REVIEW/by Lionel Ross
IN CONTRAST to the monsoon conditions which forced last year’s event to be staged in a highly aromatic barn, this year’s pleasant weather saw the Worthenbury Blues and Roots Festival revert to its customary outdoor format. Once again, the invitingly low prices and the mouth-watering line-up attracted a suitably large audience, estimated to be of the order of 400 people.
The afternoon session was kicked into life on the main stage by the Small Time Crooks, a young four-piece band from Oswestry, who delivered an excellent rocking programme that set the scene brilliantly for the rest of the day. The band were winners of the Shropshire battle of the bands, which was no surprise, given the quality of this performance.
In addition to the main stage, there was an acoustic stage, which meant that there was almost constant musical activity throughout the afternoon and evening: one stage being prepared for the next act, as the other stage was in use. Sam Payne was first to grace the acoustic stage with her powerful vocals and her very impressive keyboard skills. She provided a fine mix of funky blues and shuffles with a Big Mama Thornton number, a rocking boogie, the boogie-woogie-based “You’ve been Doing Something Wrong” and Muddy Waters’s “Can’t Be Satisfied”. She also delivered a highly customised but very effective version of “I’d Rather Go Blind”.
To ensure that there was no early onset of complacency on the part of the punters, the next act on the main stage was an acoustic duo: Tommy Allen and Johny Hewitt. Tommy is best known as founder and singer/guitarist of Trafficker, while Johny is the singer/harmonica player of Smokehouse. When two leading lights appear together, there is a considerable risk that each will try to outdo the other. In this case, however, they complemented one another superbly, taking turns on vocals and excelling in equal measure on lead instrumentals. Their splendid set combined some of Tommy’s original numbers and a selection of standards, including “Walking Blues” and “Nine Below Zero”.
The acoustic stage then found itself under all-out attack from Dave Arcari. Scotland’s king of punk blues began with a highly charged rocker before educating the audience on the origins of punk rock. He explained that Blind Willy Johnson was performing punk 50 years before the formation of the Sex Pistols. To prove his point, he thrashed out one of Willy’s early songs with unabated gusto. ‘Then he found religion’, Dave continued and proceeded with a terrific version of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”. He also performed some of his own numbers, including “Blue Train” by way of tribute to Johnny Cash. It was a frantic set but very entertaining.
Back on the main stage, Wrexham-based band, the Blues Missiles, featuring Tommy Allen on guitar, presented an enjoyable programme of favourites. Bass guitarist Pete Thompson fronted the performance on vocals and affable patter and was ably supported by Andy Jones on drums and Paul Fisher on harp and keys. The nicely varied set started with “Bullfrog Blues” and included Jimmy Reed’s “I Ain’t Got You”, “The Sky Is Crying”, “Little Bitty Pretty One”, “Caledonia” and “Folsom Prison”. There was also a version of “Crossroads” that encouraged one of the punters to strut his stuff alone on the dance area. It was a bold, unselfconscious routine but it has to be said that it was more Billy Dainty than Billy Elliot.
Sam Payne made her second appearance on the acoustic stage with another well-received programme, which included the slow blues, “I Want Some Sugar In My Bowl” and a superb version of “Halleluja, I Love her So”. The warm applause that she received at the end of her performance was very well deserved.
It was then the turn of another acoustic duo on the main stage: Bill Sheffield and Dave Saunders. Dave is best known as the bass guitarist of the sadly defunct blues band, The Producers, but he appears on a regular basis in an acoustic duo with that band’s singer/guitarist, Harry Skinner. He is undoubtedly one of the best loved and respected members of the UK’s blues fraternity. Bill Sheffield from Atlanta, Georgia, is a frequent and hugely popular visitor to the UK. He is a brilliantly talented finger-picking guitarist and possesses a wonderfully soaring and powerful voice. The duo, with Dave on acoustic bass guitar, delivered a fabulous set that included Blind Willy McTell’s “Georgia Rag”, “Dead Shrimp Blues”, “Cherry Blossom Time”, “Diddy Wah Diddy” and John Brim’s “Ice Cream Man”. They also made room for a stylised version of “Eleanor Rigby”. Not surprisingly, they went down an absolute storm.
Dave Arcari re-entered the fray with another helping of gruff, gravel-laden vocals, accompanied by energetic gyrations and humorous banter. His style is certainly unconventional, but beneath the contrived anarchy, he is a very accomplished steel guitarist and a knowledgeable blues enthusiast. He too was the rightful recipient of an appreciative ovation.
Back on the main stage, The Stumble grabbed everybody by the throat and didn’t let go until the end of their set. They were tremendous, fully justifying the claim made by their increasingly large coterie of fans that they are now unsurpassed by any blues band in the UK. “It’s A Lie”, “You Upset Me, Baby” and Bus Stop” prompted a mass invasion of the dance area. The slow blues, “All Over Again”, magnificently sung by Paul Melville, offered a brief respite before the tempo was raised again with “The World Is Tough” and “Back To Louisiana”. As Boyd Tonner and Dave Heath painted an immaculate backdrop on drums and bass guitar respectively, guitarist Colin Black and sax player Simon Anthony excelled on centre stage and priceless rhythm guitarist Jonny Spencer showed yet again on “Gimme Back My Wig” his mastery of slide guitar playing. The whole set was simply top class.
Tommy Allen and Johny Hewitt, on the acoustic stage this time, delivered another marvellous set, with Tommy switching effortlessly and with great skill between semi-acoustic guitar, resonator and mandolin and Jonny demonstrating that he is now among the very best British blues harp players. They are well-worth looking out for as they develop their collaboration.
The headline act was Lightnin’ Willie and the Poor Boys. The larger than life showman from Texas was in exuberant mood, despite the disappointing absence of British harp player, Giles King, who was laid aside with a serious back problem. Willie wished him a speedy recovery, which was fully endorsed by the assembled throng. He opened his programme in duet with Jonny Hewitt before entering on a fast-moving journey of shuffles and upbeat rockers with an occasional slow blues to ease the pace. He introduced “Can I Tell You About My Baby?” as a classic twang song, complete, as it turned out, with more than a hint of the Duane Eddy guitar sound. “Smoke Along The Track” was in country rock style and preceded the return of Jonny Hewitt to the stage to add his magic to a slow blues and the medium-paced shuffle, “Eyes In The Back Of My Head”. Once again, the dance area was full for most of the set, which demonstrated how well Willie and the band were being received and epitomised the high level of enjoyment that the day had brought.
The festival was a magnificent event and the quality of the entertainment and the excellent organisation of the range of facilities provided was a testament to the enormous hard work of Pete Evans, Paul Taylor, Ian Williams and their helpers. We are already looking forward to next year. However, not satisfied with all that this year’s event provided, Pete Evans had one more trick up his sleeve – or, more accurately, under his nose. In a rash moment, he undertook to have his 37-year-old moustache shaved off in public in return for voluntary donations to the charity, Diabetes UK. The good news is that £600 was collected for the charity.