HRH Blues – Sheffield, O2 Academy – 15/16 April 2017 Print E-mail
Written by Mark Ashby and The Dark Queen   
Sunday, 23 April 2017 05:00

As much as I love my native city of Belfast, it also frustrates me immensely at times. Take our arcane licensing laws, for example. In a legislature still dominated by out-of-date religious dogma, you might as well write off the Easter weekend, especially if you like a tipple or a bit of live music. On Good Friday, no alcohol is permitted to be served before 5pm, and the bars shut again at 10pm. On the Saturday, everywhere has to close down on the wrong side of midnight.   And as for Easter Sunday? Forget about it, brothers and sisters… the place is completely dry and locked down. It was for this reason that, when we saw the dates of this year’s ramped up HRH Blues shebang, her majesty and myself decided to high tail it outta Dodge and head somewhere a tad more civilized…


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Being the first act on at a festival is always a daunting task, and possibly even more so when the blues is designed to be played in smoky back street bars late at night, not in the bright sunshine of an early Saturday afternoon. Nevertheless, Dani Wilde rips straight in with her James-meets-Joplin roar and deep, harmonic southern delta groove. She picks her guitar bass style, which is an unusual playing technique, but works in the rich tone it produces. Greg Coulson’s superb organ work is soulful and passionate, matching the same qualities displayed by Dani herself, who highly charged tribute to Gary Moore pulled at our heartstrings. The mournful melancholia of her ballads is counter-balanced by her sheer joy of playing, her powerful voice denying her otherwise demure nature, as she really gets the crowd going early on.


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“Good morning,” proclaims Billy Walton as he wanders on stage: well, half past two in the afternoon is probably still morning for many self-respecting bluesmen! For the next hour and a bit, the New Jersey guitarist and his band deliver thumping swing boogie filled with horn-driven harmonies, fuelled by thick rhythms and carrying bucket loads of soul. In what is obviously a tradition with one of their fans, a bunch of hats are thrown on stage at one point, which the various band members proceed to take turns wearing. This emphasizes the fun nature of the set, the infectious groove of which sparks plenty of dancing on the ground floor.


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There’s a complete change of mood for the guitar and drum duo of The Graveltones, with their brand of heavy, White Stripes-style retro blues rock. It certainly possesses plenty of grunt, and benefits from a thumping bottom end, which accentuates the snappy percussion and staccato guitar riffs. However, to be honest, it’s classic rock-meets-stoner groove does begin to sound a bit samey after the first half hour or so. Nevertheless, the duo do possess an infectious energy, as evidenced by Jimmy O’s almost non-stop traversing of the stage, and this transfers especially to the younger members of the audience.


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There’s another change in pace as Erja Lyytinen introduces a country/southern boogie tint to proceedings. The band is a taut little unit, and the Finn certainly knows how to rip up a fretboard, but also when to hold back and let both the songs and her bandmates breathe and exhale. The songs themselves possess big, thick grooves combined with plenty of bright harmony and dance-ability. She also shows a sense of fun, as her elongated workout of ‘Steamy Windows’ features a brief cheeky slice of Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’: Lyytinen certainly isn’t one when it comes to playin’ da blooze, as she is a mature and confident artist who held the audience in the palm of her hand.


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Meanwhile, Academy 2 is rammed for the hot young talent that is Will Wilde (yes, Dani’s brother) – and rightly so, as his performance is incredible in every aspect. His rendition of Gary Moore’s ‘Parisienne Walkways’, in which he performs the guitar solo on harp, have herself’s hairs standing on end, while the stunning guitar duel on ‘Girl I Love’ not only sees his guitarist giving up and let him take the spotlight but also threatens to cave the floor in with the footstomping going on… Definitely not hard to see why this young man is being hailed as “the Hendrix of the harmonica”. Sublime stuff indeed.


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Another change of tack, and it’s time to bring out the heavyweights, as Pig Irön, while very obviously drenched in the blues, are much closer to classic NWOBHM, with slab-like elements of doom and massive swathes of desert psychedelia interweaved into their sound: sort of like early Priest meets Steppenwolf in the Louisiana swamps. Johnny Ogle sure can blow a mean harp, using it like a second guitar, as he winds it around both the melodies and his own words to superbly practised effect. The sound is underpinned by dark, rumbling bass lines and taut percussion, which anchor Dan Edwards’ roving guitar miens, which in turn rediscover themselves time and again. I previously had seen Pig Irön at Hard Rock Hell itself, and it’s not hard to see how they fit just as easily on a metal bill as a blues one, as they comfortably combine elements both into their impactful style.


Unfortunately, soon after the doors had opened, the news filtered through that Saturday’s scheduled headliners King King – whom many had obviously travelled to see, given the amount of tour shirts dotted around the arena – had been forced to pull out, after Alan Nimmo had lost his voice during the previous evening’s performance in Nantwich. With everyone present obviously wishing him a speedy recovery, the sets by Simon McBride and Ten Years After are subsequently elongated.


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The Northern Irish guitarist wastes no time in launching into his menu of grinding smokehouse blues edge with the gristle of a well-cooked sirloin, as he wrestles every sinew of every muscle for his instrument and serves up a delicious smorgasbord of beautifully presented blues rock. He’s obviously having a lot of fun and makes it look so easy (which, of course, every good musician should) and the notes and chords tumble and cascade from his fingers. Justifiably earning generous applause at the end of every song, he unveils a brand new one, just to add to the sense of occasion: ‘Don’t Dare’ features a magnificent guitar/bass duel, before the Larne lad steps right back in time with ‘Down To The Wire’, from his debut album. ‘Don’t Be A Fool’ sees the traditional rock gig style split-the-room-in-half audience singalong competition before McBride takes us home with ‘Dead Man Walking’, which is as rowdy as a brawl in a Belfast bar. A stunning set from a player obviously in love with both his instrument and his craft.


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Sean Webster And The Dead Lines kick off the Sunday afternoon with a smooth soul groove, built on thick, solid rhythms and liberally peppered with massive melodies. Initially, Webster’s guitar is almost mournful in its alacrity, yet joyous in its praise of the genre. But, at an hour and 20 minutes, as the man himself points out, it’s the second longest set of the day – and therein lies the problem. After dedicating ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ to Alan Nimmo – and the entire arena falls completely silent as his passion play hypnotises everyone present, before erupting in deservedly rapturous applause as the last note dies in the air – the second half of the set, from the overlong version of ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, drags itself out, as if he’s filling time. Yes, he’s a good guitarist, but a great one knows that less often is more, and too many fretboard wankfests unfortunately turn his set into an early snoozefest.


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Things take a dramatic turn with the arrival of Chantel McGregor. And WOW – talk about the discovery of the weekend. This demure Yorkshire lass delivers dense growling blues with a massive bottom end and a poppy groove to the melodies and choruses and a huge crunch on the riffs, all topped off with a deceptively sweet voice which adds to the entrancement of her performance. And she’s not afraid to have fun and experiment, as she demonstrates on the freshly renamed ‘Havin A Giraffe’ (after a certain event at New York Zoo the day before), when she dabbles in a variety of genres, adding elements of prog and jazz into her eclectic mix. It’s something she repeats later on ‘April’, with its multiple layers, styles and grooves, which peak and trough in a truly epic manner. Stunning.


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Next up, Laurence Jones delivers solid, soulful rock ‘n’ roll with plenty of grit and youthful determination, if just a little too much cockiness. Backed by another superb organ sound and a taut rhythm section, he most definitely proves that the blues is very safe in the hands of the new generation, with his sense of style and panache mixed with passion and affection for the music he is playing: yeah, there’s lots of kids playing guitar ‘cos it’s the “cool thing to do”, but this youngster is the real deal, paying homage to Clapton – as evident in the medley he builds around his laconic rendition of ‘Cocaine’ – Gallagher and Mayall in equal measure.


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On the second stage, Crow Black Chicken, all the way from the southernmost tip of Ireland, are laying down some serious poteen-fuelled grooves and ripping the room to pieces in the process. Unfortunately, however, they are up against the performance of the weekend: the ridiculously talented Aaron Keylock. Barely out of his teens, there is no doubting that this kid (and, yes, as a 50-something I can use than term in a non-derogatory manner) is one helluva prodigious talent, with his brand of southern-edged boogie twang. Reminding me very much of a young and hungry Rory G, Keylock delivers a confident and mature performance from a musician still evolving, and knowing that he is doing so, and destined to become of the THE major forces on the British, and international, blues scene. He’s got it all: the ability, the attitude, the looks, the groove, the vibe – and all in bucketloads. As I said, the performance of the weekend.


PHOTO CREDIT: All photos © The Dark Queen/Über Rock.


HRH Blues will return on 14/15 April 2018. Tickets and limited Royalty/VIP packages are available now.


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