by Ian Mann
June 12, 2012
Ian Mann enjoys performances by Shackdusters, Threeway, Led Bib, Clare Free and the Eduardo Niebla Trio.
Sunday at Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz & Blues Festival, Lichfield Rugby Club, 10/06/2012
Following the retirement of Lichfield Arts’ long serving artistic director Brian Pretty the reins have been picked up by new festival director Chris Newcombe. The change has seen the number of musical styles offered at the annual RAJB become even more diverse, from the trad jazz of George Huxley’s Jazzmen to the urban skronk of Led Bib via the flamenco/world jazz of Eduardo Niebla. With a similar diversity of blues styles on offer, both acoustic and electric, this was probably the most eclectic and wide ranging RAJB I’ve yet been to. The festival’s diversity has always been one of its strengths, the “something for everyone” approach winning the festival a loyal following, both locally and beyond.
This time round though I did wonder if the sheer scope of the music on offer may have turned into a weakness. In recent years I’ve attended the festival on both the Saturday and the Sunday but to be brutally honest nothing on the Saturday programme (apart from maybe my old Welsh favourites Wonderbrass) was sufficient to tempt me into making the two hour, 150 mile round trip. From my personal point of view the Sunday offered a stronger musical line up with the chamber jazz trio Threeway, an act I’ve wanted to see for a long time after enjoying their album releases “Conversations” and “Songs Of The Year”, and of course my perennial favourites Led Bib. These two didn’t disappoint but the size of the audience did, this was easily the most poorly attended RAJB of recent years and I did wonder if the eclecticism of the programme had actually put people off. In recessionary times it’s possible that people are prepared to take less of a chance on acts with which they may be unfamiliar. It was all in stark contrast to the big attendances at Cheltenham but one suspects that the economic pinch is perhaps being felt more keenly in the Midlands.
Despite these concerns there was still much good music to enjoy. The festival still retains the format of rotating the bands with each band playing a set then coming back later in the day, usually four hours later. It’s an unusual method of programming but artists seem to appreciate the opportunity to hang out, have a bite to eat, sample the real ale etc. Many, like Threeway’s bassist Ben Crosland, have become regular visitors.
First up were Shackdusters, the duo of Kevin Brown and Gary Rudd. Personal favourites of Chris Newcombe the pair blend a long standing love of the blues with other musical styles, particularly Brown’s relatively recent discovery of the Hawaiian lap steel guitar. Born in Lancashire but resident in Bath where he still regularly performs as a busker Brown is a highly skilled guitarist and an assured vocalist with a neat line in between tunes banter, although it has to be said that he can overdo the latter. The constant inter song joking started to become rather tedious during the duo’s second set. Rudd is very much the junior partner in musical terms but a good, capable and necessary foil whether on double bass or acoustic rhythm guitar. As regards the verbal jesting he had quite a few good lines of his own.
Both sets began with Rudd, from Lincolnshire, on double bass, still a relatively new instrument to him but one on which he acquitted himself well. Brown was on his “tin can” guitar, an old oil can to which he has affixed a neck and strings. It looked like some kind of a cross between the instruments of Bo Diddley and Seasick Steve and actually sounded very effective with Brown often playing slide, the style for which he is best known. Owner of his own Doodah record label Brown has recorded prolifically in a number of instrumental formats but always with the blues and slide guitar as the heart.
The first set included the blues songs “Easy Come, Easy Go” and “Good Morning Blues” with Brown on “tin can” and vocals and Rudd on bass. When Brown switched to lap steel and Rudd to guitar the pair delivered a number of instrumentals in the Hawaiian style including “The Road To Palolem”. These tunes were sourced from the recent Shackdusters CD “Home And Dry”, a set of twelve instrumentals by Brown and Rudd.
Their second set began with a clutch of convincing blues numbers in the tincan/voice and double bass format among them the autobiographical songs “Ramblin’ Man”, “All Around The World” and “Hard Working Man”, the latter chronicling the time Brown spent working in Austin, Texas as a sign-writer and itinerant musician. Also featured was the much covered Elvin Bishop song “Neighbour Neighbour”.
The remainder was back to the lap steel format as they paid tribute to the giants of Hawaiian style guitar such as Benny Rogers on a series of instrumentals including “Kaku” and “Cuba Time”, the latter being reprised from the first set.
Overall I rather enjoyed Shackdusters. Kevin Brown is a wily old pro who has paid his dues and is a highly competent blues stylist. I enjoyed this aspect of their performance more but the Hawaiian stuff represents a laudable effort to do something different. Unfortunately it still carries the whiff of 60’s/70’s cheesiness despite the undoubted skills of the players involved. Inevitably the blues material sounded better to these ears but I guess that in part that’s a generational thing. To someone my age the blues still seems to imply a certain authenticity even if I don’t listen to it all that much on recordings any more. This second set was one of the most enthusiastically received performances of the day so they must be doing something right.
Bassist and composer Ben Crosland is a key figure on the jazz scene in the North of England. Based in Huddersfield he is an experienced band leader and a prolific side man and also runs his own record label Jazz Cat, an outlet for his own recordings plus those by saxophonist Rod Mason. Crosland has been a previous visitor to the RAJB as part of Mason’s Elements group and guitarist John Etheridge’s Trio North.
Threeway is Crosland’s drummer less group and features two of his regular musical partners Steve Waterman on trumpet and flugel horn and Steve Lodder on piano and keyboards. The well received “Conversations” (Jazz Cat, 2005) was a good introduction to the trio’s sound, intimate, but thanks to Crosland’s electric bass surprisingly rhythmic. This was music with the refinement of chamber jazz but with enough sparkle and energy to avoid becoming becalmed. In 2008 the trio refined their approach with “Songs Of The Year”, a series of twelve themed pieces illustrating the English seasons, a project that grew out of a commission for Crosland’s quintet (the musicians from Threeway plus Rod Mason and guitarist Stuart McCallum) at the 2003 Marsden Jazz Festival. My review of “Songs Of The Year” can be found elsewhere on this site.
For today’s performance Threeway drew upon both of their recordings and also included a couple of pieces by Steve Waterman. They began with “Crystal Morning” from “Songs”, an aural depiction of a crisp winter’s day with Waterman’s bright trumpet depicting the clarity and sharpness of the weather conditions. Lodder’s equally sparkling piano solo was well balanced by Crosland’s excellent bass playing, providing a rhythmic pulse but also setting up teasing counter melodies. Crosland is an electric bass specialist, capable of producing a sound of genuine warmth and subtlety from his fretless instrument. He’s an innately tasteful player, clearly influenced by Jaco Pastorius but without the latter’s penchant for grandstanding.
“Wine Under The Stars” from the same album depicted balmy summer’s evenings- and in fairness the weather in Lichfield was pretty good today, perhaps “Beer Under The Canvas” would have been a more appropriate title. It began with Crosland’s appropriately languid solo bass intro followed by the warm tones of Waterman on flugel horn and the gentle lyricism of Lodder at the piano. The RAJB committee always hire (presumably) a proper grand piano which is a big plus as far as I’m concerned. Mind you there have been occasions when exuberant performers such as Tom Cawley and John Law, both of whom I admire greatly, have given it a bit of a bashing.
Still keeping with “Songs From The Year” the piece “Sunshine And Showers” was a showcase for the trumpet skills of Waterman, his open horn soloing ranging from mellow to fiery yet always possessed of a dazzling clarity. His own “October Arrival” then allowed him to demonstrate equal skills on the flugel horn with an unaccompanied introduction and subsequent solo alongside features for Lodder on piano and Crosland on bass.
The trio closed their first set by turning to their first album for “Across The Land” with Lodder establishing a loop of synth string sounds to cushion enterprising solos from Waterman on trumpet and the composer on both piano and electric keyboards, frequently playing both simultaneously.
This was a hugely enjoyable first set that had illustrated the intelligent writing of both Crosland and Waterman and the excellent instrumental skills of all three musicians. Despite the occasional sound glitches I was hugely impressed.
Later in the day the trio’s equally enjoyable second set drew more heavily on the “Conversations” repertoire beginning with “Spring In Somerville”, a title that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on “Songs Of The Year”! With features for Waterman on trumpet and Lodder on piano this was a good re-introduction to the trio’s lyrical but surprisingly full sound.
A particular set highlight was the inclusion of Crosland’s tribute to the late Jeff Clyne, “Blues For Jeff”. One of the doyens of British bass playing Clyne was a superb exponent of both the acoustic and electric versions of the instrument and was a superb teacher and educator and all round nice guy. He was a great inspiration to Crosland and was influential with regard to his decision to concentrate on electric bass. After the gig Ben and I talked about Jeff and shared fond reminiscences of Jeff’s late 70’s/early 80’s band Turning Point.
Meanwhile this affectionate tribute included solos from Lodder on electric piano and Waterman on trumpet followed by an extensive electric bass feature from Crosland before Waterman restated the appropriately bluesy theme.
The next piece began with a stunning solo trumpet introduction from Waterman encompassing highly embellished cadences as his solo developed in complexity. This was succeeded by (relatively) more straight forward statements from Lodder on piano, Waterman on trumpet and Crosland on bass on this essentially good natured piece.
The trio’s performance concluded with Waterman’s tune “Destination Out”, originally recorded for the (very good) 2004 Crosland quartet album “Last Flight Out”. With Crosland at his most rhythmic this was arguably the most forceful number of the two sets with Lodder’s synth interjections punctuating Waterman’s trumpet solo. The keyboard player doubled prog rock style on his solo playing both piano and keyboard and the piece finished with a stunning solo trumpet cadenza from the composer.
Overall I was highly impressed with Threeway, this was chamber jazz performed with good humour and a bit of Northern grit. There was nothing “precious” about this music despite the many moments of beauty and of course the playing was terrific from three highly experienced and professional musicians. Thanks to Ben for taking the time to speak afterwards, he may be a proud northerner but he’s a great asset to the UK jazz scene as a whole.
His latest project is Ben Crosland’s Brass Group which augments the members of Threeway with trumpeter Martin Shaw and trombonists Mark Nightingale and Barnaby Dickinson. I’ll be taking a look at their album “An Open Place” very shortly.
The creation of New Jersey born, London based drummer and composer Mark Holub Led Bib have been among my personal favourite contemporary jazz acts for a number of years now. They’re loud and uncompromising but have a distinct way with a riff and a groove that has won them something of a younger following away from the usual “jazz circuit”. Nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2009 for the album “Sensible Shoes” they remain a vital presence on the UK music scene.
I’ve seen the band live several times since I first heard them back in 2006 around the time of their first album “Arboretum”. Three more studio recordings and a live EP have emerged since then and although there’s a distinctive and well established Led Bib sound each record, and indeed each live performance that I’ve witnessed, has offered an interesting variation. This is a group that constantly challenges its own boundaries, always looking for something a little bit different.
It’s been nearly a year since I last saw the band (Brecon Jazz Festival, 2011) and two since they last appeared at this festival. On that occasion they suffered a particularly poor attendance as they were unfortunate enough to clash with the England v Germany déb?cle in the World Cup. It was nice of the organisers to ask them back but sadly this year’s turn out was little better. Not that this seemed to phase the band, as before they played their asses off and as always seemed to be having great fun while they were doing it. There’s a real gang mentality about them, they still share accommodation at the same house in Walthamstow and with the exception of keyboard player Toby McLaren who drove himself and his gear, they all came to this gig on the train. Ah, the glamour of the Jazz Life.
Holub is a prolific composer and most of today’s two sets consisted of entirely new material with each piece boasting a typically enigmatic Holub title. Joining Holub at his hire kit and McLaren at his own keyboards were Liran Donin on electric bass and duel alto saxophonists Chris Williams (shiny sax) and Pete Grogan (black lacquered sax). If they’re not quite still the fresh faced young quintet of six years ago there’s still an irrepressible energy about them, much of it stemming from leader Holub who drums with an unstoppable power and precision.
The opening segue of “Giant Bean” and “Curly Kale” quickly established Led Bib’s trademark skronking groove before siding off into an intriguing dialogue between Williams and McLaren punctuated by Holub’s drum fills and Donin’s pedal generated weirdness. The bassist’s floor mounted effect unit has become an increasingly important part of the band’s sound in the last couple of years as he increasingly finds himself involved in friendly competition with McLaren’s highly personalised keyboards set up.
From this dialogue a Williams solo emerged, relatively quietly at first but expanding to embrace an all encompassing roar as Holub thundered away behind him with Donin’s bass pulse allowing the drummer the freedom to roam. When Williams subsided Grogan took over (the two saxophonists frequently work in tandem but they have their solo moments too) as Donin continued to groove and Holub grinned away behind his drum kit. What an exciting start.
“Recycling Saga” began quietly with the brooding sound of the two saxophones but eventually a typically infectious Holub hook emerged which provided the route into a feature for Donin as McLaren switched to the venue’s acoustic piano. From here the intensity began to build again to encompass the wailing of the two saxes, McLaren’s piano pounding, Donin’s holding bass groove and Holub’s volcanic drumming.
A high energy first set concluded with Donin establishing an almost orthodox funk groove on “Plastic Lighthouse” with McLaren getting the chance to demonstrate the full range of his keyboard sounds, from the earthy to the ethereal, in an absorbing duet with Holub. The group were scheduled to play another Holub composition, “Imperial Green” but time pressures persuaded them to leave it for the second set.
The group’s return brought a bit of a bonus as Donin set up an infectious bass groove during the sound check that Holub couldn’t resist joining in with. It was a lovely little cameo and a neat encapsulation of the Led Bib spirit.
The set proper saw them dipping into their recorded legacy with “Call Centre Labyrinth” from “Sensible Shoes”, the piece a vehicle for feverish solos from Williams on alto and particularly McLaren on the keyboards who produced some almost impossibly dirty sounds.
From their latest album “Bring Your Own” came the opening track “Moth Dilemma” which boasts one of Holub’s most memorable hooks, stabbed out here by McLaren on the keyboards. However as with all Led Bib numbers plenty of space is allowed for improvisation and here the group interplay almost extended into the area of free jazz, a musical area Holub has close links with.
The next two pieces demonstrated a different side of Holub’s writing. More cinematic in scope they seemed closer in style to Williams’ composition “Zone 4” on “Sensible Shoes. The first, “Xmas Cracker”, began with liquidly languid electric bass accompanied by Holub’s cymbal shimmers and mallet rumbles before Williams and Grogan introduced long, brooding, Polar Bear like sax lines. As Grogan subsequently dropped out Williams alto became more acerbic, almost Middle Eastern in feel as he soloed at length. Gradually the piece mutated into an awesome display of complex power riffing that King Crimson or Van Der Graaf Generator might be proud of. This was Holub’s writing at its most epic.
The following “(At The) Ant Farm” was no less majestic beginning in almost impressionistic manner with the buzzy sound of the two reeds circling around each other before Holub set up a broken drum groove that provided the basis for Grogan’s lengthiest solo to date, a tour de force embellished by Donin’s dramatic bass guitar chording Speaking to both afterwards it appeared that much of this was freely improvised. The tune closed with a powerful Holub drum feature which brought to a close two sets of colourful, highly charged contemporary jazz. Sadly they never did find time to play “Imperial Green”
I was impressed with Holub’s new material, particularly “Xmas Cracker” and “Ant Farm” which seemed to encompass a broader narrative arc than some of his earlier material. Williams and McLaren have also written for the band and Donin has also started composing so the group’s next album should be interesting. At the time of writing they are still undecided as to whether the new material should be the subject of another studio album or documented in live performance for a full length live album.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Clare Free performs loosely in the blues idiom and played a single solo set as a curtain raiser for her gig with her band at The Guildhall in Lichfield on October 26th 2012. She is a an authoritative singer and a highly competent guitarist who brings a strong blues influence to her highly personalised songs. The majority of these were sourced from her most recent release “Dust and Bones” and included the hard hitting title track and the urgent, breathy “Believe In Me”.
Both “Small Miracles” and “Scars” were deeply personal, empathic songs written for friends and sympathising with their trials and tribulations.
“Funky Mama’s Kitchen Blues”, sourced from an earlier EP, represented some welcome light relief after the harrowing subject matter of the previous two numbers. There was an element of humour too “In My Last Day”, a personalised wish list for a hypothetical last day. “Creepy”, a humorous put down of an ineffectual would be suitor concluded a well received set that should have helped to tempt at least some of the audience members to her full band show at the Guildhall in the Autumn.
As for me I found Free’s voice and guitar playing highly impressive but none of her songs really reached out and grabbed me by the throat. However there was enough here to show why she is acquiring a considerable following in both the UK and Europe and has a remarkably full dates sheet, many of these being blues festivals.
EDUARDO NIEBLA TRIO
Spanish born guitarist Eduardo Niebla moved to London in 1978 and has become a major figure on the UK music scene with a blend of music that incorporates his native flamenco alongside jazz and other world music styles. He has also played progressive rock with the bands Atila and Mother Gong.
Niebla has been appearing at British jazz festivals for many years, often as one half of a duo with fellow guitarist Antonio Forcione yet he’s a musician that until today I’d never actually got to see. His comprehensive back catalogue includes several recordings with Indian musicians and tonight’s trio performance saw him in the company of tabla player Dharmesh Parmar and second guitarist Carl Herring.
Coming immediately after the sound and fury of Led Bib I found Niebla’s wholly acoustic music a little difficult to engage with despite the obvious skills of the players. Niebla’s flamenco melody lines were shadowed by the patter of Parmar’s tabla on material such as “Mirror Of Life” and “My Gypsy Waltz”. Herring largely adopted the role of rhythm guitarist but also got the occasional lead break in this densely knit, highly rhythmic acoustic music. The first set concluded with a stunning piece that saw the two guitarists using the sound-boxes of their instruments as auxiliary percussion in an extraordinary three way rhythmic set piece that clearly delighted the crowd. The audience had in fact expanded by this point and it was possible that some had come to see Niebla alone. Also he had run a flamenco guitar workshop earlier which may have drawn some aspiring musicians away from the other performances.
Niebla is undoubtedly a master of his craft and I don’t doubt that he thrilled his audience in the second set too. With a decent sized crowd in at last I took my leave for the long journey home and left it at that. Despite the poor attendance this year Lichfield is still a lovely little festival, much loved by musicians and fans alike. It has a long and distinguished history and over the years I’ve seen some memorable performances here. However today’s small turnout worried me, I do hope we-and quite a few more others-will be back here again next year. Interestingly the festival was held a couple of weeks earlier this year and this may have been a contributing factor. However it should be remembered that Lichfield Arts is staffed entirely by volunteers who continue to do a great job in difficult times.
Ian’s Star Ratings;
Shackdusters 3 Stars
Threeway 4 Stars
Led Bib 4 Stars
Clare Free 3 Stars
Eduardo Niebla Trio 3.5 Stars
Overall 3.5 Stars
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