Lead Belly Fest
Venue: Royal Albert Hall
A tribute to a blues legend – and the return of Walter Trout!
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.
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.
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.