Gig review: LEAD BELLY FEST – Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015

Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015
Photo: John Bull Rockrpix www.rockrpix.com

As George Harrison once said: “No Lead Belly, no Lonnie Donegan. Therefore no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”  Van Morrison later generalized the point when he said: “Lead Belly was not an influence, he was the influence.  If it wasn’t for him, I may never have been here.”

Last night Billy Bragg further contextualized Huddie William ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter’s influence on the British scene, by drawing on the enduring talents of Chris Barber (double bass and trombone), and Paul Jones (harp and vocal), two skiffle generation practitioners who became crucial Brit boomers.

Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015
Photo: John Bull Rockrpix www.rockrpix.com

The sheer diversity of the ‘Lead Belly Fest’ line-up pointed to the far reaching influence of a song catalogue that was anchored by Mick Rogers’ fine house band and given a passionate airing on an emotional night.

And while both Lead Belly’s material and the documentary links on two flickering screens above sought to give the evening its context, it was simply the marvellous exposition of his songs and related material that clinched the deal.

Walter Trout - Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015
Photo: John Bull Rockrpix www.rockrpix.com

Emotion was never too far from the surface and it would have taken a soul with a heart of stone not to be moved by the return of Walter Trout.

On an evening in which the primacy of the voice was paramount, here was a performer who had not only re-found his booming voice, but he’d got his life back!

Walter Trout - Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015

Introduced by his wife Marie, Walter Trout made a stunning return to the stage following a life threatening illness. He dedicated his own ‘Say Goodbye To The Blues’ to B.B. King and as the tears flowed, he regained his composure to invite his protégé Laurence Jones to join him on  a guitar frenzy that was ‘TB Blues’ (which he told us could have been renamed for him as ‘Hepatitis C Blues’).

Walter Trout - Led Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015
Photo: John Bull Rockrpix www.rockrpix.com

First guests of the night were the late Ronnie Lane’s band Slim Chance.  Band members Charlie Hart and Steve Simpson both made a couple of appearances on the night on violin, accordion, mandolin and guitar, and they teamed up with Geraint Watkins on vocals for an exuberant ‘Careless Love’.

Gemma Ray - Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015

Ruby Turner filled the cavernous venue with her full vocal range, joining Jools Holland on a wonderful ’Backwater Blues’, while the up and coming Gemma Ray added a haunting voice to her guitar-led electronics.

The voice of Dr. Hook, Dennis Locorriere dug deep for an earthy ‘Take This Hammer’ and rising blues-rock star Laurence Jones rocked out on the first of two versions on the night of ‘Good Morning Blues’ and his own slow blues ‘Thunder In The Sky.’

Laurence Jones - Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015

Paul Jones made the first of several appearances  by reaching back into his own career for ‘John Hardy’ and the second version of the night of ‘Black Betty’.

Dana Fuchs added incredible power to raw emotion to close part one with a raucous ‘Gallows Pole’, while Billy Bragg took us back to the skiffle days and the influence of Lonnie Donegan, leading into the Beatles, with ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘Love Me Do’.

Eric Bibb - Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015

Eric Bibb seized the moment and brought the house to complete silence on ‘Bourgeois Blues.’ His sheer presence was matched by Josh White Jnr., whose  warm and understated delivery perfectly nuanced ‘There’s A Name Going Round,’ before he was joined by the moving vocal of Gwen Dickie.

Tom Paley - Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015

87 year old Tom Paley, still firm of voice and with clarity of presentation, brought  a sense of perspective and humility to the the proceedings.

Eric Burdon - Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015

Eric Burdon snarled his way through the impassioned ‘In The Pines’ but struggled on ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ and Van Morrison rounded things off with the gently voiced ‘Astral Weeks’ – the kind of song that would surely make Lead Belly smile – and a wonderful narrative and beautifully phrased ‘Cleaning Windows’, albeit with a perfunctory ending.

Van Morrison - Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015
Photo: John Bull Rockrpix www.rockrpix.com

‘Goodnight Irene’ provided the perfect finale, except the ensemble stayed for one more rock & roll work out on which Burdon cajoled Van into his giving us more, as the rest of the cast populated the Albert Hall stage and as if performing an illusion made it visibly shrink.

On an evening that vacillated between the inspirational and the ragged, but played with enthusiastic commitment, even the attending royalty must have been tempted to rattle their jewellery.

Review by Pete Feenstra

Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 19:00

Photos by Mark Hughes/MHP except where stated www.music.mhpstudios.co.uk
Set list photo by Richard Boyles

Lead Belly Fest, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 June 2015


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