by Ian Mann
October 26, 2015
Ian Mann enjoys a performance by the blues guitarist / vocalist / songwriter Kevin Brown and his trio. He also takes a look at Brown's latest album, "Grit".
Kevin Brown Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, Kings Arms, Abergavenny, 25/10/2015.
Kevin Brown is a highly experienced musician, a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter with some thirteen albums to his credit. Born in 1950 in Bamber Bridge, near Preston, Lancashire Brown has been based in the Bath area since 1978.
A dedicated Preston North End fan Brown’s musical first love is the blues with Muddy Waters and Son House among his numerous influences. The blues remains at the heart of his music but Brown’s playing has expanded to include elements of folk, country and other aspects of Americana as well as world music styles ranging from Hawaii to Africa. In 2004 he recorded the album “Kora Blues” with the Malian kora virtuoso Moussa Kouyate.
Tonight’s gig came about when Brown contacted BMJ promoter Mike Skilton with a view to appearing at the recent wall2wall Jazz Festival. With the programme already finalised Mike wasn’t able to squeeze Brown into the festival schedule but instead invited him to play at one of BMJ’s regular club nights. This proved to be an inspired decision with Brown and his trio featuring Duncan Kingston (electric bass) and Mick Candler (drums) delivering two well received sets of (mostly) original songs in the blues idiom.
I was probably one of the few audience members who had seen Brown play live before. In 2012 he performed at the Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz & Blues Festival as part of the duo Shackdusters alongside guitarist/bassist Gary Rudd. Shackdusters is still a going concern and Brown and Rudd have recorded two albums under that name. Their show at Lichfield was highly entertaining but overall I preferred tonight’s performance which was more firmly rooted in the sound of classic blues.
Many of tonight’s songs were sourced from Brown’s latest album “Grit”, a “live in the studio” recording made with a large cast of musicians including Kingston and Candler plus guest guitarist and vocalist Andy Fairweather Low. In a professional career spanning nearly thirty years Brown has been signed to the Hannibal and Chrysalis record labels but in recent times has issued his recordings on his own Doodah Records imprint.
Brown’s songs are based around classic blues structures but his lyrics invest them with a perspective that is defiantly British - sometimes specifically Lancastrian - and often highly personal. It’s a formula that is both effective and convincing, Brown has travelled widely and even lived and worked in Austin, Texas for a while yet he never tries to sound like an American. With his authentic Northern persona and immense technical ability as a guitarist he sometimes reminded me of the great Michael Chapman – could the title of the new album be a homage to Chapman’s much loved 70s release “Millstone Grit” ?
This evening’s performance featured Brown playing a variety of guitars and he started on semi-acoustic and immediately displayed his skills as a finger slide player on “Your Train Will Come” which also featured an assured vocal performance. I was also impressed with Kingston, a highly musical bassist whose supple lines provided both propulsion and harmonic variation and by Candler whose colourful but understated drumming also served the music well. The trio had also brought along their own sound engineer/road manager Steve and the sound quality was well balanced and generally spot on throughout.
“It’s Just A Thing I’m Going Through” featured Brown’s expressive vocals and that soulfulness was also evident on “You Lead Me On”, a slide fuelled slow blues that Brown claimed to have written many years ago for “my ex wife to be”. Humour was a crucial part of Brown’s announcing style and he came out with some classical one liners over the course of the evening. There were times at Lichfield when I felt he overdid the comedy a bit but he pretty much got the balance just right here.
During his career Brown has travelled extensively and “The Road And Me” was a chronicle of his adventures, a slice of convincing Americana that was developed out of the trio’s regular writing sessions.
The Shackdusters show had featured Brown making extensive use of the Hawaiian guitar, something that ultimately became a little tedious, perhaps due to my associating it with 60s and 70s easy/cheesy listening. The Hawaiian guitar developed in the early 1900s from the German instrument the weissenborn, also the progenitor of the lap steel and pedal steel guitars of American country music. Brown played two songs on his six string, lap mounted weissenborn beginning with his own tune “Swingville”. He then told us of how he’d attended a convention of slide guitar players in Dallas, Texas, travelling from there to Tennessee in the company of lap steel player Billy Robinson. It was Robinson who introduced Brown to the Englishman’s steel guitar hero Howard White and it was White’s tune “Red Skin Rag” that was played next, a beguiling fusion of rag time rhythms with the classic Hawaiian guitar sound. This two tune diversion was greatly appreciated by the audience and the relative brevity ensured that the weissenborn didn’t outstay its welcome.
Brown took up an Epiphone electric guitar for “Missing You”, a song about father/daughter relationships and ‘empty nest syndrome’. Kingston’s lithe lines on his Fender bass offered good support to Brown’s incisive guitar solo.
From the “Grit” album “Doctor, Doctor” was a sturdy slice of blues boogie written when Brown was in hospital for a minor operation. Next up was the dramatic slow blues “Wedding Ring Blues” which ended this short sequence of electric guitar tunes.
To close the first half Brown told us of his trip to Mississippi to pay his respects at the gravesides of the blues pioneers, among them, almost inevitably Robert Johnson. A slide driven acoustic version of Johnson’s “Travellin’ Riverside Blues” paid tribute to this semi-legendary bluesman who inspired so many young British musicians.
During the interval Brown conducted his own raffle, a neat ruse that ensured that he even got money out of the people who didn’t bother pay for an album! Three lucky winners received copies of “Grit” but in this ‘raffle with a difference’ Brown’s album was an adjunct to the ‘real’ prize, an album of toe curling naffness from the likes of Billy Cotton, Joe Loss and an ancient vinyl recording by a big haired Moira Anderson. “Here’s your star prize” he told the bemused winners, “oh by the way here’s one of mine as well!”. There’s never a dull moment at a Kevin Brown gig, you just had to laugh.
On then to the real stuff and the country tinged “Can You Hear Me Jesus” (he couldn’t) with Brown again starting out on acoustic guitar.
This set turned more frequently to the “Grit” repertoire beginning with the gentle country blues of “Easy Come, Easy Go”, the title derived from a family saying and extolling the virtues of a laid back lifestyle.
Also from the new album “Lucky Man” dealt with heavier matters, first world opulence and third world poverty with Brown putting his own, and, by extension, all of our good fortune into perspective but without ever getting preachy about it.
Brown used to busk on Portobello Road and one day in 1970 his performance was witnessed by Son House who was also appearing in London. The two became friends and Brown was to learn much from the veteran. “Good Morning Blues” was his tribute to both House and to the Blues as an entity and an art form.
During his time in Texas Brown visited San Antonio and discovered that among those killed at the Battle of the Alamo two of the casualties were Englishmen, both from Brown’s home town of Preston. The narrative song “Lancashire Blood On A Texas Floor” is a tune that Brown has recorded on more than one occasion, the latest the haunting version that appears on “Grit”. The evocative version here was one of the stand-out moments of the second set.
The unexpectedly hard driving “The Ballad of J J Cale” paid tribute to another of Brown’s guitar heroes, the great J J Cale who died in 2013. The electric guitar fuelled “My Kind of Girl” maintained the energy levels with another slab of blues boogie before “Into The Stone” brought us back down to earth with its stark and evocative musings on the nature of mortality.
Brown moved back to acoustic guitar and finger slide for another song addressing serious matters as “Something In The Breeze” reflected upon the problem of traffic pollution in his adopted city of Bath.
However Brown is not the kind of character to remain sombre for long and the closing “Rambling Man” was a tribute to the lifestyle of the travelling musician with Kingston and the Stroud based Candler contributing strongly throughout. These two may not have featured as soloists in the jazz sense but both made substantial contributions to the success of the evening with their selfless but highly accomplished support playing. The solo honours went to Brown, a masterful guitarist and a more than adequate vocalist who also proved to be a highly competent songwriter.
BMJ’s second foray of the year into song based territory following the visit of Chris Quinn in May was a great success and the Brown trio were very well received by a pleasingly substantial audience. Don’t be too surprised if Kevin Brown turns up somewhere on the wall2wall festival programme in 2016.blog comments powered by Disqus