Tom Jones, Ronnie Wood and other stars tell Neil McCormick about their love of blues ahead of performing at Bluesfest 2012.
In a dingy, crowded rehearsal studio in north London, Sir Tom Jones sits on a high stool, facing his five-piece band as they come to the rumbling end of another song. “Sounds a bit timid to me,” says the grey-haired, grey-bearded, deeply tanned 72-year-old veteran. “Let’s do it again.”
A set list rests on an instrument case, 32 abbreviated titles representing the day’s work. Jones’s pop standards are easy to identify: Pussycat, Unusual, Delilah, Kiss, Green Green Grass. But the set is bulked out with less predictable fare, represented by titles such as Burning Hell, Memphis/Shotgun, St James and Evil. “Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!” proclaims the bassist cheerfully, as the band shift back into action with a slinky bass and guitar riff, grinding through a tough, tight version of a song by the late US blues preacher Blind Willie Johnson. Jones slides off his stool, stands at the microphone and growls “Won’t somebody tell me what is the soul of a man?” in a low, dark voice that could strike the fear of God into an atheist.
Jones and his band are preparing for their Sunday-headlining slot at the Bluesfest 2012, a series of gigs running at various venues in London and Manchester from this week to July 6, in which stars such as Van Morrison, Hugh Laurie, Erykah Badu and Robert Cray gather to celebrate the enduring appeal of the blues. “This is our musical heritage,” according to Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, who will be performing on Saturday night in an ensemble featuring ex-Stones Mike Taylor and Bill Wyman. “The blues echoes right through into soul, R’n’B and hip hop,” says Wood. “It’s part of the make-up of modern music. You can’t turn your back on the blues.”
Blues music has been around for over a hundred years. Its basic 12-bar structure and simple chord progressions consolidated out-of-the-field songs of American slavery with elements of gospel and country. Developing in the ghettoised US margins as race music, early, low-quality pre‑war blues recordings feature near-mythical travelling minstrel figures like Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly and Son House, telling tales of hard lives and weaving magic on acoustic guitars.
In its electrified form in the Fifties, blues underpinned rock and roll, the swinging attack of Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and BB King infusing R’n’B and soul and developing into the heavy rock of the Seventies, with artists from the Stones to Led Zeppelin deeply indebted to the blues. And while it might at first seem wishful thinking to imagine blues still matters in the 21st century, Adele’s massive international hit Rolling in the Deep can essentially be boiled down to a fairly basic blues song, while Jack White, arguably the greatest rock star of the modern era, plays music absolutely drenched in the blues.
“The blues is a lot more open than it might seem,” according to American bluesman Robert Cray, who opened the Bluesfest on Tuesday night. “It’s had to constantly change in order to broaden its base and maintain a relationship to what’s going on now. Electric guitars, horns, beats – we’ve come a long way from Robert Johnson, and even he didn’t always play the blues, he played all kinds of songs. The reason the blues survive is because it’s about people’s lives, love and loss and things that really matter, not because it follows a certain chord progression.”
“To me it’s a language that represents personal truth,” says renowned acoustic bluesman Eric Bibb, an American based in Finland (who played the Bluesfest last night). “It began with people in very difficult situations unable to really honestly express their feelings except through music, so there is something transcendental about the blues, something universally powerful. It’s important to tap into its heart by being well-versed in the older recordings but it’s vital that people write new blues tunes from their own experience and not just hack away at old chestnuts forever and ever, songs that had great personal and collective meaning 60 years ago but might not have much relevance now. To pretend we’re living those lives is absurd. The way the music will survive is by carrying on our own history through it.”
To Ronnie Wood, the context is personal. “It came out of slavery, the cotton fields, but everybody gets p----- off with their day-to-day stuff, anyway. It’s a bit like a chain gang, even if you’re only chained to a desk. For me, it’s a music of spiritual release. It’s a way to battle life getting you down. Even though it’s simple and repetitive, it’s a bit like reggae – there’s always a little intonation, insinuation, little nudges and nuances that make it original to each artist. We interpreted it in a British way and sold it back to the Americans. And they were delighted about it. Most white Americans only discovered the blues with the British invasion.”
Tom Jones links blues and gospel to the music he would hear being sung in the mining community of his childhood in South Wales. “The songs were different but they had the same feeling, it was where those people came from, work songs, field songs, songs about the things that affected their lives, singing because it was the only way they could get it out. My old man was a coalminer, so he’d come home sometimes and he might be a bit grumpy and my mother would say: 'Don’t take any notice of your father, he’s got the blues.’ So I knew the feeling before I knew the music.”
Having rose to fame with a vigorous version of easy listening, Jones might not be the first person you would associate with the blues. But his most recent albums, Praise and Blame (2010) and this year’s Spirit in the Room, have seen him strip back to bare-bones arrangements of rootsy gospel and blues-inflected songs to critical and popular acclaim.
“I don’t know why it took me so long,” he admits. “It has been in me all the time. I remember when I heard Smokestack Lightning by Howling Wolf (released in 1956) I thought: '---- me! What is that?’ The feeling these records put out was tremendous, the structure was simple, they didn’t have too many chords to get in the way, it cut to the quick. The raw emotion, that never gets old. Maybe I just had to get older to really sing it.”
“I was in Helsinki airport yesterday, and over the sound system, piping music into this shiny, modern building, I heard Robert Johnson singing Come Into My Kitchen,” says Eric Bibb, in tones of wonder. “Instead of some kind of plastic pop, I’m hearing a recording from 1936 that is timelessly fantastic and powerful. He would never have been able to imagine that.
“There is something interesting about the fact that people who were basically the offspring of slaves, under the thumb of so much oppression, could come up with a music that is played in all corners of the world. It was a survival tool for the people who originated it, and a century later it is still giving voice to people’s inner feelings. I like that. It’s kind of a cosmic revenge.”
By Neil McCormick 28th June
For details of Bluesfest concerts go to bluesfest.co.uk. Ronnie Wood & Friends are at HMV Hammersmith Apollo on Sat. Tom Jones performs on Sunday at 8pm.