A Butlins Blues Odyssey

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A blog hot from the Rock and Blues Festival 2015 at Skegness…

Friday 23rd January 2015

Even on a cold January day in Lincolnshire, a music festival brings out some interesting sights. The men dressed as Blues Brothers, the splendidly attired lady singer having a quick cigarette outside a bar, the woman in bunny ears. The actual bunny, also in bunny ears, that hopped off a path and under a handy bush.

Those sights only came into view after a four hour drive from Kent. Such is the draw of a festival, that such journeys or longer are made from all points of the compass. Not so much from the east, in this case, there being the small matter of the North Atlantic in the way.

Though a music festival isn’t a convention of strangely dressed eccentrics, or at least not entirely. Most people are the kind of dyed in the wool music fans who are usually seen only in small groups across the many venues of the United Kingdom. So it is here in Skegness for the Great British Rock and Blues Festival. Much of the idle talk by people in bars and restaurants is of music. The t-shirts (that aren’t covered by seasonal thick shirts and jumpers) are of the branded variety, the first seen being a Wilko Johnson number.

The music festival itself is, then, an opportunity for the music fan to get together with like-minded folk, and often with quite a lot of peacefully consumed alcohol as well. There is a choice to be made – to go and sit or stand through your favourite acts that are appearing – or to flit from place to place and take in those favourites, but also acts you’ve not heard of before and who might be future favourite material. If you’re writing about the event, as I am, the flitting and sipping approach is the one to take. The reader is so much more likely to enjoy a bit of variety over a series of slavish recollections of set lists. This flitting and sipping is made easier at Butlins Skegness as the stages – the main drag with its large stage, here doubling up as an Introducing Stage; the adjacent Big Stage; the Reds stage; and the JAKS bar – the one where Blues Matters magazine has the honour to choose the acts – are a short walk apart.

JAKS was the first port of call. Well, in fact it was fifth. First, enter Butlins. Second, find Blues Matters CD sale stand and collect keycard for room. Third, have dinner and discover that the Yacht Retaurant does an excellent cottage pie. Fourth, move car and move goods and chattels into room. Only then, swaddled in thick coat and hat and scarf against a bitter wind, comes the stroll to JAKS. This years sipping and flitting commences appropriately enough with the very last number by Split Whiskers, which seemed to go down well with the crowd. Up came Red Butler, a band led by a lady singer with gloriously piled hair and a strong voice, accompanied by Alex Butler on guitar, looking remarkably like Ed Sheerin. Singer Jane Pearce, the lady in question, did a fine job on a cover of Ray Charles Hit The Road Jack, and made an even better impression with original songs such as Pension Blues. She was also an early contender for best eye make-up of festival, with some glittery blue reminiscent of Sophie Ellis-Bextor in Strictly Come Dancing 2013.

A departure for Reds saw Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre doing his Rocky thing, and rather well at that, and his impressive male lead singer triggered a memory search for who he sounded like. A little later, what should have been an obvious answer arrived: Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull. Coincidence? I think not.

Girls With Guitars were doing their thing in the main stage, and as I descended the Reds stairs on a mission to see them, a passing couple asked the man in front of me, “Are Girls With Guitars any good, then?” “No”, came the answer.

Not to be discouraged, the main stage was visited and, lo and behold, there were three girls, with guitars, plus a drummer (not a girl) doing their thing. The girls were blazing away on those guitars, and singing somewhat as well. Hardly a departure from what their title suggested and certainly appreciated by the audience not already departed for the Reds stairs. The final interesting sight of the night was not those girls with guitars, but a gentleman with a black beard of such depth that he could have joined Thorin’s kinfolk in the movie of The Hobbit, no questions asked.

This festival is suited to the insomniac with music playing until 2am or later. Thus a quick return to JAKS caught The Mick Simpson Band launch into their midnight-starting set with a cover of Cream’s Crossroads before the effect of too much time on the road meant the next and final stop of the night (after writing this up) was to be bed. Is it comfortable? That will soon be known, as will how Connie Lush, The Blues Band and many others are performing. All over the next two days and nights.

Saturday 24th January 2015

The bed did turn out comfortable, and with the first music of the day from 12pm, there was time for a solid breakfast, and in the case of one couple spoken to, a bus ride into the centre of Skegness for a local look around. Festival-goers were happy to see a clear blue sky, and many went to see the musician whose first album was titled Thunder In The Sky, Laurence Jones. Laurence was performing confidently on the main stage, pausing to recall the story of being told to write a song about Louisiana by American Mike Zito. Laurence was lost for inspiration until a giant rat crossed his bedroom, leading to the song Soul Swamp River, which he then reproduced for the audience. Aparently, Laurence is “a young superstar, the boy wonder, the handsome one”, though as this was said by bass man Rogers Innisss and allegedly at Laurence’s suggestion, it may lose a little impact. However, Laurence, the boy wonder, did indeed make his mark. As a prolific live performer, his band is battle-hardened and tight.

The Trevor Burton Band pleasingly chose to over the old standard Guilty in their set on the Reds stage, but even as Laurence and Trevor were playing, a range of musicians were getting up on stage in Roadhouse’s Jam in the JAKS bar. The bar was full of people and the mix of those people, alcoholic fumes, and stage smoke conjured up the atmosphere of a pre-smoking ban boozer, which suited the roll-on, roll-off procession of musicians in the jam. Artists appearing included a re-appearance of Rad Butler (as seen the previous night), at one point in combination with that particularly fine Blues haromica player, Stevie Smith. A vertiable queue of guitar-toting musicians were hovering near the stage ready to go on, and it is the ability to informally wander up to many a favourite musician for a few words that makes these events a little more special.

As alluded to in the blog from the first day, the apparel of festival goers is a topic in itself, but today the more exotically dressed folk were trumped by the MC/DJ spinning vinyl between acts on the main stage, the sharp dressed man himself, Chris Powers, whose finest hour came when he changed into a vivid scarlet suit.

On the Introducing stage, the Riotous Brothers stood out, a four piece band with two male singers, and getting some people dancing with enthusiasm in the open space before the stage. The presence in the band of a drummer sporting an Athos-like beard and moustache a la The Three Musketeers series on TV may not have done any harm. The Pierre K Band from Belgium also featured, cut down from their usual line up of four to a trio on this occasion. On a day in which line ups were shuffled a little, some of the Laurence Jones band, including Laurence, stepped in with Victoria Klewin and the Mojohand, and produced some good music. It is hard to say, several acts in and with another tomorrow, who will be the winner of the vote that will take one Introducing stage act onto the main stage in 2016. Whoever it is will be in the company of Otis Grand and the Big Blues Band and of Courtney Pine, as their names are on television screens and posters around the resort.

Skegness Butlins is something of a magnet for festival staff, as there are people popping around and dropping off flyers for things like the imminent St Valentine’s Day Rock and Blues Massacre in Hunstanton (14 February), the Broadstairs Blues Bash (20-22 February), the not-so-secret Top Secret Blues Festival in Scarborough (20-22 May), the Acoustic Festival of Britain (19-21 June), and the Bluesrocfest 2015 in Gravesend (4 July). Not to mention Boogaloo Promotions weekends and gigs at the Flowerpot in Derby.

One of the big draws of the weekend appeared on the main stage, Connie Lush and Blues Shouter. The lady introduced as the Queen of British Blues produced her trademark powerful vocals, and new song Lonely Boy was especially memorable, a slower, moody, more Soulful number than some of the faster and Rockier numbers that represented much of the set. Marcus Malone followed Connie, the English-based American his usual distinctive self and always good to see.

Meanwhile Babajack were entertaining in Reds, and entertaining they certainly were, a band that has built up a good following with the success of their album Running Man. Underlining the choice musical menu on offer, another walk took me to see The Dave Thomas Band in JAKS, and the former Blonde on Blonde man was producing a sparking set of well-sung, well-played, and well-received, Blues.

The night concluded with a little reflection on the whereabouts and fate of a performer who was seen arriving earlier ready for his show on Sunday. He had confided that he was “on a mission to get drunk”. There are certainly enough bars, not to mention special offers on strangely coloured vodka drinks, that this shouldn’t be Mission Impossible. Something that the Bradford City football team evidently found in the FA Cup today. Chelsea 2, Bradford 4? I drop into a Blues festival for a couple of days and the world goes mad. By comparison Manchester City 0, Middlesborough 2 seems positively mundane. Those Chelsea and Manchester City fans at their grounds today would obviously have had a much better time in Skegness.
Sunday 24th January 2015

The musician who intended to get drunk last night succeeded. He is playing here at lunchtime and when seen this morning he was coherent but frayed around the edges and it is to be hoped coffee and adrenelin get him through his performance.

The staff at this Skegness Butlins resort are really friendly and helpful, not just those who are mainly public-facing in places like The Yacht Club, an eatery that can be recommended. Yet, as a writer, I get to go behind the scenes at times, and even the people who are doing essential work like cleaning, organising musicians to perform (a curious task) and on security, are uniformly nice. Well done, Butlins.

Dave Kelly was the first point of call for the day, a solo acoustic set, a real mix of songs and anecdote, given that this man has performed with John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and many other Blues luminaries. Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay was especially lovely, as was his story about enjoying busking and sometimes getting “a whole two pound coin, in one go!” Quite a few eminent Blues musicians busk, so Dave is in good company. He also performed the delicious Son House number, Death Letter, with its haunting lyric, “I didn’t know how much I loved her/Till I put her in the ground.”

A stroll to Reds found, a little surprisingly, Jim Diamond performing an acoustic set accompanied by a guitarist. Jim has the fine voice that graced the Boon TV show theme tune Hi Ho Silver years ago and here it graced Wilson Pickett’s 634-5789. Meanwhile, I finally caught up with Malaya Blue in JAKS (with Will Johns and co in the band) and discovered that the rumours that she is rather good are rather right.

Meanwhile, that truly excellent band Nine Below Zero had their Mojo Working in Reds, themselves rather used to encores, whereas Malaya Blue has a momentary uncertainty, when closing applause led her to say, “You’d think I’d have prepared for this, but we didn’t.” A good encore number soon rolled out.

The Blues Band were a very big draw and had a packed house accordingly, and justified it in accomplished playing, including a song, Suddenly I Like It, from Paul Jones new and rather overdue album (the last being 2009).

Robbie McIntosh was another interesting band to appear, as he said, they are “A little bit Rock, a little bit Blues.” A Facebook remark suggested he could have played with more fire, but this is a band that plays it mellow and melodious, and no bad thing at that. A band that was far from smooth were the Screaming Eagles. Those I nearly missed, suspecting an Eagles tribute band, but as it turns out they are a first-album original Rock act and one that sounds distinctly AC/DC. It was therefore apt that a trip to the JAKS bar found Roadhouse in session, playing in almost equally Rocky vein, the two lead ladies coming over all Suzi Quatro as they belted out Love Motel.

The final stop of the night was again at JAKS, for The Laura Holland Band. They built up a lively audience, especially after the Blues Band finished their set, and were followed at 12.30pm by a band I lacked the stamina, with a long drive the next day, to see.

In summary? Very good weekend, indeed, and from now on, with rare exceptions, I will be popping in and out of things at festivals, as the chance to see new acts, even briefly, is too good to miss.

Roll on 2016.