It’s inspiring to see what five fine musicians can achieve with only ‘a modicum’ of help from the record business. The Blues Band has ploughed its own furrow from ticket and CD sales for the last 35 years thanks to a loyal fan base who were last night treated to a vintage performance as part of the current UK tour.
The band describe themselves as Britain’s finest, most skilled practitioners in the art of the blues – no small claim, but having heard them play it’s hard to disagree. The fact that they are successful mavericks to boot proves that it’s the music fans come back to hear, often with children and now sometimes grandchildren in tow.
It was one night in February 1979 when Tom McGuinness got a phone call from Paul Jones, a fellow musician from the 70s group Manfred Mann. ‘Do you fancy getting a band together to play some blues – just for fun?’ asked Paul. ‘Yes’ said Tom. And that’s how it all began. Their ambition to have fun has never gone away but it’s clear as soon as they step on stage that they take their music equally seriously.
‘So what exactly is the Blues?’ asked my friend at the start of the evening. I only had time to hum a few bars in her ear as the band arrived on stage, but it didn’t take her long to pick up on the fact that lead guitar and vocalist Dave Kelly is a superb musician and it came as no surprise to discover that he is one of England’s leading slide and bottle-neck guitarists.
Backing the band on drums is Rob Townsend who won the European Blues award for best musician in the 2013 blues awards. The quintet is completed by Gary Fletcher on bass and vocals.
As well as playing songs from their latest album, Few Short Lines, the band strayed into solo territory making for two varied and highly enjoyable sets.
They closed the first with a crowd pleaser that Paul Jones dedicated to local fan and author Sue Chitty. ‘Do you still live under the Gatwick flight path?’ he enquired jokingly, remembering her garden parties which he attended in the 1970s when he was then the lead singer and harmonica player in Manfred Mann.
Launching into the ‘Maggies’ Farm’ a version of which they recorded as criticism of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1980, Jones then delighted the crowd with his incredible vocal range. Coming right to the front of the stage he encouraged the gallant folk of East Grinstead to join in. ‘ I don’t wanna work on Maggie’s Farm no more’ he trilled in a feline falsetto. ‘Oh, sorry, was that a bit high for you? Then try this’ he said, pitching it at least three octaves lower in beautiful baritone.
Their fiercely independent streak was evident in the second half during Gary Fletcher’s amusing song ‘The Doctor’ which refers to a spin doctor and includes the memorable line: ‘I cover asses so you can’t see the cracks’.
By now toes were tapping and the applause was voracious, for the show is well rehearsed and extremely professional, and old friends Paul Jones and Tom McGuinness create a warm atmosphere based on old-fashioned charm.
The band’s variety of good music and humour is not lost on small town folk. ‘I wrote this next song for B.B. King’ said McGuinness, who delivers his repartee in underdog monotone. ‘Unfortunately, he never recorded it. Or I wouldn’t be playing in East Grinstead.’ The gag always gets a laugh, and at the same time B. B. King gets a silent vote of thanks for helping to bring this highly talented group of musicians to town.
Three of them will be back in June when Paul Jones, Tom McGuiness and Rob Townsend line up for The Manfreds 2014 tour, which is likely to feature their 60s hits, including favourites like Do Wah Diddy and 5-4-3-2-1.