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The Shirt Tail Stompers

The Shirt Tail Stompers, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 28/07/2019.

Photography: Photograph sourced from the Black Mountain Jazz website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

July 31, 2019


In the young hands of The Shirt Tail Stompers trad is still very much alive and kicking, with the band attracting the largest club night audience at BMJ for many a year.

The Shirt Tail Stompers, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 28/07/2019.

Steven Coombe – trumpet, vocals, piano, swanee whistle, Michael McQuaid – clarinet, tenor sax, backing vocals, Dave O’Brien – double bass, vocals Simon Picton – guitar, banjo, vocals
Nicholas Ball – drums, percussion

Who said trad was dead? This evening’s concert by the young London based quintet The Shirt Tail Stompers attracted the largest club night audience at BMJ for many a year with event organiser Mike Skilton declaring himself delighted with the near capacity turnout.

The Stompers are part of a London based trad revival that has seen young music college educated musicians playing to similarly youthful audiences, with both the players and their listeners approaching the music of the New Orleans and swing eras without prejudice, but instead with energy and a genuine enthusiasm. The Stompers prefer to describe their music as ‘vintage’ rather then ‘trad’ and are part of a scene that also includes The Dixie Ticklers, The Back Street Brawlers and the Kansas Smitty’s crew fronted by clarinettist Giacomo Smith.

A glance at the Stompers website reveals that they are never short of work with the band touring widely both in the UK and internationally. They have clearly developed something of a cult following, even outside London, if the size of tonight’s turnout is anything to go by.

The band have released three albums and their core line up is frequently augmented by guest musicians and vocalists. Indeed there seems to be something of a ‘pool’ of musicians with Coombe and O’Brien the only two constants.

Coombe studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff before moving back to London, and it may have been that connection that brought him back to Wales tonight. He fronted the performance with ready charm and a quick wit, and although this was obviously very much a ‘show’ the band members genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves, a quality that quickly communicated itself to the audience. This was probably an older crowd than the Stompers are used to playing to in London, where bright young things probably get to their feet to dance old dances such as the Lindy Hop, but it was attentive and genuinely appreciative.

The Stompers kicked off with an instrumental rendition of the song “Darktown Strutters’ Ball”, first published in 1917 and delivered in classic New Orleans style with solos from McQuaid on clarinet, Coombe on trumpet, Picton on guitar and O’Brien on double bass. It was immediately obvious that these college educated young gentlemen could play, their solos combining fluency and dexterity with the necessary heat and swing.

“Has Anybody Seen My Girl” (‘five foot two’ and all that) featured Coombe on both trumpet and vocals. It’s probably fair to say that in common with many other bands of this ilk the singing wasn’t quite up to the quality of the playing, but it was perfectly decent and serviceable. The instrumental highlights here were the vivacious exchanges between trumpet and clarinet, and later double bass and guitar. Ball also enjoyed something of a drum feature on a vintage style kit in the style of Baby Dodds, complete with cowbell, woodblock and an enormous bass, or parade, drum.

“Come Love” took us into the swing / Hot Club era and was immediately recognisable as being part of the repertoire of those other BMJ favourites, the Bristol based gypsy jazz /  Berlin cabaret combo Moscow Drug Club. O’ Brien’s melodic double bass feature kicked off the solos here with Coombe later exchanging ideas with the Australian born McQuaid, the latter now on tenor sax.

Bassist Dave O’Brien was featured as lead vocalist on the song “Out of Nowhere” as Coombe moved to the Melville’s upright piano, revealing himself to be a talented multi-instrumentalist as he undertook a convincing solo. Even more impressive was a strikingly fluent solo from McQuaid on tenor sax.

Incidentally O’Brien himself is also a versatile multi-instrumentalist and tonight was the first time I’d seen him playing bass. Previously I’d witnessed him playing keyboards in saxophonist Cath Roberts’ decidedly more contemporary septet Quadraceratops. I also remember with great affection O’Brien’s own ‘fusion’ (for want of a better word) sextet Porpoise Corpus, a terrific band that released its excellent eponymous début album in 2007 but, sadly, never got the opportunity to follow it up. O’Brien played piano and electric keyboards in that particular line up and the music was a long, long way from that of The Shirt Tail Stompers. One suspects that the other members of the Stompers also play other styles of music elsewhere, assuming they get the time given the Stompers busy gig schedule. Such genre hopping versatility seems to be something of a hallmark of today’s generation of super-talented young jazz musicians.

Picton switched to banjo for a particularly vigorous reading of “That’s A Plenty”, the move triggering all the usual banjo jokes from Coombe. The piece was primarily a feature for the brilliant clarinet playing of McQuaid but there were also solos from Picton and O’Brien. On a hot, humid July night one could close one’s eyes and imagine oneself in Preservation Hall, New Orleans rather than the Melville Centre, Abergavenny. This was exhilarating, uplifting stuff.

Another dip into the gypsy jazz / Moscow Drug Club repertoire for ““Bei Mir Bist du Schon” with Coombe soloing on piano alongside McQuaid on clarinet, O’ Brien on double bass and Picton, safely back on guitar.

Announced as “an ironic song about divorce” the jazz standard “All of Me” found the quintet taking a more subversive approach to their chosen material with Coombe delivering a crowd pleasing solo on swanee whistle alongside further excursions from McQuaid on tenor sax and
O’ Brien at the bass.

The first set concluded with a vigorous romp through “Chicken” with lead vocalist Coombe handling the tongue twisting lyrics with considerable aplomb. Instrumental solos came from McQuaid on clarinet, Picton on guitar and Ball with a closing drum feature.

It was also Ball who kicked off the second half, his drums introducing fellow tub thumper Gene Krupa’s “Capital Idea”, which included some excellent trumpet / tenor interplay between Coombe and McQuaid, plus individual solos for each. Picton also featured on guitar before Ball returned for a more extended feature at the kit.

The drummer also kick started “Yes Sir That’s My Baby” which included a vocal from Coombe and instrumental solos from McQuaid on clarinet and O’Brien on double bass.

Alongside the banter, such as the mock bickering between Coombe and McQuaid, there were also interesting nuggets of information given about the band’s chosen material. Introducing “Stompin’ At The Savoy” Coombe informed us that the famous New York City dance hall was one of the first mixed race entertainment venues in the US and that it was there that the Lindy Hop and various other well known dances were first invented.  The Stompers’ performance of what is a kind of theme tune for them included solos for clarinet, muted trumpet, guitar and double bass.

Dundee born Picton was featured on banjo and contributed a powerful and impressive lead vocal on “The Sheikh of Araby”, with further features for trumpet and clarinet.

The band dipped into the repertoire of John Kirby, the 1930s/1940s bandleader sometimes said to represent the link between the swing and bebop eras. Coombe and McQuaid got so involved joshing about the names of Kirby’s sextet that the tune itself was unannounced. However the arrangement was chock full of the kind of fine playing and musical humour that has made the Shirt Tail Stompers such a popular act on the jazz circuit, with features here for muted trumpet, tenor sax and guitar.

“Dark Eyes” saw McQuaid moving back to clarinet for an arrangement that acted as a feature for
O’ Briens double bass and scat vocals, and which included an extract from “The Funeral March” as a coda.

The last two items saw the band exploring very familiar territory as they closed with two songs indelibly associated with New Orleans’ most famous musical export, trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong.

“When You’re Smiling” featured Coombe on trumpet, piano AND vocals and also included solos from McQuaid on tenor sax, Picton on guitar and O’ Brien at the bass.

“When The Saints Go Marching In” directed us back to Preservation Hall with Coombe bantering with drummer Ball and encouraging the audience to sing along. With Coombe leading the singing there were instrumental features for McQuaid on clarinet, Picton on banjo and Ball at the drums.

The inevitable encore, “Funny Beer”, featured more audience participation and fine instrumental solos from McQuaid on clarinet and O’ Brien at the bass.

The Shirt Tail Stompers have declared that their mission is to make this “early form of pop music popular again”. They certainly succeeded brilliantly this evening, their entertaining presentation and highly skilled playing earning them an excellent reception from a large and appreciative audience, with several members of the audience declaring them to be the best band that they’d ever seen at BMJ.

I wouldn’t necessarily go along with that, but there was no doubt that the evening was a huge success with a near capacity crowd – and probably record bar takings too I should imagine!

But just to prove that the jazz life isn’t all glamour the band members had to help shift the piano back to the bar afterwards before making their way home to London. Thanks to Dave O’Brien for taking the time to talk with me afterwards as we recalled the Porpoise Corpus and Qudraceratops days and talked about his current projects.

A hugely successful evening then – although I did have my reservations. As regular readers of these web pages will know I tend to favour a more contemporary brand of jazz and this was all a little too ‘traddy’ for me.

Also the band’s approach to their chosen material was pretty ‘straight ahead’ and very much geared towards ‘entertainment’. I don’t doubt their love for their chosen material but, for me, they almost treated it with a bit too much respect. In view of this being such a young band and given the involvement of at least one of its members in other areas of jazz music I was maybe expecting something a bit more irreverent, ironic or subversive. A bit like Pigfoot perhaps, a quartet with an approach to early jazz and blues material that is more obviously contemporary and which is very much their own, but without in any way losing the humour or essential essence of the music.

However there’s no doubting the Stompers’ playing abilities and there was much to enjoy here, as evidenced by the audience turnout tonight with many fans attending BMJ for the first time. In the young hands of The Shirt Tail Stompers trad is still very much alive and kicking – and probably dancing too. I’ll admit to it not being my favourite genre, but jazz is a broad church and the programming at BMJ and at the associated Wall2Wall Jazz Festival (coming soon folks!) reflects that variety. I’ve always felt that the sheer diversity of the programming is one of BMJ’s great strengths, and long may that continue. There will always be room for trad at the table, but I wouldn’t want to listen to it every month, or any other single genre for that matter.

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