Ronnie Wood & Friends
Celebrate the Chess Label
Blues Fest 2012
My drummer John and I spent a memorable afternoon a few years back talking to Marshall Chess, the American entrepreneur and label boss discussing the Chess and Cadet labels output through the years. As a young man he was around the studios and mixing with all the great artists to record on the imprint as the senior Chess family members Leonard and Phil steered the musical ship. He was lucid, frank ( not everyone by any means understood his fervour to mix in psychedelic influences and players on the sessions…some of the artists in particular Howlin’ Wolf didn’t care for the results, but I don’t think Burnett’s voice ever sounded better recorded than on the ‘This is..’ album and one of the mighty label’s most telling creations was the Rotary Connection version of ‘Respect’ already a well-known tune by the time it was recorded but here given a positively eerie electric guitar counterpoint to the late Minnie Riperton vocal by none other than Cornell Dupree) and he was warmly funny. But our abiding memory was his fulsome praise of and affection that Marshall had for The Rolling Stones. To the extent that he was instrumental in running their own label. I would argue that due to the Stones and to Phil May and the Pretty Things, Downliners Sect and others the Chess label would not have been so swiftly revered and collected in the UK and in Europe. Bear in mind that when a Chicago TV station in the Sixties pleaded with the Stones to appear they agreed to do so provided Howlin’ Wolf was on that same show. AND!!! Mick and Keef recently paid for the funeral of Wolf guitar mainman Hubert Sumlin. Remembering your inspirations cannot find a nobler manifestation than actions like these.
A sad many of the original Chess and Cadet artists have left the planet, recently Hubert and Solomon Burke and the regal Etta James. But their music and the directness of their recording approach has and will continue to influence every roots player in the world whether it’s John Hiatt and his rasping bite of a voice or that teenage bunch of lads in the garage over the road turning their back on identikit formularised synth-soaked AutoTuned CowellCrap and finding inspiration in what we have to call ‘real music’. Would anyone have dare suggest a Vocoder or tuning-tweaker to John Lee Hooker ?! said apparatus would have been embedded in the proponent’s rear passage a few seconds later…
After an excellent young roots opening act – more of which later – our man Ronnie shuffles onto the stage and using a couple of electric guitars (one tuned to open ‘E’ I think, for slide)
runs us through some signature riffs and rhythms that leaped out of our loudspeakers from import black or blue Chess / Cadet 45rpm singles back in the day. Incidentally, Yank readers, the UK label Pye put out many of the singles and four-track EPs over here and the labels were a bright red and yellow. When I interview visiting American acts they stare in awe at any contemporary UK records I show them. Wood sighs with regards as he pumps out the key tags of songs he loved and loves eg Little Red Rooster, Down In the Bottom, Bo’s Mona, a snatch of Big Bill Broonzy, Hooker’s chugging Boogie Chillun’, Smokestack Lightnin’, fragments of Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson ( The Second,.aka Rice Miller and of whom our Yardbird pals Chris and Jim can tell scary ontheroad tales) and their harmonica stylings……all of which as our Ronnie remarks ‘sets the scene’ for the show to follow. Incidentally Wood himself plays a blinder tonight, by turns tender and menacing, fluid and emphatic. His guitar tech leaps around as The Thin Man Who Can’t Keep Still ( and why should he?) careers around the stage.
We did already have some idea of who might be in the performance. Pleasingly the three Stones I have met – Wood, Taylor and Wyman and all warmly welcomed by the all-ages London audience – take up their positions. MT has one of his sunburst Les Pauls and Mick being Mick slips in sharp slide runs just at the right moments, clearly having survived the verbal roasting given to him on NY late night show Jimmy Fallon by radio eagle of death Howard Stern who berated Taylor over and over for leaving The Rolling Stones. Taylor had shrugged off the human hawk’s tirade with a grin and played with Fallon’s house band The Roots and to great effect.
It had seemed to me that not much could go wrong with these cats aboard for the show but then Wood introduces two drummers – Andy Newmark and Simon Kirke - both old pals of Ronnie and working tonight like a four-hand percussion-being. So the skins are in the hands of the sticksmen for Sly and the Family Stone AND of Bad Company / Free !!! Newmark of course played on Wood’s first solo album but if you want to hear him at his stellar spacey best visit Sly’s ‘Fresh’ album. But as the shopping channel guys shout – not only that ! Singing some of the initial songs and playing choppy rhythm guitar the whole evening we have the Average White band mainman Hamish Stuart. The horn section of Frank and Nick include flute and harp playing when not saxing, some times wandering out to front of stage during the spirited boogie selections. As if the sonic cake has not already plenty of icing, the keys are in the hands of Andy Wallace and Geraint Watkins, whose piano lines are very close indeed to dear old Johnny’s on all those Chuck Berry 45’s. Listen again closely to those jukebox gems of Chuck’s…it ain’t just the red Gibson guitar runs that make them rock !
Ronnie takes us straight into ‘Hi Heel Sneakers’ with Hamish on vocals, then ‘My Babe’ chugs along. An unannounced female vocalist sings – it may be his daughter Leah Wood ?
Then, joy of joys for me, a Howlin’ Wolf key tune ‘300 Pounds of Joy’ , Geraint singing and the horns diving like they should. Little Walter’s ‘Just a Fool’ has great Frank harp and a stinging Wood Strat solo. Up steps Mr Bill Wyman to sing Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ to a great response, sax players’ excursion at al. Then an Elmore James classic ‘The Sky Is Crying’ – it’s the wettest June in London for many years, weather watchers, but at least it’s fine tonight and anyway we’re indoors, unlike those saps at the Royal Jubilee miming show earlier this month, watching Gary Barlow of Take That and the talentless Cheryl Cole slaughter a Lady Antebellum song who were all soaked to the skin – with Ronnie on clear and dramatic slide with Mick Taylor complementing each sweep on a Strat over the steadiest bassline ever from Wyman and pattering drumbeats from the dynamic duo of the backline.
Photo: David Muscroft / Rex Features
Jimmy Rogers’ ‘Walkin By Myself’ has been a personal favourite since Savoy Brown put it on a Decca single but here the singer guesting is evergreen song deliverer Ali McKenzie, now he was the vocalist on Ronnie’s early band The Birds ( not to be confused with Chicago musician Jim/ Roger McGuinn’s US West Coast folk/psych group The Byrds) and he makes the song come to life, no problem. Taylor sounds godlike on this and indeed has his own Bluesfest show upcoming at Under The Bridge at the football stadium that hosts Chelsea.
Wyman’s own touring band – Rhythm Kings – features beautiful soul stylist Beverley Skeete and she visits Etta James ‘Tell Mama’ with great spirit and the horns cruising through the selection, Taylor skipping through the changes with his special touch and through the saxlines. Look, as anyone who was here will tell you, these were Masters At Work, unselfishly making the featured singers sound terrific. Good musicians play to make everyone sound their best, not to show off. Skeete makes “Mojo Boogie’ a gem of a J B Lenoir number as the tinkling piano and grainy Hammond organ set the pace and Taylor’s slide hovers like a vulture over the block sound. It’s delicious. As is the gorgeous and confident walk by Beverley through Etta’s ‘At Last’. Is this the greatest love song ever ? It sounded like it tonight and the crowd roared their approval. A flute-embellished showstopper.
Ronnie than chops his way into a very edgy ‘Spoonful’, many shades way from the familiar Cream and TYA versions of yore. His Strat solo is almost heroic and the harp and sax blend evokes US group War viz on ‘Slipping Into Darkness’.
Wood wonders aloud whether he can do justice to ‘Big Town Playboy’ ( Eddie Taylor) but it sounds good to these ears. The audience welcomes Texas lass Sharleen Spiteri as she hits “Mama Talk To Your Daughter’ at a Mayall-type tempo. Many are surprised she can sing out like this as the radio-friendly hit singles her band has amassed just don’t hint at these roots. A hug for Mick and Ronnie than she roars through ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ with a real conviction. An underplayed coda wraps the song up.
Some out and out rock is needed for the show finale so step up usually introverted musician James McCartney who can sing in the range his dad used to and with his blue Fender he whacks into ‘Oh Carol’ and then ‘Johnny B Goode’ . A lot of attendees were surprised to hear this edgy rock sound from James however we had been to his recent Borderline show and he know he can hit that Dale Hawkins vibe as well as the mellower Donovan-tinged mystics songs. With This vocal lead it does sound like a Beatles/Stones get-together. A rousing extra of ‘It’s Only Rock’n'Roll’ has everyone back on and singing along, the Wyman rumbling bass sounding – OF COURSE! – spot on.
The only ‘problem’ with this show was what numbers to choose..we could have had ‘ Rescue Me’, ‘You Can’t Judge a Book’, ‘Rocket 88′ or ‘Reconsider Baby’….but what was selected was played to perfection by a unique ensemble. Well done Ronnie and pals…
Ah yes – the openers. Well wisely and to contrast with the blues and R&B to come, the first act on had a roots/county rock/Americana sound which was as pleasant to listen to as it was expertly played. Guitars, bass, sax, drums, keys and singing brothers are the assets of John Bull & The Bandits. If it’s possible to mix rocking with smoothness, it’s achieved here.
‘Let The Good Times Roll’ was fine ; ‘Lover Man’ and ‘Sweet Rosie’ had charm and bite. ‘Gotta Go Home’ a cool song indeed – one member contrasted tonight’s mega-gig with a village-green job they played last week ! – while new composition ‘Which Card’ had originality and crisp delivery. ‘Country Trip’ was a slide feature and showed ace dynamic sensibility. They reminded me of Clover, if you remember them ? And they still did if you don’t. This crew and The Dunwells give me hope for young outfits not just wanting easy TV overnight ‘fame’. They may thank me for suggesting : SOUNDCLOUD.COM/JOHN-BULL-THE-BANDITS
( Hope your heads aren’t too heavy this morning, lads and at least you were upbeat when we met you after the show despite you Roses late night before…..)
PS – just noticed on the Sunday morning TV news it was Jade Jagger’s wedding yesterday….might explain the Richmond resident MJ’s absence last night ?
Pete Sargeant www.fairhearing.co.uk