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I should think that anyone interested in blues at the moment, especially in London, has at least heard of Ian Siegal. He seems to have been given the mantle of Saviour of British Blues. He’s young(ish), he does blues, he’s British and he’s very good, so there’s a feeling that he could be the one to break out of the ‘blues ghetto’ and get some mainstream success. Judging from this fine performance, I’d say he just might.
I wondered on my way there what the age (and size) of the audience would be. Would a blues gig only attract people like me and the grizzled 60s survivors, irrespective of the age of the artist? Or would a younger artist have a younger following? Would there be any really young people there, discovering this kind of music as ‘cool’? I certainly didn’t want to be one of the youngest people there for God’s sake. Like everyone who likes blues, I want it to go on being played and sung and discovered by the young, in whatever form they choose to do it or like it.
In the event, it was a sizeable audience, and a very enthusiastic one too. There was a buzz about the place, and a sense of eager anticipation before the band took the stage. There was a considerable mix of ages, including plenty of women and plenty of younger people, as well as the older ‘blues crowd’. Perhaps this kind of mix is what the whole thing should be about. Decent popular music in any form is unlikely ever again to be solely the domain of the very young – people who were around when it all started are still around and they shouldn’t be forced at gunpoint to stay at home. Blues is still very much there for people who’ve always liked it, and if there’s a good-sounding blues gig on, some of them will get off their arses and turn up. Good on ‘em.
On the other hand, of course, it shouldn’t be the exclusive province of older people. A young musician I met expressed disappointment at the number of older people in the audience (no offence intended, loads taken), but interestingly I, as one of those older people, was cheered by the number of younger people there. It seems to me that there’s a lot of great music out there now in the blues area, and that it’s being done by people of all ages, including the young. And if gigs like this aren’t packed with young’uns, that’s not the fault of the music. It’s never been more available, and it’s never been easier to find it, if people want to find it and are interested and inquisitive enough about music in general to go looking.
I think the truth is that blues has always been a minority thing, loved by a small but passionate number of people, and nothing’s changed in that regard. The 60s blues boom is a bit of a red herring – it was in reality quite short-lived, and in most cases bands took what they wanted from the blues and then moved on into rock. Today, it may not be as big as we’d like it to be, but if you get into blues you are expressly not signing up to be in the mainstream and you pretty well never were.
I think the blues scene, such as it is, may be one of the very few ways in which the much-vaunted but largely non-existent egalitarian age is actually working – anyone can like the music, anyone can play it, and anyone of any age can go and see it. And anyway, a lot of older people are far feistier and more rebellious than many of the stressed-out and oddly conventional young these days – the times when any kind of decent music only means anything to the very young are long gone.
Meanwhile, back at the gig. I was a bit concerned when, shortly before starting his first set, Ian Siegal went to check his guitars and I observed that he was wearing not just leather trousers but some kind of leather suit. Personally I have always felt that Jim Morrison was just about the only person who could get away with leather trousers, and always regard them as a bad sign. Were there layers of, to me undetectable, irony in Ian wearing them? Frankly, I wouldn’t want to ask Ian, as I think the answer may offend.
Anyway, it turned out not to matter, because Ian Siegal turned out to be the best live act I’ve seen in ages. He may not take it as a compliment, but in my view, he’s as good as anyone who was going in the 60s and 70s, and he’d have been a big name then. Can he be a big name now? Dunno, but I hope so. Seasick Steve managed it to some degree, seemingly by dint of a single appearance on Jools Holland’s programme. A kick-start like that, and who knows?
The first set opened with just drummer Nikolaj Bjerre laying down a serious beat, followed by bass player Andy Graham hitting a fat bass line, and then the man himself. They’re not the first band to do this one-at-a-time, build-the-excitement start, but no matter. It works and the way they did it, it was a great, exciting kick-off that grabbed the audience’s attention and really got them going. The first number was an extended Bo Diddley-medley-type-thing, with that signature rhythm that has seldom been bettered for groove and excitement through the whole history of popular music, and it got the set off to a flier. During it, Ian introduced the two players added to the line-up for this event, Giles King on harmonica and Johnny Henderson on Hammond. The harp playing was fantastic, bust-a gut stuff, the organ playing filled out the sound with fills and swell from a fine musician, the rhythm section was as ‘in the pocket’ as you can get and the whole thing was held together by Siegal’s fine playing. Five minutes into the set and something special was happening on stage.
Next we had Groundhog Blues, High Horse, God Don’t Like Ugly and Stranger Than A Green Dog, all from the latest album Swagger. All but the first are Ian’s own songs, and he so completely re-invents Groundhog that it might as well be his own. The pace was maintained throughout, the playing never dropped off, there were no longeurs. The core Siegal trio is as fine a set of live performers as you could wish for, and sheer number of gigs and time spent playing together have clearly turned them into a crack unit that barely needs to raise an eyebrow at each other to know exactly what’s going to happen next. It’s intuitive playing of the kind that only happens when very good musicians are fitting together very very well.
The first set closed with the funky Brandy Balloon from the 2005 album Meat & Potatoes, another Siegal composition. His songwriting is most certainly one of his strong points, and it’s what makes him different from other blues artists. He is not only not focusing on doing his own versions of standards or even obscurities from the past, he’s bringing his own considerable skills at original material to the table. Sure, his own songs are blues-based, but they’re not by any means standard 12-bar-type things. They’re very good songs in their own right, and they give him an individuality that deserves to propel him to far greater success.
Added to that, Ian Siegal has a very good stage persona. He’s not a navel-gazer, he’s a full-on energetic performer who makes a live gig a real event. He comes across as someone with the combination of arrogance and cool that has always marked out the really good ones. Yep, he really is a ‘cool’ blues act, at least in my, possibly not totally reliable or authoritative, terms. You watch him, your attention doesn’t wander. And you watch the others too, because they’re so good and they’re so clearly committed to the cause. Certainly at the 100 Club that night, everyone on stage seemed to be totally ‘up’ for the gig, excited about playing. It comes over, and it generates the sort of atmosphere that this sort of thing really should be all about.
My feeling is that Ian Siegal has a decent dose of charisma. He has the appearance of a kind of rough cherub, a rather decadent cheeky chappie. There is an effective contrast between the boyish features and the big, growling and rasping voice. Actually, I prefer his ‘normal’ voice to the Wolf/Beefheart/Waits thing he breaks into frequently (he actually uses different mikes, side by side, for each of his two ‘voices’, emphasising for me at any rate the rather manufactured nature of the growl voice). Siegal singing as himself is good enough on its own for my money, and the artificial, imitative style of the other voice isn’t required. He would probably say that both voices are equally him, come equally naturally to him, but that’s not how they sound to me. It’s a minor quibble, and I’ll bet most audiences love the growl thing, especially younger people not steeped in or even aware of the original sources for it. So we can let that issue drop.
The second set kicked off with the title track from Swagger, another terrific Siegal composition, and everything instantly picked up again where it had left off. Next up was Mortal Coil Shuffle, also his own song and also from the album. This may well be not only the best song he’s written so far, but the best song/track on any blues-type album for some time. It’s a slow blues, but that description doesn’t get even into the foothills of describing how good it is. Siegal introduced it by saying that it was a kind of tribute to Muddy, because he doesn’t by and large play covers of the great artists of the past, he simply admires them and was inspired by them, and that’s apparent here. It’s got the spirit of Muddy but it’s Siegal’s own thing. It’s a dark, moving, burner of a song, and live it fills the room and hits the audience straight between the eyes.
The set continued with a couple of songs from Meat & Potatoes – Sugar Rush and a medley of She Got The Devil In Her and I Gotta Try You Baby, covers done in the vein of Buddy Guy’s versions of them on his Sweet Tea album. The set closer was the old standard You Don’t Love Me. These went down very well, although I must admit that for me they re-inforced that Siegal is at his very best when he’s doing his own material.
During the course of the gig, Ian Siegal came over as a feisty sort of geezer, with a few axes to grind and a few scores to settle. This is no bad thing – it’s hard to imagine that you could spend any time in the music business without some of that. In his case, one of his grinding axes was that he and the band play much more in other countries – he mentioned the Benelux countries – than in Britain, because ‘people appreciate us more there’. He bemoaned the lack of venues for his kind of music in London in particular, singling the 100 Club out as an exception to the dismal generality.
Well, the Britain versus other countries in Europe thing. I think the truth may be that in Europe, they’ve never done flitting from one fad to another with anything like the gusto that’s it’s been done here. When punk emerged here, all sorts of people got wiped out completely as if Pol Pot had been put in charge of the music industry. Not so in Europe, where they cared less about making sure they were right up with the latest fad and seemed to care more about what they actually liked. So ‘good music’ could survive there, irrespective of age or fashion. Succeeding generations weren’t ashamed to like what had been around for a while, they were happy to discover it themselves. That may be why the blues scene, for example, has always been thriving in those countries to an extent that it hasn’t here.
Later on, towards the end, Ian said something to the effect that what he does isn’t really blues ‘because all the good blues has been played’. Then he said that his mission was to ‘make the blues unboring’ and ‘give it back its good name’. And he came off stage after slowly and deliberately issuing the instruction ‘go and watch good music played by good musicians’. All these things were clearly issues that wind him up and about which he feels strongly. Put together, they seem to me to amount to the following: ‘blues’ has become almost a dirty word, especially in this country, because what there is around is mostly crap; so if you’re associated with blues, you need to defend yourself; but there is good stuff around and more people should be getting out there to see it.
Has all the good blues been played? I know what Ian meant – he meant that he doesn’t want to try to copy the original greats because they did it better than anyone else can. Well, that may be true, but I think the blues scene in general is in a healthy position regarding originality and range. Crucial to this, of course, is what you define as ‘blues music’. It of course isn’t limited to anything in a 12-bar format and all that stuff.
If you accept that the blues is a certain set of rhythms, very varied but recognizably in the same general territory, certain sounds with those rhythms created by various instrumental combinations and the prominence of certain notes on the scale, certain kinds of vocal style and a certain kind of intangible feeling communicated by those tangible things, then all sorts of really good things come under that umbrella. And as the reviews on this website show incontrovertibly, lots of great things are being done that fit under that umbrella. The ‘classic blues’ of the past may have all been played, and just trying to copy that isn’t what it’s all about. But there’s a huge amount of mileage left in blues in its wider sense. There’s lots of great music out there that can, however loosely, be called blues. And Ian Siegal is doing some of it.
Of course it’s true that nowhere near enough people, in this sedentary, experience-everything- second-and-third-hand age, bother to go to gigs, especially in London. That’s their fault, not the music’s. I find it hard to believe that there are not large numbers of people out there who, if they went to see Ian Siegal, for example, would not be absolutely knocked out by what they heard and saw. How you get them there I don’t know, but Ian’s doing his bit.
Meanwhile, back at the gig again. For an encore, Ian did the last track from Swagger, Let My Love, which is a slow blues/folk/rock thing that’s on the way to being a pop song/ballad, quite different from his usual fare. Something struck me as I watched him deliver this. This tousle-haired imp with the big voice was giving it a bit of strut and pout that reminded me of someone. Someone who made young girls swoon. For all I know, Ian Siegal already makes young girls swoon, but not at the 100 Club. The only swooning anyone’s going to do there is if they catch a whiff of the Gents.
But who was it? Suddenly, it dawned on me. There were echoes of Marc Bolan there. (If Ian was reading this in front of me, I would now be getting ready to dodge a right hook.) Teeny-bop-idol-period Marc Bolan meets Howlin’ Wolf. Wow, there’s another combination to send you to the medicine cabinet. But in this case I think the world is most certainly ready for it. Go for it, Ian, confront your inner Marc Bolan and the world is yours!
Second Opinion - The same gig reviewed by G.P. Bennett
Like it or not, along side label mate Matt Schofield, Ian Siegal is fast becoming “THE” main draw on the Blues scene today, and on the evidence of tonight’s show, it’s becoming quite apparent why!
I have been witness to many of Ian’s gigs over the past 2 years, mainly at Ain’t Nothin’ But…. with a slimmed down line-up, or solo spots at various venues. And I have never been disappointed. But tonight, he stepped it up another notch.
The band are a brilliant collection of musicians, with Nikolai Bjeere (Drums) and Andy Graham (Bass) being the ever present backbone. They were joined tonight by regular collaborators Johnny Henderson (Hammond) and Giles King (Harp).
The set bursts into life with a Bo Diddley groove (Josephine) accompanied by in depth introductions of the band. Ian has a reputation as being slightly stand-offish, but tonight his appreciation of the sell out audience was clear right from the start.
The majority of the set comprised of songs from latest release Swagger, all of which sounded much improved by the live performance. There were songs from previous release Meat and Potatoes thrown in for good measure too, with the Kimbrough tinged epic She Got the Devil and the instantly danceable Sugar Rush, being the highlight’s of the night!
There has been a lot of discussion (among my mates anyway) in the past about the number of covers/imitations Ian has performed at previous gigs. So tonight it was really refreshing to see two sets that were predominantly Ian’s own songs accompanied by some well considered covers. The band were absolutely faultless throughout, without being too straight or safe. And Ian’s undoubted stage presence and interaction with the audience sat perfectly above the backing.
The 100 Club seems to be the perfect venue for Siegal, just the right size, great sound system and a stage that keeps you close to the audience. This was by far the best I’ve seen him play in the two years I have been aware of him, and I hope that he continues to sell these sort of shows out in England and helps boost the reputation of the genre. As long as he keeps writing decent songs and steers away from the imitations, then he undoubtedly has bigger things ahead of him.