An afternoon session at the Albert Hall for the 2014 Blues Fest was a pleasant surprise, as the old building opened its doors to some of smaller rooms to house a wide array of exciting blues talent.
Perhaps it was the midday start (which drew several humorous quips from the bands) and the fact that gliding between the eloquent rooms sometimes felt a bit like walking round John Lewis’ department store, that gave the Blues Fest its relaxed vibe.
The only slight annoyance was being asked to leave the Elgar Room after George Fame’s performance and join an already huge queue to see Andy Fairweather Lowe. There was also the occasional frantic dash up and down stairs and between rooms to catch glimpses of artists that had been programmed at the same time.
Arguably the afternoon’s highlight came first, on a bill of real quality and variety. Georgie Fame reminded us all of the intrinsic relationship between an artist, his music and his audience. He cleverly contextualized his set with expansive anecdotes, musical illustrations and a wry sense of humour that was brilliantly encapsulated by a Floyd Dixon’s ‘Don’t Send Me Flowers When I’m in the Grave Yard’.
He judiciously threaded together the likes of Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Jimmy McGriff, Horace Silver and even Bob Dylan’s ‘Everything is Broken’, as part of a musical melange rooted in jazz and blues and delivered by his family based trio.
Whether dipping into a New Orleans influenced second line shuffle, segueing Sonny Boy Williamson with Van Morrison or phrasing eloquently on ‘Point of No Return’, Fame cut a figure of unreconstructed cool tempered by wry humour on a magnificent set.
And so with little possibility of seeing Andy Fairweather Lowe, a quick dash down three flights of stairs found boogie pianist Mike Sanchez resplendent in a dazzling white jacket over back trousers and shirt, holding court in the very lively sounding Verdi room.
He started in front of the faithful few but as he cut loose on a mix of swing, boogie, R&B and good rocking, his crowd grew in direct proportion to his energy levels. He duly received a hard earned reception.
It was over to the West Arena Foyer for a bone rattling display of power trio rocking blues from the fiery Marcus Bonfanti.
Given the overlapping festival billing I saw the first part of this set and the end of it, making a swift diversion back to Verdi’s to catch a couple of numbers by The Bad Apples. The all star combo featured the twin guitar talents of Mick Rogers (Manfred Mann’s Earth band) and Micky Moody, as well as Jimmy Copley on drums, Ian Jennings on bass and Robert Hart on vocals, on some mid-paced, funky grooves with incisive solos.
A quick dash back to Marcus found him switching between slide led Dobro and some piercing lines on his red Gibson SG. His guitar playing aside, Marcus’s real talent lies in the way he adds his deep baritone to an essential grasp of dynamics, as on the opening stomp of Alley Cat’, the jangling, swampy, train-time ‘Blind Alley’ and the gritty ‘Honey’. His slide playing fleetingly disappeared in the mix on ‘Honest Boy’, but it couldn’t dampen a rip-roaring set that made light of the brightly lit room and mid-afternoon slot.
In sharp contrast to Marcus’s high energy show, Jo Harman was all soulful poise and sensual presence on a series of intricate arrangements, topped by effortless phrasing that drew you in.
Her performance veered from introspective vulnerability to polar opposite moments when she made defiant shapes, with right arm and index finger pointed skywards as she thrillingly soared on a note.
Moving gracefully from ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ to a sultry piece on which the band stretched out and keyboard player Carl Hudson played a beautiful drifting solo on a huge red piano, Jo combined real presence with musical excellence.
The band stretched out so impressively that you nearly didn’t notice she’d left the stage, but she return again to explore a vocal range that few in the afternoon could equal.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Blake Powell 1-3 /Nigel Foster 4 & 6/ Glynn Evans 5-7
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