Review 2023 – Words and pictures by Colin Campbell (Blues Matters)
It’s always such a joy to go to this Festival, it just gets better with age: this year was no exception. The organisation is slick with a stage crew which defies belief in how they work in tandem and oh so efficient and quick.
Efficiency is a feature of all members of the festival weekend team; administration, meet and greet, raffle sellers and a special mention, as always, to the Organiser Nick Westgarth who sadly, it would seem, had decided to make this his last festival. For this reviewer this remains the best run festival attended, this also a feature of many attendee’s feedback, some who have never missed a year and really enjoy the differing musical styles and genres offered during this weekend. Hopefully this event will run and run in the future.
Anyway, onto the music, will try to be as brief as possible with the acts but such was the calibre of artists this is very difficult!
After the introductions and announcements by weekend MC, Gordon Swindlehurst, it was down to business. Difficult spot opening a festival but Mississippi MacDonald and his band took no time at all in getting the audience fired up with their mix of blues and soul influenced tunes. He certainly looked the part on stage, very smart and spangly. The set was amazing and the four-piece band are a very tight unit. There were hints of Chicago blues on ‘I Was Wrong’, soul vibes to ‘Blind Leading The Blind’ and the groove on his title track of the new release, ‘Heavy State Loving Blues’ took the musical experience to a different level. Texan blues followed with the rhythm section keeping the solid beat. A faultless opening act providing a heady mixture of blues influenced tunes.
Jon Amor Trio were next up on stage, comprising Jon on lead vocals and guitar, bass player Jerry Soffe and drummer Tom Gilkes. Well, what a full on pacy energetic and musically sublime set they put on. Jon mixed older numbers like ‘Cut Through the Graveyard’ as the opener with newer tunes like ‘Miss James’ in a pulsating set. This trio just got better with every song and Jon’s guitar work has never been better, mesmerising at some points during ‘Juggernaut’. A highlight was ‘She Thought I Was An Eagle’, a song full of sonic guitar riffs and balanced rhythm with great work by drummer Tom keeping with the pace, a true crowd pleasing act.
Tombstone Dunnery were up next featuring the legendary lead guitarist and singer Francis Dunnery (Formerly of It Bites and Robert Plant’s touring band). His brand new project is a seven-piece band including two wonderful backing singers, keyboards, guitars, and drums. This was an unexpected treat for the listening audience. They mixed, soul, blues with passion, musicality and a lot of humour. What a frontman Francis is, his delivery on the opener ‘Poisoned Woman’ was something to behold and had authentic John Lee Hooker vibes throughout. ‘It’s hard To Love Another Woman’ was another well delivered number, a vocal full of passion. ‘Blues Falling Down Like Weather’ was a highlight, great tones and the band just exuded a joy to be on stage while connecting with an appreciative audience. First of many festivals for this authentic, high-class blues-based band.
Errol Linton Band: Headliners tonight were newly elected UK Blues Challenge winners, The Errol Linton Band and what a performance they put on. This band last played this Carlisle ferstival fifteen years ago and went down even better than last time. Tonight, they were just on fire mixing blues styles with Reggae; solos by all members, ever evolving, just a joy to behold. Errol must be one of the best harmonica players in the business, taking his lead from Little Walter and other stalwarts. He was born to be on the stage, his presence and enthusiasm is second to none. The five-piece band is a solid unit and mixes styles and tones throughout, ‘Cry To Me’ was particularly soulful with a beautiful piano intro. Songs like ‘Hoodoo Man’ and ‘Mystery Train’ had the audience dancing to the infectious beat and ‘Packing My Bags’ was peppered with reggae tones and a great drum solo.
Chris James and Martin Fletcher Band: After the energy and full-on styles of bands of Friday it was time for a gentler and laid-back vibe for the first band of a long day ahead. Chris James and Martin Fletcher Band were just the tonic, a four-piece band with Chris James lead singer and guitarist, Martin Fletcher on harmonica, Finn McArdle on percussion and Paul White on bass guitar. ‘Angel In The Mirror’ was a particular favourite, well delivered laid back vibe and a hypnotic beat. Also, ‘St Louis’ featured wonderful harmonica tones. Easy going tunes from a seasoned band, superb.
The Producers: Next it was time for The Producers to entertain a rapt audience. This was one of their last performances as a band, having formed over thirty years ago and producing thirteen albums, this was “a best of” selection of songs. Another solid unit who mixed some humour with their delivery of songs. Harry Skinner on lead vocals and guitar and Dave Saunders on bass are the only original members and are just consummate professionals. Add in the wonderful organist Ray Drury and drummer Biff Smith and you have the whole package. ‘Some People Say’, was the opener and this had great piano tones a big band feel. ‘No More Dogging’ had a New Orleans tinge and then the phenomenal ‘Long Distance Call’ with some wonderful guitar work was greeted with great applause. Their interpretation of ‘Crossroads’ was authentic and they finished with ‘Killing Floor’, an amazing set.
The Milk Men:To the strains of Benny Hill’s chart topping Ernie, The Milkmen were next up and they produced another wonderful set of pure rhythm and blues songs which filled the hall with infectious tones. They opened with ‘Shoot Out The Lights’ in a frenzied and most entertaining way, this band knows how to work a crowd. Adam Norsworthy’s guitar solos alone were worth the admission price. Add the husky vocal tones of lead singer Jamie Smy, the cool bassline of Lloyd Green and drummer Mike Roberts and you get the cream of rocking rhythm. ‘Hungover’, is a new tune for future release and is rather catchy. All four came front stage to start Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ just a showstopping moment, such charisma in this band. ‘Make Mine A Double’ and ‘Little Miss Attention’ had the dancers breathless, such was the energy on stage.
The Stumble: Brave Rival should’ve closed out the afternoon session but had to cancel due to unfortunate illness so Carlisle Festival favourites, The Stumble were recruited and came onstage next, adding their style to a wonderful afternoon. Soul, RnB old style, blues, upbeat rhythms, this band knows how to put a party set together to entertain a crowd, certainly one of the best live acts around. A six-piece solid unit of differing levels of musical genius. Simon, on saxophone, did a walk around into the audience, stage presence is everything, The Stumble have that and more besides. Paul is a superb singer, never better than on the mesmeric ‘My Life’, it just gets better with each listening. ‘Wasted Love’ was another highlight amongst many, not least ‘Bus Stop’ which was full on Rhythm’n’Blues. The encore was ‘Bring It On Home’, just what live music is supposed to be, that connection with the audience is so integral to this festival.
After a break for dinner, it was time for an album launch!
Redfish Blues Band are improving with every concert they do. Their sound is authentic blues with the Hammond organ which just lifts the sound they have to sonic levels. Their new album Together Is Better was the theme for the set. Starting with Soho Rising (Girls Girls Girls), Christian Sharpe lead vocalist and consummate guitarist led the way with Rod McKay on bass, Steve Gibson on drums and Steve McGuckin on Hammond organ. ‘Something On Your Mind’ had a jazzier blues feel, adding a laid-back vibe and that Hammond, what a sound. ‘How Blue Can You Get’ brought another flavour to the pallet. The upbeat, ‘You Don’t Love Me Baby’ featured guest Ronnie Semple on harmonica, a pure bluesy tune delivered beautifully. ‘Money Don’t Make It Right’ is a song for our times, a hauntingly beautiful tune with such a good arrangement. Last song was ‘Breakout’ which has a country blues, up-tempo feel which got the audience dancing. Full-on joy in a varied set, catch them when you can, phenomenal band.
The Greg Coulson Band followed after a short break, this time as a six-piece including horn section. Greg played Hammond and keyboard and started with the jump joint vibe of ‘What’s New’. Then they cranked the volume up on ‘Stitch Me Up’, all band members getting their solos here, but the Hammond organ strains pitched well against the backbeat. ‘Someone To Be There’, had groove and style. Highlight had to be ‘Why Don’t You Do Right’. A polished performance, blending jazz and bluesy tones throughout, a Saturday night work out for the enthusiastic crowd.
Hamilton Loomis from Texas USA was the penultimate act of the day and he pulled out another wonderful performance. With a highly talented trio Hamilton led the vocals and intricate guitar work on top of a superb rhythm section. ‘Ain’t What It Ain’t’ started a varied set which even included a reinterpretation of Steely Dan’s ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, stunning for a three-piece. There was funk, blues, everything here including Hamilton doing a walkabout into the crowd standing on the seats and clearly enjoying playing to the Gallery, what a performer. A highlight was his tune ‘Sugar Baby’ which he wrote for his son, a song drenched with emotion and feeling; goosepimple moment of the festival when Hamilton let rip with his guitar at the song’s bridge. ‘Looking Into A Dream’ brought funk to the party atmosphere. Wonderful set.
Kai Strauss and The Electric Blues All-stars: The headline act flew in from Germany, hard to believe a European act because Kai’s sound is full on Chicago or Memphis blues, a blend of East meets West cultures and tones in this excellent five-piece band, they put a set of traditional and contemporary blues songs together that just mesmerised the audience. Starting with the powerful ‘Stand Strong Together’, the band gelled and just got better as they played. Kai played a few numbers from his In My Prime album, ‘Betting My Life On The Blues’, ‘Going To London’, and the wonderful ‘Guest In The House Of The Blues’. A tight band where even the saxophone player played some classic harmonica, a sound rhythm section, they are the real deal, consummate musicians. Kai’s guitar playing had tones of Albert King and vocally he’s in the style of Robert Cray. His cover of Johnny Copeland’s ‘Down On My Bended Knees’ was a particular highlight. Pulsating, professional and profound. A class act to round off a fantastic Saturday.
A blues jam session, hosted by Christian Sharpe of Redfish, went on until the small hours, well attended and featuring Hamilton Loomis, Kai Strauss, Paul Jobson amongst many others.
Pablo and The Bluestones opened the last days entertainment. A three-piece band from Wales featuring guitar and cajon with Steve Pablo Jones on vocals, guitar and mandolin. An interesting, diverse and soothing acoustic set. Opening with their own version of ‘Paint It Black’, then ‘It’s All Over Now’, the highlight was the Celtic folk piece Priodas. A very good trio and excellent start to a Sunday afternoon.
Guy Tortora brought a four-piece band to Carlisle this year, himself on lead vocals and guitar, a solid rhythm section and the charismatic Janos Bajtala on keys. The band played a lovely laid-back melodic set with a selection of tunes mostly honed from his new release, Anywhere But Here. He started with ‘Late Starter’ an autobiographical account of being a musician with a laid-back groove, bluesy with a bit of Americana. ‘Withered On The Vine’ is another reflective tune where clear vocals blend with a subtle organ-based backing. Guy is a great songwriter, further evidenced on ‘High Tide Deep Water’ which featured with some fine slide play and exhibited fine band interplay. ‘Flower Street’ was delivered with emotion, a slow ballad mixing up a well-received set, it’s all in the lyrics and the feel to these tunes. Guy also managed to pull ‘Cotton is King’ out of the bag, a track from his Living on Credit album, a beautiful song which was a special request from one of the crew who remembered it from his last appearance at the festival in 2008
The Dom Martin Band was next on stage, featuring the brilliant vocals and guitar wizardry of Dom Martin who is at the top of his game right now. This was the start of his band Buried in the Hail tour with songs from his brand-new release. His trio includes Ben Graham on bass guitar and Aaron McLaughlin on drums, Aaron being the newest member to the band but you’d think he had been there for year, such is his musical telepathy with the other members. Suffice to say this was a blues rock masterpiece, interspersed with melodic, rootsy powerful and magical tunes that transfixed a rapt audience. Starting with ‘Government’ from the new release this has so many layers and sung with that guttural, emphatic vocal that only Dom can create. ‘Rory’s Blues’ was next, sublime blues and exhibiting his mastery of the guitar. ‘Spoonful’ followed, Dom stating later the lyrics are more relevant these days and the world needs to be kinder. ‘Belfast Blues’ was given an airing and now the band was heating up. ‘Howlin’, another new song was grungy and bluesy equally, a homage to Howlin’ Wolf. The version of Waylon Jenning’s ‘Crazy’ is just amazing, he manages to twist it to his own tone and gives new meaning to the tune. It wouldn’t be a blues festival without some Rory Gallagher, so he did a medley of tunes to a mesmerised audience; power, pace, great guitar technique, what a talent.
Layla Zoe: Canada’s Layla Zoe was on next and gave a performance that just kept giving. Her vocal range is off the scale, sometimes guttural and shamanistic, then beautiful and soaring ballads fill the Hall. Her vocals, matched to Krissy Matthews guitar style, showed such chemistry; it was a pleasure to witness such talent at this Festival. Opening with her acapella, ‘Golden Slumber’ she just owned the stage and that segued into ‘Do It In The Name Of Love’. An emotional roller coaster of lyrics delivered so well, her stagecraft is bewitching. ‘Brother’ was one of the highlights, resonating backbeat and organ lead the way to a vocal extravaganza, such a beautiful song; the flow of the song conjures up so many images and feelings. Another highlight was the soulful take on ‘Roses And Lavender’. The whole band are the sum of the parts, her vocal, keyboards (Paul Jobson), drums and guitar (Krissy Matthews) meld into a symphony of musical joy.
Verity Bromham Band: Last band of the 2023 festival was The Verity Bromham Band, a band who played last year and were such a hit they returned. What a show they put on, full on classic rock with a side order of just pure, joyous entertainment. They had the audience dancing, whooping, and hollering throughout the set. The camaraderie between the two main singers and guitarists is a joy to behold. The rhythm section is pretty good also! They played all the crowd pleasers, ‘Hold Your head Up’, ‘God Gave Rock And Roll To You’, ‘Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo’, ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ and a belting version of ‘Rocky Mountain Way’. Both John Verity and Del Bronham’s vocals are as strong as ever and the audience participation made this an end of festival party.
Del also had the stamina later to do an after-show, acoustic ‘Audience With’, a resume of his life in song in the packed Crown & Mitre (the main venue) bar to bring finally bring the superb weekend to a close.
Overall a great variety in the styles of music, magnificent production with superb clarity of sound, brilliant organisation. Just a superb festival enjoyed by all participants; friendly, sociable, just the tonic. Here’s to many more Carlisle festivals in the future.