By Jeremy Miles
For more than three decades The Blues Band have been regarded as prime keepers of the musical faith. Whether it’s slide or 12 bar, songs from the fields of the Mississippi Delta or the tough urban backstreets of Chicago, they keep the roots of the blues alive for British audiences.
Utterly remarkable for an outfit originally started as part-time pub band just to give its members a bit of Sunday night fun. That was back in 1979 when former Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones was enjoying a successful career in the theatre. The nightly applause of West End audiences was no doubt a real pleasure, but Jones was missing his beloved blues.
He set about recruiting a group of talented friends to help fill the gap. The result was Paul Jones on vocals and harmonica, his old Manfred Mann mate Tom McGuinness on guitar, McGuinness’ erstwhile musical collaborator Hughie Flint on drums, the superb slide guitarist Dave Kelly and bass player Gary Fletcher. A dream line-up! A handful of pub and club gigs were booked to test the water and the word was put out.
No one was more surprised than the band themselves when their very first performance proved a complete sell out. Kelly once told me that driving to the gig that night he was first surprised by how much traffic there was and then annoyed because he could find nowhere near te venue to park. Assuming "sometghing big was happening" he parked a goof half-a-mile away and hoofed it to the gig. It was then that it dawned on him precisely wherre all these people had been heading.
Despite their obvious popularity they still had to bootleg their own first album. It did the trick. A proper deal followed within weeks and today 31 years and 16 albums down the line The Blues Band are still going strong.
Apart from the fact that one-time Family drummer Rob Townsend stepped in to replace Hughie Flint some 29 years ago, the line-up is virtually unchanged, The formula is simple. They play the music they love and ignore the control-freakery of the record industry. Or as Fletcher memorably put it: “We don’t bother the music business and the music business doesn’t bother us.”
With a huge catalogue of both recorded and unrecorded gems at their disposal, The Blues Band tend to play a different set virtually every night. At the Tivoli they kicked off with Robert Johnson’s Walking Blues and then walloped their way through a sublime mix of material that stretched from Sleepy John Estes to Muddy Waters and beyond. There was some astonishing musicianship on Slim Harpo’s King Bee and a beautiful slow-burning version of Elvis’ first hit, That’s Alright Mama. It was delivered complete with a great anecdote about, how despite his seminal contribution to rock n roll history, it’s author, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup lived in such poverty that his stage suit got eaten by rats.
With veteran musicians like this such stories have the added appeal of being told first-hand. During a tour of the UK some 40 years ago Crudup was staying at McGuinness’s house when he unpacked his stage jacket and discovered half the back of it had been gnawed away.
I will always have fond memories of another Blues Band gig maybe 20 years ago when Dave Kelly was recalling playing with the great Son House back in the sixties.
“Do you remember Son House?” he asked the non-too informed audience. There were a few awkward moments of silence until some wag shouted: “No, but I fucked his wife.”The entire theatre cracked up.