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Real Southern Blues Comes to Reading

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Published: 22 Feb 2013      

The Blagrave Arms in central Reading, opposite the old Town Hall, used to be one of those old-style spit-and-sawdust establishments. Recently, it has undergone an extensive make-over and now resembles a high-end cocktail bar.

The new management is keen to attract a more mature crowd than can be normally seen thronging Reading's pubs and bars in and around Friar Streetof a weekend. To that end, on Friday 1st February, the Blagrave dipped its toe into the water of putting on live music.

back_bone_internal_image.jpgThe band chosen to set the ball rolling in this new venture were Backbone, a localReading combo whose chosen genre is the blues.          

So, for the uninitiated, what is the blues exactly? Well, that would take a book-length exposition to explain. But, in short, the blues as a recognisable musical genre has been around since the early 20th century.

Its origins lie in the African-American community in the USA. To quote music writer Garth Cartwright: “In the early 20th century black American musicians in the South took to calling certain tunes they were playing 'blues'.

This involved both a febrile brass band groove as played by the likes of a young Louis Armstrong inNew Orleans and hypnotic driven Mississippi Delta songs as personified by Robert Johnson […] When black American interest in the blues waned in the 1950s the music was supposed to die. Instead, young white audiences across theUS andWestern Europe began sitting at the feet of the old blues masters.”       

Anyone who grew up in the Sixties with the music of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, or later exponents of what came to be called rock - the likes of Rory Gallagher, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughan  - has been exposed (albeit unwittingly perhaps) to the blues in one form or another. And the audience for that kind of music has aged along with the bands. Which probably explains the rationale for the Blagrave Arms giving its inaugural live gig to a band like Backbone when trying to appeal to a “more mature” clientele.        

Certainly, the opening night was a huge success. Backbone, a five-piece electric band (Duncan Higher on bass and lead vocals, Martin Jezzard on drums, Frank McConnell, lead guitar, Craig Broadfoot, keys, Susan Duncan, backing vocals), attracted a full-house. As a stand-alone entity the band have been in existence for some two-and-a-half years. In that short time, they've achieved a lot. To quote lead guitarist Frank McConnell: “We were a covers band but always enjoyed a slow blues. We thought about starting a blues band. When we went to theUSin 2010 we got to play on the legendaryBeale StreetinMemphis,Tennessee, joined David for 'Blues in the Schools' and visited the renowned King Biscuit Blues Festival inHelena,Arkansas. In 2012 we got to achieve a real musical 'bucket list' item by getting to play at the world famous Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi and also played the King Biscuit Festival itself – to a great response.”          

The “David” referred to above is David Berntson, a harmonica player and singer fromTulsa,Oklahoma, and a maestro on his chosen instrument. Berntson is also an educator and counsellor and uses music and his harmonica skills in his day-time teaching role and in the Blues Foundation's “Blues in the Schools” educational programmes in theUSA. Berntson and the band played together on Backbone's short summer tour of the southernUnited Statesand have built up a solid rapport.

Backbone played two sets at the Blagrave. The band, fronted by Duncan Highet on bass and vocals, performed an opening 45-minutes of electric blues featuring songs from the canon of electric blues pioneers like Junior Wells (a dynamic “Messin' With The Kid” - albeit, given the band's background, probably based more on the Rory Gallagher version), alongside tunes from contemporary artists like Tommy Castro (“Back Up Plan”) and the late Michael Burks (a wonderful version of his “Quiet Little Town”).    

They also have their own original material (their “Back To The Start” is an exceptionally good song and also features impeccable vocals from Highet, a truly outstanding lead vocalist). Maybe the pick of the band's opening numbers, however, was their version of the song “Am I Losing You?”, which has been recorded by several bluesmen and was written by the respected singer-songwriter-musicians, the Cate Brothers, out ofFayetteville,Arkansas. Not only was Highet's vocal of again exceptionally high quality but the band showed their utmost musicality and how well they cohere as a unit.       

For the second set of the evening Backbone were joined by Tulsa, Oklahoma-based David Berntson on harmonica and vocals. Berntson belongs to a more traditionalist wing of the blues, the material he plays with Backbone tending towards a more swinging, jump blues style, influenced by artists of the ilk of Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and B B King, crossed with references to Chicago-style harp players such Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter Jacobs.  His barroom walkabout on “Early In The Morning”,  the Louis Jordan Latin-flavoured blues, was the last word in audience participation, while the outstanding performance with the band was the complicated, stop-rhythm “Next Time You See Me”, Junior Parker's 1957 hit.       

So, an exceptional night of blues in Reading and hopefully one which will be repeated at the Blagrave in the not-too-distant future.