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Support Blues in London
The Music Palace, Crouch End, 10 May 2008
Review Mark Harrison, Photos Anthony Etherington
Guy Tortora covers quite a few of the styles, both acoustic and electric, that qualify as being blues. He’s an American who’s been based in London for quite some time, and so far he’s made three excellent CDs on his own Turtledove label. The latest, Living on Credit, has just come out, and it’s as good a record as you could hope to get in the area that he’s operating in. It’s nicely varied, it covers a wide spectrum of styles, it’s very well-produced but not over-produced, and it contains a very high standard of musicianship. The majority of the songs are his own, and these are interspersed with some very well-chosen covers, including a version of Curtis Mayfield’s classic People Get Ready, a song so good that people should be arrested for doing a bad version of it.
The Music Palace gig was arranged to celebrate the release of the new album. The venue is just the right size and layout for a blues gig – full with around 100 people, packed with about 150. I’d say it was somewhere between full and packed once the band got going. It’s a high-ceilinged converted something or other, with plenty of tables and also plenty of floor space. All in all, a decent place for the gig on what turned out to be a hot and sticky Saturday night.
Guy kicked off with what he called the ‘acoustic set’ but in fact this wasn’t a solo segment but a full band one. He moved between acoustic guitar and an electric resonator, while being backed by Janos Bajtala on keyboards, Olly Blanchflower on upright bass and Adam Roman on drums. He writes some memorable, high-quality songs, and among those featuring in this set were Mama’s Tired, the title track to the album, Sharecroppers and When Cotton Was King.
The artist that Guy could perhaps be most closely compared to in style and sound is Eric Bibb, though he’s no clone. But whereas Eric Bibb’s songs are often marked by spirituality, Guy’s are more concerned with matters ‘on this earth’, and the lyrical theme is often of the sort of hardship that is, or has been, all too real, for many people. Mama’s Tired, for example, is a moving, simple but highly effective and even catchy number that was inspired by his own mother’s life but resonates for many others today.
Guy Tortora’s songs and music are highly accessible, and would go over well with people who wouldn’t normally think they like blues, or indeed much music at all. This is not to suggest that it’s in any way bland, because it isn’t. It’s just that it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum to the gutbucket blues or the punk/blues areas. He writes ‘proper songs’ that are firmly in the blues idiom, he has a good voice and sings without affectation, and he knows his way around a fretboard.
We got to see more of the guitar chops in the second, electric set, when he mostly played a 70s Telecaster. For this set, the upright bass was replaced by Brendan Canty on electric bass, and on some numbers there was the addition of Dave Shannon on harp and Neil Littman on percussion. Guy’s approach is clearly that the playing should suit the song – this entirely appropriate approach is often called ‘understated’ but this word doesn’t really do justice to fine but not fancy playing; a better word would be ‘right’. With this kind of playing, the bit that isn’t ‘stated’ is actually showing off, and a good player like Guy makes it clear that he’s keeping the showing off in his locker, but could fetch it out if he absolutely had to. The style was fluid, finger-picked rather than using a pick, and the guitar had a lovely, clear tone with lots of bite but not feel-destroying amounts of volume.
Highlights of this set included the terrific, cliché-avoiding White Man’s Blues, my second nomination for best track on the album, a straight slowish blues with some great playing. Things got more up-tempo in a well-paced set, and by the end the floor space was just about entirely taken up by dancers. The enthusiastic crowd brought the band back for a well-deserved encore, and it looked as if things could have carried on had a house DJ not decided to intervene with indecent haste. No matter; a good time was had by all.
So Guy Tortora is an excellent all-rounder, with a fine command of several blues styles. He’s got some top-notch sidemen, and together they do some really good shuffle-rhythm blues that serves the material well. Special mention should go to the keyboard player, whose sympathetic playing put him to the fore at just the right times but also served the music with subtlety when that was the order of the day. The band played like a band who listen to each other – always a good idea.
On a few numbers they were joined by Guy’s two daughters on backing vocals, and they acquitted themselves very well, with good strong voices. Meanwhile, his wife worked the door and fielded the hassle that seems to inevitably accompany just about any musical endeavour. Guy and his band are just about to record a session for Paul Jones’s Radio 2 programme, to be broadcast later in the year. I hope this exposure helps to bring him, and them, wider recognition and success. It’s a family enterprise that deserves to flourish, because it’s based on genuine talent and some very good music indeed.