A free music festival. A mini-beer festival. Lots of food outlets. Easy parking. Family friendly. Great weather. What more could you ask for?
The Upton Blues Festival is a well established event now in its second decade and takes place over four days in the picturesque Worcestershire countryside. Essentially the whole town (and it’s not very big) is taken over by thousands of blues hungry punters. My wife’s description of the event as like Saga’s version of Glastonbury is perhaps a bit cruel if painfully accurate.
We were drawn to Saturday’s show with the prospect of seeing Never The Bride in the big top tent but before that Chris Bevington at the Riverside location was impressive. He had a full band too with a brass section, two lady singers, and that inveterate moonlighter Jim Kirkpatrick. Well received current album ‘Cut And Run’ was heavily featured.
I’d hoped to see Never The Bride in Bristol a month or so earlier when they launched their new album but email enquiries went unanswered. Nikki Lamborn and Catherine “Been” Feeney have been treading the boards for at least 25 years. Their big chance came in the mid-1990s when signed to Atlantic and a debut album recorded in California produced by Ron Nevison. Perhaps it should have been made a decade earlier, inviting comparisons with melodic hard rockers Heart and not least a powerhouse vocalist like Ann Wilson.
From then on it all seemed to unravel although they self-released a superb album Surprise in 2002. Since that time the albums have merely bolstered their merchandise stall rather than command wider attention. There have been a fair few live albums and one of cover versions – Jealousy – the last studio album released in 2014.
It didn’t take long for Nikki to add to the perhaps confusing trajectory. Why, with such a superb singer, have the band remained a best kept secret? Perhaps that question was further answered during the generous 90 minute set.
There were a fair amount of covers even if a stunning ‘It’s A Mans World’ was a wonderful vehicle for Nikki and ‘Life On Mars’ a crowd pleaser on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. And the new material from the new album ‘For Better, For Worse’ – on first hearing – lacked the sheer impact of those early albums. Been’s two songs – when she strapped on a guitar – were pleasant enough if a little perfunctory.
The problem with the passage of time is that new predators stalk your territory – Rebecca Downes and Sari Schorr to name but two.
Of course the need to play an all embracing festival set cannot be ruled out although for this punter the absence of anything from those two early albums was regrettable, with the exception of ‘The Living Tree’. A rousing ‘Tiger Bay’ – further underlying the duo’s connection with Dame Shirley Bassey for whom they produced an album - failed to compensate.
Nikki is an engaging performer inviting the ladies in the audience to join their girl power – or as she put it “old chicks on the road” – as reflected in new song ‘The Girls Are Back In Town’. It was evident that the band were really grateful for the early evening slot but truthfully they should be playing much bigger venues.
In an ever more fragmented musical universe will the trajectory of Wille And The Bandits be any more elevated? We’ve followed their progress over the past few years and tonight’s show (after an earlier gig at Ramblin Man Fair) showcased their often simmering blues rock to great effect.
Opening with ‘Victim Of The Night’ they emphasised their incremental development with tracks from current album Paths. But it was a particularly infectious version of ‘Black Magic Woman’ that made me feel it won’t be long before Wille and the crew break out of the blues and into the mainstream.
And just when you thought it safe to go back to the car park you stumble across another fine band, this time in a tapas bar that stopped serving food at 7:30. The Pete Feenstra-approved Born Healer have another great vocalist in Helen Turner – more Jenny Haan than Janis Joplin. The somewhat cramped conditions didn’t really do them justice.
Festivals allow us to discover new music whilst rediscovering old faithfuls, maybe make new friends, and generally soak up the “experience”. This was a superb introduction to an annual event we’ll be returning to. Arguably better than a Saga cruise, and considerably cheaper.
Review and photos by David Randall
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