“The sky is crying,” sang Elmore James, “look at the tears roll down the street”. On my journey to Overton-on-Dee the sky isn’t so much crying as bawling its heart out, and on a summer’s evening I arrive in the beautiful Marches village in near darkness, rain like nails bouncing off the hood of my ole ’55 (sorry, the bonnet of my Mazda).
On arrival I am greeted by Pete Evans, Paul Taylor and Ian Williams, promoters of the Blues and Roots Festival, founders of the Hooker Blues Club and committed blues aficionados. These guys have been promoting the blues in North Wales for over a decade now, with regular gigs throughout the year, the annual festival being the highlight of the calendar.
The walls of Overton Village Hall are bedecked with previous gig posters, and a quick glance at the names and faces on display is impressive: Nine Below Zero, The Hamsters, The Blues Band and a variety of US artists, including Memo Gonzalez and Marcus Malone, have graced previous events.
Even at this early hour a good-sized audience packs the hall to witness HALF DEAD CLATCH (Andrew McClatchie) growling, picking and sliding his way through a set comprising classic covers by the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell and self-penned originals from his award-nominated 2014 album, The Blues Continuum. The clean, pure sound of his Resonator guitars rings out to the fast, fluid picking or crunchy riffing of his right hand while his left slides up and down the neck, delivering shimmering daggers of sound.
I check out the excellent real ales – though the festival is billed as a Blues & Real Ale Festival, the organisers put out a strong ‘no drunkenness’ message and over the weekend I don’t see a single contravention of this ethos. This is a festival that you could bring the family to (so long as the family dig the blues).
BLUES DUO kick into a set of Chicago electric street blues. BB King’s She’s Dynamite sees the first dancers of the evening spinning onto the floor and Jimmy Reed’s classic You Don’t Have To Go has everyone clapping and singing along, before a Reet Petite/Chantilly Lace rock ‘n’ roll medley sees the cognoscenti tut-tut-tutting but more people than ever on the dancefloor. A cracking start to the festival.
Saturday dawns to the news that two of the scheduled artists have had to pull out at very short notice. It is a tribute to the standing of those who run the festival that Pete Evans is able to announce that they have miraculously found bands willing to jump in to the vacant slots. The next announcement is less welcome as Pete pays tribute to Big Al Groom, long-time supporter and enabler for Hooker Blues, who passed away only days before the festival and to whose memory the festival is dedicated. R.I.P.
Saturday’s performances, played to a packed house, illustrate what a colourful palette the blues draws from. Twenty-year-old JACK BLACKMAN is an audacious talent, whether covering Guthrie and Dylan or performing his own material, his intricate picking and clean slide perfectly accommodating his country blues/singer-songwriter sensibility. A wonderful swing version of Love Potion No. 9 introduces BLUE SWAMP, whose vocalist Mike Bowden delivers a Dr John-like growl to accompany John Williamson’s fluid guitar. 3KINGS, a lead, drum and harp trio, serve up the lean, pared-back rhythms of the Mississippi hill country, showcasing their own material and a wicked version of the Meters Cissy Strut that gets the crowd on their feet. DAVE MIDGEN AND THE TWISTED ROOTS blow the roof off with a New Orleans mix of funky horns, jazzy keyboards and soulful vocals.
I wonder how a music that has had such a profound impact on 20th century culture has become such a niche area, rarely troubling the airwaves or appearing on the samples smörgåsbord. Hip-hop chose jazz as its travelling companion and left the blues to stagnate somewhat. But this weekend shows that if you look you will find and the above bands all display a superb level of musicianship and an obvious passion for their music, whether inciting hip-shaking boogie on the dancefloor or provoking more thoughtful musings.
Blues fans on Merseyside currently appear starved of a live blues scene but about an hour’s drive away, “somewhere behind the sun”, they will find themselves afforded a warm welcome and a truly authentic sound courtesy of Hooker Blues.