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The Black Gardenia, 93 Dean Street W1D 3SZ - 7th November 2007
Review by Rick Webb, Photos by Andy Hall
A wintery Wednesday night finds the Bluesinlondon editorial team emerging from the ICA having seen Gary Hustwit's Helvetica, the cinematic homage to a typeface that turns out to be surprisingly good. Even the non-graphic designers amongst us describe it is 'er... interesting'. For the typeface geeks it's most definitely a 'must see'.
Having spent an hour and a half immersed in the modernist optimism of post-war European type design, what better way to round off the evening than in a bar that feels like it's evoking the 'dive' style of 1950s Soho, listening to a man playing music which has it's roots in the American South of the 1930s? Ah yes, this is why we love London.
Of course I can't know what 1950s Soho dives were really like, but The Black Gardenia certainly fits with how I imagine they were, and it appears that's exactly the effect they're trying to achieve - "Imagine Ronnie Scotts before the refurb, 'The Slow Club' of Blue Velvet or the neon glamour of Vegas and you're almost close to our sleazy paradise!" is how they describe themselves.
It's a tiny basement bar on Dean Street a couple of doors down that other 'classic' of Soho old school style 'Gaz's Rockin' Blues and decked out in a fine style that perfectly suits the kind of retro Jazz, blues, R&B vibe that they appear to be going for with their SEVEN NIGHTS A WEEK music policy. Yes that's right - this is a venue that puts on live acts every night, and looking at some of their flyers there's a lot of interest here for blues fans.
There's an impeccable selection of DJ spun old school tunes, including a lot of top blues and R&B, and a quick chat with organiser Zimon ('with a Zed') Drake reveals he's just back from New Orleans where he was greatly impressed by the incomparable Snooks Eaglin. (I saw Snooks at Tipitina's in the late 80's and was similarly blown away. It's good news indeed that he's still going strong). I'm hopeful that we'll be able to hook up with Zimon at some point soon for a more detailed look at what they're up to, and the at the scene that they seem to be a part of, but in the meantime, this is a place that provides a welcome Soho alternative to 'Aint Nothing But...
John Crampton takes no prisoners. I first heard of him when his demo CD arrived in the post at Bluesinlondon Towers and he immediately stood out as being far more the the usual dobro/harp run-of-the-miller. He gives off a vibe of being properly of the punk generation and seems to have retained some of that attitude. He's got a powerful attacking style that evokes something of the spirit of Joe Strummer as well as the more obvious influence of John Hammond, both of whom are listed in Johns 'Top Friends' on myspace, and it's no surprise that he's got on well with them punk rock blues types at Not The Same Old Blues Crap - it was a gig at the Spitz that first brought him to the attention of Zimon, apparently.
In addition to Strummer and Hammond you'll also see Howlin' Wolf, Houndog Taylor, Ry Cooder and Eric Bibb name checked on his myspace, then Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Paco de Lucia, Manitas de Plataove. He also says he loves "...percussive flamenco which is a big influence in some of my instrumentals." You can pretty much hear all of that in his playing too. A genuinely affecting 'Beautiful City' shows off his harp playing, while his own standout instrumental 'Micklepage Stomp' demonstrates that he's his own man too.
He's a genuine one-man show, pounding a mic'd up stomp box, hammering away on his National steel, blasting away on a rack mounted harp and singing with a great deal of conviction despite the noisy-ish, disinterested-ish crowd (early on anyway). Although you could go with the 'gravelly voiced high energy blues explosion' type cliches which, for once, would actually be apt, there's also a deeper sweetness to his playing that comes, it seems to me, from that conviction.
It's sweet, but by no means sickly, and reminded me that tedious though much worthy blues afficionado-dom might be, it's not the fault of the music and, worthwhile though it undoubtedly is to stick two fingers up to all that dreary Claptonism, you need to replace it with something other than just anger. Crampton seems to manage just that, bringing out the love and capturing the spirit of the music without pandering to all the baggage. I reckon Joe Strummer would've approved.