A Tale of Two Shows - a guest review from Rob Zanders
Keb Mo: Union Chapel, Islington
Keb Mo ticks many boxes when it comes to blues performers; he is a black man, from the USA and he plays ‘the blues’. In Mo’s case he has managed to move on from that hackneyed, copycat style. He is slim, sophisticated, appears charming, and he can put across a soulful ballad that makes you think. Keb Mo plays the blues but he also sings songs.
The Union Chapel in North London was the ideal venue for his cultured style. On a hot and sultry evening the Union Chapel was a good place for anything. With the kind of air conditioning that only religious buildings can manage, and the evening sun beaming through stained glass it created an atmosphere of cool beauty. A place to reflect. The average age was about 57, the people 99% white and middle class. At the end of the show, I picked up a copy of the Guardian to read on the way home. I counted 87 copies left in the pews. If I’d been transferred there in a time machine and had to take a stab at where I was, Islington would have been my first guess.
Mo and his band came on at 8.45 following the quirky Son of Dave. Dave’s son was a one man entertainment packet. He had a box of harmonicas, various things to shake and bang, and some technology that allowed him to build up his tunes and songs in layers. As for his influences; more Christopher Lloyd than anybody else. Entertaining and weird. He was a warm up act and he warmed up the audience. Yet you are always waiting for the main act. Son of Dave said it in one line, “it is an honour to be on tour with somebody who is a global superstar. I have only just reached local cult status.” Keb Mo, global superstar, that was pushing it, but he is the man we wanted to see. Sorry Dave, tell you lad to keep trying.
So on came Keb Mo. There was the obligatory line up of guitars on stands, bass player, keyboards, and a simple set of drums. Start with a couple of ‘well-known’ tunes, play the content of your new CD (copies on sale at the back of the hall) and finish off with some of the old favourites. I suppose that is what you are supposed to do. Mr Mo has a great voice, soulful with a little bit of grittiness. He is an accomplished player of the guitar. He can knock out a solo that is part of a song not an extension of his ego. The band read each song well, knowing their place but also knowing they were not just backing the main man. He announced his last song, played it, went off, got loads of applause, then came back and played three more. That was it. Good, but not overwhelming. I have now seen a bloke who I have wanted to see for the last twenty years. Time to go home – just a tad underwhelmed.
Moreland and Arbuckle, Beaverwood Club, Chislehurst
The Beaverwood Club is not a venue to put on your must visit list. A 1970s sports pavilion. Go down there on any night and there is a variety of different things going on: Ultimate Boot Camp, Zumba, dads called Dave standing around watching their four year olds in Messi shirts, all shouting ‘Go on my son…kick the little barrrstard.’ For much of the time, the nearest the Beaverwood Club gets to ‘blues’ is ‘Bling it on Home to Me’, for this is Chislehurst. But Thursday night is music night and the domain of the enthusiastic Pete Feentra. Pete’s shows tend to come into three categories:
- Bands that had made it in the 70s, fell out, fell apart, and came back together. Sometimes they have not come together again. It is the original drummer who carries on now the rest of the band have gone via the Union Chapel to somewhere else.
- Guitarists who never quite made it but did once cut an album with John Mayall. It is heavy blues rock, deeps riffs punctuated by swirling, mesmeric solos, Walter Troutalikes. Even Walter Trout sounded like Walter Trout when he was at the Beaverwood.
- Tribute Bands – Has music really got to this level?
Now and again, Pete unearths a gem. Something that sets the pulse racing. Moreland and Arbuckle are one of those gems. Rough and uncut, not polished and s-Mo-oth. This duo, which is now a trio as they have signed up a drummer, sound like they should be treading the Lancashire folk club circuit, but they hail from Kansas, and by the end of the evening the foundations of the Beaverwood club has shifted a good metre nearer to Dodge City. It took about four bars to shake the place up. Okay, the sound quality was not the best, but the club was designed for boozing not acoustics. They are relentless, dirty, nitty-gritty stuff. The lads are still getting to learn an English audience; they were wondering whether the crowd were enjoying themselves. Everybody was tapping their feet, that is pure joy in the suburbs! Aarron Moreland beats the hell out of his guitars, including a beauty of a cigar box - Seasick Steve is genteel by comparison. Dustin Arbuckle sings and plays the harmonica and he too does it with vigour. At times is all gets a touch too chaotic but who gives a damn, they just go for it. The drumming of Kendall Newby keeps it all together. Their rendition of John Henry is worth the admission fee on its own.
So, having seen these two contrasting ‘blues’ acts in close succession, what would I recommend? If you want to sit down at the end of a tough day, flop into a comfy chair, and turn on some music to lift you back to where you want to be, stick on a Keb Mo CD. I’ve got five of them. Any one will do. Indeed the tracks could be interchangeable. But if it is a good night out you are after, and the choice is Keb the ‘global superstar’ or three virtually unknowns from Kansas, it is no competition: Moreland and Arbuckle will thrill you.