Review by Tim Marcus with photos from Sam Conquest Photography
Just over a month ago, this year’s Buck Moon shone brightly in the sky. A few days later, the inaugural staging of the Blues Festival which took its name from this annual lunar event took place: held in the grounds of the Metropolitan Police’s Sports and Social Club on the leafy borders of Surrey and South West London, we were fortunate enough to have been there to witness the occasion.
As one-day blues festivals go, let alone brand new one-day blues festivals, the ambitious lineup for this event has to have been one of the best I’ve seen. Not only did we have the very best of the upcoming blues and blues rock talent from within the UK but we also had acts flying in from the United States and Australia to headline the event! Buck Moon Blues refers to itself as a festival and in terms of the musical extravaganza on offer, it most certainly is. Having said that however, given the intimacy of the occasion, the friendliness of the people, and the size and physicality of the setting on the lawn of the club’s main building and bar area, it had more of the feel of a large garden party being thrown by a generous and wealthy friend than it did a festival (not that I’ve ever been invited to a garden party by a generous and wealthy friend!).
Kicking things off today we head indoors to the small acoustic stage which has been set up at one end of the large space that is the building’s main area, which itself has another small bar serving area within it. Opening proceedings on this stage are a band I’ve seen a couple of times already this year and have really enjoyed; Blue Nation. We have seen Blue Nation both as a duet, comprising guitarist and bass player, Neil and Luke, and as a three-piece with the addition of drummer Oli. This afternoon, or rather this morning (it’s still only 11:30 am), it’s the former however either way, what you get with Blue Nation is wonderful, powerful and melodic, blues rock, either full on, or as we get today, acoustic.
It’s a slightly different set-up we’re experiencing here today though, as, without any disrespect whatsoever to the artists playing it, the acoustic stage is being used as a “filler” to utilise the time between changeovers on the main stage so what we’re getting first off from Blue Nation is the first of three, twenty-minute sets they’ll perform. The twenty minutes soon fly by and it’s time to venture out onto the lawn to experience the main stage for the first time today, which incidentally is being hosted by our dear friend Mr. Steve Beastie, star of his own rock and blues radio shows on Voodoo Radio. The first band up on the main stage today probably had an even shorter trip to get here today than we did, hailing from just a few miles down the road, via Glasgow, Born Healer. Now when you have a band as good as blues rockers, Born Healer first up on the stage you just know that you’re in for an absolutely top-notch day. And what a great start it is. Helen Turner’s vocals are as strong, powerful and controlled as ever (a cross between the great Janis Joplin and Lulu) and there’s some exquisite guitar playing and soloing from partner Iain Black. Meanwhile, everything thing is held together by a very prominent rhythm section comprising the wonderfully named Marek Funkas on bass and Steve Weaver on drums (as well as backing vocals). Born Healer never disappoint and today is no exception however with so much to fit in on the main stage today it’s only a short set as we return to the indoor acoustic stage while things are readied for the next band to appear out on the lawn.
So once again we find ourselves in the company of the delightful Blue Nation. Whilst there was not a lot to choose between them, this was my favourite of their three twenty-minute slots, possibly because it ran on for a good thirty due to a few technical issues on the main stage. The banter between these two Brummie lads was great and the music wasn’t bad either.” Strangers” incorporates a little bit of George Harrison’s “While my guitar gently weeps”, and we get a brand new Blue Nation song in the shape of “Old Friends” whilst “The Joker” features a great funked up (had to keep a close eye on autocorrect there!) bass sounds which morph into a burst of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, leaving Neil just stopping short of responding with “Boogie Nights” however instead, breaks into “Voodoo Chile”. With the unplanned additional time on their hands due to the overrun in the main stage changeover, rather than leave us in silence, the boys go off-piste and give us a wonderful version of a classic Small Faces album track from “Ogden’s’ Nut Gone Flake”, “Song of a Baker”; what a great way to end the set.
Whatever the issues were on the main stage they seem to have been quickly resolved as we make our way back out to the lawn just as Steve Beastie is introducing the next band. This was a set I’d been looking forward to hearing ever since I’d heard that this band would be playing here today.
I first heard McHale’s Permanent Brew when they came into the lineup of a blues festival at Sheffield’s o2 Academy about 18 months ago, just 48 hours before the event as last-minute replacements for a band that had had to drop out. To say that they blew me (and everyone else in the room) away that morning would be a total understatement: they were outstanding. Stunning.
Fabulous and today is no different as we get forty minutes of wonderful psychedelic blues rock with occasional hints of Prog. At times it’s bass-driven, led by the wonderful rhythm section of Stephen Houghton (bass) and Chris Orrell (drums) and at other times it’s the beautiful guitar playing of Frank McHale that leads the way. As I observed the first time I heard this band, the riffs are heavy and driving yet they still have an overriding melodic sound which is simply added to by the acoustic guitar playing and the soft yet powerful (and occasionally husky) vocals of Frank’s brother, Paul.
A vital part of the ingredient too as we hear many of the tracks we heard in Sheffield from the band’s self-titled debut album, is keyboard player, Simon Lomax. Simon’s playing is subtle yet it’s an integral part of the overall sound, the glue that holds all of the different genres of music we’re hearing together. We also hear some music from their upcoming second album which Stephen very kindly gave me a copy of. This isn’t actually due for release until the beginning of next month however if there were ever any of the usual concerns around the quality of a follow-up to a great debut album, then in the case of McHale’s Permanent Brew, there shouldn’t be. The sounds and quality of musicianship on this second album are every bit as good as on their first and in their live performance.
Having had to wait eighteen months to see a band again that had made such an impression on me has been a frustrating experience but I have to say that it was well worth the wait. If you’re not familiar with McHale’s Permanent Brew then I urge you to take a listen. Better still go and see them live: you will not be disappointed.