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Watermelon Slim and his band are a happening thing, and rightly so. After what might be described as a chequered life – he is a Vietnam vet and former truck driver, and briefly journalist, among a host of other things – Slim has really been up and running as a blues artist for the last four or so years, winning all sorts of awards. He’s been to this country before, playing small venues as a solo acoustic bluesman. In the last three years, he’s made three excellent albums with his band, The Workers, on Northern Blues, a top-quality label from Canada. He’s quite prolific, maybe making up for lost time, and has a brand new album out now – No Paid Holidays. It’s just as good as all the others.
This gig was, as far as I know, his first in London with the band, and it was part of a short tour of the UK after a bunch of festivals in Italy. The turnout was disappointingly low for such a top-quality band, but the audience was just big enough, and certainly enthusiastic enough, to generate some atmosphere. And atmosphere is, to a large degree, what a performer like Slim is all about.
He came on sporting a top hat, the table-top stand on which he has his plugged-in acoustic lying flat decorated with a Union Jack. Both of these props were, he told us when he came on, a token of his esteem for our great country. It was hard to tell whether there was any tongue in cheek here, but no matter. Watermelon Slim is emphatically a ‘character’ in the very best sense, and this was all part of the showmanship that makes him so worth watching as well as listening to.
The band – lead guitar, bass, drums, with Slim playing a lot of harp and electric slide on that acoustic (lap-style) – is a very compact fighting unit indeed. The bass player Cliff Belcher is unfussy, light of touch, every note worth playing; the guitarist Ronnie McMullen a sensitive, non-attention-seeking accompanist, and the drummer, Michael Newberry, is one of the very best you could ever hope to come across. He’s driving that band, and a bloke like that in the chair can turn a very good band into a truly excellent one.
But it’s all eyes on Slim. He’s a very watchable performer indeed, the sort of charismatic figure that ought to be getting people out in droves (and probably is elsewhere). He’s a very fine and energetic harp player, making several forays into the floor space in front of the stage to showboat on the harp with the audience. He’s an excellent guitar player, with a slide style that’s all his own. And his voice is totally distinctive. Like many of the best, he sings like he talks, in a powerful but unforced way, so that what you are getting is the real person on vocals, nothing put on for effect.
To use the cliché, Slim is ‘the real deal’. However you define authenticity in the blues, he’s got it. In one of his brief but hugely entertaining speeches between numbers, he informs us ‘if you’re not doing the blues personal, you’re not doing the blues’. Slim certainly is doing the blues personal.
Apart from a couple of covers at the start, all the material is his own and much of it focuses on his own life and experiences. ‘I started off in college but ended up in Vietnam’ he sings in one autobiographical number. Later he tells us he’s been separated from his daughter for six and a half years and that she’s the reason he’s on the road playing the blues ‘besides’, he adds, ‘I enjoy it and truck driving is harder’. In the epic personal statement number Newspaper Reporter, he talks of his brief time as a journalist but, he says, he ‘doesn’t go down well in offices’. This, the songs asserts, is because ‘I’m a bluesman and I don’t tolerate no fakes’. The Ashtray’s Full is, he tells us, about being a truck driver and coming home after a month on the road to find that waiting for you is not a cold beer or a hot meal but ‘the butts you left a month before’.
So at a Watermelon Slim gig, you get to enter Slim’s world, and he welcomes you in. He’s a jovial character, but he’s not a one-dimensional act, hamming it up. You get the feeling there’s a lot to the bloke and that several hours spent in a bar with him would be time well spent.
He’s got his own highly distinctive style – his voice doesn’t sound like anybody else’s, the band don’t sound like any run-of-the-mill band, and the songs could only have been written by him. He belongs in the top echelon of blues artists currently out there. I can imagine him wowing audiences all over the place. With a packed house this would doubtless have been a more memorable gig all round, but those of us who did show up were suitably wowed. Slim says he’ll be back next April. Make sure you go and see him then.
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