UK Blues Musicians | Meet the Local Talent

12 Days of Blues-Mas 2017 | Episode #1

Written by Greg Dyke

I’ve been in the UK for almost a year now and I’ve been blown away by the live music at blues dance events!

Not just the musicians blues dancers are familiar with from having often seen them, such as Dan Nash or The Blueswater, but many less well-known artists, some of whom have only recently started playing for dancers.

I wanted to get to know them a bit better and share them with you, so I chose five to answer three short questions:

  1. Why do you play blues music?
  2. How do you classify the kinds of blues music you play?
  3. What could dancers do to improve your experience of playing for them?

I hope you enjoy their answers as much as I did!

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Nicole Smit

I first heard Nicole sing at The Spoonful in Edinburgh.

She played a blues set with Nicole and the Backup Crew and a late night “smoky pop” set with Smitten.

Her groovy and never formulaic vocals were just what keeps me dancing.

You can find Smitten’s music on Bandcamp, iTunes, and Spotify.

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Image from smittensmittensmitten.bandcamp.com

1. Why do you play blues music?

Blues music is dramatic and full of angst as well as emotive rhythms. Additionally, Edinburgh has strong blues scene which has successfully developed many young artists over the past few years.

2. How do you classify the kinds of blues music you play?

We would typically classify blues music by the rhythm often using artist names and a tempo to describe them. For example a slow Muddy Waters tune or a slow BB King tune. We will also make geographical references, for instance with Texas shuffle. Sometimes it can be even more idiosyncratic: a flat tyre shuffle.

3. What could dancers do to improve your experience of dancing for them?

“Blues dancers are hugely appreciative of the music and the musicians playing for them, which makes playing for them a pleasure.”

From the outside, it seems that the dancing community is in slight disagreement about what kind of music they would like the bands to play. In terms of us being able to provide balanced sets that cater to all tastes and dancing abilities, it would be beneficial to open up a detailed discussion of styles and what dancers expect and enjoy with dancing groups across the country, in particular, using recorded examples.

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TOM Attah

“Traditional and Transitional, Tom is the modern, living bluesman.  Taking the music from the past and carrying it into the future, Tom has stories to tell and songs to play.”

I first heard the next musician at Cotton City Blues in Manchester.

Tom impressed me with his driving rhythm and the powerhouse of musicality found in the contrasting complementarity of his voice, guitar and foot stomping.

He also has some serious academic blues music credentials!

You can find him (and his upcoming new album) on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Soundcloud, and at his website.

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1. Why do you play blues music?

It’s the style of music that had the most power to communicate as soon as I heard it. It just makes instant and total sense. There are tenderness and great strength in the music, intimacy, and power – music to dance and cry to.

The blues delivers on the promise of music to be the expression of the individual. Such an honour to be able to play it for people, to work within it.

2. How do you classify the kinds of blues music you play?

I do it by feeling. The joy of a live performance is that you can see the audience and so you can work with them and respond to the feeling in the room. So, there might be a desire for something fast and energetic, or something slower, more reflective and emotional. That’s especially important with dancers – you need to be able to adjust to what the people need in order to move in the way that they want to. I guess it’s like being in the dance in that way; sometimes the musician leads, sometimes the musician is led.

My own view is that everything is blues from a certain perspective – and certainly, if you have a solo singer and guitarist at work, the tendency is for the music to sound like blues in performance – at least, that’s the way that I approach it.

I play what were originally soul songs and rock songs in my set but the way that I perform them makes them blues, I think.

“Blues music was always borrowing things from other styles and evolving into something else, and an important part of performance is to keep that idea going. I think that blues is a creative tool, a living practice, rather than an exercise in curation.”

3. What could dancers do to improve your experience of playing for them?

Eye contact and communication. When I work with musicians on stage, we are constantly looking at each other and gesturing in order to keep the music going, to make sure that all is well.

I played a show for dancers in Manchester last year, and one of the dancers took the time to tell me exactly what he needed in terms of dynamics, tempo, feel – and that was terrific because then I could give him and his colleagues exactly what he needed.

And even then, whilst he was dancing, he made eye contact and so we could actually work together.

It was fabulous.

So yeah – talk to me, tell me what you want, and look at me!

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Paolo Fuschi

I also heard Paolo for the first time at Cotton City Blues. His set was so good that Blues in the Hudd immediately booked him to play a few weeks later.

I’ve been working on dancing to the different rhythms of blues music, so I was particularly sensitive to his ability to cover a wide range of rhythms while still playing a coherent, flowing set that gave me all sorts of ideas for my DJing.

He plays solo, with Walklate and Fuschi, and with the Buffalo Brothers.

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1. Why do you play blues music?

I don’t exactly know why. I just love it. It gives me the opportunity to fully express myself as a musician as well as a person. It forces me to be completely honest with myself and helps me to connect with people in the most immediate way possible.

2. How do you classify the kinds of music that you play?

I think I’m able to play both acoustic and electric blues. But I am proud to say that these days I do my thing with it. I take the blues and I mix it up with anything else I like, e.g. jazz, soul, funk even ska and reggae. For me, there’s no separation in music. Purists make me laugh.

I’m proud not to be pure and if you call me fake or not authentic I’ll thank you and probably try to hug you.

3. What could dancers do to improve your experience of playing for them?

Nothing, I adore the sense of poetry they have when they dance to my music. I adore looking at them, their smiles, their eyes closed.

“There’s a beautiful energy when dancers are in the room when I play.”

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Thomas Ford

“Superbly original self-penned blues songs, observant, cynical, loaded with humour, inuendo and rooted in delta blues tradition. His virtuoso bottleneck guitar playing and raucous rack-mounted harmonica are complemented by foot stomped percussion and vocals which are shouted, spat and snarled from an otherwise reserved mouth.”

I heard Thomas at Cider House Blues in Bristol.

His late night set was maybe a bit more energetic than people were feeling. But he had the whole room dancing their hearts out to the faster tunes and transported away to another place on the slower ones.

You can find his tour dates, videos, and music on his website.

1. Why do you play blues music?

There are two ways to answer this question I suppose. With regards to my inspiration for blues music in particular, that comes from my father; a blues harmonica player and blues music enthusiast.

Me and my brothers and sisters grew up listening to all kinds of blues, and my interest developed from there.

Now I play blues music to pay the bills! But also, I love performing and also touring gives me the opportunity to see places and meet people I otherwise perhaps wouldn’t.

2. How do you classify the kinds of music that you play?

I write the majority of my own material now, and I feel that in fact, I’m playing pop music, just pop music from another time and place.

There are different styles of blues music, I feel the one that always interested me more was the guttural, idiosyncratic and natural sound of one man and a guitar rather than a big band.

If you asked me to name one artist, I would say John Lee Hooker – the best musician who ever lived in my opinion. He had humour in his songs, strong rhythm from his right hand, great lyrics which could convey great emotion too.

If I could only listen to one artist for the rest of my life, it would be him. And I don’t think I’d get tired of him.

I play blues music based upon early electric blues, in a solo presentation, but I like that sound to be full, hence the harmonica, and foot-stomping. Different gigs require different things – if I’m playing a sweaty club and the audience are right on top of me and the atmosphere feels like it could get crazy then my playing is going to reflect that. If I’m playing in a theatre, perhaps my playing is going to be cleaner, more refined and accurate.

3. What could dancers do to improve your experience of playing for them?

The situation with blues dancing is very different for me as a performer, as it almost feels like they are performing for me in a strange way, rather than me for them. I don’t really think about it as me providing something for them, so to speak, so I don’t really think they could improve things for me. There are things I’m just working out, such as tempos and what people want to dance to.

What messed with me to begin with was the delay in applause after finishing a song – sometimes it’s excruciating as I’ve finished a tune, and there is just silence for maybe 2-4 seconds (but it feels like an eternity!) I had it explained to me though that the longer the pause the better, because it can show that people were just really into the song and the dance and the moment with their partner, and applauding isn’t the first thing that occurs.

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Mike “Dr. Blue” McKeon

My music is Blues, Roots & Folk.

I am a singer, song-writer & composer, a guitarist, a harmonica player, a poet, a story-teller.

I do the thing I love & it feeds my soul.

My body, on the other hand… that’s mostly fed by single malt.

Mike was up in Scotland for a story-telling gig and was booked to play an additional Sunday afternoon set in a pub. Only a few people turned up and I got that “Oh… maybe I should have stayed home…” feeling. But the three of us dancers had the best time.

Mike was super attentive and each song took us on a rollercoaster of a ride. You can listen to his music on his website and check out his Diary of a Bluesman at the British Blues Archive.

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1. Why do you play blues music?

I have been a musician since my father put a guitar in my hands when I was 4.

My father also taught me to play the harmonica.

My mother was a dancer and my grandfather played drums in a jazz band in the army.

I grew up listening to jazz, rock and roll and the blues.

Blues has always spoken to me, and as a performing medium (I work in many: spoken word, poetry and theatre/cabaret), it’s my favourite.

I can pinpoint the moment I fell in love with the blues. I was in a record shop in Brighton (UK) in 1979 when I heard Memphis Slim and Victoria Spivey duet: ‘If you don’t like what I’m doing go tell your other man’.

I have written and played the blues ever since.

2. How do you classify the kinds of music that you play?

I started out playing English and Irish folk music which if you look at the themes are essentially, ‘white working class music’.

It deals with poverty, love found, love lost and oppression at the hands of various people in positions of power and the occasional mining disaster!

Much of the blues is about those themes but with the addition of the dreadful and shameful exploitation, displacement and dehumanising behaviour of the slave trade; and the subsequent racism at the hand of a discriminatory majority.

I became interested in the blues as a teenager, which for me was a natural progression from the folk music I played in my earlier childhood.

I would split the blues into 4 broad categories, all of which I have played and written styles of, at one time or another:

Early Blues
Delta/Mississippi Blues
Electric ‘Chicago’ Blues
Modern Blues

3. What could dancers do to improve your experience of playing for them?

When dancers and musicians get together they are essentially doing the same thing to my mind; they work with rhythm.

“The dialogue, story arc of a song is embellished, expanded and brought to physical life by dancers.”

For me, when musicians get together with dancers they complement each other. I especially love it when we start to ‘jam’. The room stops being a one-way process of dancers just responding to the music, but further, the dancers start to interact with musicians – like a jazz improvisation.

To answer your question; find as many opportunities to work with live musicians, most importantly listen to and feel the rhythm. Oh and smile, its meant to be fun! Keep up the interaction!

Final thoughts from Greg

I always enjoy having a chat with musicians after their set, but this often stays at a superficial level.

I think I forget that both on and off the dance floor, musicians and dancers still have a lot to learn from and about each other, beyond just sharing the full range of human emotion found in blues music.

Maybe we need to work harder to facilitate these conversations?

Go to live shows, make eye contact with the musicians, applaud before hugging out the end of the song, learn to dance to fast songs that last ten minutes, and sit down and get to know the musicians over some drinks.

I really appreciate these five excellent musicians (and we’re so fortunate that I could easily have found five, ten or fifteen others to share with you!) taking the time to answer my questions!

I selected a few videos so you can have a listen, and keep an ear out if they’re playing a show near you.

Watch and listen to Greg’s Youtube Playlist UK Blues Talent here.


12-days-christmas-logoMany thanks to the author Greg Dyke. Greg dances Blues, Lindy Hop, Balboa, Tango and French traditional dances. He sings and plays Irish and French traditional music. He really likes putting things in boxes to teach them, or write about them on his blog, but then tries to set them free. 

Read other 12 Days of Blues-mas posts and subscribe to the emails

 

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