Nine Below Zero – Close Encounter of a Blues Kind

nbz-4713Stan’s Blues Band has come a long way.  The band formed in 1977 changed it’s name in 1979 to the sharper Nine Below Zero which was a wise move – can you imagine a band without an actual ‘Stan’ surviving with that name so long?  Forty years on, and still rocking as one of Britains premier RnB bands, they took the temperature up despite their name with a lively set at Bonn Harmonie.

The first thing to catch my eye when I arrive is the lack of any sign that co-founder of NBZ Mark Feltham will be present.  Onstage I spy a saxophone, a keyboard, assorted acoustic and electric guitars and a bass – but no Blues-harp case…

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Oy, you over there – sing in tune!

When the band take the stage, and my eyes have accustomed themselves to  the bright white coat Dennis Greaves is wearing, there is still no Harmonica player.  It stays that way, all set, all night.  Only at the break do I discover at the merchandise stand that a family bereavement has meant Feltham missing the gig at short notice – especially bad news for my friend who is himself a mean harp player and came along especially to see his London hero.   Unavoidable I know, and sad, but it would have been nice to mention his absence at the outset – no announcement/explanation was made onstage which must have baffled a large chunk of audience and I heard at least one query if Feltham had left the band.

Did the music suffer?  Well you can’t lose an integral part of a forty year old  band’s sound and come out totally unscathed of course, but in the circumstances kudos to the four guys onstage and especially to Chris Rand.

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40 years and still smiling – Dennis Greaves

Rand recently joined the band as part of  an 8 piece in support of the new ’13 Shades of Blue’ CD.  Like fellow Brit and recent Harmonie visitor Danny Bryant the idea came for adding a brass section and calling it a big band.  It seems like the BB King sound is likely to be the next trend in Blues – in England anyway.   If so, the likes of Chris Rand are going to be valuable commodities on the live circuit in future.  His first gig was actually at Glastonbury – a baptism of fire I would imagine.

In the absence of Feltham Chris Rand stepped in to provide  extra musical texture for the show and proved to be a veritable tour-de-force, literally having to jump across from keyboard to saxophone and back throughout the evening.  I would suspect that his new solo release Gathering would be well worth a listening to for any Jazz/Blues lovers out there.  Indications are that he will be a regular part of the band now, and I would love to hear the power when he and Feltham are both in full blow.

After 40 years it would take a lot to phase Dennis Greaves of course, and he seems to take the loss of a musical sparring partner in his stride.  Strapping on his white Strat Greaves sets confidently off into the rolling chords of ‘Mechanic Man’ and needs all of three seconds to get the entire audience behind him and eating out of his hand for the next two hours including beer break.

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On sax, keys, and smile – Chris Rand

With the dependable rhythm section of Mickey Burkey on drums and Ben Willis on bass there’s no danger of missing or skipping a beat, especially on oldie but goldies like ‘Rockin’ Robin’, but things really started rocking to ‘Homework’ – a number that featured on their classic ‘Live at the Marquee’ vinyl release from 1980.  Indeed, the evenings high-points seemed to come from that very era when bands like NBZ and Dr Feelgood were straddling the line between RnB, Rock and Punk and playing some of the most memorable 3 minute pop songs ever written.  ‘Tore down’, ‘Hoochie Coochie Coo’, ‘Pack fair n Square’, ‘Ice Cream Man’ and that classic RnB of all live RnB’s Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs ‘Wooly Bully’ whose meaning is still debated to this day.  Good time music.  Nothing deep and meaningful intended, or as Dennis Greaves pondered at one point: “Imagine if a UFO landed outside the Harmonie right now and little aliens stepped out of it and walked in.  They’d take one look at us and think – ‘Right, what’s all this about?  Come on, we’re leaving!”.  

In which case the little aliens would have missed some great music, including a zippy recent NBZ classic, 2009’s ‘Never too Late’ and a break-neck cover of John Mayall’s ‘Crawling up a Hill’ (far superior to the moody down-tempo Katie Melua version) not to mention scorching encores of ‘Madison Blues’ and a punky ’11 plus 11′.  It was a shame we had to miss a favourite of mine ‘Stone Fox Chase’ when Mark Feltham always took me back to those days of watching the BBC’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ of which fellow wrinkly rockers like me  will know it was the theme of course.  We did get to hear another of my favourites though in ‘Once ,twice, that’s enough’ – the best  British pumping uptempo RnB song that Wilko Johnson didn’t write.

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The aliens would have missed a gloriously Bluesy Otish Rush cover on ‘I can’t quit you Baby’  and  lost the chance to explore our complex human psyche by singing along to ‘Do we Roll?’.  After a hard days work NBZ really are the ideal band to see with a pint in your hand and a friend or two beside you to sway to the music.  A band not to be analyzed but to be enjoyed – Very much ‘A Soft Touch in a Hard World’ in fact.  Heres to the next 40 years!

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