Taking The Blues By The Horns

Debbie Giles' Midnight Train at the Malt Shovel Tavern
6 March 2013 

Debbie Giles’ Midnight Train is a well known act on the London blues scene and beyond; and the band is no stranger to The Malt Shovel audiences. Founded by a meeting of minds at the Maryport Blues festival in 2009, the band draws its inspiration from a mixture of funk, rock and blues music. 

"...works hard at her craft..."
Debbie cut her teeth on the stage in West End musicals such as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Her interest in blues and jazz music found her singing with various big bands around the country. Then she met Sam Kelly at the Maryport Blues festival, and Midnight Train was born.

Debbie’s delivers her music with a gritty determination and energy that draws from her experience in musicals as well as jazz singing. Like many actors of the theatre and screen, Debbie’s persona on stage is primarily that of a performer as opposed to a straightforward singer, and she embellishes her singing with animated dance movements and expositive gestures. Neither endowed with a wide vocal range nor particularly distinctive tone, she prevail upon her audiences by working hard at her craft, and with the backing of her well-honed funky blues band, she can carry a song off well. Debbie might be considered your typical female blues or jazz singer.

Her band of seasoned musicians includes Chris Belshaw on bass, Pete Emery on guitar, Steve Oakman on keyboards and Sam Kelly on drums. 

Sam Kelly is a powerhouse of a drummer with a personality and drum kit to match. Not one to sit quietly in the background inconspicuously providing a backbeat for the front men, Sam has a magnetic personality that draws the audience’s attention to him. He reciprocates by digging into his extensive vocabulary of drum patterns, rhythmic grooves and dynamic diction to provide an audacious pulsating backdrop to the proceedings. The impression is of a charging bull; twisting, turning, suddenly coming to an abrupt halt; then tearing off on some funky groove. 

"...a powerhouse of a drummer..."
Flaunting his drumming flair in such a manner has sometimes worked against him, and on more than one occasion, Sam has found himself sitting around at home waiting and hoping for a gig, whilst his contemporaries are busy playing and touring. But Sam is a man of conviction and goes as far as to encourage his drum students to be as intrepid and adventurous as he is.

Now I said power…oh yes, and subtleness. Sam knows about dynamics, and his drumming is punctuated with stentorian drum rolls and beats that unexpectedly come to a sudden stop, instantly followed by delicate interpositions and feather-light cymbal work. His imposing personality exudes from behind his drum kit at the back of the stage, militating and working the tone and texture of the performance. And the overriding effect is g-r-o-o-v-e. Groove is what Sam is all about, and its effect on the band is striking.

This was serendipitously illustrated on one occasion, when Sam couldn’t immediately locate the required drum chart for the particular song that Debbie had called. The band started up without him whilst he sat at the back thumbing through his chart book looking for the appropriate sheet. The band was already into the second verse when Debbie turned around to hurry him up. But he continued thumbing through his book, un-phased by her expression of urgency. Having finally located the required sheet a few seconds later - boom! The effect was dramatic. It was like a powerful engine roaring into life. Instantly the band’s sound polymerised into a synthesis of funk, rock and blues grooves, a blues machine belting along on a predefined course - solid, steady and unstoppable. And all powered from the engine house that was Sam Kelly’s drumming. 

“Your charts..” I asked him later. “You write them in music notation?”

“Yes. I've taught myself” he explained. “I play with so many different bands that even when they cover the same songs, there will be differences in tempo, arrangement, breaks etc. It becomes difficult to remember which style is which, so I make notes.”

The band features songs from their two CDs. One of my favourites of the evening was Junior Wells’ “Little by Little” which closed the band’s first set. The song was delivered with a driving beat and featured a rollicking organ solo by Steve Oakman and a snazzy drum accompaniment and short solo by Sam. 

The bluesy ballad “Damn Your Eyes” covered by Etta James on her 1989 album “Seven Year Itch” was particularly suited to Debbie’s voice, and one of the numbers that showed off her vocal savoir faire and lyrical sensitivity.

The band delivered a credible version of Little Willie John’s “Take My Love” featuring a zestful and gutsy vocal by Debbie and a piano solo by Steve on his Nord keyboard. The song ended with an extended cadence during which Debbie turned and sang directly at Sam as if she was a torero taunting a bull, cajoling him to play some freewheeling drum rolls and pulsating rhythms. Sam saw the red cape and charged!

The concluding number was Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” showcasing each of the band members in turn, and culminating in a driving drum solo by Sam during which he sang scat along with his drumming.

All in all, a really enjoyable evening of funky blues, soulful rock, and the overriding rhythms of a rolling steam train. The train leaves at midnight, folks! Get your tickets now!

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