Tonight, Nine Below Zero are reborn as a big band. They have all the essential qualities that an 8-piece combo requires, from the core duo of seasoned front man Dennis Greaves and the magisterial harp player Mark Feltham, to a hot horn section, a fine accompanying vocalist, an intuitive keyboard player, a swinging rhythm section and a strong back catalogue of songs topped by some well researched covers from their new ’13 Shades of Blue’ album.
They swing, they boogie and they ultimately immerse themselves in the blues, before rising again with generous amounts of call and response friendly old school R&B which presses all the right buttons for their packed Under The Bridge crowd.
Nine Below Zero’s are not so much old wine in new bottles, as a band with chameleon like qualities that is willing to change, while outwardly still projecting themselves as the essential r&b band they are.
One glance at their discography reveals a wide array of material that is rooted in r&b, but never constrained by it. Indeed some of tonight’s finer moments features soul-drenched big band swing with virtuoso solos.
Dennis Greaves’s big band musical vision is slickly realized through a delicate balance of planning and spontaneity with plenty of room for fun.
Dennis Greaves is a charismatic front man with a great line in South London patter. He backs it up with some surprising nifty guitar work, a soulful voice and the art of stage craft, which draws us into a well paced set that has something for everyone.
They bravely open with an avalanche of funk on the boisterous and high volume ‘Don’t Lay Your Funky Trip On Me’ and quickly slip into a brace of crowd pleasing staples ‘I Can’t Do My Homework Anymore’ and the playful ‘The Hoochie Coochie Coo’.
John Mayall’s feverish ‘Crawling Up A Hill’ sounds like late 70′s vintage Nine Below, while vocalist Charlie Austen – described by Dennis as: “last seen banging them in for Queens Park Rangers” – takes the spotlight on Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)’, with Dennis in the unusual role of backing vocalist.
In fact the Greaves and Austen harmony combination is a notable feature of the expanded line-up in which the horns add both heft and swing as you might expect. Old nuggets such as ‘Ridin’ On The L&N’ and ‘Don’t Point Your Finger’ are transformed by new arrangements and a big band attack
The best moment of the night is sandwiched somewhere between the two, as Dennis leans into his adopted role as a stellar blues guitarist, on B.B. King’s ‘You’re Still My Woman’, which is grittily sung by Mark Feltham
It provides a defining moment for both the band and the project as a whole, as Mark’s expressive vocal is twinned by Dennis gutsy guitar lines on a song that realises its full potential in big band style.
For a guitar playing front man who usually makes full use of the stage, Greaves momentarily cuts a figure of studied concentration as he builds up an intricately woven solo that says more in 3 minutes than the rest of the night combined.
So far so good, but as the band powers it way through a soul-blues set Mark Feltham’s blues-harp playing leaves us in no doubt as to why he’s picked up the British Blues harp player of the year award.
In a succession of wide ranging harp bursts – shifting from west coast swing, to John Popperesque intensity and beautifully nuanced country tones – he exudes poise and explores real feel.
Clad top-to-toe in black and complete with a double breasted jacket he transforms himself from a brooding presence stage right, into a mime artist who extravagantly contorts his body to wring every last possibility from a song.
He clearly knows the value of space, time and a less-is-more approach as he makes every single note count. He draws a great reception from the crowd for his contrasting stuttering notes and breathy tonal swoops on ‘Crawling Up A Hill’ and his harp resolution to another funky workout.
By the time of ‘Rockin’ Robin’ the front ranks are leaping around and punching the air as if 20 years younger than they really are.
The octet switches to a cool funky Albert Collins style blues, as Dennis plucks his bass string and the rhythm section of drummer Mickey Burkey and bassist Ben Willis give the Georgie Fame dedicated instrumental a real lift.
Tonight, NBZ successfully traverse that thin dividing line between the past and present to earn a well deserved reception and once again re-invent themselves, this time as one of the most potent big bands on the blues circuit.
No need to point your finger, job done!
Earlier in the evening Chloe Marriott opens with a powerful funk laden set. Moving from power trio to solo acoustic and back again, she doesnt so much win over the crowd as keep them guessing with a deep resonant voice which sometimes evokes Joanne Armatrading, but with the rawness of Joanne Shaw Taylor.
With just a little more experience in her phrasing and clarity of diction, she will soon draw people towards her own songs, of which the spacious ‘Lines’ stands out, alongside a very orginal reworking of Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Mark Hughes/MHP Studios
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
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