In 2015, if you were at Rockpalast for JJ Grey & Mofro in the Harmonie, you had a very pleasant surprise indeed in the form of Cornwall Power-Blues trio Wille & The Bandits. You won’t have forgotten the show so easily – not least for the sight of Wille Edwards and the rasta hair ‘growing’ out from the lid of his battered black top-hat. My reaction at the time was: “Harmonie, Book these guys ASAP if not sooner”. Well, they did, and this was my third visit to see this excellent trio on a stage alive and rocking, where their music very much belongs.
Some things in life take you by surprise. Rain from a cloudless sky. A five Euro note in the corner of a forgotten jacket. A housewife with the voice of an opera singer. A Blues band from Cornwall… Talk to Wille Edwards, or indeed to ‘the Bandits’ Matt Brooks and Andrew Naumann, and you will feel relaxed by their gentle, polite, agreeable accents from a similarly gentle and agreeable part of the UK. So how come they are such a damn good, down deep and dirty blues unit? Well, part of it’s down to a gentleman named Herman Weissenborn.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Mr Weissenborn manufactured around 5000 laptop Hawaiian guitars of a very particular design. The guitars were not just hollow bodied, but also hollow throughout the neck. As a result, they have superior sustain quality and volume. Truly classic instruments. I know all this because Wille Edwards is a man who clearly loves his guitar, and was happy to explain why he has what looks like an ironing board with a guitar on top beside his microphone on the Harmonie stage. Indeed, he loves it so much that I almost detect a little sadness in his eye when he adds that his own instrument is actually a Weissenborn copy (the real thing is a hyper-expensive rarity). There are not too many laptop slides about on the live circuit though. The master is Ben Harper; and, of course, let’s not forget that custom lap slide holder on the shapely hip of Larkin Poe’s Megan Lovell. It still remains something of a rarity. I’ve yet to see Mr Bonamassa try one.
To say that Wille & The Bandits’ sound is all about one exotic instrument though would certainly be an injustice. For a trio, they pack a staggering punch onstage, and that’s down to the musical abilities of the players themselves. Andrew Naumann can lay down a hard and heavy backbeat on drums for sure, but he also has a mini-arsenal of ‘extras’ at his rhythmic disposal such as Djembas, congas, steel tongue drums, Udu – and the latest record also mentions Jews Harp. Bassman Matt Brooks has an instrument almost as exotic as that Weissenborn in his own modernist upright double bass. Put the two guys together with Mr Edwards and his guitar from Mr Weissenborn, and you have a sound and a band who really do have a sound all their own.
It’s worth keeping an ear to the messages too. There’s a lighthearted guitar duel during the pounding ‘One Way’ that distracts a little from the very topical lyrics:
“If you side with fascists, it’s only dark you see. Sometimes I can’t believe what I read.
You breed hatred, then you won’t be free. You’ll be blinded by the derogatory. Been thinking of flying away.
There’s only one nation, it’s our blood we bleed. Why can’t we treat others compassionately?”
‘One Way’ isn’t the only offering from the latest and excellent ‘Paths’ disc. ‘Victim of the Night’ kicked things off in a punchy, toe-tapping style. ‘Four Million Days’ has a Folk-Rock swagger about it that gives an extra dimension to the sound of the band, and is proof that this is not a trio intent on living off former glories. ‘Find My Way’ is proof of that wonderful eclectic approach with its swaggering rock riff married to a quivering sitar sound that so often creeps into the mix of this wonderful bands music. Having said that though, the oldies are still very much goodies this evening. ‘Got To Do Better’ from 2013’s ‘Grow’ is perfect for getting in some audience participation, and the audience at a WATB show love to join in, as they prove with loud bravado and shouts of “Good Times” during ‘1970’.
The song ‘1970’ itself, Edwards admits, is really a reaction to realizing that all those wonderful rock bands who inspired him were from an era that he just missed from a live perspective. A time when bands were making experimental sounds with sitars and the like, just as WATB are doing again now.
There really is an honesty, a rootsiness, about the band. An earlier tour saw them supporting Status Quo and sleeping in the tour van next to Quo’s huge camper bus – much to Quo’s laughter apparently. At the same time, the legendary band were maybe a bit jealous of the rawness (if maybe not at the idea of sleeping like sardines in a small truck!). It’s a musical epoch that clearly inspires the band, and explains the only ‘cover’ song in the set: Santana’s ‘Black Magic Woman’. Wille wisely doesn’t attempt to match Peter Green on this one – electing instead to let it roll along nicely and shine as a song rather than a guitar set-piece.
If Wille Edwards wasn’t able to play music in the 1970s, he still very much captures that free-spirit of wanting to sound (and even look, if you think of the dreadlocked top-hat), different from the musical mainstream. It’s hard to imagine songs like ‘Jack The Lad’ and the Zeppelin-inspired riffing on ‘Bad News’ not peeling the roof off of Cornish pubs. These guys were made to come out at arenas as underdogs, and go home as champions, with hundreds of new fans after each show.
They are popular at home, but even so, Germany is probably the biggest audience that Wille & The Bandits have. It’s a popularity that stems from that very 2015 Rockpalast appearance at Bonn Harmonie and makes this a favourite venue of the band for sure. It also makes them a favourite band for anyone who loves musicians who themselves love playing strong rock music their own way, as the number of people buying multiple CD’s well attested after the show. But what is their music? ‘Acid World Rock’ is the term that the band themselves came up with when asked to describe their sound. Something of the early 70’s experimental, with ‘World’ instrumentation and – that thumping bass drum and screaming growling voice don’t lie, Rock.
Yes, I can safely say that Wille & The Bandits are without a doubt my favourite Acid World Rock band. Long may they remain true to themselves and their inventive approach to music. Get a bigger van, by all means, gentlemen – but keep sleeping in it musically at least. The best Rock music wasn’t born on a luxury tour coach.
More on that guitar…