Catfish Keith: Forest Arts Centre, New Milton
What a gig! With his customary foot-stomping, note-bending brilliance American bluesman Catfish Keith astounded a rapt audience as he sang, hollered and moaned the blues. At times he seemed to be almost channeling the spirit of the musical giants of the Mississippi delta and beyond: people like Bukka White, Blind Willie Johnson, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Mississippi Fred McDowell and John Hurt. It was otherworldly and breathtaking.
His loving re-workings of often neglected classics like Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, Tell Everybody Down in the Neighbourhood and Eagle Bird found him coaxing impossible sounds from his guitars. He had three beautiful custom-built instruments, including a richly resonant steel-bodied beast and a twelve-string which he told us was “like playing a volcano or a lasso - a wild thing.”
What we witnessed was excellent entertainment, a fascinating musical and social history lesson and the opportunity to wallow in lost sounds from the past, reimagined and recreated by the inimitable talent that is Catfish Keith. Not just lost sounds but sounds to get lost in. Emerging from one number he looked almost apologetic as he shrugged and explained: “It’s like I step into another world sometimes.” No need for an explanation. It was a real pleasure to go along for the ride.
A particularly discerning critic once said that Catfish Keith had such a unique voice and style of playing that he made the old sound new. That is very true but perhaps better still he never forgets where the music has come from. Whatever changes they may have gone through, the raw emotion of songs which were so often written in dire circumstances, remain central to every performance. He is an archivist of both the music and the history of the tough and unforgiving times in which it was created.
When he sings about being dirt-poor, the misery of the jailhouse, the fear of the gallows and good love gone bad you really feel it. Happily this is offset by many numbers that dwell on hopes, dreams and tangible pleasures, often accompanied by a little bawdy humour.
Catfish Keith returns to this area on Wednesday 25th November for the final date of his 2015 UK tour at The Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne. See it if you possibly can. More information at www.tivoliwimborne.co.uk. Phone 01202 885566 or email firstname.lastname@example.org