I’m still trying to count how many holes there are there in Blackburn, Lancashire. I am not sure the authorities have done much to reduce the pot holes on the Devil’s Highway (the A666) since The Beatles sang about the holes on “A Day in the Life” in 1967. The bumpy road leads into Darwen, and then onto the city. I am here for the Blackburn Blues Festival 2012, held at the illustrious King Georges Hall.
Top blues artists from around the world are invited to play at this event. This year the acts include the prolific American guitarist Walter Trout and the proclaimed “Ambassador of British Blues,” singer/guitarist/harmonica player Eddie Martin. The one-day festival had already started by the time I arrived from London, with the Dave Jackson trio on stage.
“I’m happy to be here …” said Lancashire girl Janet Jackson Clare, who plays bass in the three-piece Dave Jackson Band.
Born and raised in Blackburn, she first took an interest in music while she was still at school. She then went on to compete in local talent contests, and remembers playing the King Georges Hall in Blackburn when she was young. “It has not changed a bit,” Clare told THE BOMBER JACKET. “When I was about eleven years old, I was up on this stage singing to a very large audience. My parents were sitting two rows back, and I remember that they seemed very proud. I was never under any pressure, they just supported me and allowed me to develop my talent at my own pace. Since then I have made music my life and I have travelled the world. This is a home-coming for me.”
She continued her story, “I met Dave while I was performing on cruise ships. Back then I was a jazz singer, and Dave was playing keyboards. We fell in love. Music brought us together. Later, Dave introduced me to the blues. When I play bass guitar in this blues band, it gives me the freedom I need to express myself as a musician, and to keep growing as a performer.”
After the vibrant heavy-blues set by the Dave Jackson Band, the next act on stage was the young blues / rock outfit Albany Down. These four boys had recently played a scorching set at the 2012 three-day Burnley International Rock and Blues Festival.
This local gig had already earned them a bunch of delighted new Lancashire-based fans in advance of the Blackburn show. Their recent album South of the City (produced by Greg Haver) was also very well received in the north of England. Their set at Blackburn won over many more fans, and earned the youthful band a huge applause.
After their show, we spoke with Billy Dedman, the bassist for Albany Down. “The audience has been very generous. Blackburn folk are kind, friendly people. The venue is quite grand. It is clear that the local people know what they want. They want the blues. And that’s what [Albany Down] came up here to give them.”
Next on stage was songwriter/guitarist and vocalist Marcus Malone. Malone, from Detroit, Michigan, was first signed by Al Teller of United Artists Records (now EMI Capitol). Taking up residence in Los Angeles, he recorded the classic heavy metal Marcus album which was re-released on Zoom Records throughout Europe and the US in 2001.
Malone is presently working the European blues circuit, festivals and concert halls. He has recently performed at Kwadendamme Festival NL, Luxembourg Festival, Huntenpop Festival, and Tegelen NL and Oisterwijk Festivals NL.
Malone and his incredibly talented band, including their new guitarist Sean Nolan, played an inspirational and lively performance, earning them a standing ovation.
“It’s an honor to play to an audience like this,” Malone said after the show. “The people of Blackburn are really passionate about their blues.”
Later in the evening, the hall became hushed as Chantel McGregor entered the stage.
McGregor won the “Female Vocalist Of The Year” award at this year’s British Blues Awards. Her debut album Like No Other (produced by Livingstone Brown) has gathered critical acclaim worldwide. And last year, McGregor’s song “Help Me” was featured on the Universal Records compilation record 100 Years Of The Blues, taking its place next to songs made famous by legendary artists such as Muddy Waters, BB King and John Lee Hooker.
After her opening number, McGregor’s new guitar amplifier “gave up.” Her backup amp also didn’t seem to want to work for her. But, like a show-biz trooper, she persisted, and decided to perform her show acoustically (without her drummer and bass guitarist).
McGregor is famed for bringing tears to the eyes of many at blues gatherings around the U.K. Her winning performance at the Blackburn King Georges Hall was no exception. Wearing one of her trademark floaty dresses, she played her special feminine brand of blues, with an expressive style and a gentle ease. The rarefied air was so quiet that audience members could almost hear a guitar-pick drop.
The musician’s renditions of songs like Stevie Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman” and “Rhiannon” were exquisite. And when she played the much-requested song “Little Wing” (Jimi Hendrix), she cleverly changed the words so that they seemed to be about a free spirited young man who had come into her life, rather than the sweet girl mentioned in the original version. She also played a wide selection of her own songs, all accompanied by her precise, heart-melting guitar work.
By the time the much-loved Canned Heat guitarist Walter Trout came on stage (he played the guitar with the world-famous boogie-blues group between 1981and 1985), the Blackburn crowd was excited enough to get up and get dancing.
With more than 35 years of touring and recording under his belt, and with over 300 thousand albums sold to date, Trout’s performance was, as expected, sparkling and unrestrained.
Blackburn Blues Festival 2012 was an immense success. Superbly managed, it was a huge accomplishment for the organizers and the artists. A warm, friendly crowd assured that it was an event that should certainly be repeated annually. We are already looking forward to Blackburn 2013.