Review: Worthenbury Blues & Roots Festival


REVIEWS/by Lionel Ross & Grahame Rhodes

THIS was the fifth Worthenbury Blues and Roots Festival, building on the wonderful heritage of the Dragon Blues Festivals that graced Wrexham Rugby Club for many memorable years. The venue for the open-air festival is farmland kindly made available by Michael and Elizabeth Brownrigg at the village that lies between Malpas and Bangor-on-Dee in North Wales.

The event comprised a main stage and an adjacent acoustic stage, on which the action alternated in impressively quick succession. The task of opening the show on the acoustic stage fell to Hopson, a trio of local sixth-formers, who were making their first ever public appearance. As if that were not daunting enough, the lads had also been forced to regroup owing to the indisposition of their bass guitarist, Adam Squire, as a result of a broken wrist. Rhythm-guitarist Gavin Hooson bravely filled the gap and joined drummer Alex Squire in the engine room. Led by singer/guitarist John Taylor, the band overcame their first-date nerves and went on to deliver an enthusiastic set that included numbers by Bob Dylan and the White Stripes.

First up on the main stage were Newton-le-Willows-based Papa Legba, with singer/guitarist Alan Crawford very ably supported by his brother, Scott, on bass guitar and Graham Brighouse on drums. Their vibrant set combined some rocked up versions of Robert Johnson and Son House favourites, SRV’s “Pride and Joy” and some beautifully played slow blues, including a fine rendition of Eddy Boyd’s “Five Long Years”. There was also an airing of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and a rousing delivery of Rory Gallagher’s “A Million Miles Away” to provide a terrific impetus to the day’s events.

Back on the acoustic stage, Liverpool-based Naomi Mather entered the afternoon session with the first of two sets, the second forming part of the evening session. Naomi demonstrated her burgeoning talent as a songwriter with a programme of excellent original songs. She accompanied her beautifully clear vocals with highly accomplished playing on acoustic, resonator and lap guitars, showing equal mastery of finger-picking and slide techniques. She also tapped the rhythm on a very effective stomp box. This is a young lady who is surely destined to make a considerable impact across the British blues scene.

The main stage was then taken by storm by Big Blues Tribe, a nine-piece ensemble from the Midlands that boasted no less than a five-piece brass section. Fronted by big-voiced singer/trumpeter Oliver Carpenter, they opened their account very appropriately with “Let The Good Times Roll”, an apt description of what lay in store. Other delights included “King Of The New York Streets”, “St James Infirmary Blues” and a reggae-style version of “I’m In The Mood For Love”, for which Beth Naylor and Abby Brant took over the vocals. They also provided close harmonies on a gospel number before ending a highly entertaining set with an upbeat rocker. The band reported that they were dashing off to a second gig in Worcester. “That’s two gigs in one day,” they boasted. “Come to think of it, it’s only the second gig this year!” one of them added. The truth is more likely to be that they are in great demand, if this performance is anything to go by.

At each of the previous Worthenbury festivals, there has been a surprise package that has stolen the show. This year’s event was no exception to that rule, as Australian singer/guitarist Rory Ellis proved with his two warmly-received appearances on the acoustic stage. Supplemented by the superb playing of Alex Roberts on lap slide guitar, the man from Geelong produced a stunning mix of powerful vocals, brilliant guitar and banjo playing and hilarious chat. His two sets featured many of the tracks from his most recent album, including the title song, “Two Feathers”, a compilation of high quality original songs, which draw heavily on his eventful life. A particular highlight was “No Love In This war”, while “Home Tonight” was inspired by his spending an eternity trying to find an appropriate exit from the Leicester ring road – an ordeal that has been universally endured. Lost in Leicester, perhaps, but found by a host of admiring fans at Worthenbury.

The headlining act of the afternoon session on the main stage was the recently re-formed Down At Antones. Led by founder member, singer/guitarist Neil Partington, the band comprised bluesinthenorthwest’s own Ken Peace (also a founder member of the band) on harp, Nick Lauro on drums and Steve Brown on bass. On this occasion, the band also included Paul Need, guesting on keys in the absence of usual keyboard player, Glen Lewis. The band shuffled into action with Howlin’ Wolf’s “Riding In The Moonlight” and a fine version of “Black Cat Bone”. The jazz standard, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” featured some wonderfully full-bodied harp and tasty guitar and keyboard solos, all immaculately driven by the rhythm section. The nicely varied set included Rice Miller’s slow blues, “Cross My Heart”, and a lovely portion of New Orleans funk in the shape of “Pocky Way”. The icing on the already delicious cake was provided by the introduction of Johny Hewitt to weave his harmonica magic on Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider, Baby”, followed by top class interplay with Ken Peace on the driving boogie, “Biting The Bullet”, to climax a tremendous set.

Pete Evans, Paul Taylor, Ian Williams and their myriad assistants are to be congratulated on yet another magnificent event. It is entirely fitting that the quality of the line-up and the excellence of the organisational arrangements was matched by a massive attendance and brilliant sunshine.

THE EVENING session got under way on the main stage with a rousing uptempo r&b blast from The Dirty Robbers, led by ex-Cadillac Kings guitarist Oliver Darling - also to be seen in Mike Sanchez's band, and in the absence of keyboards, the superb Paul Garner on second guitar - also to have graced The Cadillac Kings guitar slot, together with the rhythm section of Craig Rhind (bass) and Matt Cowley (drums). A spirited hour featured mainly tunes from their first album, kicking off with "Ain't Nothin' Shakin' ", and Richard Berry's oft-covered "Have Love Will Travel", with a dip into some classic Peter Green for "Watch Out", from the "Blues Jam in Chicago" album .Š. . a set highlight. The eloquently titled "Lemon Squeezer" was a taster from the forthcoming second album, with more dips into the first album for a corking "Lonesome Woman Blues" and "Mary Lou".

Either side of The Producers, Naomi Mather and Rory Ellis played second sets . . . not much to add to Lionel's fine words, just to echo his sentiments really. Naomi Mather is a real talent, a product of the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, and she possesses a quite beautiful voice, and is a deft guitar picker and slide player, her "Born At The Wrong Time" ep comes highly recommended, with the second set featuring a reprise of the strutting "Can't Do Nothing". Ashamedly I must admit to not having heard of Rory Ellis before the festival . . . . wow, he was without doubt most people's star of the day! Coming across as a Melbourne hybrid of Johnny Cash, Steve Earle and Tom Russell, his rootsy tales of childhood, politics and more were just superb, with his strumming guitar and banjo work beautifully fleshed out by Alex Roberts more intricate guitar and lap slide - this guy having driven six hours from Poole to play the set! A reprise of "Work" saw some audience participation, with another treat being the lovely "Railway Parade", his deep, rich voice and story tellingŠwinning over the crowd.

Back in the mid to late 1990s' The Producers were without doubt one of Britain's most popular blues bands, but split, actually playing their last North West gig at Hooker Blues Club in Wrexham . . . fitting then that their first gig back in the area should be here at the festival. Original members Harry Skinner (lead vocals and guitar) and Dave Saunders (bass) are now joined by Ray Drury (keyboards) and Biff Smith (drums). A beautifully delivered set featured some sparkling guitar from Harry Skinner, who also was on top form vocally, with newcomer Drury excelling on the keyboards. New material included "I Got Blues" and "Some People Say", with a dip into the back catalogue for "Bitter And Twisted And Blue" . . . with the great "Take Me The Long Way Home, another new song, being well received. It's nice to have such a fine band back on the scene!

Bringing a quite fabulous day to an end were possibly the best live band on the circuit at the moment - The Stumble - who after a recent storming headlining slot at the Warrington Blues Festival, could not fail with their uptempo mix of blues, soul and more! The area in front of the stage soon became a full dance floor as an extended over-curfew (only slightly!) set of favourites were performed. Set highlights were rip-roaring opener of Hound Dog Taylor's "Gimme Back My Wig", the stomping "Maudie" and a slide driven "The World Is Tough" - the title cut of the band's first album. The band got soulful on "Bus Stop", from the second album, "The Houngan", but were back with the blues on a ferocious "Meet Me At The Bottom". They were afforded the first encore of the day, purely due to time demands, and played the show-stopping "All Over Again", a gorgeous slow blues, with brilliant guitar from Colin Black and impassioned vocal from Paul Melville. This band go from strength to strength, and are pretty unstoppable at the moment. The full line-up is Paul Melville (vocals), Colin Black (guitar and harmonica), Jonny Spencer (guitar), Simon Anthony (saxophone), Dave Heath (bass) and Boyd Tonner (drums).

Thanks from me to the organisers - particularly Pete Evans, Paul Taylor and Ian Williams - and to all volunteers and helpers. This was a great festival - reasonably priced, good beer, etc., Šand long may it prosper, see you in 2010.