Cultivating New Orleans Music In England – The End Of An Impossible Dream

Forty4, BJ's, 2015

My band, ‘Forty4’, actually playing to a rare Northwest audience in 2015 who dig our music! Sadly, this club has ceased to operate which is a huge blow to the Northwest Blues circuit. Photograph by Lucas Campbell.

Some things you shouldn’t even try, but what the hell, if the recipe looks good on paper, then why shouldn’t you have a go? Unfortunately, even when the ingredients are right, the cooking is perfect and the dish is served with passion, adventurous cuisine can often fail to arouse the taste buds of regular diners.

Apply this analogy to music and it can set the modus operandi for a band that spend the best part of 10 years trying to break into a scene, yet fail to cut the cake, without realising the reasons why. Sometimes you need to see up close the source of what you venerate, in order to realise where and why you have been getting things so wrong.  In a monumental personal eureka moment, my experience at a recent ‘Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen’ gig delivered the much needed clarity evading me for so long. Not only did the band slay me in every positive way possible, they also provided the final missing piece of a musical jigsaw puzzle I’d been searching for the best part of a decade.

The Start of A 10 Year Learning Curve

It all started back in 2005 when a new name hit the fringes of the drumming world with his take on New Orleans street-beat drumming. Having already had my interest in drumming history stirred up by Lenny Kravitz drummer, Zoro, Stanton Moore took another large slice on my roster of historical study material, his double-DVD set simulating a gift from the Gods of New Orleans drumming. Suddenly, all those ‘Meters’ tunes, Little Richard, Louis Jordan and ‘Neville Brothers’ cuts stated to make sense rhythmically.

My late awakening to New Orleans music and realisation about its contribution to not only the history of the modern drum set, but entire the course of modern popular music, was akin to discovering the keys to the biggest musical treasure chest imaginable; I was hook & sling to the cause, soul sold to the 2nd line. Next problem – where do you get to mash up some N’awlins chops in England?

Enter the ‘Forty4’ band project and our optimistic idea to mix Blues, Soul, Funk, Jazz and R&B and take it to the British gig-street. We would achieve this by selling it to the current British Blues circuit and sliding in our niche alongside the glut of guitar-slinger groups, hoping our fresh fruit would stand out against the predictable, tired produce. Well, we certainly honed a sound like no one else in the UK, got ourselves on BBC Radio 2, Blues festivals, Jazz festivals and picked up a small following of loyal appreciators. But despite our efforts, we remained frustratingly tagged as an amazing band of musicians, but too far outside of the British ‘mainstream’ Blues taste radar.

Revelation No.1

It’s an early Monday evening in 2008 and I’m eating dinner, half-listening to the radio. BBC Radio 2 are broadcasting the weekly Paul Jones Blues show and it’s just about audible behind table conversation. Like a dog sleeping with one eye open, I am aware that Jones is interviewing ex-pat musician and long-time New Orleans resident, Jon Cleary. I’ve heard he plays piano in the Bonnie Raitt band and is pretty good on his own but at this point, I’m unaware exactly how good he is. I know he’s a fairly regular visitor here, coming home to play the UK Blues and Jazz festivals but up to now, I have yet to hear him. What happens over the next 40 minutes becomes one of those life-changing musical moments.

Following a short interview, Paul Jones broadcasts highlights from a gig recorded earlier in Exeter featuring Cleary and his New Orleans band, ‘The Absolute Monster Gentlemen’. This is where my inner sleeping dog gets fully woken as I dive over to the radio. It’s all there – Funk, New Orleans piano, Jazz, R&B, the whole historical gamut of Afro-American music and I’m cemented to the tiny DAB radio speakers. All the rhythmical study I’ve been pursuing is being fed to me on an audible plate and I cannot believe it’s alive and kicking on a boring Monday night’s British radio. During that moment, I feel a massive kick of hope and optimism, believing that it really is possible to play rhythmically flavourful music in the UK. ‘The Absolute Monster Gentlemen’ are off the scale musically and I cannot help but laugh at the sheer brilliance of their New Orleans grooves moving my inner rhythmic core. The rhythm section of Cornell Williams (Bass guitar), Derwin ‘Big D’ Perkins (Guitar) and Eddie Christmas (Drums) are easily on a par with any of the greatest rhythm sections in popular music history, yet will remain unknown amongst the majority of my English contemporaries.

Notwithstanding the obscurity factor, with Jon Cleary being a favourite of Paul Jones and playing all the major Blues festivals, surely that must mean that a band like ‘Forty4’ could pick up on the back of that vibe and be successful with their own thing, right? Wrong…

Despite being completely different from every other band on the British Blues circuit, our plan gradually backfires as we perplex people with our fusion of influences and a rhythm section that is clearly the envy of the traditional Blues bands that inhabit the festival circuit. My 2nd line street-beat in our rendition of ‘The Meters’ classic, ‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ makes people move, but they seem somewhat confused. Likewise, our version of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Forty Four’ delivered with a slow New Orleans marching feel also mystifies and we are treated to polite applause, as though we’ve done something really good – but no one’s really sure what it is!

We are indeed, a different sounding band, but we lack the distinct British Blues-Rock sound that has been cultivating here since the late 1960s. Sure, we have guitar solos, but they’re delivered as a side-salad, rather than a main course. It seems we are destined to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and eventually, ignored, as the menu of British Guitar/Harmonica pseudo-funk Rock-Blues is recycled for the umpteenth time. Not even being played on the Paul Jones show can improve our luck; we inhabit the fringes of the ‘critically acclaimed’ and gradually withdraw from whatever is left of the seemingly shrinking British Blues circuit. It takes us nearly 10 years to discover it is not a home for ‘Forty4’ music.

Meanwhile, I am still on a voyage of musical discovery and have been keeping my ear to the ground for Jon Cleary’s activities since the radio broadcast. In fact, the broadcast gig is so good, I track it down on BBC iPlayer and burn my own CD! My collection of official Jon Cleary CD’s continues to grow, yet he does seem to be a ‘best kept secret’ as far as the British Blues circuit are concerned. Many of the circuit’s bands and promoters I speak to have never heard of him – “Jon who?” is often the response I get when making polite small-talk with other bands at festivals…yet the man is making it back to his own country to play.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I fail to see the last two gigs Jon Clearly does in the UK before putting ‘The Absolute Monster Gentlemen’ on hold. Maryport Blues Festival 2008 and one in 2009 at the now defunct ‘Bluefunk Club’ at Poynton put on by the brilliant Garry White become his parting British gigs before disbanding. Until (and if) he decides to regroup as a quartet in the future, I am left contemplating my missed British gig opportunities.

Hope Springs! (By Way Of Manchester)

Jon Cleary Ticket

Only £12 (plus booking fee scalping) but still a bargain!

May 2015 and I am ecstatic to read that Jon Cleary is back with ‘The Absolute Monster Gentlemen’ plus a new album and will be doing dates in the UK! Better still, they are playing in the Northwest of England, right on my doorstep in Manchester; I cannot buy my ticket fast enough.

The Manchester venue he’s playing is the excellent ‘Band On The Wall’, a place I have visited on quite a few occasions to see musical events considered to be of little interest to my nearest city, Liverpool. Although Liverpool is a fantastic example of a multi-cultural city flourishing in diversity, when it comes to music, there is a bit less of a cosmopolitan vibe to it than its footballing  rival. Naturally and rightly so, Liverpool celebrates its musical culture around its ‘Beatles’ legend that dominates the cash-flow opportunities for music venues. Although Manchester is equally as diverse in ethnic culture, it doesn’t have one isolated band phenomenon to hang its pride from. Thus, it is a city with a far wider choice of music venues, specialising in the gamut of musical diversities reflected within its varied population. The ‘Band On The Wall’ is about as diverse as venues come, hosting pretty much every style of music out there – Jazz, Indie, Funk, Soul, Latin, Rock – there are seemingly no boundaries, making it the ideal place for Jon Cleary to bring his hot New Orleans talent.

Thursday 20th August 2015, a damp evening in Manchester, but I’m high on anticipation as I munch through a dubious plate of tired looking rice & curry. In a couple of hours, I will finally get to see what I have been waiting six frustrating years for.

It is disappointing to see a below-capacity crowd, especially considering there is talk of the London shows being sold out. None the less, there are enough people here showing their appreciation as the band open with a favourite of mine, ‘When You Get Back’. At this moment, I fall easily into adopting the rare personal role of punter-at-a-gig. Everything about this band makes me smile – the grooves, the rhythmic flavours, the musical melting pot that is New Orleans, brought to within spitting distance of my ears. At times, I find it impossible to stop myself openly laughing at how good it is, my own joy reflected in the equally irresistibly infectious smiles coming from Cornell Williams and Derwin ‘Big D’ Perkins. They are visibly loving every second of the performance, as are their audience, now successfully shepherded to the front of the stage by Cleary’s invite. As I stand face-to-face with the band, things start to fall into place about my current moment in time and how it relates to my own frustrating musical pursuits of the last decade.

Revelation No.2 (The Biggie…)

Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Manchester 2015

Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen captured at the Manchester Band On The Wall, 20/08/15. Photograph by Rosy Greer.

It is during the song ‘Bringing Back The Home’ from Cleary’s new album, ‘GoGo Juice’ that I receive a huge revelation that will strike change in my perception of where I fit into the big musical scheme of things. This particular song talks about the 10 year road to recovery for New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina with lyrics referencing the musical heritage of New Orleans. In particular, it’s the repeating, hypnotic chorus line that switches a light on in my head:

Jazz,

Funk,

Rhythm & Blues and Soul

The fuzzy darkness is now illuminated, all becomes clear as years of musical frustration are wiped away and I realise the point I’ve been missing:

Culture; it’s all about recognising your culture.

As much as I would love the music of ‘Forty4’ appreciated in my home country, as much as we have tried to add a mix of Gumbo into our music and offer something different, it is simply not possible to try and transplant an alien culture into an environment that has no natural connection to it. Yes, we’re good, we can assimilate a New Orleans vibe, people tell us we play it quite well and with some authenticity – but we don’t come from that culture. This becomes starkly obvious when you stand in front of a real New Orleans band and realise that everything you are hearing is directly connected to a musical culture completely to your own:

“Jazz,

 Funk,

 Rhythm & Blues and Soul

We come from the Northwest of England and all of the above are not naturally occurring within our culture. Whilst we have a strong musical heritage, it is quite removed from the melting-pot that makes up the unique sound of New Orleans. In order to understand where I came from, it was necessary for me to remind myself of a few historical facts about the musical culture of my immediate locality…

  • Fact 1: Northwest England doesn’t have Jazz as its musical heritage – America does. Although we exported many 17th Century musical instruments over to the New World, we didn’t provide the roots for the sound that would eventually define Western popular music.
  • Fact 2: Historically, England had limited access to early American Rock’n’Roll music and the baby-boomer British Rock’n’Rollers of the late 1950s had only a handful of examples to learn from. Larry Parnes brought over Gene Vincent & Eddie Cochran, but it was from hard sought-after imported American R&B records that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones took their earliest influences, creating in the process, a new style of English Rock’n’Roll music that would eventually be taken back to its homeland. Notably, in the Northwest of England, ‘The Beatles’ were the biggest thing to happen and their influence stretched far and wide. In fact, such was their impact, many of the Merseybeat contemporaries who followed in their wake made the mistake of using their sound as the Master Blueprint, instead of doing their own research and going back to the original R&B catalyst. ‘The Rolling Stones’ however, were already immersed in early R&B records and provided a darker reply to Liverpool’s cleaner, mop-top assault. Thus, the foundations for R&B influenced British popular music were laid.
  • Fact 3: By the end of the 1960s white Europeans had invented the ‘Blues-Rock’ genre we know today. During the early 1960s, European promoters started bringing over some of the Afro-American entertainers who had enjoyed success in previous years on the American Chitlin circuit, inviting them here to play the old Blues style songs that had been reissued for the wide-eyed, impressionable, British record buying public. The awkward paradox was, these imported musicians no longer played Blues style songs in their current repertoire, due to them being considered outdated by their current home audience! However, us white European folks apparently needed a musical history lesson – and we got it.  In fact, we got is so well, that by 1969 England was burning hot with bands who would once again, take Afro-American music back to America, but this time in a newer, louder, raucous form via groups like ‘Led Zeppelin’, ‘Cream’, ‘Deep Purple’ and ‘Fleetwood Mac’. By taking a single snapshot of a musical style, we managed to reproduce a full library of reprints, all based on a singular style of Blues-Rock guitar. Over 40 years later, we are still reaping what we have sown from that one seed, accounting for the current success in the UK of US artists such as Joe Bonamassa and our own home-grown ‘King King’. Love or hate Bonamassa, he’s tapped into the British guitar-slinging Blues-Rock culture, a culture that is about as far from New Orleans as it gets…

If I wanted to rewrite Cleary’s chorus to suit the culture of my locality, it would have to read something like this:

Rock,

Blues,

Beatles & Rolling Stones

Living in my personal bubble of denial, I naively failed to accept that the musical culture of Northwest England had always been steeped within those guitar-Rock boundaries; whether you want to reference ‘The Beatles’ or ‘Oasis’, my cultural background is clearly defined within its Irish roots trailing all the way back to famine-driven 19th century emigration. Hence, we have a strong tradition of Ceilidh music – Fiddles, Banjo’s, Guitars, Penny Whistle’s – but nothing whatsoever to link us with the Bordello ragtime pianos of Louisiana.

The Horrible Truth!

Waking up to these cultural differences based on localities explains a few things; for one, I now understand fully why ‘Forty4’ had no chance of ever sticking in the mind-set of the average Northwest English punter. It also indicates why Jon Cleary’s Manchester gig was somewhat under-attended compared to his eagerly anticipated shows in London. This worryingly, provides little incentive for him to book future Northern gigs in the same way Maceo Parker never revisited Liverpool after his poorly attended gig there. Unfortunately, my neck of the woods just doesn’t get alien musical cultures too well – it knows what it likes and it likes what it knows; confuse the people at your peril…

If you fail to serve the required menu, expect to be pretty much ignored by the majority. Clearly, I was being overly optomisic thinking that my band could change the way people reacted to a different musical approach.

It’s Time I Was Moving On…

On the back of witnessing some incredible musicians from New Orleans playing music that inspires me to dig deeper, I have at last found closure to years of wondering why my seemingly great band have been toiling on a road to obscurity. After all, if the real N’awlins deal cannot comfortably draw an audience into a Northern venue specifically catering for multi-cultural music genres, what chance have 5 have-a-go British white men from the home of Beatlemania got of spreading the word?

Lesson learned – so what now? Do I simply forget about playing ’boutique’ musical styles and hit Liverpool’s Mathew St to play mainstream nostalgia to the hordes of stag/hen parties and all-day drinkers? If I want to avoid mental breakdown, definitely not! As ever, there are always more ways to remove the skin from an awkward feline, you just have to be a bit smarter than the average bear.

Thankfully, I have managed to achieve the privilege of being able to play within a network of musicians who are more than capable of hiding a piece of silver within their pudding and feeding it to the natives, without upsetting their tastebuds. Despite my uncomfortable long overdue reality check, I am optomistic about continuing the path of playing music (mostly) on my terms – as long as I stick to a few ground-rules:

  1. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious
  2. When opportunities arise, attempt to penetrate the subliminal
  3. Whatever happens, don’t try and present the music from a cultural background that it doesn’t come from!

There’s room on the table for a few more spice pots – just don’t bury the underlying flavour too deep.

For independent reviews of this gig please go to the Lancashire Blues Archive Facebook page and the Blues In The Northwest website.