I had wanted to see Robbie McIntosh play live ever since I was spellbound by his scintillating playing on The Pretender’s ‘Learning To Crawl’ album back in 1984. Tracks like ‘My City Was Gone’ and ‘Time The Avenger’ are still high on my playlist today.
So this chance to see him play with the sometime band BluesClub was too good to miss. The Eel Pie Club is keeping alive the legend of the ‘60’s Eel Pie r‘n’b scene twice a month in the room above the Cabbage Patch pub. Humble surroundings perhaps, but the BluesClub band boasts a collective cv of A list rock-n-roll go-to guys.
Bassist Alan Rogan was tucked up in the corner, barely visible perched on a stool between drums and keys. He looked anonymous enough, as if trying to hide away. And yet the band is his project. Rogan’s daytime job includes guitar technician to the Rolling Stones, Joe Walsh and Pete Townshend. He initially put the band together about 20 years ago. But they only play a handful of gigs each year.
Bill Nighy look-a-like William Topley, formerly of The Blessing, fronts the band. Even on this tiny, crowded stage he exerts a casual confidence and assured delivery. Topley has class enough to lead the band through a collection of top quality blues covers grouped around a laid back Delta feel. Canned Heat’s gutsy ‘On the Road Again’ is possibly his best moment.
In front of Rogan, Guy Fletcher masterminds the keyboard input. Fletcher, once a lynchpin in Roxy Music and Dire Straits, provides some wonderfully sublime electric piano fills. But it is the delicious Hammond organ driving tracks like Little Walter’s ‘Crazy Mixed Up World’ that really stands out.
This track features a tight, infectious rhythm interchange with Paul Beavis on drums (sitting in for regular skinsman Danny Cummings) who has Robert Fripp, Russ Ballard and The Waterboys in his back catalogue, is surely a mere stripling compared to his comrades. Much of the band’s energy comes from the groove rustled up by this busy sticksman.
To his left is where Robbie McIntosh hangs out. The sublime former Pretenders, Paul McCartney, Tom Jones (to mention only a few) guitarist could easily dominate this show, Indeed, in many ways I wanted him to. But maybe his demeanour is a clue to the role he wants to play in this band. Settled in rear, adorned in very un-rock ‘n’ roll black-framed spectacles and a woolly cardy, McIntosh is content to add flourishes and colour to tracks like ‘Clubhouse’ and Slim Harpo’s ‘Shake Your Hips’.
When he does stretch out, it is with measured brilliance. ‘On The Road Again’ has everyone in the packed bar all a shimmer; and the solos on Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Back Door Man’ are pretty much worth the ticket price alone.
In truth, this isn’t quite enough for me. And that’s because the real feature of the show – and indeed the reason Rogan put the band together – is the starring role afforded to Peter Hope-Evans. Playing mouth organ and Jews Harp and sitting up front, Hope-Evans delivers a tour de force on nearly every track. He gives his absolute all every time, twisting and writhing on his stool to wring out overbent notes and glissando smears. After a whirwind of playing on a great rendition of Taj Mahal’s ‘She Caught the Katy’, the musician is visibly spent. If an oxygen mask appeared from the wings I would not have been surprised.
On some tracks all the individual elements of this band come together with stunning exuberance. John Lee Hooker’s ‘This is Hip’ is spine-tinglingly good. The crawling rhythm ensnaring the audience, with McIntosh and Hope-Evans dancing over the top with virtuoso abandon.
A really good gig. But maybe not enough of the fireworks from McIntosh I’m hoping for. And that’s not to take anything away from this accomplished, cool band. It’s all down to personal taste. ‘I like a bit of harp’, nods my mate, with only a hint of irony. And we do, but I think we both like the guitar a bit more.
Review by Dave Atkinson
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