Carlisle Blues Rock Festival, 8-10 October 2021
Crown & Mitre Hotel, Carlisle
After having suffered a drought of live music for almost eighteen months, at long last a festival which was able to run whilst remaining within government guidelines for the abominable coronavirus pandemic.
Having suffered the frustration of organizing and postponing the event in 2020 the joy and relief for organiser Nick Westgarth must have been incomprehensible. Thanks to his superhuman efforts, his weekend team of back-room helpers and an amazing stage crew, the sold-out festival of music came together and delivered possibly the best three days in the history of this event. Acts of the highest quality, wide variety of musical styles, meticulous organisation, adoring and positive comments from attendees and high praise from the acts just some of the factors behind the success of the latest Carlisle Blues/Rock Festival. The actual venue, the adapted Crown & Mitre ballroom, provided the space whilst creating an intimate feel, ideal for reintroduction of live music. The acoustics in the temporarily converted ballroom were excellent but that is also a testament to the sound engineers who delivered a full and clear sound without overdosing on the volume.
And so on to the music: It was just so good to get back to seeing and hearing live music in a wonderful setting and people connecting with those on the stage.
For the opening session on Friday evening there was such a happy atmosphere about the place, the excitement palpable as those lucky enough to have a ticket waited for the venue doors to open. There was a real vibe of expectation and hope, people were clearly there to have a good time.
Artists alike were full of expectation, none more so than the Starlite Campbell Band as they appeared on stage as the first act of the weekend. This was only their second show in twenty months; after losing their livelihood and the reason for being a professional artist for that length of time, it was no surprise they were ready to give it their all. Suzy Starlite and Simon Campbell, joined by drummer Steve Gibson and Liam Gallagher’s keyboard player Christian Madden were straight into their stride and got the weekend off to a blistering start, an electrifying blues aperitif for the weekend to follow.
Tommy Allen with his excellent band followed, opening with Rock and Roll Superstar, a full-on blues/rock number which got the early dancers onto their feet. Tommy’s guitar work was outstanding throughout his set, it’s a mystery how he’s so underrated, he’s been on the scene since he was sixteen years old, it’s surely about time his playing got the recognition it truly deserves from the UK blues and blues/rock scene.
Another quick change of stage then it was time for the amazing Climax Blues Band.
The band, having had early success in the 70’s, is still going strong, probably better than ever and in this performance, they didn’t disappoint, this one was something incredibly special from the experienced six-piece band. They burst onto stage and got the party started with Straight down The Middle and having grasped the audience they didn’t let go. Mercurial lead singer and frontman Graham Dee is such a focus, his vocal range formidable, especially on songs like Kick in the Head, Spoonful and Hard Luck, not to mention the band’s anthemic, evergreen rhythm laden version of Couldn’t Get It Right. The band, led by long-standing member George Glover, delivered a masterclass. Wrong Time Wrong Place, their final tune, was an exhibition of full force energy and class musicianship blending to deliver an anthemic and memorable tune, a testament to their longevity and keeping their music fresh for a new generation of blues lovers.
The world-renowned Giles Robson headlined the first evening with his band and gave a scintillating performance, a mixture of original and traditional blues classics. Giles is an extraordinary harmonica player and a great raconteur; he made the place feel like a small intimate venue at times and his rapport with the audience was just wonderful. Giles even got off the stage to join in with the dancers at the front, such was his enthusiasm to deliver a top rate performance! A headline act for the festival to be proud of, full-on entertainment leaving the audience excited and ready for more. A flawless, upbeat performance.
Giles Robson – Carlisle Blues/Rock Festival was an incredible experience for me. Everything was perfect – from the beautiful venue, the wonderful friendly and helpful staff to the great audience. It all melded together to be a knockout experience for me and one I will not forget. Well done to Nick Westgarth and all those involved. Long may the festival continue!”
After a magnificent Friday evening, the buzz of anticipation for Saturday’s performers was even more palpable with the added bonus that there would be the ‘famous’ late night Jam Session for those with energy to spare; this was going to be a long and pleasurable day, a mixture of music styles, a Carlisle gumbo of flavours from all around the UK.
The opening slot went to the fabulous talent that is Essex born singer songwriter, cellist Satin Beige. Hardly the standard blues festival fare but it worked beautifully; class and quality wins over every time. Playing solo on the first slot in the afternoon is a challenging thing to do but, with her raspy, jazzy/blues vocals Satin appeared full of confidence with a great stage presence. Playing mostly original tunes and using her cello to great effect, Satin was jazzy, bluesy, soulful and totally engaging, an astonishing talent and well received by a slightly surprised but very appreciative audience.
This festival is known for taking musical risks and this was another one that came off…with bells on!
The musical talent kept coming with the latest sensation out of Belfast, the multi-talented singer songwriter and guitarist Dom Martin. For many he was one of the highlights of the weekend. Playing solo he gave a masterclass in guitar playing and storytelling. Dom’s charisma won over the audience from the very start of his set, he had them hanging on every word and he totally immersed them in a range of emotive tunes. Topics of addiction, lost relationships and losing loved ones are prominent in his repertoire and the sound he gets from his guitar to colour his songs is mesmerising. Dom has been the recipient of a number of blues awards recently and it’s easy to see why. A class act in every way.
At this point it is worth a mention for the stage crew who worked incredibly hard to turn the stage round between the acts and ensure the programme never runs over. It would be difficult to find a more efficient crew at any festival anywhere.
And right on cue, as usual the stage was ready on time for the next act, The Achievers. The five-piece Gloucester band are highly acclaimed and mix up straight early R& B with some peppering of Americana and roots-based music styles. They are a party band, they love to entertain, which they did with gusto here, getting the crowd to dance, holler and well….party!
The final band in the afternoon session led yet another change in style. Rhino’s Revenge added the Rock component to the festival. This is a side project led by John “Rhino” Edwards, bass player with rock band Status Quo. With Jim Kirkpatrick on lead guitar and Richard Newman on drums this was an exciting, explosive shift in style, high in class but never taking things too seriously. Rhino is a fun character who easily charmed the audience and got everyone on their feet to close the afternoon session, but not without paying homage to Quo’s original bass guitarist Alan Lancaster who passed away recently. As a tribute they added a fantastic version of Paper Plane, filling the dancefloor and came back for an encore of Back In The USSR, another great crowd pleaser!
After a break for food and a freshen up the evening session held even more anticipation as the capacity crowd waited patiently for doors to re-open.
It was time for some more rhythm and blues music with an emphasis on the latter. Enter the stage, the rapidly emerging Redfish Blues Band on their home turf. Wait a minute the lead singer and guitarist looks familiar! Christian Sharpe who also works tirelessly behind the scenes as part of the backstage crew at this very festival! Christian is a new permanent addition to Redfish replacing recently retired stalwart Brian “Stumblin’” Harris. He adds that wow factor to the band but still allows keyboard virtuoso Fraser Clark and the excellent guitarist Martin McDonald to shine. An impressive set of blues covers and finished off with the irresistible dance favourite, You Never Can Tell.
The expectant buzz continued, in fact it continued throughout the weekend. The growing reputation of The Cinelli Brothers meant they were eagerly awaited by many in the audience. They didn’t disappoint, they have an infectious groove and style rooted in electric Chicago and Texas blues from previous decades. A four-piece band of multi-instrumentalists who are just as adept playing each other’s instruments as they are their own, which makes for a great spectacle. The band played a blistering set of tunes to an eager and responsive audience mixing traditional blues with funky riffs and even a bit of country blues. The dancers, up in their numbers from start to finish, picking up on the feelgood factor from the stage. Precise, pacy and consummate musicians, this is a band to watch out for and catch whenever the chance arises.
Another rapid stage turn around and Deborah Bonham and her band were next up. The band, who not too long ago were also Paul Rogers touring band, and despite having had only one other gig in many months, delivered a highly polished set of blues rooted numbers. Deborah providing brilliant, powerful, heart-felt vocals with the band rock solid behind her. Grace, from her Duchess album saw her high kicking and really pouring her soul into the song while the guitar solo from Peter Bullick was simply sublime. Deborah, sister of the legendary Led Zep drummer has probably played hundreds of festivals in a long career but this Carlisle event prompted her to enthuse, – “Gotta say, it’s in my top 3 of festivals ever! In no order – you guys, Fairport’s Cropready and Weyfest and the key to it – all 3 run by fantastic people, all 3 get the best sound and light guys and it all runs so professionally but with a love, care and an incredibly friendly and vibe.” Praise indeed.
Rounding off the Saturday night was Band Of Friends led by the outstanding blues rock legend Gerry McAvoy, an ever-present in Rory Gallagher’s celebrated Band. This is no tribute band, this is an exceptional band in its own right paying tribute to the music of Rory Gallagher. This was seamless and timeless blues rock as it should be played. With Brendan O’Neill on drums, Paul Rose on guitar and Jim Kirkpatrick on vocals and guitar, Gerry ensured this was as close as it gets to the energy and dynamics of a Rory Gallagher gig. The performance was superb, you closed your eyes and Rory was in the room. The three guitarists strutted, duelled and just loved playing to the enthusiastic audience and the audience gave it all back. Shadow Play was a highlight amongst many. Moonchild and Bad Penny had the dancefloor heaving with excitement while Million Miles Away was just mesmerising. The final track Bullfrog Blues was phenomenal, leaving the crowd wanting more. Gerry played his heart out and the musicianship on stage first class, a perfect ending to a Saturday night.
Only it wasn’t the end as there was a jam session after midnight in the Hotel bar. This was orchestrated by Christian Sharpe, the house band Redfish with a little help from The Cinelli Brothers. They played until the wee hours of the morning to an intimate but very appreciative audience, a chance for the artists to let their hair down and party on.
Sunday: After a late night for some it was back to the Crown and Mitre for the third and final day of this magnificent Festival, the international section of the weekend and what a line-up still to come!
The Dusk Brothers got things underway, and what a start! Allowing no one the chance to ease into the afternoon gently, they let rip into Rum River from their EP Storms, Rum, Liars and Guns. The brothers have a dark, menacing, swampy blues tone which they’ve honed down in the Bristol Delta! The two-man band playing all types of instruments including oil drum percussion and various guitars, all self-built, a real DIY blues outfit who raced through the set list. Rough deep vocals with fine harmonies meet dirty slide blues from an outstanding duo. They produced a wonderful gritty, honest performance, a wonderful opening act.
Martin Harley & Band were next to take the stage. Martin has been writing and performing music for two decades. He delves into roots music that is steeped in the blues tradition and his slide playing on lap steel guitar is jaw dropping at times. Together with his accomplished band they played a fine selection of tunes, mostly from Martin’s newest release Roll With The Punches which included the catchy If Tears Were Pennies and the rhythmic title track which the capacity Sunday crowd obviously enjoyed a lot.
What followed was the UK’s true blues legend that is Ian Siegal, playing his 9th Carlisle Festival. Ian took the stage with his guitar and a glass of fine red wine. Like that beverage his stage presence and musical range matures with every year that passes. He appeared very comfortable and relaxed and it came across in the performance, the whole audience hanging on every word and very responsive. Ian has such a wide song repertoire from which to chose with so many fantastic songs at his disposal. Two of his own compositions which stood of out were, I Am The Train and The Fear but that’s all down to personal opinion. Today he also included some of his collaborations with his friend Jimbo Mathus, who played the festival with Ian back in 2014 and also included was Tom Russell’s Gallo Del Cielo which has always been a favourite with the Carlisle crowd. Today’s version didn’t disappoint! In what seemed no time at all this consummate performer was into his last song, an acoustic version of Honky Tonk Woman, dedicated to Charlie Watts. Superb set, standing ovation, wonderful entertainer.
After another impossibly short break it was time for The Blues Caravan to park on stage. This is the fifteenth year of this collaboration introducing acts from the Ruf Record label. Tonight, saw San Diego’s Whitney Shay on vocals with guitarists Jeremiah Johnson from St Louis and Ryan Perry from Mississippi showcase their collective blues infused brand of musical styles supported by To Meeh on bass guitar and Denis Palatin on drums. It should be told that to get to this show in Carlisle the Caravan played Switzerland not 24 hours earlier before driving to Munich to catch a flight to Manchester. They were collected at the airport and rushed to the Crown & Mitre for their afternoon show and that wasn’t it, after the gig and a couple of hours sleep they were driven back to Manchester to catch an early morning flight back to Munich to then drive to Saltzberg, Austria for the evening show, the last gig of their tour.
Needless to say they were extremely tired on arrival at the Carlisle Festival but WOW, when they hit the stage it was just electrifying. This was a brilliant show by three individual headliners at the very top of their game. All three played a short individual set before they all joined forces for the last few tunes which included a funky take on Serve Somebody and Cherry Red Wine. The band nailed an impressive performance which will surely stay in the spellbound audience’s memory banks for years to come.
So, all too soon it came to the last act of a terrific weekend of music. Jimmy Carpenter, all the way from Las Vegas, in the last show of his European tour, was last up and tasked with closing the festival. The world famous “Soul Doctor” award winning saxophone player and organiser of the Las Vegas Big Blues Bender took the stage with his backing band Blues Move. They served up an up-tempo set, full of rhythm, blues, and soul tunes of the very highest order. Jimmy played guitar as well on a couple of tracks, but it was his saxophone playing and interplay with Steve Wright on guitar that really got the crowd going, especially on Homework. The last song saw everyone in the band and audience joining in on the Rolling Stones number Shine A Light, which was quite amazing, a song full of hope and community feel, something this Festival keeps exuding year after year.
A great end to a great weekend, let us hope we can all do it again next year!
The last words come from Jimmy Carpenter “I cannot think of a better way to wrap up my UK tour than playing Carlisle Blues Festival! A mighty crowd for the last set of the weekend, all up dancing and smiles all around. Great sound, lights and hospitality, thank you Carlisle.”
For a brief selection of photos of the 2021 Festival click here
For a full set of 2021 Festival photos (and all previous festivals) take a look here at EarlyBlues.com