Those fortunate enough to have seen North London’s The Dirty Feel in full force – preferably in a small, hot and sweaty club - will tell you that not only did this three piece powerhouse blues rock band make a mockery of any notion that British outfits can’t swing a groove they also seemed earmarked for mainstream acceptance. But then those same people may also know The Dirty Feel have been beset by indecision, victims of life’s circumstance as R&B great Delbert McClinton once put it, and then endured a real life tragedy in the untimely death of guitarist, singer and principal songwriter Nick Hirsch who passed away in March 2012, having lived with a serious blood-related illness since it was diagnosed in his teens.
On the posthumously released Feel album Truth Be Told – out this week on Tummy Touch Records – you can finally hear why Hirsch is so highly rated. In many ways he was a natural successor to a lineage which runs via Eric Clapton in his pomp, via Peter Green and Paul Kossoff, although his playing is not derivative and has its own sound. Sure, there are elements of Led Zeppelin in The Dirty Feel, the looser, fun side rather than the metal behemoth statement Zep, but alongside the bluesy swagger there’s a funky airtight rhythm provided by drummer Virgil Howe (son of Yes man Steve) and his North London accomplice on bass guitar, Kerim ‘Kez’ Gunes, Wood Green’s answer to Jack Bruce.
Classic Rock caught up with Virgil and Kez to unravel the Dirty Feel’s strange tale, which begins around 2001 and is only now finally making sense. According to Virgil – and yes his father did name him after the pilot of Thunderbirds 2 rather than the Roman poet and philosopher – the album “should be called Ten Years Too Late because we spent far too long worrying about how to create our live act in the studio when we should have been more flexible and got on with it. Plus, the project always got put on the back burner because we all had side projects. Me with Dirty Barrie, me and Kez with Amorphous Androgynous; and Nick and his brother Jake were working on other things at the Pipe Dream Studios in the Chocolate Factory in Hornsey.”
As Kez says “some of the tracks on Truth Be Told have been in our locker for a decade but eventually we added some new material and the three of us realised it was time to finish what we’d started. A lot of that, most of it, is down to our producer Kostas Iatrelis who knows our sound inside out us since he’s always been there mixing when we were like the house band at Camden’s Blues Kitchen, playing the Sunday Jam. He’s like the forth member. Probably knows our stuff better than we do.”
As frustrated with The Dirty Feel’s indecision as their dedicated fan base Iatrelis convinced the trio that the studio wasn’t their enemy and that recreating a jealously guarded live atmosphere could be accomplished without compromising their standards. Truth Be Told doesn’t disappoint on any score. The opener Far Gone, the title track and the slithery Keep On are very fine English rock blues while Hirsch’s enigmatic lyrical style gives the closing tracks, The Threadbare Excuse and Spanish Silver, a poignant edge. “Nick didn’t talk too much about his song meanings,” says Howe. “He had a darker, acerbic side, not surprisingly, but he certainly wasn’t the kind of man who moped about feeling sorry for himself. Those songs are certainly pretty autobiographical. He was dealing with a lot of emnotions.”
Hirsch’s illness required him to undergo blood transfusions and it was one of those that precipitated his death. “He was given a batch of contaminated blood and that made him very ill,” Howe explains. “It was actually a cause celebre in the NHS. Several others were contaminated. It was a huge scandal.”
Given the trying situation Kez and Virgil had contemplated shelving the album. They didn’t want to do anything in questionable taste, and, understandably, they were hit damn hard by their friend’s demise. “But the more we talked about it the more we knew that Nick would have wanted it to go ahead. It was his biggest wish because he was so proud of it; we all were and are. His family were very supportive and they’re happy to see it in the light of day. It’s a tribute to him and his amazing family anyway. We’ve thought long and hard about carrying on but it’s given us a new enthusiasm. We want to keep on playing these songs and we’re lucky that we’ve got guitarist Luke Bowman, who is a huge fan of Nick’s playing and knows the music inside out from having watched him at close quarters. We’ve also expanded into a four piece, adding keyboards player Henry ‘Harry’ Bowers- Broadbent. He’s perfect because he played with all of us in an offshoot group we have called The Killer Meters so he fits in immediately. And he’s a really gifted musician who was Nick’s best friend. It isn’t like we’re bringing in total strangers and trying to recreate something. We hope people realise it’s a continuation of a worthwhile sound.”
While admitting that filling the late Anglo-American Hirsch’s vacant chair hasn’t been easy Kez prefers to mention shared obsessions. “Nick was heavy into Prince and Little Feat and Southern Rock in general. We all liked Queens of the Stoner Age and New Orleans acts like Allen Toussaint and, obviously, the Meters as well as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and funk of Sly Stone, Graham Central Station and Parliament.” Virgil Howe meanwhile is also steeped in classic rock, having been brought up playing with dad Steve and the Howe family in general before embarking on another passion for house and dance music.
On Truth Be Told you can certainly hear that kind of spirit filter through and anyone who picks up on The Dirty Feel for the first time will most likely wonder what they’ve been missing. Eighteen months after his death the album is a valid testament to Hirsch’s great talent and it’s good to know the story doesn’t have to end there. Life goes on. The Dirty Feel will abide.