Classic Rock

Bluesfest 2018


London O2 Arena

With a refreshing­ly inclusive definition of its titular genre, it’s three days of hit-‘n’-miss passion-drenched music of blues origin.

Bluesfest might feature a line-up of artists whose distance from the source material varies, but there’s no doubting Steve Miller’s credential­s.

Early on he briefly retells the history of the genre, from the Delta north, before launching into a spirited cover of KC Douglas’s 1948 smash Mercury Blues, a song he played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The hits follow, from the glistening pop of Abracadabr­a and Fly Like An Eagle to a lazy roll through The Joker, with its famous ‘wolf-whistle’ guitar.

Miller gives a solid if unspectacu­lar start to the evening, then John Fogerty enlivens things by kicking off his set with a frantic Travellin’ Band. Like many elder statesmen of rock, over the years he appears to have accumulate­d more musicians than is strictly necessary (you don’t need three guitarists and a brass section to play Creedence songs). His voice has held up pretty well, and his songs are bulletproo­f enough to cope with any mismanagem­ent. There’s a neardisast­rous mid-set interlude when his son Tyler takes the stage to shriek mangled versions of Good Golly Miss Molly and The Sonics’ Pyscho, but other son Shane rescues the family name with a howling guitar solo during The Old Man Down The Road. The rest of the songs – Green River, Up Around The Bend, Who’ll Stop The Rain, Born On The Bayou, Bad Moon Rising, Proud Mary and so on – are triumphant.

Van Morrison doesn’t say a word apart from a couple of mumbled thank-yous, and he turns his back on the audience when he isn’t singing or playing sax. But expecting Van Morrison to engage in witty on-stage banter is like attending a Richard Dawkins lecture and coming away disappoint­ed when he doesn’t tap-dance. Morrison may behave like a man who doesn’t know what to do when he isn’t singing, but that’s because singing is what he does. During an immaculate 90 minutes we get a sinister, dreamlike take on St. James Infirmary, a lively bounce through Moondance and, best of all, an utterly spellbindi­ng Ballerina, during which he leans so far back it’s as if he’s serenading the lighting rig.

While Jimmy Page maintains Led Zeppelin’s legacy by studiously painting the corpse’s nails from time to time, Robert Plant, who headlines day two, seems intent on drop-kicking it into the future.

Arriving on stage to the other-worldly strains of

Malian kora wizard Yakhouba Sissokho, Plant and his Sensationa­l Space Shifters spin a line between ancient English folk, the blues – both North American and North African varieties – and off-yer-tits Glastonbur­y trance. Black Dog starts as a low-slung funk grind and morphs into a fiddle-led jig, a dramatic Babe I’m Gonna Leave You is part Flamenco, part spaghetti western, and a thundering version of Bukka White’s Fixin’ To Die, complete with a masterful, prolonged exhibition of controlled feedback from guitarist Justin Adams, closes the set.

Day three kicks off with Beth Hart, who has quite the voice. Audible even holding the mic at hip level, she sings like an open wound, baring her soul in the manner of those who’ve been through plenty of therapy and find it helpful to unload. “I may be crazy,” she says, “but at least I’m not fucked-up on drugs any more.” And when on Tell Her You Belong To Me she sings ‘I’ve been at the bottom’, you really, really believe her.

The Zac Brown Band might not have filled the venue, but retailers across the Home Counties have clearly done a brisk trade in plaid shirts, and the audience are on their feet from the off.

The band are wretched, lurching miserably from one catastroph­e to the next, from the pained millennial whooping that drives their cover of Kings Of Leon’s Use Somebody – a venture that only serves to answer the question: What if Coldplay played country? – to a bizarre, lumpen take on Metallica’s Enter Sandman. Their own songs are worse, from My Old Man – a song cloying even by country standards – to the litany of clichés that make up Chicken Fried. Only the Allman Brothers’ Whipping Post (sung with gusto by organist Clay Cook) passes muster, and the set ends with a ham-fisted thrash through the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage. And yet throughout, the audience greet each new low with the kind of hysteria normally reserved for strippers at an out-ofcontrol hen party. Remarkable.

Sunday reverts the ridiculous to the sublime via the divine voice of Alison Krauss. The stage is dressed like an old country store, with brickwork adorned by ancient posters of vaudeville performers, a bicycle, and a couple of benches for the musicians to rest on while they’re not directly involved in the action. The music is pretty enough to soften even the hardest heart, especially when Krauss is joined by Sidney and Suzanne Cox from bluegrass group the Cox Family for exquisite a capella versions of Down To The River To Pray and Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby.

Counting Crows sound clunky by comparison, but Adam Duritz’s voice is still intact – as are those dreads. With thick-rimmed glasses and a drooping moustache he looks like Bun E Carlos attending a Bob Marleythem­ed fancy dress party, but his songs still pack a considerab­le emotional wallop. With the opening piano notes of Colourblin­d, it feels like the entire audience gasps, almost in despair, as if they’re unable to witness what Durwitz is about to put himself through. He tells stories that feature the standard tropes of Americana - train whistles, lights on the Mississipp­i, the great Western deserts, etc – but everything is performed with enough conviction for it to be believable. There’s an unhurried cover of Teenage Fanclub’s Start Again, the uncommitte­d leave after Mr Jones, set-closer Hanginarou­nd includes a wolfwhistl­e from guitarist David Immerglück, and we’re back at Steve Miller again. And that’s the blues for you. What goes around comes around.

‘When Beth Hart sings ‘I’ve been at the bottom’,

you really, really

believe her.’

 ??  ?? Van Morrison: a spellbindi­ng performer, but not a man for on-stage banter.
Van Morrison: a spellbindi­ng performer, but not a man for on-stage banter.
 ?? Words: Fraser Lewry Photos: Alison Clarke, Will Ireland ?? Steve Miller: a solid ifunspecta­cular set. John Fogerty: the Creedence songs he performsar­e triumphant.
Words: Fraser Lewry Photos: Alison Clarke, Will Ireland Steve Miller: a solid ifunspecta­cular set. John Fogerty: the Creedence songs he performsar­e triumphant.

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