There are times when you read about gigs from ten or twenty years ago and you can’t quite get your head around how so few people were in attendance. We’re talking the early Nirvana gigs, the club gigs that saw Blur or Radiohead play to ten people or, if you take things even further back, the days when Cream or Pink Floyd regularly played to half-empty University bars. The benefit of hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing and it is also true that, as an artist climbs the rungs of success, so their days playing to half-empty venues are quietly tidied away, becoming the stuff of legend in the process.
Not that the Musician (Leicester) is half-empty. Indeed, the pub (long a favoured spot for fans of good ale and good music) fills up nicely as the evening wears on, it’s just hard to imagine JW playing so small a venue on his next visit, and this very much feels like an “I was there!” moment. And so, on a cold November evening, JW Jones, the Juno-nominated, Canadian blues artist, arrived at the Musician Pub to give one of the best, one of the most entertaining, concerts this reviewer has seen all year.
Undertaking a major, seventeen-date UK tour is no mean feat, but the trio of JW, bassist extraordinaire Laura Greenberg (nominated for the Maple Blues Awards bass player of the year), and exceptional drummer Will Laurin, are clearly exhilarated by the challenge and the interaction between the three is a joy to behold.
However, before we get to JW and his motley crew, Casbah MMP (who promoted the night with their customary skill) have two support acts to set the night running. First up is Ali Clinton who takes to the stage as a solo artist. Aside from a few technical hiccups, which are swiftly sorted, Ali is an engaging performer who plays a mix of covers and original material. This being a blues night, Ali sensibly opens with a double cover, Hendrix’s ‘Castles made of Sand’ and Dylan’s ‘I shall be released’, both of which are delivered with considerable technical skill. Seeing Ali playing music stripped down to the essentials (albeit augmented by an array of fx pedals), it’s hard not to be reminded of Jeff Buckley’s legendary Sine recordings, an impression further reinforced by Ali’s wide vocal range, and, as the set progresses, he does much to set the evening in motion. Ali’s solo material is difficult to categorise (in a good way) drawing on a touch of Radiohead here, a pinch of Buckley there and tying it all together with some stately Gilmour-esque soloing that is quite remarkable. It concludes with a poignant rendition of Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’, before Ali leaves the stage to warm applause from the audience. 8
Next up we get the Dawson Smith & Martin Burch Blues duo. Ostensibly a covers act, although they do drop in the odd original, the pair have a great rapport with the audience and play well, but they might have served better to open the night, leaving the way clear for those with more original material to take centre-stage. Nonetheless, we get tasteful renditions of tracks like ‘Boom, boom, boom’ (John Lee hooker), ‘gamblin’ blues’ (Steve Earl) and ‘I can’t quit you baby’ (Willie Dixon / Otis Rush), all of which have the audience singing and tapping along in time to the music. With the relaxed setting and flickering candles, the band leave the audience well-prepared for JW Jones and his merry band. 7
Fresh from the release of the stunning ‘High Temperature’, JW Jones has a lot riding on this UK tour, and he takes to the stage with the air of a man on a mission. That’s not to say that the performance is uptight – JW engages with the crowd in a way that few artists remember to do, and his demeanour is relaxed even as his playing is explosive. It’s an amazing performance as JW effortlessly gathers the audience into the palm of his hand. Songs from the album such as ‘price you pay’ (even more Stonesy in its live incarnation) are delivered with a wry smile and plenty of energy, whilst ‘Magic West Side Boogie’ (fully interpolating ‘Voodoo Chile’) from ‘Belmont Boulevard’ is delivered with such untrammelled power that it leaves the audience with the jaws hanging somewhere in the vicinity of the floor. In between all of this, JW finds time to banter with the crowd about drinks, slow dance with a thunderstruck audience member whilst playing the guitar and exchange instruments with his band, all the while maintaining an impish sparkle that is utterly charming.
As for JW’s band, both Laura Greenberg and Will Laurin are exceptional musicians. More than this, however, they share a rare chemistry with their band leader that borders on the psychic. Watching the three interact as they blaze through the set is a delight, and JW is a magnanimous band leader, quite content to step back and allow his colleagues to shine in the limelight.
Few gigs have quite such a feel-good factor appended to them, but the combination of the fiery material on offer, JW’s laid-back stage banter and the undeniable chemistry on stage all conspire to leave the audience feeling elated, and I can’t remember smiling so much at a single gig. JW’s playing is a magical thing indeed, and his fingers flash across the fretboard of his gold top Les Paul, but it never feels showy (well, perhaps when he plays with his guitar behind the back of girl with whom he dances), instead it serves the music, and JW takes us on a thrilling journey through his impressive, and extensive back catalogue. This, along with the companionable and comfortable vibe the Musician engenders makes for a near-perfect night which will linger long in the memory. 9