by Ian Mann
May 22, 2017
Although superficially different the two acts were unified by their love of early 20th century American music. The evening included some highly accomplished singing and playing.
Chris Moreton Duo / FB Pocket Orchestra, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 21/05/2017.
One of the most distinctive things about Black Mountain Jazz is the sheer diversity of its programming with both the monthly club nights and the annual Wall2Wall Festival embracing a wide variety of jazz genres and beyond. Eclectic is the word.
The May club event was a particularly good example of this with an opening set by locally based bluegrass musician Chris Moreton followed by the early jazz sounds of Hampshire’s FB Pocket Orchestra. Although superficially different the two acts were unified by their love of early 20th century American music with promoter Mike Skilton eager to emphasise the common roots linking the various genres of American popular music.
CHRIS MORETON DUO
Chris Moreton has some forty years of experience as a bluegrass musician, a highly accomplished guitar picker who has won a number of awards for his playing. A regular on the festival circuit he has recently appeared at the Orwell Bluegrass Festival in Ipswich and the Battlefield Bluegrass Festival in Naseby.
On most performances Moreton is joined by his wife, Wendy, on double bass, the couple often billing themselves at The Moreton Road Show.
As the title of Moreton’s latest album suggests Chris’ love of bluegrass is not overly reverential, he’s more than happy to have a little fun with the genre. A number of tonight’s songs were sourced from that disc, the cheekily titled “Not Strictly Bluegrass”.
Tonight’s opening song didn’t make the album, but even so it would have fitted nicely into the concept. Chris and Wendy treated us to a bluegrass arrangement of Richard Thompson’s magnificent song “Vincent Black Lightning” with Chris singing and playing both guitar and a harmonica held in a neck-brace. The performance was a little ragged and missing something of Thompson’s world weary gravitas but was still hugely enjoyable, something that was also a tribute to the sheer quality of Thompson’s writing.
Steve Grossman’s epic train song “City Of New Orleans” has become a bluegrass staple and is another piece of evocative, image rich songwriting. A particularly nimble guitar solo from Chris drew a spontaneous round of applause from the audience. Clapping after solos is standard practice for a jazz crowd but maybe it isn’t something Chris experiences as bluegrass gigs so much. Either way he thanked us for the “ripple”.
The guitar instrumental “Limerock”, a tune from the Texan tradition, featured further fretboard wizardry with the agility and dexterity of Chris’ playing occasionally reminding me of the great Michael Chapman’s periodic forays into the world of Americana.
The Moretons’ performance was peppered with plenty of good natured, self deprecating humour with plenty of banter between husband and wife. Their take on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” introduced Chris’ “cymbal bashing machine” , a foot operated device. You can probably imagine how this fitted into the bluegrass style arrangement of this well known and popular piece.
Perhaps less familiar to the audience was Hank Williams’ “Moanin’ The Blues”. Moreton’s arrangement was inspired by the recent Hank Williams biopic “I Saw The Light” starring Tom Hiddlestone. No bluegrass set would be complete without at least one Hank Williams tune and Chris did a more than passable impression of the famous Williams yodel as Wendy played slapped double bass.
The instrumental “Clinch Mountain Backstep” saw Chris taking up his Clifford Essex five string banjo, manufactured in London in 1926. Short but invigorating the piece offered another excellent example of Chris’ finger picking skills.
Chris’ adaptation of Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” was frequently hilarious with Chris giving a whistle stop version of his own life story via a tongue twisting lyric name checking a bewildering variety of British locations. Technically dazzling, and great fun into the bargain.
By way of contrast the song “White Oak”, by the contemporary alt country singer songwriter Jason Isbell, had considerable emotional impact. The song, a kind of outlaw ballad, addresses Isbell’s problems with alcoholism and his eventual rehabilitation via an emotive, evocative and poetic lyric. The Moretons’ interpretation served the song well and I came away feeling that Isbell is a writer and performer I’d like to hear more of, even allowing for the fact that country – ‘alt’ or otherwise- isn’t usually my bag. Although more serious in tenor than most of the rest of the music this was arguably the highlight of the set.
The duo concluded with Moreton’s updating of the old Charlie Daniels hit “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”, re-invented here as “The Devil Went Back To Georgia” with Satan this time trying his luck in a guitar duel with ace picker Dan Crary. Needless to say the guy with the horns and the cape lost again.
This good natured set by the Moretons was well received by a jazz club crowd that seems increasingly happy to explore music outside its usual comfort zone. The ‘double bill’ format introduced for this club night season has proved to be highly popular and even the most unlikely combinations have worked well and been positively received. It’s a format that seems likely to continue into the 2017/18 season.
FB POCKET ORCHESTRA
FBPO first appeared in Abergavenny at the 2015 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival when they delivered a well received set at the Jazz Alley event in the town’s Market Hall. It was predicted at the time that they would subsequently return for a club night event, and now, nearly two years later ,here they were.
Part of the reason for the delay in their return was the band’s phenomenally busy schedule with several residencies in the South of England plus a busy touring programme. FBPO often tour on rural touring schemes and later in 2015 appeared at Whitbourne Village Hall in my native Herefordshire, an event sponsored by the Arts Alive organisation.
The Orchestra describes itself as playing “hot jazz, blues, ragtime and popular dances of the 1920s/30s and earlier”. The three members, Jenny Russell, Ollie Corbin and Paul Stevenson all sing and play a variety of instruments. They all have an obvious love for, and knowledge of, the music of their chosen era and present their repertoire in a professional manner that is both humorous and informative.
The nature of the music played by FBPO, all of it dating from the pre LP era, ensured that their set was jam packed with short, catchy songs, many of them highly familiar. Russell was the group’s main singer, a technically accomplished vocalist who delivered the sometimes risqué material with a flirtatious twinkle in her eye. She also proved to be a skilled clarinet soloist and also doubled on washboard during her colleagues’ instrumental solos. Stevenson specialised on guitar and banjo and occasionally rattled a tambourine with his foot. Meanwhile Corbin acted as the band’s spokesman and played a bewildering variety of instruments including tuba, accordion and cornet.
They opened with Russell singing the lively “Exactly Like You” and followed this with the seductive blues of “Come Love” with Russell again handling the vocals and soloing on clarinet as Stevenson’s tautly strummed guitar and Corbin’s pumping tuba bass lines provided the rhythmic impetus.
The characteristic instrument swappage began wit the cautionary “Say No To The Devil” as Stevenson moved from guitar to banjo. Russell’s humorous delivery updated the lyrics to include topical references to banjos and the Severn Bridge – I assume the band had encountered traffic delays en route to the venue.
“Your Feet’s Too Big” is a song indelibly associated with Fats Waller but was not actually written by him. FBPO shows are informative as well as entertaining – the song was written by Fred Fisher with lyrics by Ada Benson, although Waller added his own ad libs to his performance of the song.
Corbin took over the vocal duties on Pink Anderson’s “I Got Mine”, an everyday tale of a 1920s gambler and all round bad boy. And yes, Pink Anderson, along with fellow bluesman Floyd
Council , did lend half his name to a certain psychedelic rock group from Cambridge in the 1960s.
Corbin demonstrated his skills on cornet as he shared the solos with guitarist Stevenson as Russell sang the Hoagy Carmichael song “Up The Lazy River”.
The story of the voluptuous “Egyptian Ella” saw the band exploring the territory of the novelty song with the humorous lyrics, delivered by Russell, accompanied by soloist Stevenson on guitar plus Corbin’s tuba bass.
Lil Johnson’s risqué lyrics on the song “Nuts” were made famous – or should that be infamous – by none other than George Melly. Corbin’s rather uptight English delivery couldn’t quite match Melly’s lascivious fruitiness, but even so you couldn’t help but smile. Musically the combination of clarinet and muted cornet was highly effective.
Corbin also sang James P. Johnson’s “Charleston”, describing the dance as “the Macarena of the 1920s”. Again Corbin’s delivery reminded me of the Temperance Seven or the Bonzo Dog Band with their 20s pastiches. There’s often something of a ‘tea dance’ fell to FBPO’s music.
A moody interpretation of the gypsy jazz staple “Dark Eyes” saw a new instrumental combination of accordion (Corbin) and melodica (Russell) alongside Stevenson’s guitar with Russell taking the melodic lead as Corbin provided bellows driven bass lines.
With Corbin continuing on accordion and Stevenson switching to banjo the trio’s version of Jimmie Rogers’ “He’s In The Jailhouse Now”, sung by Russell, almost pushed the FBPO into the same musical area as the Moretons – those inter genre connections again. Russell even tried her hand at some yodelling. Chris & Wendy, seated in the audience, certainly seemed to approve.
“After You’ve Gone”, sung by Russell and featuring tuba and guitar, represented a more obvious ‘jazz’ choice while “Bei Mir Bist du Schon” represented a return to gypsy jazz territory. The latter song is also part of the repertoire of Wall2Wall Festival favourites Moscow Drug Club.
The performance closed with Corbin taking the lead vocal on “Drop That Sack”, a song written by Papa Charlie Jackson and dating back to the era of the touring ‘Medicine Shows’. An attempt at an audience sing along didn’t quite come off but despite their shyness the audience still let the FBPO know just how much they’d enjoyed the performance.
It didn’t need much prompting from Mike Skilton to tempt the band back for an encore, the instrumental “Tarantella Napolitana” featuring a combination of clarinet, guitar and accordion on a tune made famous by its inclusion in the soundtrack of the “Godfather” movie.
Although neither of tonight’s acts was within my usual listening zone I still enjoyed the evening which included some highly accomplished singing and playing. With the emphasis on fun and good humour this was a hugely entertaining event, even if the music wasn’t necessarily what I’d choose to listen to at home.
We also had the bonus of entertainment in the bar at half time with Martha Skilton playing a selection of jazz standards on the venue’s new, improved, upright piano.
The FBPO have a packed schedule for the rest of the year but it’s quite conceivable that they may come back to BMJ at some point in the future.
In the meantime Chris & Wendy Moreton are set to return on Sunday September 3rd 2017 when they will be part of the Jazz Alley programme in the Market Hall at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival.
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