Lead Belly Fest

A tribute to a blues legend – and the return of Walter Trout!

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There are times when it is hard to avoid a sense of cognitive dissonance at Lead Belly Fest. Huddie Ledbetter was the child of sharecroppers, he lived a violent life that saw him in and out of prison (and we’re not talking traffic offences, but stabbings and shootings; it’s remarkable that this beautiful, often delicate music came out of such a hard, violent man) and his fame has been mainly posthumous. Celebrating this legacy in the gilded trappings of the Royal Albert Hall with the Countess of Wessex in attendance is a world and a lifetime (maybe two!) removed from the deep south that Lead Belly knew. But his influence is undeniable and many of his songs are now fixtures not just within the blues canon but in the broader realm of popular music.

His fans have included everyone from Johnny Cash to Elvis, Pearl Jam to Kurt Cobain and Jack White. The artists on the bill tonight fall into two broad categories. On the one hand, there are those who attempt to capture some of Lead Belly’s folk blues style, using acoustic instruments or sparse arrangements that highlight his remarkable talents as a songwriter. The second camp put a more modern spin on the music often with the aid of Blues Inc, who are the house band for the evening featuring musical director Kipper Eldridge on rhythm guitar and Mick Rogers on lead. It unquestionably changes the character of the material when Lead Belly’s acoustic music is played with electric guitars, bass and a drummer, a move sure to horrify folk blues purists. Furthermore, the Royal Albert Hall is clearly in a cantankerous mood, wilfully bouncing the sound around the cavernous venue until it’s a mess of echoes. As a result the solo performers fare much better sonically than the bands tonight, suggesting that the building itself is siding with the aforementioned purists. Blues Inc kick off the event with Black Betty, featuring a vocal sample of Lead Belly himself (sacrilege, cry the Blues Police!). The band’s approach is firmly rooted in the British R&B tradition and is a far cry from Delta blues. Their performance of Tear It Up in the second half lacks any bite and when it morphs into Shake, Rattle & Roll the question rears its head for the umpteenth time over the course of three hours of music: what has this got to do with Lead Belly?

Anyway, returning to the first half, Slim Chance use the occasion to plug their new single, but the sound is at its nadir at this early point and the mix refuses to offer any clarity, then Dr Hook’s Dennis Locorriere comes out to lead Blues Inc through Last Go Round and Take This Hammer. It’s a little strange hearing a work song like Take This Hammer performed as a jaunty R&B tune as Locerriere declares, ‘I don’t want no cornbread and molasses.’ Somewhere an academic is screaming about cultural appropriation. Of course, if you had to have actually worked in a chain gang to sing this music, it would become extinct overnight, but there may be a conversation to be had about white rock stars performing songs that were born out of the experience of oppressed black Americans.

Gemma Ray is the first solo performer of the night and provides an early highlight. With a guitar style that sits somewhere between the twang of Chris Isaak and the gleeful noise of Sonic Youth, Ray performs haunting versions of I’m Alone Because I Love You and Long Gone, the latter of which ends with her coaxing a wail of feedback from her guitar with the aid of a large kitchen knife that she saws across the strings. It’s abrasive but bracing and rather wonderful. “Cheers,” she says and is gone all too soon.

The hotly-tipped British six-string prospect Laurence Jones describes Lead Belly as one of his heroes before he leads his trio through a very pumped up blues-rock rendition of Good Morning Blues. It’s never lacking in power, but it’s almost unrecognisable as one of Lead Belly’s compositions. The youngster has the makings of a guitar hero and the crowd eats up his song Thunder In The Sky, even as any trace of Louisiana blues disappears in a storm of soloing.

Above: Paul Jones harps on for Lead Belly.

Paul Jones is on good form with a spirited take on John Hardy, and he sneaks a snippet of Hey Bo Diddley into the second version of Black Betty of the evening, in which he trades harmonica licks with Mick Rogers’ guitar. Jones is another of the artists on the bill from the British R&B tradition, but his ability to improvise elevates him above the pack.

Jools Holland and Ruby Turner team up to tackle Backwater Blues well enough, but someone needs to push Holland out of his comfort zone once in a while. He’s too quick to rely on his standard bag of boogie-woogie tricks and while this performance is slick, it never catches fire for want of a spark. Wrapping up the first half, Dana Fuchs dazzles with a powerhouse version of Gallows Pole, although it’s clear she comes to the song via Led Zeppelin rather than Lead Belly (the rockers recorded their version of the song on Led Zeppelin III in 1970). It’s a shame she only gets the one tune to showcase those mighty pipes of hers.

Following an intermission, Billy Bragg opens up the second half by giving an impromptu history lesson about Lonnie Donegan and the birth of the British skiffle movement, going off on something of a tangent from Lead Belly. Joined by trombonist/bassist Chris Barber, one-time boss of Donegan, Bragg performs Rock Island Line – Barber played bass on Donegan’s ‘54 recording – followed by a skiffle arrangement of The Beatles’ Love Me Do. And that concludes Skiffle Fest 2015. Okay, it’s a demonstration of how Lead Belly’s music was adopted and adapted by musicians from another country, filtered through their own sound and style. But it’s not Donegan’s name on the banner. Nirvana covered Lead Belly in their career but it still wouldn’t make sense to blast out Smells Like Teen Spirit and call it an homage to the bluesman.

Of all the performers tonight, the one who most completely and authentically captures the sound and spirit of Lead Belly is Eric Bibb. Like the great man himself, Bibb needs only his voice, an acoustic guitar and those wonderful melodies to work his magic. Bibb pays tribute to what he calls Lead Belly’s “righteous indignation” at the segregation and racism of the south with the razor sharp lyrics of The Bourgeois Blues. When Bibb sings, “Well, them white folks in Washington they know how, to call a coloured man a nigger just to see him bow,” it’s a reminder of the power of Lead Belly’s writing and the prejudices of the time in which he lived. Bibb follows that with the beautiful and playful Bring Me A Little Water Sylvie before he wraps up his impressive set with St Louis Jimmy’s Going Down Slow, leaving no doubt that this is the real deal. Apparently Bibb has a Lead Belly tribute album on the way. On this evidence, it should be essential listening.

Pictured: Laurence Jones pays respects to one of his heroes.

Anticipation is sky high for the arrival of Walter Trout, returning to live performance after his very close brush with death and a life-saving liver transplant last year. The guitarist is introduced by his wife, who barely keeps her composure. “I haven’t been on stage for about two years,” confesses Trout, before he dedicates his first song, Say Goodbye To The Blues, to the memory of BB King. “Minor blues in the key of A,” he tells the band and then they’re off. Any doubts that the trials and troubles of the past year might have dulled his edge are not merely cast aside but are obliterated in an instant. Trout is on fire. His fingers burn up the fretboard as he electrifies the entire room, pouring emotion into each blistering run. “I never thought I would do this again,” he says, clearly moved by the ecstatic reception, before he brings out Laurence Jones to join him on TB Blues. “I was going to modernise it and call it The Hepatitis C Blues,” jokes Trout just before they blast off a second time. Jones may have the vitality of youth on his side, but he simply can’t keep pace with Trout. It’s doubtful whether anyone could tonight as the guitarist channels two years of pent-up energy into every lick. The standing ovation he receives when they bring it to a glorious crescendo is not the result of mere sentimentality, the indulgence of seeing an old blues warrior back on his feet. Trout is untouchable this evening. It certainly isn’t acoustic blues, but it is magnificent.

Trout would have been a tough act to follow for another electric artist, but wisely the organisers have Josh White Jr up next, bringing back the folk blues. White Jr begins by recounting how he met Lead Belly when he was just a child, oblivious with the innocence of youth as to the momentous nature of the moment. Tonight White Jr performs Precious Lord, with Rose Royce’s Gwen Dickey adding beautiful vocal harmonies and Paul Jones blowing a sweet harmonica, following that with an elegant, stripped back arrangement of There’s A Man Going Round Taking Names.

Eric Burdon of The Animals bellows his way through Where Did You Sleep Last Night. The original is quite a slight song, there are not a lot of lyrics available to work with, and Burdon milks it for all it is worth and then some, prowling around the stage hollering, “In the pines!! In the pines!!!” like a man possessed. That it would be Burdon who would perform House Of The Rising Sun was as inevitable as the dawn, although his voice has lost some of its presence over the years since The Animals first scored a hit with it. These days he sounds like a less menacing version of Alice Cooper.

At 87, folk music veteran Tom Paley is the most senior member of the roster tonight. Moreover, he holds the distinction of being the only musician present to have actually played with Lead Belly. Paley’s selection is On A Monday, and while he struggles with the lyrics, he makes it through to the end, helped over the finish line by his fiddle- playing son Ben.

Above: Van The Man brings the event to a climax…

Last but by no means first, Van Morrison opens with a couple of his own tunes, Astral Weeks and Cleaning Windows. It’s possible that the singer is slowly being devoured by his own suit as with each successive year, less of the man is visible when he’s on stage. Tonight he is further obscured by a hat pulled down low and dark sunglasses for good measure. The members of Blues Inc and Jools Holland, back behind the piano, all watch Morrison like hawks, looking for clues as to when the changes are coming or when the singer might decide to bring a song to its conclusion. For his contribution to the Lead Belly tribute, Morrison picks The Midnight Special and Goodnight, Irene, joined on stage for the last by just about everyone still left in the building. The horde of musicians exacerbates the poor acoustics until the sound melts down into a muddy quagmire. But Eric Burdon is clearly having a blast, apparently the only musician on stage not the least bit wary of incurring Van Morrison’s infamous temper, sharing Morrison’s microphone and putting his arm around him. To be fair, Morrison looks to be enjoying himself too, at least as far as it’s possible to tell behind his hat and glasses.

And thus wraps up 2015’s Lead Belly Fest. It absolutely delivered ample value for money, with more than three hours of performance peppered with a couple of videos offering a brief introduction to Lead Belly’s biography. The range of artists performing was impressively diverse, and while there were moments that stretched the connection to Lead Belly to the very limit and once or twice went beyond it, any chance to celebrate the remarkable music of Huddie Ledbetter is to be embraced with both arms.

David West

After starting his writing career covering the unforgiving world of MMA, David moved into music journalism at Rhythm magazine, interviewing legends of the drum kit including Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. A regular contributor to Prog, he’s written for Metal Hammer, The Blues, Country Music Magazine and more. The author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, David shares his thoughts on kung fu movies in essays and videos for 88 Films, Arrow Films, and Eureka Entertainment. He firmly believes Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years is the tuniest tune ever tuned.