In 1979 Dennis Greaves and Mark Feltham first hit the concert road as as ‘Stan’s Blues Band’. 33 years later, and under the Sonny Boy Williamson monicker, Nine Below Zero that road brought them to Endenich and the Harmonie. There can’t be many bands who have survived so long without the golden parachute of a hit record, so how did they do it? Indeed why do they still do it? Maybe even, can they still do it?
The next couple of weeks are heaven for lovers of British rhythm & Blues (of which I am definitely one). Probably THE biggest acts from the 70’s are coming to Bonn. Dr Feelgood made their name from a stunning live disc ‘Stupidity’ and single ‘Milk & Alchohol’, The Blues Band have as frontman probably Britain’s most influential Bluesman Harp player, singer and Radio presenter Paul Jones, and Nine Below Zero have… no hit records, no influential rado presenters, not even a maniacal guitarist like Wilko Johnson to remember them by. Heck, can it really be? You don’t mean? Yes, there are still musicians out there who people go to see because they can be relied upon to play great music.
As already mentioned, there are a lot of similar gigs coming up soon in the R&B/Blues style. There’s also the fact that NBZ are also playing just ‘up the road’ in Koblenz tomorrow, which has all had a bit of a backlash on the attendance for the show this evening. Even so there is a reasonable sized and enthusiastic crowd when Dennis Greaves steps into the spotlight. When the other stagelights also flash into life there is no Gerry McAvoy for them to shine on. The ex-Gallagher and long time Zero bassman has handed over the reigns to a new man. This isn’t a case of handing over the blues baton to a younger generation though; Brian Bethell was on the band’s 1982 album ‘Third Degree’, and in 1982 the band were of sufficient commercial interest to have their cover pic shot by David Bailey. In truth this is actually closer to the Nine Below Zero that burst onto the scene in the wake of Dr Feelgood than they have been for many a year. It’s not a return to the old material though which says a lot for the bands integrity.
Much of tonight’s set revolves around the excellent 2009 disc ‘Never Too Late’ and the recent collaboration with Glenn Tilbrook (of Squeeze fame). Indeed an early favourite is ‘Mechanic Man’ with it’s raunchy rhythm guitar courtesy of Greaves’ 61 Stratocaster and Feltham’s swirling harmonica work in the background underpinned by a bouncy riff from ‘new boy’ Bethell. The solid, no frills, drumming from Brendan O’Neill however proves to be the pattern for the first set of the evening as a whole – Solid yes, but there is a lack of mikes hooked up in front of the speakers and therefore a lack of ‘oomph!’ coming from the band. Hand waving from Mark Feltham to the soundman helped rectify the shortfall from Greaves guitar at least but it was really only in part two that I truly started to appreciate why the band have remained both together and popular for so long.
If you want to know how NBZ came to exist, no interview appointment is necessary – just listen to Greaves and Feltham on ‘White Boys Lost in the Blues’. The title alone answers your question. Just watching the two men play the number strips away the years. However old they may be when they play it, they will always be younger in our minds than the legends they are following. In truth -be it Oli Brown or Eric Clapton – they are are all ‘White Boys Lost in the Blues’ at heart. Us white boys can make a good stab at recreating the original sound though, and where Bluesharp is concerned, Mark Feltham is better than most, as on ‘Talk to my Baby’. NBZ are at heart a 70’s band though and what better symbol of 70’s Britain is there than ‘Stone Fox Chase’? Stone what who? You ask. You’ll know it better as the theme to Bob Harris and his legendary ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’. Just the first notes to that and I was back in my psychodelic wallpapered livingroom in Portsmouth with a cup of coffee and ‘Melody Maker’ on my lap. The band themselves took a stroll down memory lane with Little Russell Street, their homage to Camden Town.
What impressed me ultimately about the band though was that they are clearly not living off past glories. Checking out their live set from 2007 ‘Bring it on Home’ there is very little that was played this evening, ‘Wild Kicking Horse, ‘Down by the River’, ‘Egg on my Face’, all popular live numbers past were absent and you know what? I never missed them. Why? Because the new material is just as excellent. ‘The Story of Nathan John’ is a fine folk song that sees drummer Brendan O’Neill get a well deserved place in the spotlight. ‘Never Too Late’ is itself a funky pop song that had the audience singing along as if they’d known it for 33 years. ‘I’m So Alone’ could be Dr Feelgood at their Brilleaux/Wilko best. It was an old song that finished the evening though – ‘Wooly Bully’, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time we’ll be hearing that particular R&B classic in the next few weeks. Would it have survived the test of time if Sam The Sham hadn’t had to rewrite his original homage to the Hully Gully dance craze and thus transform it into a mysterious song about man meets bison? We will never know.
Where Nine Below Zero are concerned though we do know that there is a new website, there are new T-shirts, a music workshop with Greaves and Feltham, and a new disc with Glenn Tilbrook (‘under the band title ‘The Co-Operative’). Add that to a band who were smiling all night because they love playing music together. Does that sound like a band interested in living from past glories?. I’m already looking forward to the next 30 years of Nine Below Zero. Long may they enjoy playing and long may we have the pleasure of sharing their pleasure.