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Pete Feenstra is a promoter who’s been fighting the good fight of putting on live music in London for something in the region of three decades, and blues is a big part of what he does. I asked him about, well, blues in London, and what it’s like to be a live music promoter in this city these days, as well as getting his views on blues and the blues scene today...
PF: Well, originally The Beatles were the most significant band for me. My first three singles (bought circa 1963) were The Beatles ‘From Me To You’, ‘Telstar’ by the Tornados and ‘In Summer’ by Billy Fury. The first two albums were a Spencer Davis Group one on a cheapo Golden Guinea style label and ‘Freak Out’ by Frank Zappa, which was an eye opener!
I got into the blues/R&B partly through the Spencer Davis Group who were big at the time in Birmingham where I lived (though I wasn’t obviously old enough to see them) and more specifically Alexis Korner Group who I first heard on the kid’s show ‘Five O’clock Club' with Ollie Beak and Fred Barker!! I loved the music but didn’t like his rough, gruff voice, but I was only I was 9 years old!
MH: What got you started as a promoter? What was the first gig you put on yourself and how did it go?
PF: I’ve been trying to remember this. I helped with a few gigs in South Wales in the early 70’s while on extended holiday and promoted bands like Man. I also helped with a Procol Harum show in Nottingham where I lived about 1971. But I didn’t really get into promoting properly until 1979 when I was in Denmark and filled in for someone who ‘went missing’ at a venue. I did that for 6 months before coming back to the UK under the misapprehension that I was going to get a serious job!
In the event I became a music librarian and at a time when the buzz word was outreach. So I managed to nab some funds from a local authority and booked theatre gigs in Hounslow, musical workshops, and eventually a 600 capacity gig called Feltham Rox.
Being a local authority they didn’t fund the Chief Executive post so I just got on with it and hit the ground running. I promoted Sherman Roberston, Walter Trout and The Blues Burglars first ever London shows. After that I booked live circuit regulars like Wolfie Witcher, Ruthless Blues and The Hamsters and then branched out into national tour bands such as Chicken Shack, Climax Blues Band, The Groundhogs, Blodwyn Pig and a soon to be influential new band by the name of Otis Grand’s Rhythm Kings. Let it be noted that Otis was a major catalyst for things happening in London and the UK, even if it did take him several years to find his own niche with his Big Blues band. This led on to bands like Canned Heat, the late Jay Owen, Jimmy Witherspoon, Little Charlie & The Nightcats, Dave Hole and the resurrected 9 Below Zero.
They all seemed to go well, but I was on a mission as I’d seen how the public/private culture house model in the arts had worked in Denmark. And for about 7 golden years it worked splendidly in West London.
MH: You don’t only promote blues-type acts. How would you summarise the kinds of people you promote?
PF: Enduring quality music for discerning music fans! When I started to do this professionally there was nothing but keyboard dominated, New Wave and New Romantic bands. I thought about all those great bands I used to see in the 70’s and thought that most of this great music was still there but in effect it had been written off by the media as unfashionable. This was sometime in the dark mid 80’s when aside from the 100 Club I was probably the only club gig doing this sort of music, ie. in a club setting with a capacity of up to 600, which was certainly a step up from the pubs (though at the time there were some great pub gigs too). I booked a lot of blues and R&B bands, international tour bands, Folk, World Music (which was popular at the time) and roots music. Nowadays all the above styles of music are much harder to promote. The lack of record company support and little or no media makes it noticeably harder, though off course that has to be offset against the rise of the internet. I also promote tribute bands nowadays, but that is a whole different issue.
MH: Your current ‘empire’ consists of a number of venues around the outskirts of London? Could you give us a quick lowdown on the venues and why you’ve chosen them?
PF: The core gig is the Boom Boom Club in Sutton SM1 which is a 300 capacity club that is directly descended from the old Worcester Park Club. The WPC was the effect room but the Boom Boom Club has housed just about everyone I ever wanted to promote (well maybe 80% of them). After 8 years of promoting in West London I worked at the Bottom Line (1200 capacity) and The Empire (2000 capacity) both in Shepherds Bush and The Mean Fiddler, Harlesden (600 capacity) among others. I basically took my contacts from those venues and started out independently.
I also run the 224 capacity Zoom @ The Moon in Herne Hill, SE24, which is 90% rock and blues related music. It’s notable for having one of the best music rooms in London and it’ s a very historic venue with real pedigree, albeit littered with dodgy landlords, which happily is NOT the case now.
I also book blues on a Monday night at the Stormy Monday Club (120) in Barnes SW13, another great little room with bags of history. On top of that I sometimes promote bigger names in central London venues, but in the main I promote what I call ‘neighbourhood music clubs’.
MH: You’re obviously very busy promoting, but you also do a fair bit of writing. What’s the scope of your activities in the good ol’ music biz?
I used to be a freelance music writer for titles like Music Week, Jazz Journal, Jazz FM’s in house magazine and edited my own Real Music magazine for 3 years. I also held down three music columns in three local papers I also penned some obituaries for The Independent, and generally wrote for all manner of specialist titles. I now basically write live reviews and continue to be Features Editor for the online www.getreadytorock.com I basically do most of the blues stuff, and set up lots of interviews. I‘ve also written in excess of 100 cd liner notes and still do that when time allows. I also spent about 5 years or more working for the Mystic record label and helped sign up people like the late bass playing blues giant Big Joe Turner (not to be confused with the ‘Shake Rattle & Roll’ JT), Jimmy Dillon, Roger Chapman and Ruthless Blues. More recently I’ve branched out into video interviews which can be great fun and very spontaneous.
You must have seen innumerable changes in the London gig scene since you first got going. Would you say things have generally got better, worse or just different?
PF: Things are certainly different but on the whole the most significant aspect is that the gigs have dwindled. The music continues to be excellent and at times very inspiring, but the venues are drying up because of a combination of spiralling land values, prohibitive tour costs and a lack of media attention. At one point back in the mid 90’s there were about 8 significant radio outlets in London alone for the blues, as well as regular columns in the likes of The Times and Mojo etc. Now there is very little and as a result the music heard in the live club scene has shrunk from occasionally denting the mainstream to a much smaller niche market.
When I started promoting it was a similar tale, and by the early 90’s blues became almost sexy and was being used in adverts, films etc etc; Now we seem to have gone full circle, except that most of the money and media coverage is reserved for the corporate and big money end of the market. Witness the V festivals for example, where you gather in an arena surrounded by copious amounts of adverts for mobile phones and the like.
MH: On a good day, what would you say is the best bit about being a promoter in London?
PF: As with any capital city, you get a wide variety of people passing through the door, and there really is nothing better than a great band/artist that can bring together a wide ranging number of nationalities and for that matter different music fans. The two guys that stand out in this context are the late Luther Allison whose shows were an object lesson in working and involving a crowd, while Carvin Jones is an outrageous showman who never lets a London audience forget who they have just seen!
The other thing is when you manage to make all the elements work and fill a venue on say a wet Monday or Tuesday night, you just know this would be impossible just about anywhere else but London.
MH: And on a bad day, what really hacks you off about it?
PF: Poor communication skills between bands and pa crews; people’s impatience, myopic venue owners and public transport letting you down! In strictly musical terms it’s always hugely disappointing not to have the kind of crowd a really great band or performer deserves.
MH: If we just focus on the people you put on who could be called blues acts in even the loosest sense, I see that you seem to mostly promote people in the blues-rock area. Is that a personal preference or because it draws the audiences, or a bit of both?
PF: Rock Blues was originally a personal preference certainly, though in many cases I think it’s run its course. I love down-home blues and acoustic blues too, but I appreciate blues in the widest possible scenario. Otis Grand put it best when he described it as ‘music for the moment’, as it can be as solemn as it can be party music.
But as regards rock-blues, although emotion should be at the core of any blues artist, I don’t subscribe to the idea that being a blues artist is an excuse for poor playing technique. I love intense guitar players, dirty sounding harp players, earthy sounding Hammond players and a great swinging rhythm section playing a killer shuffle. I love all those elements, but when it comes to lyrics and songs about hobos and railroads, it means little to me aside from the historic context. It’s far more interesting to listen to someone like Michael Hill with really socially relevant narratives or even surprisingly enough Walter Trout who is not afraid to put biographical meaning into his songs. On a purely commercial level, it’s easier to promote rock blues in clubs, but it would be far easier to promote acoustic, country blues and the like in arts centres and sit down venues. Unfortunately access to those remains very elitist and expensive!
MH: I’ve been getting the impression that there are some people who think that blues-rock is the only real blues, and that when people talk about ‘blues purists’, that’s the attitude they mean? Am I right about that, and if so, how do you feel about that view? I’d always thought blues purists were people who thought you had to play Robert Johnson songs on a piece of wood.
PF: This of course is the most contentious area in the blues field, and one that should be open for more discussion. I like to think my view on this is open ended. As I've said before, lyrics about share croppers in the 20’s or such are not very meaningful outside of a historic context. And I really believe if blues remains strictly in that historical context it will die as a museum piece. In France for example, and for that matter in many misguided arts centres over here, there is a feeling that blues practitioners need to be old and black, which is rubbish.
For me blues is music that conveys a wide range of emotions from exhilaration to real despair. Its also very sexy music that sells beer, encourages people to cast aside their inhibitions, get it on and have a good time. If that makes it the devil’s music, then so be it. But unlike say jazz, funk, and for the most part, rap and certainly wallpaper fusion muzak, blues remains a fundamental musical source for me as it offers a key to a whole range of emotions. Rock Blues is a personal preference yes, but only when in the hands of skilled or passionate players. Listening to a succession of Stevie Ray Vaughan copyists is just as boring as listening to a guy who thinks only pre war blues is the real thing.
Really for me, blues is just part of a wider richer musical tapestry that should aim at transcending labels, barriers and race. Back in the 60’s before Rock-Blues broke into the mainstream and led to Prog and psychedelic rock, blues bands were in a deep self perpetuating rut. It was only because promoters like Bill Graham at The Fillmore East and West programmed the likes of The 3 Kings, BB, Freddie and Albert as well as Albert Collins, Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper in front of bands like Steve Miller and Jefferson Airplane that blues was opened up to a new generation.
Nowadays younger contemporary black exponents of the genre like Robert Cray, and Ben Harper have forged their own way to commercial acceptance without turning their back on the blues. But it’s not a question of colour. Rock blues guitarists like Walter Trout and Joe Bonamassa have done far more good than die-hard blues fans would like to admit, by opening up the genre to a much bigger crowd. I much prefer what they do for example to Clapton’s reverential historical approach, which is of course excellently played, but offers nothing new.
Finally on an ironical note, Buddy Guy recently continued to do his party piece of playing one song in the styles of say Hendrix, SRV, Clapton(!) as if suggesting that he had almost learnt his licks from them. In truth he used to do the same in the 80’s with Junior Wells, but with a heavy sense of fun and irony as he was of course the original innovator himself. Now his party trick is apparently taken at face value by people who don’t know better and that is sad.
For me Buddy was always interesting because his playing style was always on the edge and if he didn’t get where he intended, so what, it was exciting.
MH: On the subject of acoustic blues, I see that you speak highly on your website of Hans Theessink, and I recently saw Samuel James at your venue in Whetstone. Would you like to promote more acoustic blues or is that harder to sell than the electric bands? If so, is that a London thing?
PF: It’s definitely harder to sell acoustic blues. I'd love to do more acoustic blues and rootsy artists, but much like folk music, acoustic blues doesn’t lend itself to club environment. In the case of say Hans, Samuel James, Otis Taylor or even artists like Eric Bibb (who now plays big concert halls) you really do need a certain kind of environment to listen to the mix of anecdotes and impassioned playing. Closer to home I’d like to champion the skills of Sonny Black more as he is as good a guitarist and blues practitioner as you will ever hear. Hans Theesink I promoted way back about 23 years ago and its great to see he’s enjoying some hard earned success.
There’s a further point here though which extends beyond the acoustic/electric divide and that concerns singers. Real blues vocalists are in short supply. There really aren’t that many vocal led blues acts anymore. Think of people like Mighty Sam McClaine, Mem Shannon and Mighty Mo Rogers. They are all great singers who have learnt their craft in front of tough crowds but who bring with them a sense of presence that can quell the rowdiest of audiences; There really are not that many artists who are capable of carrying themselves in such a way and the result is another strand of the core blues imperative has been diminished.
MH: Specifically on blues and blues-related music, how would you assess the current live music scene in London?
PF: Excluding the 1000 plus seat venues, I’d say pretty non-existent in truth, and it’s the same in New York. Even 15 years ago there were upwards of a dozen venues and 8 radio outlets for blues related music. The venues have nearly all disappeared or a few promoters like me have taken a step back to the outskirts of London. It’s certainly harder to bring over profile tour bands for example, because without record company support, promoters have to buy hotel rooms, cover transportation costs etc etc. Compared to Europe the UK is very costly, let alone the higher prices in London and to add one more gripe you also have to pay an extortionate amount of money for a work permit. As far as I know this only applies to the UK and Sweden. I thought the whole idea of the EEC was to encourage trade not stifle it.
As regards the future there are some fine young bands coming through, but without regular places to play or indeed without meaningful support slots, it is very difficult for them to build up a new crowd.
MH: What would you most like to see happen concerning the London live music scene?
PF: Local authority supported youth clubs would a real start in investing in the future. There should also be a realisation that music boosts local economies. Look no further than the rise and fall of Harlesden in parallel to the opening and closing of the Mean Fiddler. We need to look to sustainable music venues, and indeed greater flexibility and programming in established art centres with far more community access. Sorry about the buzz words, but you get the idea!
Art centres in this country are a disgrace, run by people whose real talent lies in organising an endless amount of coffee breaks and meetings about meetings.
Given pubs are on their uppers, it surely isn’t beyond the wit of breweries to come up with both the sponsorship and venues to help establish a coordinated national gig circuit. In political terms what is the point of having things like the Brit School where you churn out hundreds of great musicians and singers who are also schooled in the fundamentals of marketing themselves, but who find little or no support for live music outside of the world of academia.
It’s hard not to laugh at the concept of Cool Britannia. While no one ever suggested live music should be a subsidised occupation (outside of the arts council), there has to be an infrastructure of sorts. After all, even though The Beatles had to go to Germany learn their craft, both they and their contemporaries still had plenty of gigs to play when they got back.
MH: know that you used to put on gigs at the very popular Torrington in North Finchley. That closed some time ago and is now a Starbucks or something, but right up the road from it is a spanking new arts centre with a terrific auditorium and acoustics but hardly any gigs ever going on there. Your (non-libellous) comments, please.
PF: Hahahah, now I really could be libellous. But I think I’m allowed to speak the truth in once aspect concerning that white elephant. When the Torrington closed (and the Bull Arts Centre in Barnet pretty much around the same time), none of us were consulted about what the local community wanted. This also applied to a local folk club of several years standing. When you consider the Torrington ran for nearly 38 years, and the other two venues were the backbone of the local community, don’t you think it would have made sense to at least talk to us about a future ‘local community’ provision?
MH: What’s the biggest gig you’ve ever put on?
PF: Well I helped put on BBC’s ‘Children in Need’ with the Spice Girls concert at the Empire hahahah, and it was seen by a world wide audience. I also ran and programmed the main stage at the 56,000 strong, Hounslow May Day Festival in the park, though not everyone was checking out the music at the time. In terms of clubs I guess Taj Mahal, Joe Cocker, Ian Hunter, Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, Deff Leppard – the latter is in the Guinness Book of records as being one of the three gigs in three continents in 24 hours!
MH: One big gig of yours I went to was the Dick Heckstall-Smith tribute gig at the Astoria back in 2005. I was amazed to find the place heaving with a couple of thousand punters, and there was Jon Hiseman cracking jazz musician jokes about how amused Dick would have been considering he seldom played to crowds that size when he was alive... Tell me about that gig, I’m intrigued. Who were all those people and where are they the rest of the time?
PF: If only we knew the answer to that! But an educated guess would tell you that it was a special one-off show that attracted rock and blues alike as well as Dick Heckstall-Smith fans. There was obviously a hard core rock audience to see Gary Moore/Jack Bruce etc playing their Cream set and happily a lot of people came to see John Hiseman’s Colosseum. There was also the unique pairing of Mick Taylor with Savoy Brown founder member John O’Leary and it was also Mick’s main central London appearance. And aside from collectively paying their respects to Dick, there was a musical continuity to the whole evening so it all came together well.
So in answer to the question where are they the rest of the time? Well I guess you are talking about a crowd of a certain age, who have serious jobs, kids, responsibilities etc, etc, and who come out for special events. In truth Dick was an exceptional sideman who would never pull a huge crowd in his own right, as he was always busy working. You could often catch him appearing in any number of bands around the capital from the likes of his own band and Colosseum to Alexis Korner’s Rocket 88 to The Bop Brothers, Blodwyn Pig, and his jazzy project DHSS, etc.
MH: Of the blues acts you’ve promoted over the years, any special favourites?
Well there are several for widely differing reasons. Taj Mahal for his knowledge and his ability to give his music a meaningful context, Ian Parker for his emotional performances and deeply felt relationship songs, Jimmy Witherspoon for berating his guitar player after he himself had led the band into playing the same song twice. And while we are on the subject, Nappy Brown for producing a great show even if he didn’t know which country he was in at the time!
Luther Allison for three and half hours of brilliance, Jimmy Rogers, who I prised out of his hotel room to bring his whole band to play 2 mesmerising hours in a pub in Brentford, Middx. Katie Webster and Lazy Lester who although both drunk conjured up a brilliant blues duet, Walter Trout who though sleepless and jet lagged turned up after a troubled 10 hour flight and blazed his way through 3 hours non stop of pure adrenalin, Albert Collins for being the most humble blues guy I ever met and with a killer tone to boot, I could fill up a book with these characters…..but I’d always have to make space to mention the larger than life Candye Kane and Popa Chubby, both of whom kind of played the blues but certainly left a lasting impression.... And finally the UK’s premier blues shouter Alabama “Al’ Eastwood (trust me he’s the one) who once recorded as Buggsy Eastwood in the 60’s and popped up two decades later with the Bop Brothers. Alabama Al once did a charity blues tour for me during which he ventured out into the crowd and sang to the packed table in front of him as the late John Stevens belligerently thrashed away on drums. Both performers were completely oblivious to the fact the rest of the band had headed off to the bar.
MH: Is there anyone you’ve come across recently who you’re tipping to become well-known in the blues?
PF: Ian Parker - almost a white boy soul singer now but as impressive a song writer as he is emotive performer, and fine guitar player, Oli Brown – only 18 and touring the States, this Norwich based funky blues guitarist is headed for success. John Cleary - Based in New Orleans but an Englishman of Irish stock, John has paid his dues in London and has already made his name with both Taj Mahal and Bonny Raitt, but looks well set to take off with his own band The Monster Gentleman, if only because of his strong song writing and great piano playing. Eric Bibb – is almost in the big league mainly because of his last two exceptional CDs: Bettye LaVette – relatively recently rediscovered by the media, but an amazing voice with real soul.
MH: What’s the last gig you went to that you didn’t promote yourself? Any good?
PF: Bit of a jumble really. Monte Montgomery proved himself to be an astounding acoustic guitarist from Birmingham Alabama who has a great voice too, and held the intimate crowd in the palm of his hand. I’m hoping to promote a few shows with him in October. The Hoax reunion which was surprisingly good, Johnny Winter who did well given his recent health problems, The Downliner Sect who were great in a Garage Band/ 60’s R&B kind of way and Sparks who have nothing to do with blues but were startlingly good.