Review: The Blues Band, Theatre Royal Winchester

Review: The Blues Band, Theatre Royal Winchester

by Dan O’Farrell.

When I was 13 years old, I had five records in my bedroom: albums by The Stray Cats and Gene Vincent bought with pocket money (and a shameful Showaddywaddy purchase, hidden at the back) and two pinched from my dad: ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and ‘The Five Faces of Manfred Mann’ (I got ‘Hatful of Hollow’ that Christmas and the world tilted…).

I mention this because it explains my enthusiasm to attend Saturday night’s performance by The Blues Band at the glorious Theatre Royal Winchester. Two members of The Blues Band – singer/blue-harpist Paul Jones, and singing guitarist Tom McGuinness – once stared out at me in beatnik black polo-necks from the cover of that treasured Manfred Mann LP. These guys have pedigree, and I wanted to see if their ‘rhythm and blues’ stylings could still impress me in the same way.

Looking across the audience in Winchester, I experience the delicious thrill – possibly for the first time in many years – of bringing the average age of the audience at a concert down instead of up. The crowd are enthusiastic and friendly, many obviously devoted to both band and genre.

The band take the stage with little fanfare and get straight down to business. The set-up is pleasingly democratic. Stage-right stands (and sometimes sits) Dave Kelly, an excellent slide-guitarist and blessed with an edgily bluesy voice. Stage-centre is Paul Jones, British-Blues stalwart from the 60s on, with a richer, more croon-some  voiced and a prodigious talent on the harmonica. Stage-left is Tom McGuinness, a calmer, more avuncular presence with a voice to match. Behind these three lurk the band’s rhythm section – bassist Gary Fletcher (who also gives us a song from his solo album) and excellent drummer Sam Kelly, Dave Kelly’s son.

The three frontmen sing songs in fairly strict rotation, giving the evening some welcome variety. The lovely thing about this version of the blues – Afro-American-music from the 20s and 30s filtered the lens of the 60s R&B boom and then the ‘purist’ revival circuit ever since – is that it is comforting, like a big musical duvet. Of course, the terrible thing about this version of the blues is the same quality. Repetition is built into the genre.

The Blues Band manage to challenge this for long sections of the evening by mixing up their vocalists and styles. Kelly gives us some authentic growl, Jones the more soulful sweetness and McGuinness the quirkiness. One of his songs ‘ The Happy Blues’ addresses the contradiction inherent in singing the blues as a contented man-of-means and raises a wry smile.

Overall, a very enjoyable evening for devotees – The Blues Band do exactly what it says on the tin – but a slightly long haul for the casual listener.