Weathering the Storm

Storm Warning at the Malt Shovel Tavern, 5th September 2012

Having just returned after several weeks away during the summer, it was back once again to Northampton’s Malt Shovel Tavern for their Wednesday night blues gig.

I must admit that I have been in danger of “loosing the faith” with the Malt Shovel’s midweek blues night. Prior to my extended summer recess, a couple of uninspiring and mediocre performances by a number of returning bands (see the opening comments in my Green Mac gig previewfrom March 2011), plus an apparent drop to the lower divisions in the standard of new bands being booked, dampened my enthusiasm for hauling both myself and my wife out to a gig in the middle of the working week.

Well, I know we’re in a recession and money’s tight, and it is easy to surmise that band fees will be squeezed. Understandably, you’re going to draw one or two duds in the space of a year, but this was now becoming the norm rather the exception.

And it seems that I was not alone in my growing despondency. A friend and regular punter at the Malt recently complained to me in no uncertain terms that if standards continue to slide, “he (the vendor) in going to loose it!” Meaning, this cracking little blues gig, which has built its reputation and capacity attendances by showcasing quality blues acts from around the UK, Europe and the USA, is on a slippery slop when it tries to pass off your regular pub bands as a substitute for the real thing. Blues fans tend to be rather fickle, and will not tolerate this masquerade. Despite the free entry, they’ve come for something more that what you’ll find down at your local on a Saturday night. It looks like my friend and his companion may be voting with their feet. 

On the other hand, people soon become accustomed to most things, no matter how good. Perhaps it was simply the case that we had outgrown this local blues gig? 

And so it was that, on Wednesday night last, I drove to the gig with a feeling of hopefulness rather than expectation. Ominously, the band on the night were called Storm Warning! “If their no good, we’ll leave early” was the instruction from my better half. 

We usually arrive a little later than most, and the number of cars at the pub end of Morrison’s car park generally gives a good indication of the attendance. “We won’t have to fight out way through to the bar tonight!” I remarked, noting the unusually low number of parked cars. Maybe it was just a case of people being still away on holiday. But I couldn’t help wondering if the foot vote was in full swing. 

The band had already started into their first number when we arrived, but once inside we were immediately ambushed by a bunch of friends who were keen to catch up and fill us in on all the news and gossip over the summer. 

“… Cousin Avi were pretty good” a friend was telling me. “Great singer! And some nice material too” 

 “Oh, yeah! Pretty good guitarist” I replied, having seen the band in question perform at the Walnut Tree a couple of years ago. But I was already conscious of some pretty nifty guitar playing wafting from the other end of the pub, so I unceremoniously extricated myself from the friendly gathering, leaving my wife to “fill them in”, whilst I grabbed a pint of ale and found somewhere to sit. 

“It’s so nice to see more than ten people and a dog at our gig” the vocalist announced appreciatively between numbers. But the dozen or so regulars in the audience was complemented by a troupe of anything up to ten band associates, partners and friends who had accompanied or followed them to the gig. This was definitely below par for a Wednesday night’s gig at The Malt Shovel. However, what you don’t know you don’t miss, and as far as I could deduce, the band’s performance was unaffected by the low turnout. 

There was no doubt that my battered blues soul needed some urgent restorative therapy. And boy, did it get it! Slick and dirty blues-rock guitar piped through saturated valves, lots of cool Hammond-style keyboard playing, clear and rounded bass lines and some solid blues-rock drumming combined to form a synergy of sound that simple shattered my growing disillusionment.

Steve Norchi on lead vocals delivered blues in his own easy west-coast influenced style, without any attempt to emulate those whisky-soaked Chicago blues growler that so many of our misinformed and misled British “blues” vocalists try to copy. And it worked. 

Thankfully Bob Moore on guitar had a little more about him than that offered by many so-called "blues" guitarists. You know the kind of thing - loud and rasping guitar repeatedly played in one or two of the fretboard positions on the pentatonic minor scale. Bob had a much more sophisticated playing technique, with plenty of cool jazzy triads and rock-influenced chord signatures complementing his measured and articulate solo work. 

Modern keyboards offer the musician a vast array of sounds options and sonic imagery, but I always maintain that this is a serious liability in any blues bands arsenal. There’s nothing worse than a blues keyboard player launching into a solo, whilst at the same time pressing buttons to discoloring the performance with sonic abominations. In many cases it would be far better if keyboards were equipped with just two sound options only – the Hammond B3 and the piano. 

Thankfully, Ian Salisbury stuck faithfully to the blues, evoking images of the early ‘60s London jazz scene with his compelling Hammond B3 sound and lucid piano delivery. He has also undertaken harmonica duties in the wake of the band’s former singer/harmonica player’s departure a couple of years ago. 

Rus Chaney was a good solid blues-rock drummer. Nothing too garish; just good solid rhythms complemented by neat little rolls and fills, where appropriate. God knows! It’s difficult to find a decent back-beat blues drummer these days. They’re either loud and intrusive, or adynamic and nondescript. In many ways Bob was the ideal blues-band drummer.

Bob displayed his soloing skills in the last but one number, “Talk To Your Daughter.” A drummer tearing away at his skins is always an exciting spectacle, and it proved to be a crowd pleaser judging by the audience’s response. But I must admit that I was not impressed. Sorry to be a nit picker, but the solo was simple a loud and straightforward affair containing little or no specific drumming techniques of note. 

Derek White, one of the band’s founding members along with Bob Moore, carried out bass duties on a Fender Precision. It’s not always easy to get a good bass sound. In my opinion, a good blues bass is not overbearing, has lucid top notes and a lower register that’s rockbed solid without being boomy. Derek used Warwick amplification, which produced an exceptionally balanced and well rounded sound. 

One of the most notable things about Storm Warning is that they play as a band rather than as individual musicians jamming together over some tired old blues standards. Although obviously individually adept at their own instruments, each number is nevertheless carefully constructed and rehearsed together, and they produced an interesting and varied take on some notable classics, such as Peter Green’s “Long Grey Mare."

“Who knows 'Hoochi Coochie Man'?” the vocalist interposed at one point, inciting loud affirmations from the audience. “Well you might not recognize it after this!” 

The only flaw in an otherwise enjoyable performance was that, with the exception of Rus on drums, the band never let their hair down. This is not a criticism, more an observation. If you consider for example a band like Steely Dan or Pink Floyd, you don’t expect too much of a rave – the musicians are focused and the music takes precedence. But it would have been nice if the band got into the groove of their music a little more, rather than an overemphasis on the execution, particularly towards the latter half of the evening.

Will the Malt Shovel weather the storm and get the blues nights back on track before the rot sets in? Hopefully, tonight’s performance is a sign of better things to come. There’s no shortage of talented blues acts out there that would jump at the chance to add this Northampton blues venue to their gig circuit. (Why not suggest a few in my blog?)

Maybe with a little more creativity from the venue's booking department, this unique little venue will be kept alive and kicking with lots more good rocking Wednesday night blues!

Steve Norchi – Vocals 
Bob Moore – Guitar 
Rus Chaney - Drums & Percussion 
Ian Salisbury - Keyboards and harmonica
Derek White -Bass Guitar

Web Site: Storm Warning

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