Despite having an arguably weaker line-up than last year, the 19th Skegness Great British Rock & Blues Festival had an irresistible vibe, and the best moments from the likes of Skinny Molly, Caravan, Del Bromham, Babajack, Roadhouse and Nine Below Zero eclipsed what had gone before in recent years.
In truth there was a more discernible gap this year between rock and blues, with many of the blues fans choosing to stay either in the Centre Stage venue for the duration or The Blues Matters Stage in Jaks. The Rock Stage (Reds) played host to rock fans and floating voters alike, while the Skyline Pavilion doubled as The Introducing Stage for up and coming bands.
On balance it all worked nicely, with the big hitters making their mark, while up and coming bands such as Laurence Jones and Babajack made new fans, and the likes of Marcus Malone and Danny Bryant worked hard for their right to be on Centre Stage.
The downside was that while thinly disguised tribute bands like Dr. Feelgood (with splendid guitarist Steve Walwyn) and John Coughlan’s Quo made the most of their potent back catalogues, you couldn’t shake the feeling that their presence owed more to nostalgia rather than anything to do with creativity. But in the interests of objectivity let it be said they both went down very well.
Simon Dunkerley writes: One unfortunate announcement prior to the festival was that Nazareth had cancelled the rest of their European tour due to new vocalist Linton Osborne falling ill and consequently leaving the band stating ‘It just didn’t work out’.
Whilst this was a blow to the festival fans there were more than enough great bands playing to ensure a great weekend was to be had by all. However, looking through the stage times I was actually quite disappointed at how many bands clashed due to both stages starting at the same time meaning running from stage to stage to catch part of each which is fine for the sober and fleet of foot but not for others, this did seem to cause some unrest over the weekend so maybe a rethink is required for next year.
Pete Feenstra writes: I opted for Slim Chance instead of Kyla Brox, for the opening slot as Kyla was due at Reds on Saturday morning. Ronnie Lane’s old band is a star studded line-up with Geraint Watkins on keys, and Steve Simpson, Charlie Hart doubling on violins and an array of instruments. Watkins rocked out on ‘Rats’, got very soulful on ‘Debris’ and the whole room indulged in community singing on ‘How Come’ as part of a rousing start to the festival.
It’s a startling musical jump from the concise songs of Slim Chance to the prog stylings of Caravan, but Canterbury’s best impressed with favourites such as the bouncy ‘Headloss’ and Richard Sinclair’s whimsical ‘Golf Girl’, complete with Jan Schelhaas’ dreamy keyboards.
‘Nightmare’ featured the plucked and bowed violin of Geoff Richardson on a sweeping uplifting progression and they headed towards an exhilarating finish with the very catchy riff-led ‘I’m On My Way’. A great set from a justifiably enduring band.
If Caravan were darlings of the 70’s, then Steve Gibbons’ pedigree goes back even further and he reminded us of his own weighty back catalogue with the Bo Diddley beat of ‘No Spitting On The Bus’ and a handful of biker themed songs, of which ‘Motorcycle’. ‘Harley Davidson’ and of course the anthemic ‘BSA’ were fleshed out with several trademark raps. He sometimes doesn’t appear to know where he’s going next, but its all classy stuff.
Martin Barre is wise enough to realise his own vocal shortcoming and gives Dan Crisp the task of emulating Ian Anderson’s early career phrasing on classic such as ‘Song For Jeffrey’, ‘Sweet Dream’ and ‘Locomotive Breath’. Sadly his choice of covers fails to match the Tull songs and the set visibly slumps.
The Girls With Guitars morphed from the 2011 Blues Caravan and the 2015 version is big on enthusiasm and promise and settles on being a well balanced review.
Guitarist vocalist Eliana Cargnelutti drives them on with her self penned anthem ‘Girl Band’ and the ripping, self explanatory ‘Eliana’s Boogie’. She also makes the most of Joan Jett’ s booming ‘I Hate Myself For Loving You’.
Sadie Johnson adds a rockabilly feel on ‘Give Me A Kiss’ and Heather Grosse digs deep for the blues on ‘She May Have You, But I Got Your Heart’. Things come together on the celebratory whoo-hoo’s of Dave Mason’s ‘Feelin Alright’ and they close with ZZ Tops ‘Tush’ and get a great hand.
Red Butler feature Jane Pearce on vocals and guitarist Alex Butler and they make a splash on the Blues Matters Stage, which is also the late night venue for the splendid Mick Simpson and the beguiling Malaya Blue.
Saturday lunch kicks off with the magnificent vocalist Kyla Brox in tandem with acoustic guitarist Danny Blomeley and occasional fills from sax player Tony Marshall. She’s a magnificent interpretive singer and fine flautist and both elements are evidenced on the title track of her ‘Grey Sky Blues’ album and Irma Thomas’s ‘Don’t Mess With My Man’. As her voice soars the crowd are captivated and give her a great reception.
Simon Dunkerley writes: My first introduction to Kyla Brox was back in 2001 when she appeared with her father’s band ‘The Victor Brox Blues Train’ and remember then how powerful and meaningful her vocals were. When I saw her name on the lineup she was one of the “must see” artists. Catching her twice over the weekend, she gave a full band set in the blues stage but even better was the amazing acoustic set in Reds.
Back on Centre Stage Pete Brown teams up with guitarist Krissie Matthews and works hard to make the most of old chestnuts like ‘Politician’ and ‘Theme From An Imaginary Western’, but in truth its left to the new generation of bluesers in the shape of Laurence Jones to spark the afternoon.
Laurence’s steely riffs and catchy hooks are underscored by bass man Roger Inniss root notes. A combination of slow blues on ‘Thunder In The Sky’, the bristling ‘Southern Breeze’, the mighty shuffle of ‘Soul Swamp River’, and a new song ‘Don’t Need No Reason’ give Laurence all the ammunition he needs to score big time.
Back in Reds Gerry McAvoy and Ted McKenna revisit the Rory Gallagher back catalogue with Band of Friends. McAvoy has been reborn as a front man who is clearly at ease conducting a number of call and response moments and they take the audience to fever pitch on favourites like ‘Shadow Play’, ‘Filby’ and ‘A Million Miles Away’.
Simon Dunkerley writes: I unfortunately missed seeing Rory Gallagher live so to get to see Band of Friends is as close as it gets. Gerry McAvoy and Ted McKenna both performed with Rory, Gerry for some 25 years in total, and have been touring with Marcel Scherpenzeel on guitar as BOF for a number of years now.
They pulled one of the biggest crowds so far this weekend and with good reason: Rory’s music crosses so many barriers. Kicking out tracks like ‘Cradle Rock’, ‘Wayward Child’ and ‘Philby’ the showmanship and absolute quality of the playing shines through and the band interaction evident throughout the set. Without doubt this was the highlight and set of the weekend for me.
Pete Feenstra writes: The dual Les Paul attack of Federal Charm struggles to get a similar response and despite plenty of endeavour and indie-like energy they are a shade too one dimensional and will surely enjoy better moments.
Back in the Skyline Pavilion, The Riotous Brothers work hard to get the crowd on their side. Front man Mash Sonnet overcomes an annoying self deprecating manner to lead the band into their set highlight ‘Now More Than Ever’.
If Kyla Brox reminded us of the emotive impact of a true soulful blues vocalist, then Connie Lush added a joie de vivre to an equally engaging vocal range. She fronts the aptly titled Blues Shouter. She’s one part fire and one part ice, and mixes good humour with a deep emotional charge on songs ostensibly aimed at women but with a message for men. Steve Wright provided the perfect guitar accompaniment to allow Connie to soar impressively.
Saturday night at Reds, is a roaring success for Babajack. Their mix of trippy rhythms and deep drones make a connection with an audience who are happy to dance along with Becky Tate’s exhortations.
She belts a Cajon on ‘Money’s All Gone’ as Trevor Steger doubles on slide-led cigar box guitar and harp. Things slow up on the stuttering dirge of on ‘Coming Home’, but the powerhouse rhythm section of drummer Tosh Murase and bassist Adam Bertenshaw ensure undiminished energy levels and hypnotic beats.
Becky drives the band on with a sultry range of aching groans, split syllables, and feverish percussion and they build things up further with the hypnotic tic-toc rhythm of Leadbelly’s ‘Gallows Pole’ and finish with the climactic ‘Skin & Bone’, which Becky attacks with real ferocity. A frenzied percussive finale with drummer Tosh leads them into a climatic finish and joyous reception.
While Coughlin’s Quo kept the headbangers happy in Reds it was over to Centre Stage for the twin guitar and soulful funky blues of Marcus Malone. Working his way through the opening three songs from his ‘Stand Or Fall’ album, he uses all of his stage craft to overcompensate for a muddy mix. Both the self explanatory ‘Living the Blues’ and ‘Stand Or Fall’ have enough quality to send out an impressive musical mission statement and by the time of the closing ‘Under Pressure’ he’s got the crowd rocking.
Perhaps only a bunch of seasoned rockers like Skinny Molly could follow in the slipstream of Quo’s three chord boogie. Happily Skinny Molly has the know-how to channel the audience energy to their own ends, and in Mike Estes they have a charismatic front man with a batch of booming southern rock songs to make a big impact.
Estes is the master of the grand gesture and power chords that help shape rockers such as ‘When The Goin’ Gets Tough, The Tough Go Fishin’, ‘Glad I Ain’t You’ and the narrative driven ‘Devil In The Bottle’.
Such is the strength of his material that ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ feels generically related rather than an adjunct, before they return to encore with Steve Earle’s unexpected ‘The Other Kind’, their own ‘Y’All. The inevitable Freebird still packs a punch and if they did mine a few clichés tonight, you’d have to go along way to top the levels of communal intensity to be found in Skegness tonight. Game, set and match to the southern rockers.
Danny Bryant was a late, but welcome addition to the Centre Stage was a confirmation of his recent elevation to the next level of Brit Rock Blues, and a sizeable blues crowd suggests he can now hold his own, even with the fiercest of opposition from Skinny Molly.
The clash with Molly meant I only caught a brief glimpse of the set, and while it’s sometimes hard to tell whether enjoying himself of grimacing, he sure can mangle a guitar, while his new rhythm section give him refreshing options.
Roadhouse’s annual 5 hour super jam pulled in a big crowd and an impressive queue of guests, including the diminutive harp player Stevie Smith who jammed with Red Butler and later sat in tandem with guitarist Roadhouse guitarist Danny Gwillym.
The indefatigable Nine Below Zero, surreally rammed Reds at midday on Sunday to remind us that back in their day they were the best R&B band in the land. Dennis Greaves guitar work and his cheeky chappy banter combined with Mark Feltham’s dazzling harp technique and deep tones to ensure plenty of sharp dynamics and re-invigorated chestnuts such as ‘Don’t Point Your Finger’, ‘Homework’ and ‘Eleven + Eleven’.
Refreshingly some staggered timings allowed enough time to catch Dave Kelly in solo mode, with some fine acoustic and slide work and a hatful of personal anecdotes of his time with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and his late sister Joanne Kelly. His audience lapped it up, and you could be sure they would all be in exactly the same place some 8 hours later for The Blues band
Back at Reds, Jim Diamond and guitarist Ronnie Johnson overcame initial apathy as Jim’s emotive quaver found its mark on Terry Reid’s ‘Friends’ and the moving ‘I Won’t Let You Down’, to bring him an unlikely triumph.
No such initial problems for the 7-piece Del Bromham & The Blues Devils who built incrementally, from a solo ragtime ‘Nine Yards’ to quickly add a succession of players including the magnificent Simon Rinaldo on Hammond and Lee Vernon on harp from Pearl Handle Revolver as well as Americana vocalist Cherry Lee Mewis.
The expanded line-up made a good fist of Bobby Bland’s shuffle ‘This Time I’m Gone For Good’ and everything sparked on the Hammond sweep of ‘Slave’ and Del’s slide-led duet with Cherry Lee Mewis on ‘What Comes Around’ . Both ‘The Ballad of JD’ and ‘Words’ led to a spirited sing-along before Cherry Lee took things up a notch on Janis Joplin ‘Move Over’.
Despite over running by 25 minutes, the crowd still wanted more and Del was happy to oblige by segueing his own ‘Hallelujah’ into Zeppelin’s ‘Rock & Roll’, on the perfect finish to a steaming set.
Given the choice between the AC/DC-inspired Screaming Eagles and the guitar subtleties of Robbie McIntosh, I chose the latter. Together with former Medicine Head harp player Peter Hope Evans, Robbie slips into a series of mellifluous grooves and soaring solos on intricate songs such as ‘Blackbird’. Robbie is essentially a classy side-man but both his imperious guitar playing and excellent songs deservedly led him to an audience of his own.
Back at Jaks, Roadhouse made light of the opposition in the bigger rooms and delighted a packed Blues Matters Stage with the best of Gary Boner’s song book. ‘Blues Highway’ built impressively, while the hard edged ‘Blues Motel’ featured guitarist Danny Gwillym on both rhythm and lead with Mandie Graham on vocals. Sarah Harvey-Smart hogged the limelight on the sultry ‘Lying Games’ and both women singers combined beautifully with the dual guitar lines of the ethereal ‘Spirits Cross The Water’. Mixing twin guitar led blues, boogie and southern rock with gothic narratives, Roadhouse have a lot going for them.
And so to The Blues Band who tonight benefit from the fresh impetus of guitarist Pete Emery. They opened with the first three tracks form their 1980 ‘Live At The Rockpalast’ reissue and move from the exuberant ‘Come On In’ to the mournful ‘Death Letter Blues’ Much of the material is familiar and when Paul Jones shouts out there’s a unexpected gap where they used to be snap. Still, Jones gives us a subtle reminder of the importance of stage craft and fine lyrical harp playing on ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’ and the blues fans lap it up.
Back at Jaks the sizeable Laura Holland Band complete with horns section hold court. She’s blossomed over the last few years , transforming herself from a reticent front person to a sparkling chanteuse, at ease with some soulful material.
It’s back to Reds for Lez Zeppelin, who fail to cut it musically. Vocalist Shannon Conley hit notes that Plant could probably only dream about, but guitarist Steph Payne has a nightmare with a buzzing amp, a horrible tone, and is apparently all but abandoned by her roadie. Only the closing the closing ‘Kashmir’ saves them from ignominy.
Finally it’s back to Blues Matters stage for a late drink and the raucous Robin Robertson Band featuring the big voice of Annette Chapman who barely needs a mic to make the most of a bunch of standards that had the late night crowd rocking on a great late night club finale to a hugely enjoyable 3 day festival.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos and additional reporting by Simon Dunkerley
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 30 August 2020.
UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 8 September 2020.
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