA jazz stomp of ‘Bootleg Liquor’.  Now let’s be having that album, Charlotte.

Jed Potts & The Hillman Hunters

I’ve seen Jed Potts and his trio numerous times, and they never fail to impress.  But I have to say this Sunday night show was something special.  The boys have clearly been busy, because their two sets are dominated by original material, some of it well-seasoned to be sure, but much of it fresh out of the box to the point where I’m only guessing at some of the titles.
In fact one of my favourites of the whole night is supposedly a work in progress, to the point that it still goes under the working monicker of ‘Prototype Rory-ish Groove in F’.  And yeah,
Jed Potts - a man happy in his work
maybe the melody still needs a little work, but boy do they manage to channel a rattling, Gallagher-like energy, with ringing slide and a scudding solo from Potts going down a storm.
There’s a relaxed vibe from the outset though, with opener ‘Swashbucklin’’ the first of a clutch of new songs that culminate in the crunching ‘Where’s Your Man’.  They swing easily throughout, with Charlie Wild mostly content to be a steady Eddie holding down the groove on bass, while Jonny Christie has the freedom to add accents that underline the variation in Potts’ guitar work.
A trio of songs from their first album culminates in the frisky instrumental ‘Puttin’ It Aboot’, then the catchy, twirling guitar line of ‘How Am I Meant To’ precedes the Rory groove, and they close the first half by putting their foot down on what I believe is an old original, the Dick Dale-like garage rock of ‘Burn It’.
Their second set opens with a moody, bass’n’drums intro to a slow blues, on which Potts lays down more noteworthy slide playing en route to an uptempo passage which rocks big time.  And they must have been in the mood for slow blues epics lately, because a few songs later they get into something that may or may not be called ‘Hey Baby’, but builds to what can only be described as a guitar wig-out by Potts.
They slip in some favoured covers after that, including Elvis’s ‘Trying to Get To You’ and the set closing boogie of ‘Days Of Old’, wrapped around a new arrangement of Charles Brown’s aptly-titled ‘Drifting Blues’.  But they go out with a bang on the encore, a breakneck take on their own ‘Ain’t It Rough (When Your Baby’s In The Huff)’.
In the course of the evening Jed Potts assures us they’re intending to record all this new material soon for a new album.  Here’s hoping that his definition of “soon” means that it’ll see the light of day this year!

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