On February 4th, the Gala Theatre will host the legendary group The Blues Band. Formed in 1979 as a band “just to play the blues”, The Blues Band are seen as one of the finest rhythm and blues outfits playing today. Their most recent album, Few Short Lines, features special guests such as Bob Dylan’s keyboardist Al Kooper and Springsteen collaborator South Side Johnny. Durham Magazine caught up The Blues Band’s Dave Kelly – vocalist and slide guitarist – for a chat.
You’ve toured and been friends with Howlin Wolf and John Lee Hooker. You’ve jammed with Muddy Waters. They’re pretty amazing blues credentials. What do you think you drew from those experiences?
I also played with Freddy King and Buddy Guy. I toured with Sun House and recorded with him. I’ve been very lucky to play with many of my heroes. Mainly, what I drew from all of them was that you should go for it, always put everything you can into your music, don’t hold back, don’t coast. Sun House was the most intense performer I’ve ever seen. I think he was in his early eighties when I toured with him; he was incredible, every night, wonderful.
Is it true that you took John Lee Hooker out for a curry near Bradford?
We were playing a place just outside Bradford called the Farmers Arms and afterwards we took John for a curry and I said, “It’ll be the best curry you’ll ever have.” He enjoyed it; he was a curry fan; he liked the vindaloos.
Which other blues artists were your favourites or especially influential for you?
My earlier influences, before I’d even discovered the blues, were pretty much the same as for any guitarist my age – Lonnie Donegan, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Little Richard. Then I looked back, starting to research where this rock ‘n’ roll stuff came from. The very first Bob Dylan album had a couple of blues things on it and you’d try to find out who they were (originally) by.
In the early sixties, there was very little (music) available here. I was lucky in that I lived in Streatham, South London, and in the high street there was the Swing Shop, a specialist jazz record shop. They used to get stuff sent over from America and they had quite a good blues collection, 78s and things. We used to meet there and exchange things.
I’d seen Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones) play slide in the early days and I’d seen Alexis Korner (legendary British blues man) occasionally turn round the large ring on his finger and play slide with it. Playing slide just seemed to come naturally to me; I loved the sound. I’d played slide trombone as a kid. With slide trombone and slide guitar there’s room for expression in how you play the notes.
You’ve done some very acoustic, stripped back albums like Wireless (1994), but also some albums with a much bigger sound, like Brassed Up (1999) with horns and things. Which approach do you prefer?
I like them all. Variety is the spice of life. For all January, I’ve been on tour with Paul Jones doing our acoustic duo that I love; I love playing with the band; I’ve just pencilled in a load of solo gigs for June; that’s how I started, doing solo stuff in folk clubs. It’s nice to ring the changes; I don’t really have any preferences.
You started the band in 1979; you’ve done over 20 albums, many tours. Do you ever struggle to keep the energy levels up?
I recently watched a DVD of our German Rock Palast performance in 1980; we’re not as energetic as we were then. Particularly Gary was bouncing all over the stage. But we keep things fresh by not constructing a set list. We only have a vague idea of what we’re going to do. Whoever sings the song just calls out what they fancy doing. There’s a very large chunk of work we can slip in and out of quite easily.
What sort of balance between the newer and the older stuff will you have in the Durham show?
We’ll be doing stuff from the last album, stuff from the bootleg, stuff from the big band album, stuff we haven’t recorded yet, a couple of acoustic things. It keeps us on our toes and it keeps the audience on their toes as well.
Is there any part of the country or the world you especially love playing in?
Not particularly, audiences are audiences. It’s up to the artist to make sure the audience enjoy themselves and to get a response from them. In 1992, we opened for Dire Straits at the tail end of their world tour. On our opening night, we played to 55,000 people at Bordeaux football stadium and it went on like that. We did France, Italy and Spain. We called it the ‘gastronomic tour’.
I have to say I love playing Durham’s Gala Theatre though. It’s a lovely venue.
Way back in 1979, you bootlegged your own first album. How did that come about?
We ‘d done the recording, but we didn’t have enough money for the mixing. We had a copy tape of the rough mixes, so we bootlegged it and put it out as limited edition. We sold 3,000 copies at gigs and via mail order. This was all before the internet, of course. It sold out in two days, record shops were ringing up saying, “We want another box.”
Various record labels had turned us down on grounds that people didn’t want to hear blues or that we were too old. I was all of 32! We bootlegged it to get money to do the mix and pay off the studio. Then the record companies – if you’re doing their job for them they come and sign you up.
The ones who’d turned us down all came in. We chose Arista – they seemed the most enthusiastic. They offered us a reasonable amount of money, but we never did mix that record. It’s rough, ready and raw and all better for it.
With Wireless, we mixed it, but then went back to the roughs. I’m very much in favour of just saying, “This is how it was, warts and all, but it’s exciting.”
You’ve done some soundtrack work for the BBC, for commercials. How does that compare to playing and recording with the band?
I once saw it as new career, but that didn’t happen. I nearly won an award for the soundtrack I did for (BBC TV series) King of Ghetto. I really enjoyed that work – you don’t have to search for inspiration; it’s all on the screen.
I remember doing some work for Central TV in Birmingham. The studio manager said, “There’s your rostrum; that’s where you conduct from.” I said, “I just conduct with this” and showed them my guitar. They said they weren’t used to that, but they liked it actually. They said, “Oh, this is different!”
Thanks very much Dave and we’ll look forward to welcoming you to Durham.
The Blues Band play Durham’s Gala Theatre on Saturday 4th February. The gig starts at 7.30. Tickets can be booked by calling the Gala on 0191 332 4041 or by going to www.galadurham.co.uk.