Review of British Legends of Rhythm and Blues UK Tour: Guildford Civic Centre 2003
(Copy of review published Nov 2003)
Review by Al Kirtley
After six weeks touring the length and breadth of Britain, the tour finally reached leafy Surrey on October 13.
To a student of social anthropology, the audience, gathering in the bar of Guildford Civic Centre before the show, would have provided fascinating research material. Could these respectable, and largely grey-haired (if they were lucky) folk be the mods of forty years ago who used to roar up the A3 to London on their Vespas, and loon it up at the Flamingo Club until dawn? Or had they always been as respectable as their current appearance implied, and just turned up to hear Long John Baldry sing “Mexico”? It was impossible to tell, though those few brave souls who had lit up cigarettes were probably sending out subliminal messages that they belonged to the former camp.
With the enigma unresolved, the audience drifted into the main hall for the start of the concert. As the house lights dimmed, five seemingly young and fit figures made their way in from the wings, unannounced. The audience hesitated, thinking this was probably the road crew coming on for some last minute adjustments. Then faltering applause started out as Zoot Money and the Big Roll Band – and it was indeed they, slimmed down, not by the Atkins diet, but from the rigours of six weeks on the road – settled down behind their instruments, before opening with Ray Charles’s “Roll With My Baby”. To those members of the audience who remembered those heady days of early 1960s’ R’n’B, it was at once clear that they were in for a good night. The band was swinging like a garden gate, and Zoot’s voice betrayed nothing of the self-inflicted pounding it must have taken over the previous weeks. And, for once, Zoot was on his best behaviour, or what passes for it. As is well known in professional music circles, Zoot Money is a bandleader whose musicians will follow him anywhere, if only out of curiosity. But for once, he was keeping in check his mischievous impulse to spring unscheduled changes to the arrangement on an unsuspecting band, and there was not one furrowed brow on stage.
After a brief bit of banter with the audience, Zoot and the band launched into “It Never Rains But It Pours”, a song written for Jimmy Witherspoon by Zoot and Colin Allen (who had come over from Sweden to play drums on the tour), followed by the haunting “May The Circle Be Unbroken”. Then, after a virtuoso bass solo version by Colin Hodgkinson of “San Francisco Bay Blues”, Ray Dorset came on stage. If the non-blues fans amongst the audience were expecting a string of Mungo Jerry hits, they were to be disappointed, at least at first. No washboard, kazoo or jug adorned the stage as Ray launched into a muscular blues set. Finally, their patience was rewarded as the band struck up the opening chords of “In The Summertime”. This was what the “play something we know” element had come for, and they lost no time in identifying themselves by joining in and clapping on the on beat – testament to their immunity to nearly half a century’s exposure to rock’n roll.
With the end of the Ray Dorset set, it was time to repair to the bar for lively discussions on the Winter Fuel Allowance and the latest editorial in the Saga house magazine, before returning for the second half. Zoot kicked off with a driving version of his 1966 hit “Big Time Operator”, and then the band struck up the opening riff of “Let the Good Times Roll”, as Paul Williams strode on stage. Now it’s probably fair to say that if you asked the audience to think of a singer called “Williams”, “Paul” would figure further down the list than “Robbie”, but there were plenty of us there who remembered his vocals on numbers such as “Gin House”, during his time as bass player with the Big Roll Band. And we weren’t disappointed as he powered through his set, climaxing with Sam and Dave’s “You Don’t Know Like I Know”, sharing vocals with Zoot.
Finally, it was time for the star of the show, and the towering figure of Long John Baldry made his way up to the microphone, as the band launched into the opening of “Every Day I Have The Blues”. This was vintage Baldry, and his voice seemed to have lost none of its power over the years. As he segued into “Things Getting Tougher Than Tough”, the spotlight danced between Ronnie Johnson on guitar, Gary Foote on sax, and Zoot, all soloing strongly and fluently like there was no tomorrow over the driving bass and drums of the two Colins (Hodgkinson and Allen) . And over it all, loomed the brooding presence of Long John, resplendent in box drape suit, broad-brimmed hat, and leaning on a walking cane. For a moment, with the spotlight off him, he could almost have stepped off the label of a bottle of Sandeman Port.
Long John was clearly out to enjoy himself, either at the expense of Zoot’s ornate shirt, or by hamming it up to the audience in such stentorian tones that it put one in mind of George Melly with attitude. As he worked his way through such standards as “Midnight In New Orleans” and “Hoochie Coochie Man”, the band were playing their socks off. And then at last came “Let The Heartaches (sometimes announced by Zoot as “Earaches”) Begin”. By now, those of the audience who were still fit enough were on their feet, and there they stayed until the final encore, with Long John being joined by Ray Dorset and Paul Williams for the James Crawford classic “Iko Iko”. As the cheering subsided, and the audience made their way out, few faces were not smiling. For a fleeting moment or two, we’d been young again.
© Al Kirtley 2003