Thursday, 16 December 2010

Deserved a Little More Respect

Beth and the Black Cat Bone at the Malt Shovel Tavern
15th Dec 2010

OK, so the weather has been pretty cold. Last week temperatures in Scotland dropped below -15 degrees, and -4 or -5 degrees in this region. After a short reprise over the last few days, when temperatures soared back to normal levels for this time of year, the cold snap is expected to return tomorrow. So the weather was not an excuse for staying at home and not getting on down to the Malt Shovel Tavern for the regular Wednesday night blues gig. 

Unfortunately the crowd was a bit thin on the ground for Beth and the Black Cat Bone’s debut at the Malt. For those who did venture out, at least it wasn’t difficult to find a seat, and there was plenty of space for the dancing enthusiasts (a good thing, as this young band had a strong rock ‘n’ roll flavour).

The band consisted of Beth on vocals supported by a trio on guitar, bass and drums. The first set consisted mainly of blues standards such as Little By Little and Nobody’s Business, and the band also played a couple of their own numbers.

The back line was pretty bare (a drum kit flanked on one side by a small Fender amp resting on a chair and the other side by a small bass amp leaning against the back wall) and the band looked slightly stranded in the relatively empty stage area, with little or no gear or props to hide behind.. However, the sound level was more than adequate and well balanced, although the guy sitting next to me complained that the guitar was drowning out Beth’s vocals.

The set was an enjoyable no-frills affair. The band ploughed through quite a few numbers at a fair pace, and the set was finished almost before it had started. But I was a little disappointed to see quite a few seats being vacated at the interval. OK, so Beth didn’t exactly engage the audience with inter-song banter. And the guitar solos weren’t particularly riveting. But there were lots of pluses.

Beth’s vocal work was certainly without pretence; a common fault in many young blues singers who feel that they have to overemphasise the “blues” emotion in order to compensate for their lack of “life” experience. Her voice was well tuned and had an honesty and sweetness that was appealing. And although the guitar solos were in the main pretty straightforward pentatonic minor scale affairs, they contained an edginess and lack of refinement that was inadvertently characteristic of the early black American electric blues guitarist. In fact, the guy next to me (a self-proclaimed blues’ purist) enthused “Now, THAT’S how you play BLUES guitar!”

I must confess it wasn’t a style I’d particularly want to listen to for very long periods, and thankfully Clinton’s solos were kept to one of two verses at most, so it was relatively painless. However, the guitar accompaniments were more notable, being pleasantly melodic as well as funky at times; reminiscent of the early soul music of the 50s and 60s

Now I want to talk about the drummer, so I’m going to skip over the bass guitarist (with apologies to Mr Benfield). Well, what can you say about a bassist, unless of course he/she is in the premier bass player league. The bass was fine; not too loud, not too boomy. Did the job. Nuff said.

We’ve seen some fine musicians pass through the doors of the Malt Shovel Tavern over the years, including a raft of outstanding drummers. And tonight we saw a young man on the sticks with all the bearings of another great drummer.

One of the noticeable and distinctive qualities of many modern-day musicians, when compared with musicians from the 60s or 70s, is that they are not self taught. With the amount of resources and tutorship available today via DVD media and the internet, as well as university courses and one-to-one tutorials, aspiring musicians can learn to play from the outset guided by experts in their chosen field. Bad habits and practises are avoided, and musicians can develop their skills exponentially.

Although 23 year old Rob Pokorny has only been with the band for a couple of months, his playing displayed all the hallmarks of the graduate drummer. Sitting upright on his stool, arms held straight out from the elbow, all the stick action was controlled by the wrists. Far from being only there to “keep the beat”, Rob gave an exhibition of speed, dexterity, nimbleness and accuracy that had me captivated for most of the evening. Drum rolls flowed seamlessly between the custom-made snare and toms, and cymbals crashed or whizzing depending on the desired strike. And all this happened in in a blur of sticks without breaking sweat! You were there? You missed it? Not paying attention? Too busy on the iPhone or texting a joke to a friend? Shame on you!

The second set was less bluesy, and leant strongly towards rock ‘n’ roll. But those who like to dance weren’t complaining. And the band received a deserving encore at the end.

Playing aside, a lot of band members like to take advantage of their visit to the Malt Shovel Tavern by savouring some of the exceptionally fine real ale on offer at the bar. My particular tipple that evening was a guest beer from Elland Brewery in Yorkshire called Eden, a fine 4.2% strength pale ale. Some people might consider 5% ale a little on the strong side, especially if you are a young musician tasked with delivering the occasional guitar solo or two. Dispite Mr Benfield's indulgence in the higher strength ale during the interval, he never flinched from his soloing duties, and during the second set only gave the slightest hint that he might be feeling akin to someone playing on a cruise ship in a force-9 storm.

Whilst not being particularly outstanding (omitting exceptions cited above), this young blues band are a good solid outfit, and they approached their music was a kind of honesty and freshness that deserved a little more respect and appreciation than was shown by the early leavers. Being a musician is not easy in these tough times, where many of the other revenue streams formerly available to players, such as studio work and CD sales revenue, have all but dried up. And packing your kit into the back of a van for a 130 mile round trip from London in the depth of winter for a few quid isn’t all that exciting. So, come on, Malt Shovellers! These kids need your support and encouragement. Let’s hope Mike has the fortitude and resilience to re-book them again next year; and if he does, let’s give them a real Malt Shovel welcome that they’ll warmly remember for a very long while.

Band line up:

Beth Packer- Vocals
Charles Benfield- Bass
Rob Pokorny - Drums
Clinton Hough- Guitar

For the geeks

Rob’s drum kit was made by FVF Drums, a small bespoke drum manufacturer based in Loughborough, Leicestershire. Rob told me that the drums can be made to individual requirements, and because of the company size and personal investment in the finished product, customer service is second to none. And all for a price comparable to a standard drum kit from one the big manufactures such as Yamaha or Premier.
See the company’s web site at http://www.fvfdrums.co.uk

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