Humility isn’t a word you would choose to use for anyone describing their tour as ‘Blues Giants’. For Tuesday’s Harmonie visitors it was very much a case of ‘put up or shut up’ as they say. In the event it was very much the former as past visitors Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia brought with them one of the strongest, bluesiest, bands to grace the stage in recent years. A spoonful of Blues at it’s electric best in fact.
“It’s great not having to be in charge of the band for a change” was Albert Castiglia’s smiling reply when I asked what it was like being out on the current tour. Before I could ask who actually was in charge he had disappeared into a sea of autograph hunters again – I suspect though that if anyone had actually claimed that honour the others would have thrown their pens at him and burst out laughing. There was no ‘Boss’ here this evening and that was really a big part of the evenings success. No Boss, no ego’s, just a lot of musicians having fun together.
Very talented musicians as it happens. Mike Zito should be known to regular readers of this page as as both a man and musician that I admire greatly. He’s been there, bought the T shirt, lost the T shirt and come back again not needing a T shirt. One of the best slide guitarists out there, an excellent songwriter, and pretty good vocalist for sure too. If you caught Albert Castiglia during his stint on the RUF Blues Caravan then you’ll know he’s got quite a few musical talents too. Guitarwise a very different style from Zito. A man who clearly loves to crank up the fret-speed but also well capable of stepping into a lower gear for West Coast cruise speed when needed. A practitioner too of what BB King referred to as the ‘lemon face’ school of playing – that bitter expression, eyes squinted in concentration as each note is squeezed out of the fretboard. A photographers dream – and such a nice guy that I felt guilty catching him mid-grimace for eternity.
The ‘rest’ of the band seems like an insult of a term. In Willie J Campbell on bass and drummer Jimi Bott we have the one-time beat-keepers of Texas legends The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Indeed Bott has been nominated a whopping 19 times for Best Blues Drummer in American Awards – Thunderbird’s frontman Kim Wilson once describing him as so good “He’s worth twice what I pay him!”. Campbell is happy to stay at the back chewing gum and keeping perfect beat. You don’t need to see his eyes behind the spectacles to know he’s having fun.
More recently Bott and Campbell have been integral figures in The Mannish Boys (for whom an entire record company, Delta Groove’ came into existence) which is also where the big figure centre stage this evening (only by virtue of being the main vocalist) Sugar Ray Rayford comes in. If you’ve never seen Rayford, imagine how you would expect a cool cat with a raw soulful Blues voice would look and try drawing him – yep, that looks exactly like the man. Maybe you would miss the silver skull rings squeezed onto his big fingers, but Rayford is THE Electric Blues singer you imagine he should be.
This band don’t seem to know that musicians generally feel their way into a set. From the opening notes of Koko Taylor’s ‘Try to make a Living’ onwards it’s full steam ahead and out into the ocean for a rocky blues cruise on dry land. There’s that feeling of no-one being in charge, of a lick being thrown out by Castiglia, or a lyric by Rayford, and everyone just taking it from there – with nobody quite sure where it will go, only that the journey will be an explosive one. “We weren’t put together to play concerts. We’re here to Party!” is how Rayford described the atmosphere of a Blues Giants concert so perfectly at an earlier show in the Netherlands. Tonight too, his take on Robert Nighthawks ‘Bricks in my pillow’ is taking no prisoners as the number of bobbing heads in front of the band attests.
So many highlights really, and no chance for band or audience to get complacent as the guitar and vocal duties get swapped around with each man bringing something new to the table. Zito seems almost born to cruise along smoothly through Carl Perkin’s ‘Clothes in a matchbox’. Castiglia is in his best lemon face and guitar hero form for ‘Woman don’t lie’ and as a sideline, shows himself to be no mean vocalist too with a growling tone that’s part Muddy Waters, part Howlin Wolf and all adrenalin.
While you were drawing that perfect picture of a Chicago Bluesman that looked the spitting image of Sugar Ray Rayford you very possibly imagined him singing ‘Spoonful’ and it’s no surprise that Rayford seems so at home with the old Wolf classic. No-one rocks gently on their feet when Rayford towers over them onstage in this sort of form. PARTY!!! And the big man shows himself to be light on his feet too when the music takes him – which is during each and every guitar solo. Stepping off the stage he ventures around the auditorium where I had earlier had trouble squeezing past bobbing bobbies caught in the music. Big man though he is, Rayford seems to float around in the same seemingly tight space. Disappearing in one place to appear ten feet away again, still singing.
He should be right at home amongst the crowd though since the atmosphere is identical to that on the stage he just left. Happy smiling faces of people digging the Blues and getting off on the music only difference being those onstage have instruments and microphones (and the ability to make the sounds we all came here to enjoy). Each and everyone here to party though.
If you’re looking for guitar heroes or living legends then stay at home. These guys are what runs in the blood of such people, what makes them the heroes and legends they are. The very substance that makes a Blues Giant in fact. It could make a blind man see – it very definitely WILL make you dance!