You might say it was a case of ‘Blues is the colour’ as Under the Bridge, located beneath the East Stand at Chelsea FC, played host to one of London Blues Month’s highest-profile gigs.
It lies squarely within the wealthiest corner of London so it was appropriate that it featured two artists with an immaculate pedigree (blues bloodied?). Headlining was Bernie Marsden, not just a stalwart of Whitesnake’s glory blues-rock days and a respected solo performer but a man with an immaculate contacts book.
First though a generous hour long support came from Deborah Bonham, not only part of a legendary rock family but talented enough in her own right to have supported artists of the calibre of Paul Rodgers and Foreigner.
Hers was a very diverse set – opener ‘Shit Happens’ and ‘Painbirds’ were hard to pigeonhole, ‘What We’ve Got’ had a slightly funky vibe and ‘I Need Love’ was a more traditional slow blues. The common link was the sensitive playing of a settled cast of musicians and notably versatile guitarist Peter Bullick, able to alter his style to match the mood of each song and switching between mandolin and slide guitar on ‘Feel So Alive’.
Singing bare footed on a plush carpet, Deborah herself gave out a warm ‘Earth Mother’ type vibe, regularly seeking out familiar faces in the audience.
She donned acoustic for the more direct sounds of ‘Take Me Down’ and ‘Fly’ while ‘Hold On’ was an exquisite ballad, and ‘Jack Past 8’ saw them laying down a groove influenced by classic early seventies style funk.
The cornerstone of her set however was the lengthy epic ‘No Angel’, which built up from quiet beginnings to Peter letting rip on guitar, before the band then took the pace right down to a virtual standstill before winding it up again, the bat winged-sleeves of Deborah’s top flapping as she attacked the song as if possessed by a demonic spirit.
The band closed with a shorter and punchier, but no less enjoyable ‘Devil’s In New Orleans’, aided by a guest harmonica player in John Dominic.
While not as spectacular as some of the current darlings of the scene, this was a reminder that there is far more substance to Deborah Bonham than just a famous name, and a new album in 2020 after a few years of recording inactivity will be very timely.
A quick changeover saw Bernie Marsden take the stage with a trademark mischievous, jovial grin and a silver mane that is beginning to give Brian May’s a run for its money. Opener ‘Lining Track’, an old blues standard (which my generation most remembers for the Aerosmith adaptation as ‘Hangman Jury’) was a reminder that as well as his immaculate playing on his trusty Les Paul, his voice has an equally pleasant tone to it and is not the afterthought it can be with some who are primarily guitarists.
I’ve seen him with various line-ups over the years, but tonight’s combination had a relatively bluesy feel with both Bob Fridezema – one of blues rock’s current go-to men- and a pair of backing singers, Alex and Caroline prominent on ‘Don’t You Lie to Me’.
However even nearly 40 years on, he would be brave to ignore the Whitesnake connection and on a night like this ‘Walking In The Shadow of the Blues’ was fitting, and superbly delivered. After a quip about ‘don’t ask me who’s in the band tonight’, he introduced a guest second guitarist and jaws dropped as who should come in from the wings- clad in mufti rather than usual suit and shades- but none other than Joe Bonamassa!
The two jammed and traded solos on a contrasting pair of songs, both old blues numbers but popularised by Brits in Gary Moore and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac respectively in a jaunty ‘Walking By Myself’ and the mournful slow blues of ‘Need Your Love So Bad’.
If there was any competition it was friendly, but on both occasions Joe’s playing was on an even higher plane. True to his reputation as a guitar obsessive, after taking his bow his last act was to fastidiously tidy up all this cables as he departed!
It was inevitable there would be a short period of anti climax but after Bernie previewed a cover of Albert King’s ‘I’ll Play The Blues For You’ from a forthcoming album, the tempo was lifted by another old classic in ‘Fool For Your Loving’.
However a common theme in all the Whitesnake numbers tonight was that, in the hands of this line up, they were given a slightly more stripped back and mellow treatment, wisely not attempting to emulate a bombastic arena sound.
A further name check for Peter Green led into a lengthy ‘Oh Well’, leaving some of the singing to the audience and darting in and out of a snatch of ‘The Green Manalishi’, while he told a familiar anecdote about meeting Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland before a version of ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart of the City’. Stripped down and with a traditional blues backing from the rhythm section of Mark Maybry and Dave Stevenson, it was probably closer in spirit to his version than the one the Whitesnake choir always sang along to.
The set choice, perhaps reflecting the Blues Month theme, emphasised a niche Bernie seems to have settled into, as the man who met and worked with all the greats, be they the American originals, the stalwarts of the sixties British blues boom, or the newer generation and is now a respectful keeper and interpreter of their legacy.
On the other hand it might have been nice to hear more of his own material- indeed ‘A Place In My Heart’, covered by Joe B, was a beautiful song showing his songwriting ability. Talking of which, the main set ended inevitably with the song he co-wrote in 1982 and which in its modified form must be one of the most played rock songs of all time, preceded by a cheeky intro of ‘’ere’s a song for ya’. On this occasion he got the crowd to take over large parts of ‘Here I Go Again’ but I was delighted that as a seal of authenticity he shouted ‘hobo’ into the mike at the appropriate point.
Returning for an encore and paying tribute to Ginger Baker, as well as Jack Bruce, a sobering reminder that we are gradually losing the first wave of the blues rock pioneers, he played another third generation cover of a classic in ‘Crossroads’. It was another immaculate interpretation and interestingly his guitar, so smooth in tone all night, really went to the ragged edge at one point.
It concluded something of a masterclass in which the special guest had put the seal on a right royal evening of blues rock.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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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