Archives for posts with tag: Sonny Boy Williamson

Fortunately the fader on the presenter’s microphone was slid to zero before the exasperated expletive escapes his lips. In the Sheffield Live studio, Max has just finished this Wednesday’s Mouthpiece, his weekly radio show that delivers ‘Sheffield stories, politics and culture – with a soundtrack of our times,’ to, well, Sheffield, and beyond. I must say, I haven’t exactly helped the smooth running of quite a complex operation by offering fatherly advice – while he’s setting up the next track, cueing up the pre-recorded interview, adjusting sound-levels, trying to coax out CD carriers that skulk inside their housing… As I say, I’m just trying to be helpful.

In the evening, we’re in Club 60. It’s like a small version of Liverpool’s Cavern: underground, it’s all brick caves. In the 60’s, it was called the Esquire, and featured Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim, the Kinks, the Animals…  Today it’s a recording studio, and Max, Paul and I are here to record the basic tracks for a version of ‘The Nearness Of You’. After they’ve put down the bass & drums, I immerse my head in a foam-lined metal hood: an inch from my mouth is a mic that cost more than my car. Much more. I like recording vocals into a dark void: expensive headphones and a touch of reverb make you sound great. Till the playback.

‘What do ya do when you meet the Devil?’ (no, the answer is no longer Give Him Your Guitar To Tune Up). The question is shouted from the stage of the Plumpton Beer and Blues Festival, organised by the Plough Inn, which is why Beer comes first in the title. And loads of beer – a long row of barrels, my favourite being the coffee beer. Really.

Sadly the big field dwarfs a smattering of blues fans, or beer fans, probably both. When we’d arrived, there’d been a skiffle-kind of act in the beer tent, banjo and percussion and toys, who were really quirky and tight, but the blues band on the big stage reminds me of the Bonzo Dogs’ immortal question: ‘Can The Blue Men Sing the Whites?’ to which the answer is, Not Generally. It’s leaden and lumpen and loud. I can’t help but trot out my history (again!): watching Sonny Boy Williamson on stage, mean and menacing in shiny black suit and bowler, rolling his harmonica around in his mouth; Jimmy Reed, bouncing into the Bromel Club in ruffled shirt and bolero jacket, chunking out Big Boss Man; and John Lee Hooker leaving his English backing backing band adrift with his idiosyncratic changes. And yes, young man, I really did buy him a Scotch.

The blues was, is, a form: 12 bars, three chords, simple – eh? But it’s about feeling, intensity, space and swing. In Chicago in the 50’s they had little amplifiers, a double bass, small kit, and a rough sound. Listen to Buddy Guy’s ‘First Time I Met the Blues’ with his anguished yelps and frenetic guitar, or Howlin’ Wolf growling out ‘Goin’ Down Slow’ – and you get the picture.

Anyway – we (Ska Toons, that is – what were WE doing there?) are in the beer tent: local band. We go on after The Contenders finish their set with a driving version of Talking Heads’ ‘Life During Wartime’, still wondering what this crowd are going to make of an eight-piece jazz-ska band. And, extraordinarily, the beer’n’blues audience tap their feet, nod their heads, drink their beer, a few dance. All smiles. We finish and the sound man signals ‘Off’. We get off stage. The crowd are still calling for an encore. The sound man signals ‘All Right – Encore If You Like’. We blast through a fast ‘Monkey Man’ and leave. And yes, we did play a blues:  ‘Night Train’.