For their latest album, Blue on Black have returned to one of the wellsprings of the Blues, Robert Johnson. We review their album, “Robert Johnson’s Door” in the November issue of Blues Matters. More can be read on their website www.blueonblack.co.uk. However, in the space of this blog, we can also say that we like Blue on Black. They love to play their Blues heavy, so it is not a total surprise that Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan praises them. Certainly with this album Blue on Black have delivered their most varied, inspired and downright entertaining work to date.
We asked Blue on Black’s guitarist and vocalist Keith Howe to tell us about the inspiration for the album. His thoughts are below, and are actually something of a Blues life story, a journey from a Council estate, through numerous guitars, ill health, and onto an album whose title as the sleeve notes say “is a metaphor for all the artists who continue to shape their own futures by looking back at the greats, especially the legendary Robert Johnson”. The photo illustrating this blog shows a door in a recording studio, the kind of place many have been led to by Robert Johnson. Keith is shown beyond the door, laying down the guitar solo for “Poor Boy Do”.
Now for Keith’s story: Acts of Endeavour.
A south east London council estate in the mid-sixties, seems pretty far removed from the 1930’s Mississippi Delta, but looking back, I don’t find it too difficult to recognise a pre-destined path of alignment for me, Blues Music (Robert Johnson in particular) and my musical endeavours to date.
Blessed with parents who themselves had great and varied musical tastes, exposure to quality music from an early age, was for me a given and as Sunday lunchtime approached (always a family affair), we all sat down with a chance to listen to our latest LP purchases plus a radio variety from shows such as ‘Family Favourites’.
Amidst the Paul Robeson, Bing Crosby, Connie Francis, Puccini, etc., every now and then would come a Blues track from say Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters or in exceptional circumstances Robert Johnson singing about having ‘possession over judgement day’. Just how cool was that!
It might be difficult to imagine just how electrifying this dangerous sounding, Chromatic Americana was for a teenage boy listening amidst aspiring middle class surroundings, but for me there was an instant attraction and the origins of a mapped out future with many opportunities for fate to continue to break my stride with RJ influences.
First port of call then was a No 180 Bus ride into Woolwich, stopping just short of Beresford Square to ogle the window of ‘Alpat’s’, a second hand dealers who always had mercurial and mysterious array of Guitars hanging in their window.
Several months pocket money later and a dark sunburst, ‘Spanish’ guitar (of unknown origin and dubious character) was accompanying me home, deposit paid and 10 months left before I could eventually own it (all thanks to a VERY understanding Mother).
This would set a familiar pattern for the next 30 plus years with many luscious acquisitions going back into Px before their time, to make way for the ‘next best thing’!
Although this instrument was only fit to slice Cheese (action, playability, tone etc. were words yet to fit into my vocabulary) it started a journey of ‘self-discovery’, one that would accompany many classic ‘bedroom jam sessions’ where I could ‘guest’ alongside all my favourite players.
Not until months later, did a satellite neighbour (from one of the flats in Eynsham Drive) bring a set of pitch pipes into school and so I discovered the revelation that Guitars are sometimes ‘tuned’, especially if you want to play alongside another musician!
This, combined with a Christmas present of “Bert Weedons, ‘Play in a day’ Book”, put the push bike back into the shed and began the ‘Holy Grail’ trail of guitars and guitar related products (a journey still to be concluded, I’m very glad to say) plus a burning ambition to play beyond ‘There is a tavern in the town’ or ‘Little brown jug’ !
Having an elder Sister at Ravensbourne Art College at that time, also meant maximum exposure to the Brit Blues/Rock boom and so it was that R.J. materialised again and again in the LP’s and live sets of my favourite Bands.
Smuggled in under age to see band’s from Dartford include R.J’s ‘Love In Vain’ in their set, copies of the ‘Beano Album’ appearing on the ‘Dansette’ with ‘Ramblin’ on my mind’ and the seminal ‘Wheels of Fire’ with the devastating ‘Crossroads’ set the scene for a lifetime.
How could anyone object to a Gibson and Marshall on 11, interpreting RJ’s song like that?
Hell Yeah, hadn’t RJ been a Maverick performer in his own right and if he had not succumbed to an iconic but premature fate, wouldn’t he still be breaking boundaries and surely using a Les Paul by now?
That indeed, was what I was talking about.
Mike Raven and Alexis Korner on the radio and the ease of access to London and venues like The Marquee, meant ‘access all areas’ and full on exposure to some of the best blues/rock acts around and I was blessed to be able to see greats like Kossoff, Gallagher, Clapton, Green, and many more, up close and personal with the Blues.
Late teens and school bands gave way to full time work (I still blame Eric Clapton’s work with Cream for my lack of academic qualifications) but hey, toiling away in Central London had its advantages.
Charing Cross Rd and Shaftesbury Ave were an easy, lunchtime sojourn away, allowing me to put my ‘nose art’ on the shop windows of many and numerous guitar shops.
It was almost a given then, that ‘Selmer’s’ took my first pay packet as a deposit on a cherry red SG standard (£200.00 Inc. Case, I still have the receipt) and with a homemade amp (valve of course, my Dad being an electronics wizard) audition after audition was had, until I found likeminded players who shared a love of the original Blues but wanted to interpret it for the Seventies Blues/Rock Boom.
There followed many affairs with many musicians using many Guitars but eventually a ‘Les Paul’ wielding trio was formed in SE London (rather imaginatively called Cuba I thought until the Gibson Brothers came along) that allowed me to gig an individualistic take on some blues classics whilst also daring to ‘guest’ a few originals into the set.
And so it was to continue with an eventual move down into Cornwall in the late 80’s complete with loving wife and family (somehow Cornwall seemed a better environment to raise two beautiful daughters than London, can’t think why!).
All the time RJ and his original, maverick take on the Blues, haunted the best of me to the tune that every Band I played in always had a version of at least one of his songs in their repertoire (Stones in My Pass way, Stop Breaking Down or of course Crossroads).
Gigs came and went until 2001 saw the formation of our trio Blue on Black taking our name from the KWS song of the time.
For the first time we found ourselves in a position where our original material was as numerous and popular as the ‘covers’ we played.
Fortune was also bringing us into contact with some great musicians (Ian Gillan, Walter Trout, Joe Bonamassa amongst them) and opportunities started to appear, as they have a habit of doing if you believe in making your own luck.
The Band was gaining momentum plus a healthy reputation for a good Live Set which still included at least two RJ classic’s, an abbreviated ‘Stones in my pass way’ (played on slide guitar) and of course the seminal ‘Crossroads’.
A life changing time in 2008 diagnosed me with Leukaemia, leaving an inheritance from the resultant septicaemia (lucky for me only my wife’s insistence saving my fingers from amputation, toes not so lucky) which provided a new challenge and the Band consequently shelved for 18 months to allow recovery to take place.
Paying of dues took on a whole new meaning and with a new backline in place, Blue on Black put out the previously recorded but unreleased studio album ‘Suckin’ Out Venom’ whilst our Live work concentrated on rebuilding the Band (mainly my part of it) back to the reputation it had held a few years earlier.
Time spent in convalescence had not been wasted though and songs were conceived and lyrics drafted, reflecting upon the acts of endeavour to create original song, spawned and inspired by those Blues keystones, especially Robert Johnson.
RJ had quite simply been the most outstanding Guitarist of his pivotal generation, with a hitherto unimagined mix of walking bass lines and a unique rhythmic sense of playing (maybe this helps answer those who have questioned the Bass & Drum passage in the CD’s title track?) combined with dexterous ‘slide fills’, encapsulating country blues in a ground breaking way. And always to the forefront, his unwavering performance of his own material, not one cover in sight.
Slowly the model for ‘Robert Johnsons Door’ came to life based around a re-working of our version of RJ’s ‘Crossroads’ that the Band had always showcased in its set and a reflection upon just how many of the artists the Band revered, ‘cover’ RJ’s material and use him as a portal to their own songs.
Indeed even as we went to press with our new recording, Planet Rock were airing the new Joe Bonamassa release with his version of RJ’s ‘Stones in my Pass way’ – spooky, two legends entwined who undoubtedly will both leave their own legacies!
So, even if it doesn’t start in Hazlehurst Miss. or finish in Greenwood Miss. we hope you can share this portal with us as we open that door and endeavour to ‘Walk RJ’s Walk’ to wherever the journey takes us?
Keith Howe, Blue on Black – August 2012
Blues Matters thanks Keith for his writing for us. And Robert Johnson for inspiring Keith. And us and countless others.