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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Raising A Little Sand

Electric Experience at the Malt Shovel Tavern 
27th February 2013

Electric Experience is a three-piece outfit from the London area devoted primarily, though not exclusively, to the music of Jimi Hendrix. As well as Hendrix perennials the band’s set usually consists of numbers from Cream’s back catalogue, the odd track from The Who, The Doors, Santana, and a couple of their own.

I’ve seen the band perform at the Malt Shovel Tavern and The Wig and Pen (another local Northampton music venue) on a number of occasions, and I can safely say that Electric Experience is one of the more popular bands to perform here.

But it’s just another Hendrix tribute band, I hear you say! So what?

In one way, I agree. But on a different level, Electric Experience offers a pretty convincing jaunt back to the psychedelic era of the mid-to-late 60s.

Many imminent guitarists have covered Hendrix’s work - Gary Moore, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Gales amongst them, as well as countless cover bands. Even blues bands invariably cover one or two Hendrix numbers.

In addition to being a real crowd pleaser, Hendrix has become a kind of standard for measuring a guitarist’s ability. If the guitarist pulls it off, the performance is usually followed by loud cheers of approval. Hendrix material is therefore more often than not used by guitar players as a way of showing off their technical abilities. After all, nobody is going to argue with Hendrix, right? But it rarely goes beyond that.

With Peter Orr, however, you know he can cut it. He’s been doing it for years, so forget it! You can go beyond the technical details and get into the spirit of the music. Needless to say, Electric Experience has many admirers among the Malt Shovel’s faithful, and there was a good turnout for the gig.

Unlike other guitarists who take Hendrix’s licks and chord structures, and expand, adapt or transmute them - effectively creating a new piece of music in their own style, Orr makes no attempt to superimpose any individualistic style or guitar signature over the original material. He keeps fairly true to Hendrix’s original recordings, and his playing intentionally emulates the great man as closely as is humanly possible. As a result, you end up with a pretty authentic rendition of some of the more famous Hendrix songs.

Aural stimulation is a powerful agent on the memory cells, and Orr’s elaboration and attention to detail acts like a bridge to another time and place; much like a medium facilitating a séance. His playing evokes a feeling of transcendency, and before you know it, you could easily find yourself basking in the nebulous irradiation of a purple haze. If you’re lucky, you might even get to kiss the sky!

That was my expectation anyway as I ventured out into a cold dark Wednesday night to catch the band’s nth performance at the Malt Shovel Tavern. But things didn't go according to plan, and my feet never left the ground.

Maybe it’s just maturing age, but I seem to be getting less and less tolerant to loud music. It’s not a complaint I’ve had with the Electric Experience before, but tonight they were LOUD. A familiar theme was beginning to repeat itself again – the snare drum and lead guitar (see 52nd Street Reverie).

Then I noticed the bassist Andy Tolman had something in his ears. Ear plugs!

As it happened, I’d brought a pair along myself, just in case – a pair of general-purpose foam type plugs. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, as they say. So I popped a pair into my own ears.

The effect was dramatic - comparable to the difference between driving a go-kart at speed around a racing circuit and driving a warm sound-insulated soft-suspensioned executive saloon on a motorway. The saloon buffers you from the harshness of the outside environment, but you don’t get to feel the exhilaration and thrill like you do when driving a go-kart, despite the attendant noise and vibrations. The ear-plugs reduced the sound intensity to a comfortable level, but I was also strangely isolated in my own cocoon, my experience of the music benumbed.

“Try silicon ones next time” a friend advised me at the end of the gig, producing a pair he’d been wearing from his pocket.

The band’s drummer John Tonks also produced a pair of custom-made earplugs which he was wearing during the gig.

“Specially moulded to my ears” he told me. “With changeable filters”

“They don’t muffle the sound like bog-standard ones” he continued. “You can still hear quite clearly, but at a lower volume. These ones reduce the sound levels by -15 Db, which is equivalent to a fivefold reduction. But some of the bands I play with are REALLY loud, so I use -25 db filters. ”

“Harley Street Hearing” Tolman interjected as he was passing, referring to his preferred supplier located at the London hub of private health clinics and medical practises.

“I was using rolled up tissue paper” Orr simpered. “Besides, they’re more hygienic”

Jeez! Was I the only one still wet behind the ears? The only one not to have grasped the benefits of ear protection at live gigs until now? This revelation seems to mock my former ranting about loud bands (see previous gig reviews).

During the interval, I’d had a conversation with a friend who was seated directly in front of Peter Orr’s position – in the direct line of fire, as it were. He objected when I complained that the band was too loud.

“No!” he objected “It’s just right.”

Which goes to prove that different people have different noise level tolerances. I think I may need to investigate this little revelation further.

Keeping their feet firmly on the ground, the remainder of the band’s complement of guitar, bass and drums was drawn from a crème-de-la-crème of musicians from London and the South East.

Peter’s sidekick on bass was the unassuming Andy Tolman. Andy’s outwardly laid-back and rather staid stage presence gives very little clue as to his musical prowess, but in my opinion, he’s one of the best bassists currently playing the UK’s blues circuit.

Andy takes the bass guitar from being merely an accompaniment instrument to a complete instrument in its own right. His musical knowledge and fret-board dexterity stretch far beyond the confines of the blues or rock idioms; competently demonstrated by his Latin-style bass solo on “Black Magic Woman” and his funky slap-bass solo on “Voodoo Chile”. No doubt Andy would be equally at home in a Latin or jazz fusion combo.

"...a vintage 1971 Ludwig drum kit..."
Completing the line-up on drums, John Tonks has been playing with the band for a few years now. John is one of the drummers to fill the vacant seat in the band left by the amazing Dave Innis, who moved back to Scotland some years ago. Sporting a vintage 1971 Ludwig drum kit, John undertook his duties with typical fervour and agility, and put on a display of blistering drumability rarely equalled at the Malt Shovel since Innis’s departure from these regions.

Notable songs during the evening's performance included The Doors “Riders of the Storm”; Santana’s version of the Peter Green classic “Black Magic Woman” featuring the Latin-style bass solo by Tolman; and Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”, which included Andy’s funk-style slap-bass solo and a blistering drum solo by John.

But the highpoint for me was the band's literal interpretation of Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” which featured in the 1969 film Easy Rider. I was bowled over by Orr’s mimicry of Hendrix’s flighty guitar work and Tonk’s explicit rendition of Mitch Mitchell's drum patterns from the original recording.

As it happened, the band didn’t cover the Hendrix classic "Purple Haze" during the show. So we didn’t get to “kiss the sky”, but we did managed to “raise a little sand.”

Sound clip:

Listen to If 6 Was 9
recorded live at the gig (links to external web site) 


Peter Orr - Guitar and vocals
Andy Tolman - Bass and backing vocals
John Tonks - Drums and backing vocals