BluesFest 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall: day one with Ben Poole, Mike Sanchez, Dan Owen and many more
Think festival season is over? Think again. After a successful inaugural year in 2013, the Royal Albert Hall once again opens its numerous doors to BluesFest: a rock ‘n’ rolling, boogie-woogie celebration of all things rhythm and blues. Each evening the main hall will play host to a headline act of international renown, while during the day four of the hall’s perimeter rooms and bars – converted to performance spaces for the event – will feature a bill mixing upcoming and established acts. Q&As and workshops will also feature to help those in attendance fully immerse themselves in the world of the blues.
Accessed via a daytime stroller ticket separate to each evening’s headline concert, the afternoon festivities serve in the first instance to underline the sheer size of the legendary concert hall. The wandering crowds are largely swallowed up in its myriad corridors, meaning that there’s little sense that a festival is taking place. Long queues do gather in expectation of the bigger names, which combined with relatively small capacities means a risk of disappointment for latecomers, who may be turned away. If you have a particular performance in mind, you’d be advised to consider heading to the main hall reception and upgrading your ticket to include a wristband, granting the ability to queue jump. That this option was not particularly well advertised (not appearing on the event website at all) led some in attendance to complain at a lack of organisational clarity.
West Arena Foyer
Opening the afternoon’s bill in the subterranean bar of the West Arena Foyer was Ben Poole, a dashing young guitar hero bringing something of a contemporary boy band aesthetic to the classic blues rock sound. Though the crowd was initially as subdued as one might expect for a Monday lunchtime, they were soon won over by an accomplished display of guitar prowess, a charming stage presence, and a catalogue of songs that offered an entertaining mixture of originals and blues landmarks, including a version of Have You Ever Loved a Woman that would make Eric Clapton proud. Poole’s band blew the crowd away with some seriously passionate soul. His guitar playing was nothing short of perfection and with every country lick and neck-snapping pick, he brought a ferocious energy to the room.
Next up was ecclectic septet The Silver Rays, fronted by tambourine-shaking soulstress Jess Roberts, who dedicated their set to the late Jack Bruce of Cream. Accompanied by two backing singers, a Nord keyboard player, guitarist, bassist and one extremely energetic drummer, the seven unleashed their explosive, raucous rock ‘n’ roll sound on the dancing crowd. The band’s softer material – songs such as White Lies and Blue Afternoon – drew out an emotional and heartfelt sound from the lead vocalist, her sultry voice captivating the blues fans. But the band’s groovy rendition of Koko Taylor’s Voodoo Woman was most impressive of all – showcasing the ability of each of The Silver Rays and leaving the crowd with big smiles on their faces.
And then of course there was Dan Owen. The 22-year-old “blues boy” from Shrewsbury had been the talk of the evening – and we were about to find out why. Opening his set with Walkin’ Blues, Owen dazzled the audience with his bluesy guitar slides, rhythmic stomping and a voice beyond his years. Hammer – a heartbreaking song Owen wrote about the death of his college friend touched the crowd, as did an emotional performance of Forget Me When I’m Gone. Dan holds just as much visual appeal as he does acoustically – he thrilled spectators with a cover of Little Red Rooster during which he sang, played the guitar, played the harmonica and the drums simultaneously. Ending with a Bruce Springsteen cover, the enthusiasm for Owen’s music was evident as both children and elderly spectators cheered and yelled for more. A truly exciting performer who encapsulates the spirit of the blues, we’re sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from Dan Owen in the near future.
Meanwhile in the Coda restaurant, festival-goers had the opportunity to sit in on Q&A sessions with Blues legends such as Paul Lamb (Paul Lamb and the King Snakes) and Curtis Stigers. Reflecting on his career, Lamb told the audience “it didn’t matter if I was the main act or the support” and that “money was a bonus” in the early days, when all he expected to be paid was half a pint and a packet of crisps. Lamb noted that during his experience of playing the blues, there were often “more guys in the band than in the audience!” Recently voted Best Harmonica Player at the British Blues Awards, Lamb advised the audience on his preference for Hohners, and host Paul Jones remarked that even houses haven’t kept pace with the inflation on harmonicas – “and you [Lamb] are partly to blame!” Jones congratulated Lamb on his awards and to our surprise, proceeded to present Lamb with a 24-carat gold harmonica that rendered the legend lost for words.
Though it didn’t begin until the early 80s, Mike Sanchez’s career highlights read like those of a true early blues journeyman. The sometime member of Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings perfectly fits the bill of the BluesFest as much for his anecdotes on blues history as his ability to set a keyboard swinging (as highlighted on songs such as Don Raye’s Down the Road Apiece. Sanchez’s performance in the Verdi restaurant was somewhat affected by the constraints of the room (the long narrow space is, truth be told, not best suited for performance – particularly by one man at an electric keyboard), but he left nothing in reserve, and his charisma shined through.
Sharing with Sanchez a connection to the Rhythm Kings, and an even larger collection of anecdotes stretching back to the arrival of blues in Britain – Georgie Fame rounded off the afternoon in BluesFest’s biggest and best-appointed daytime venue, the Elgar Room. Playing the Hammond organ, and accompanied on drums and guitar by sons James and Tristan, Fame provided what many at this more mature festival seem to be searching for – a time machine back to their heyday. Opening with a groove-laden version of Booker T and the MG’s Green Onions, Fame set out to prove that “the blues doesn’t have to be so bloody miserable” – and versions of Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman and Hendrix’s Red House do just that. Fame’s voice may have lost some of the chart-topping power that it had in the 60s, but an appealing tone and expert sense of timing remains. The crowd departed beaming, hunger satiated by a bellyful of blues.
Whether you’re a long-time blues fan or just curious about the moody sounds of the deep South, with the diversity on offer this autumn, you’re guaranteed to find something or someone you’re into at BluesFest.
Gemma Whitfield and Stuart Boyland
Photos: Janis Mikelsons
BluesFest is at the Royal Albert Hall until 31st October 2014, for further information or to book visit here.