“Do you have some Blues in you?”

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I came across this gentlemen at his stall on Hebden Bridge market when I was there a few weeks ago. He made up cigar box guitars and after spotting them I had to have a closer look.

He greeted me by asking me “have you got some blues in you?” Well I have – a little anyway! He spotted my Lancashire accent but despite this (!) I got chatting with him about how he made his hand built guitars and I had a go at playing one – they’re meant for playing slide or “bottleneck” style and it’s not something I’d really attempted before.

He told me that he had Parkinson’s disease (he had the characteristic hand tremor) but still persevered in building the instruments. I thought they were quite reasonably priced (probably worth more) and would have been tempted to buy one if I wasn’t just about to set out for a walk on the moors.

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Memphis – Blues, Rock ‘n Roll and Soul

I’ve been watching Trevor MacDonald’s series travelling along the Mississippi on ITV. It’s a little superficial, but I’ve enjoyed the episodes shown so far. Last week he visited Memphis, Tennessee and it brought back memories of my own visit in 2009. Inevitably the programme featured some of the sites associated with the musical heritage of the city – Beale Street, Sun Studios and Graceland.

Memphis played a key role in the development of popular music during the 20th Century – particularly the Blues, Rock and Roll and Soul.

Beale Street

During the early 1900’s, one of the main thoroughfares in the city centre, Beale Street, echoed to the sound of Blues music being played in its numerous clubs and bars, many of them owned by African-Americans. Today the street is a major tourist attraction, lined with bars and restaurants, including one owned by Blues legend B B King. It’s heaving with people out to enjoy themselves during the evening on weekends. But i found the atmosphere much more relaxed than similar areas in cities and towns in the U.K. And music is still a major aspect of the nightlife with most of the bars featuring bands and musicians busking in the street.

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Given it’s importance as one of the major centres of Blues music, it’s not surprising that Memphis featured prominently in the history of Rock and Roll. Sun Studio, just outside the city centre, was where artists such as Sam Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash cut some classic records. And of course it was where Elvis Presley  recorded his first hits.

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I took the mini-bus that runs from the city centre to the studio. Visitors go upstairs to view a small exhibition before before being taken back downstairs into the studio itself. It was very small, and it was a bit of a crush, but, like many other people, I was able to stand on the spot where Elvis stood and hold his microphone.

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You can’t go to Memphis without visiting Graceland, so I joined the throngs at Elvis’ former home, is on the outskirts of the city, near to the airport.

Graceland was much smaller than I expected – and the portico on the front made it look much grander than it actually was. It was large – but nowhere near as big as I’d imagined.

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As well as the house itself there are a number of other attractions, including a museum full of cars and motorbikes owned by Elvis and his two jets.

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Memphis was also a major centre for soul music in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was the home to Stax and other labels including Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records.

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A visit to the Stax museum was a real highlight of my trip. Stax records was a hotbed of talent including Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Booker T. & the MGs, and Rufus and Carla Thomas.

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The studio, a converted cinema, had, tragically, been demolished in the museum together, swapping experiences of growing up with the music – me a white man from 1989. So the Stax Museum is housed in a realistic replica of the original building. As it was quite away from the city centre. I took the free mini-bus from my hotel with two other guests staying there – a New Jersey policeman and his wife. We got talking and toured the museum together, swapping stories about growing up with the music, sharing a common enthusiasm despite our very different backgrounds.

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Wilko at the Citadel

The Wilko Johnson Band on stage at the Citadel

While browsing on the web yesterday I found out that Wilko Johnson’s band were playing at the Citadel in St Helens that evening. Wilko is one of my all time “guitar herose”. He used to be the lead guitarist in Dr Feelgood, who tasted success for a short while in the 1970’s  with their raw version of R & B. He has a very distinctive style, managing to combine lead and rhythmn guitar.

I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see his band and after several attempts I managed to get through to the box office on the phone and, luckily, was able to sort out one of the last tickets. Wilko does have a loyal following but I guess his current tour has had more interest due to the release of Julien Temple’s film about Dr Feelgood, “Oil City Confidential” that I saw at the cinema in February and which was recently shown on BBC4.

The Citadel is a relatively small venue and over 200 people (mainly middle aged men reliving their youth, with a smattering of females) packed in. There are some seats on the balcony but downstairs it’s standing room only – on this occasion a middle aged “mosh pit”.

First up was the support band “the People’s Republic of Mercia“, a band from Birmingham playing raw R & B, mainly self penned. They played a good solid set very much in the style of “Dr Feelgood”. They weren’t exactly a handsome bunch, but had a good stage presence – particularly the lead singer/rhythm guitarists and the bassist.

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Wilko’s band features Norman Watt, formerly of Ian Dury’s Blockheads, on bass and Dylan Howe, the son of Steve Howe (of Yes) on drums.

Wilko was the centre of attention, strutting round stage in his own inimitable manic style, with his eyes staring into middle distance, just like he used to in the Feelgoods. At times pointing his guitar at the audience as if it was a machine gun. The crowd lapped it up. He look different these days, 30 odd years on. His mop top has disappeared – he’s now bald, and his face shows his age.  He also plays a Stratocaster rather than the Telecaster that was his trademark in the 70’s.

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Wilko acted as vocalist. He always sang a few numbers with the Feelgoods, but he’s no great singer – almost tuneless. The band really good do with a good vocalist but I guess that anyone he recruited would be compared with Lee Brillaux, the amazing vocalist from the Feelgoods and the comparison would, inevitably, be unfavourable.

Norman Watts is also quite a character. Bald on top, but with long hair at the back and sides, he has distinctive teeth and strange stare, crouching over his instrument, he reminded me of a zombie from a Hammer horror film.

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Dylan Howe is younger and normal looking! He works away hard at the back of the stage, out of the limelight providing a solid platform. Nothing too flash – and he only took a very short drum solo towards the end of the set.

The music was solid R & B, a mixture of Dr Feelgood number including “Sneaki’n Suspicion”  “Roxette”, “Back in the Night” and “She does it right”,some songs from Wilko’s later career and a few R & B standards .  Wilko’s lead/rhythm guitar overlying a solid rhythm section.

It was a great performance and a great atmosphere. A good night out.

To see a video I shot of “Roxette”, click here.

Jake Lear

This guy was playing at the bottom end of Beale Street during my recent visit to Memphis.

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Jake Lear on Beale Street

His style was quite different than Richard Johnston, but he was also very good.

He played quite a furious style of blues/R n B – much more “rock and roll”. His singing, and appearance, reminded me of a young Bob Dylan.

You can download some examples of his music from his website.

Richard Johnston, country blues guitarist

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No visit to Memphis is complete without a visit to Beale Street. Although geared to tourists to some extent, there is still an opportunity to see some genuinely talented blues and r’n’b musicians playing live.

This guy was my favourite. An excellent country blues musician. He plays a mean riff and can really sing. In many ways he reminded me of a younger version of Seasick Steve – similar music and he has also his own “Didley bow” guitar made from odds and ends. He was accompanied by a bassist and, on one occasion, a guy playing a harmonica.

Check out his website where you can download some tracks

Click the links below to watch some videos I shot.

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