Review by Tim Marcus with photos from Sam Conquest Photography
We’re heading back to the Springbok Park estate for the fourth and final time this year for what is going to be no ordinary day. I have been excited and eager with anticipation for this day ever since the lineup for this year’s event was first announced. The whole weekend has been fantastic however the lineup on the show today, to my mind anyway, is probably the best single-day lineup I’ve seen anywhere, of the very best of current British blues and blues rock artists and I just cannot wait for the day to start.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long and kicking the day off nicely is another band that has appeared at all stagings of this event so far and is regular on the festival scene in this neck of the woods, The Farleys. The Farleys are a wonderfully entertaining band providing their own unique take on many popular and well-known songs as well as producing some of their own. No, they’re not the sort of band you’d expect to see at a Blues and Rock festival, however, add into the mix the amusing between-song banter led by the dry wit and ironic humour of frontman Jay and you have the perfect means to set you up for the rest of the day to come, at any festival. On a scale of The Wurzels to your favourite covers band, they probably sit right in the middle. And they even have their very own “Mrs Overall” (Acorn Antiques) to bring Jay some refreshments mid-set! But there’s more. The set concludes with a number that has now completely slipped my mind as the stage and the band are swamped by the return of “Mrs Overall” and a troupe of belly-dancing friends! If the last fifty minutes haven’t aroused you from your Sunday morning slumber then I’m not sure what will!
As we recover our senses and return to normality it’s now time for our first Blues band of the day, and probably the most emotionally charged set of the weekend. Catfish were due to be appearing on this stage twelve months ago but sadly had to cancel the appearance (along with several others) while keyboard player Paul Long was recuperating from cancer treatment. As if that hadn’t been difficult enough, back in April of this year, after several weeks of severe discomfort Paul’s son Matt, the band’s lead guitarist and vocalist, revealed that he’d been diagnosed with bowel cancer and would begin treatment immediately, resulting in the cancellation of most of the bands touring schedule for the middle, and possibly later, part of this year. Fortunately for Matt and for all of us, he also revealed that his doctors had told him that it would beneficial to him and his wellbeing to still play the occasional live show as long as he didn’t overdo things and took it at a steady pace. Even more fortunate for those of us gathered in this small field today is the fact that Matt chose this festival as the place where he would make his first reappearance since his diagnosis. The emotion in the air, as he took to the stage with the rest of the band, is palpable. Matt admits to being “a little rusty” due to his enforced lay-off however so good is he, both in terms of his playing and his vocals, if there were any little mistakes in there, I doubt very much that anyone noticed. It was simply just great to see Matt (and the band) back performing and doing what he loves to do. As to the set itself, it was fifty minutes of the usual Catfish style, heavy blues that they do so well with the usual mix of songs both past and current. We got one new song thrown into the mix “Broken Halo”, and the one song missing from the set that you might normally expect to hear at a Catfish show, was their regular closer, “Make it Rain”. Not surprising though and who can blame them given the power and emotion used up by Matt in delivering that song, even when he’s fully fit and healthy? That said, the set did include “Broken Man”, one of my personal favourites, and a song to my mind is just as powerful. To take nothing away from the music though, for me, the best moment of the entire weekend came midway through this set while Matt was thanking the rest of the band for sticking with him during the past few weeks, and drummer Kev Hickman spontaneously left his drum stool, walk around from behind his kit to the front of the stage and gave his friend a big long hug: There were certainly a few moist eyes in the field at this point, including mine!
Next up, it’s one of our favourite bands and one that we seem to be bumping into most weekends these days, and that’s Brave Rival, whom we’ve been following closely for around four years now. It’s the usual set of upbeat blues rock from Brave Rival with songs taken mainly from the most recent album, “Life’s Machine” however we get introduced to a couple of new songs, “Bad choices” and “Fire with Fire” too. I say that it’s “upbeat” blues rock however whilst the music most certainly is, the subject matter as often as not deals with bad relationships and breakups and is clearly sung and written, certainly lyrically anyway, from the heart, by the two wonderful ladies fronting this band, Lindsey Bonnick and Chloe Josephine. And towards the end of their set, it comes as absolutely no surprise, as the members of this band have become great friends with the gang from Catfish ever since promoter Pete Feenstra paired them together on one of his shows a few years ago when the previously mentioned Matt Long is invited back onto the stage to join them and jam with Ed “The Shred” Clarke on their stunning version of “Damn Your Eyes”. Cue more hugs and more moist eyes.
With Catfish and Brave Rival playing back-to-back sets, the band coming on next is going to have a very tricky job maintaining the momentum that has been building up today however knowing what a great band The Milk Men are, I have every confidence that the pace will be maintained – and it is as I’m neither wrong nor disappointed. If you’ve not come across The Milk Men before they provide their own brand of RnB/pub rock style music, if you like, picking up where Dr Feelgood left off. Fronted by the charismatic Jamie Smy, they launch into a great set of songs which to me typify their style such as “Shoot the Lights”, “The Operator”, “Cheap Seats”, “Little Miss Attention”, “Driving It”, and “Go Go Baby”. There are also some great covers thrown in, including Robert Cray’s “The Score”, Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well”, and “Pinball Wizard”. And maintaining the Dr Feelgood connection we also get a great version of the Feelgoods’ “Going Back Home”, which was co-written by bass player Lloyd’s Dad, Mick Green and his great friend Wilko Johnson. Not only do we get a great version of this Feelgood classic from the band but we also get a guest appearance for this song from renowned harmonica player, Terry Carter. This wonderful foot stomping set is finally brought to a conclusion with “Johnny B Goode” which then morphs into a Status Quo segway of “Caroline” and “Rockin’ all over the World”.
The next slot on today’s fantastic-looking line up should’ve been filled by the Gerry Jablonski Band, however, we learned a couple of weeks ago that unfortunately, they were no longer able to make it, however, the slot was going to be filled by founding member and former frontman of the Quireboys, Spike Gray. Not quite a like-for-like replacement however the Quireboys have in the past regularly appeared at Blues festivals and over the past couple of years Spike has been out on the road performing a show of songbook classics, something that was based around some acoustic songs he recorded for his mum. I’ve seen this show myself three of four times and it has to be that it’s very different from a typical Quireboys show and features acoustic versions of songs such as “Run for Home”, “Fall in Love”, “Pearl’s a Singer”, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, a number of Frankie Miller covers, including “Darlin’” and Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London”. As always on these shows, Spike is accompanied by his friend and guitarist Chris Hillman. Also co-opted into joining him today is Terry Carter, the harmonica player we’ve just seen guesting with The Milk Men. Whether this was something that had been pre-planned or whether Spike simply grabbed him when he saw him I’m not sure – my guess is that only Terry knows the answer to that. Normally Spike’s solo shows are very entertaining and include plenty of amusing anecdotal storytelling going on between the songs, which I have to say are generally exquisitely performed and sung. Sadly, today, that isn’t the case. For today let’s just give Spike the benefit of the doubt and conclude that perhaps someone had spiked the tea he’d been drinking before he went on stage.
The penultimate act of the day, in fact of this year’s festival, is the delightful and wonderfully talented guitar maestro, Chantel McGregor who delivers a great set of blues rock (with the odd ballad-like number thrown in too). I’ve seen Chantel on many occasions in the past and she is as good a guitarist as I’ve ever seen. OK, so there are many great shredders around however not many can claim to have a singing voice as pure as Chantel’s. She is an absolute joy to watch and listen to. The highlights of her performance tonight for me being her song “Freefalling” and her great cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. As I’ve already said, I’ve seen Chantel perform many times however aside from some of the livestreams she performed for us during lockdown, this is the first live show I’ve seen from her where she has included a keyboard player as part of her band. As far as I’m concerned that’s a positive move and something that enhances the overall sound experience.
Last but by no means least we have tonight’s headliners, and the second band on view today that have appeared at all stagings so far of this festival, Essex couple Aaron and Grace Bond, better known as When Rivers Meet. This likeable couple have experienced a phenomenal rise through the ranks since bursting onto the blues scene in 2020 and much like Elles Bailey did this year, back in 2021 they just about swept the board at the UK Blues Federation awards night. It’s not just about Aaron and Grace though as they usually always play as a four-piece with an excellent rhythm section made up of a rotation of top-quality drummers and bass players. As they have done here in the previous two years, When Rivers Meet deliver us a great set of raunchy, sleazy blues, showcasing the multiple talents of this songwriting duo, with Aaron playing guitars, whilst Grace demonstrates that not only can she sing, but also that she’s very talented as an instrumentalist, playing both mandolin and electric violin. It’s not something I’ve particularly noticed before, but most of what Aaron plays, whether that be with his six-string electric or 3 string cigar box, is played using the slide which I think is what gives them a bit of a different sound to most other bands playing this style of blues rock. The music we hear is wonderful, as the blues and rock are melded together as one, with the occasional sprinkling of influences from the old-time blues of the Mississippi Delta. Yet again, When Rivers Meet has gone down a storm and I don’t think you’ll find anyone here complaining if they were to return for a fourth visit next year.
This has been a great weekend, yet again, as this wonderful little festival goes from strength to strength. A special thanks to Festival Director Dave Rees and to Trevor Rapson and his stage crew who are the gentlemen largely responsible for putting this weekend together and then actually making it happen. Roll on Alfold Rock and Blues 2024!