Backbone on the Road: USA tour 2014

Ladies and gentlemen … drum roll … dispensing with the formalities straight away, allow me to introduce you to the members of the Backbone Blues Band … who are: on drums Martin Jezzard; on keyboards Steve Pearce; on guitar and vocals Tony Seaman; on guitar Frank McConnell; and on lead vocals and bass guitar Duncan Highet. This was their fifth trip to the United States, where the band are beginning to build a small but dedicated following. So without further ado, let’s get the show on the road and, to quote a Backbone title, Back to the Start … First stop on the tour, and a new venue for the band was …

Phil Brady’s Bar & Grill
Baton Rouge, LA

This renowned Baton Rouge club has played host to scores of blues artists down the years, as witnessed by the plethora of photographs of performers famous and not-so which adorn the club’s walls. However, unless you know otherwise, I think I’m safe in saying this was probably the first occasion on which a British blues band had played the club.
The opening night of Backbone’s tour coincided with a big college football clash between the twin Tigers of LSU and Auburn, meaning that numbers in the bar were slightly down on what could be expected for a Friday night. And even though, officially, Hallowe’en was several days’ distant, early-season fancy-dress parties in the city also meant that there were competing distractions to be had on Backbone’s opening night.
The five-piece British band gave a very good account of themselves before a sparse but very enthusiastic crowd, one which truly appreciated the band’s 50/50 mix of blues standards and their own original material, much of the latter written by the band’s powerhouse frontman, lead singer and bassist Duncan Highet.
During the course of the evening, audience numbers increased, as did the numbers on the dance floor, and the band had to dig deep into the pockets of their collective musical memory as punters began to proffer requests for material outside of the band’s formal repertoire by placing napkins with song titles written on them into the tip jar at the front of stage.
Props to the band that they were happily able to satisfy an audience demanding “English rock” by pulling out of the hat Thin Lizzy’s “Don’t Believe A Word” (an obscure number to American audiences going by the crowd reaction) and, for the inevitable SRV request, a tight and tidy version of (Hank Ballard’s) “Look At Little Sister”.
By evening’s end, with fancy dress party goers Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf (in reality the lovely Ms Jamie and her partner Joe, the current owner of Phil Brady’s) boogieing on down on the dance floor in among the other punters, it was evident that Backbone’s first visit to Phil Brady’s probably won’t be their last and that their brand of original, lyrically innovative blues was a tremendous hit with the assembled patrons …

New Orleans

… so much so that several of the audience who had attended the band’s début in Baton Rouge turned up two days later to see them play at the Balcony Music Club on New Orleans’ Frenchmen Street, the thriving entertainment sector in the city’s Faubourg Marigny.
Further testimony to Backbone’s growing following in the USA was the presence in said audience of two fans who had driven eight hours from Texas to see them. To British fans this would seem like an act of supererogatory dedication. However, in Texas, apparently, an eight hour drive is, as one of the fans who had made the trip remarked, “just a conversation”.
Unlike the gig at Phil Brady’s, which comprised short sets of 45 minutes to an hour’s duration, at BMC Backbone played just one set of mini-marathon proportions.
Beginning with their customary opener, a fine rocking version of Tommy Castro’s “Back Up Plan”, and visiting blues standards like “Every Day I Have The Blues”, “Further On Up The Road” and “Messin’ With The Kid” along the way and mixing this material up alongside their own songs, Backbone played without a break an incredibly lengthy set just shy of three hours.
Despite there being some rough edges as energy levels ebbed and flowed during the performance, it can’t be argued that the band didn’t give their all, as witnessed by the pool of sweat left centre-stage at the end of the gig, largely in the position occupied by frontman Duncan Highet.
As one impressed punter was heard to remark, Highet “sweated more than a rented mule”…

New Orleans

… a complete contrast, it has to be said, to the laidback atmosphere at the band’s next gig, two days’ later, just down Frenchmen Street at Bamboula’s.
An airy, beautifully-appointed room dominated by a tiled mosaic of New Orleans’ most famous musical son, Louis Armstrong, Bamboula’s relaxed ambience brought the best out of the band.
However, the gigs almost never took place. Owing to a trans-Atlantic telephonic communication breakdown, this excellent NOLA nightspot was double booked on the day Backbone showed up to play. Nonetheless, the club’s booker/co-owner, Vaughan, slotted the band into an early-afternoon slot from 2-4pm and was so impressed by the band’s soundcheck that he also re-arranged his schedule so that Backbone could play the evening slot from 8-12pm – a terrific compliment to the quality of the band’s own material.
Over the course of the two gigs Backbone also featured some guest vocalists. Surprisingly, a number like “House Of The Rising Sun”, which in the UK might get you canned off stage or banned from guitar shops, so much so of a cliché has it become, proved to be a winner with both early and late audiences. Its topographic relevance may have had much to do with its popularity.
Normally sung by guitarist/vocalist Tony Seaman, guest vocalist Art Love sang it to a raucous reception, only her third time singing with a live band (she had also featured the number at Backbone’s gig at the BMC).
Highlighting this band’s versatility and ability to ride unusual situations, there were also guest vocalist contributions from Annie, a Bamboula’s staff member, on a very animated version of “Mustang Sally” – and despite this song being the audience participation number from hell, it again proved popular with Bamboula’s patrons.
With the band again mixing their own material with blues standards and pulling out a superbly-performed, little-heard version of the T-Birds’ “Tuff Enough”, their double-header gigs at Bamboula’s were of exceptionally high quality and a fitting end to the band’s sojourn in New Orleans before they moved further north to visit …

Blues in the Schools
Helena, AR

… the Delta town of Helena, AR, where the band were scheduled to play the Rising Biscuit Stage of the world-renowned King Biscuit Blues Festival.
First, though, Backbone participated in a tasty opening morsel to the main event. Each year Tulsa-based harmonica maestro, singer and educator David Berntson teaches life-skills to children in the Helena-West Helena area. As his website states: “blending blues music with character education, he presents his curriculum to diverse groups ranging in age from Kindergarten-12th grade.”
In Helena he also strives to make the children aware of the amazing cultural heritage they possess in the area, a region that has been home to a plethora of blues greats.
At Barton Elementary School, backed by Backbone, Berntson gave a master class in how to engage a young audience with the blues – his ever-popular rendition of (as he told the assembled children, “from Brinkley, Arkansas, Louis Jordan’s”) “Early In The Morning” occasioning raucous singing and dancing along – while at the same time imparting some important moral lessons about life-choices.
Despite the 8.30am start, outrageously early for a blues band to be up and playing, I know that I’m right in saying on behalf of the band that Backbone always find performing for the children as part of the Blues in the Schools programme a highlight of their trips to the USA … it’s a “life affirming” experience, as guitarist Frank McConnell accurately remarked …

Helena, AR
… David Berntson also made a guest appearance with the band the following day when they played Fonzie’s, one of the few remaining live music outlets that remain on Helena’s main drag, Cherry Street, adding his superb harmonica skills and laidback vocals to the band’s mix on numbers like Junior Parker’s “Next Time You See Me” and Jimmy Reed’s “Caress Me Baby”.
A lunchtime crowd who were hardly expecting to find a British band playing this funky, black-owned establishment, again stuck with the band, impressed by their tight ensemble playing, clever and catchy original material, and remade and remodelled takes on chestnuts like “Downhome Blues”, “Every Day I Have The Blues” and “Standing On Shaky Ground!.
The band’s version of Michael Burks’ “Quiet Little Town” also garnered audience acclaim and appreciation, none more so than from the Michael Burks band’s keyboard player, who just happened to be in the audience.
A further highlight guest appearance came about in the shape of Tulsa legend Jimmy Junior Markham, on a version of “Sweet Home Chicago”. Markham has played for over 50 years, his harmonica and vocals sharing the stage and featuring on recordings by such luminaries as Leon Russell, J J Cale and a certain Eric Clapton. Markham sitting in with Backbone was another feather in the cap of the band’s rising credibility which was further enhanced by their appearance the following day on …

The Rising Biscuit Stage
King Biscuit Blues Festival
Helena, AR

… where, in a 45-minute set, they showcased their own original material, some of which can be found on the CD EP “Made In Britain”.
As Duncan Highet remarked, bringing the blues from Britain to the Delta where it all began can appear like “selling snow to the Eskimos”, an object lesson in futility. However, why Backbone score over other Brit bands currently treading the boards in the UK and why they are fast becoming a “hit” in the US, is due to the quality and diversity of their songs, the majority of which are written by bassist/lead singer Duncan Highet (with guitarist Tony Seaman also contributing his own “Ain’t No Use”, a rousing singalong, to the mix).
As Carl Gustafson writes in his book “Ain’t Just Blues It’s Showtime”, discussing the age-old question of whether “blue men can sing the whites”, so to speak: “The bottom line is that for whatever else he is, a blues man is a storyteller. He tells a story in each song and does it vocally, or with an instrument. Human beings like stories. If you can tell it well enough that people will pay you to listen, then who cares what critic thinks you aren’t ‘bona fide’ or qualified?”.
In the narrative quality of their original songs Backbone fulfil the criteria as laid out by Gustafson, himself a long-standing travelling bluesman and one of the band’s Stateside supporters.
So … back at the Rising Biscuit Stage … despite the hint of rain in the air (a left-over from the deluge that had hit the Arkansas Delta region the day before and had turned parts of the festival site into a quagmire), a good-sized crowd hung in with band, one punter even offering singers Duncan Highet and Tony Seaman refreshment from what looked like a flagon of windscreen-washer fluid – an offer politely declined in typically retiring British fashion!
Playing unfamiliar material to a festival audience is always a hard sell, but the band kept the crowd with them, garnering a great response to numbers like the country & western-tinged, hard luck blues “Gonna Miss You” (with its sly lyric – which may have gone over an American audience’s head somewhat – “Gotta give up gamblin’/Ain’t no good for me/Backed a horse at 10/1/She came in at half past three!”), the rambunctuous “Back to The Start”, not only containing again some wonderful lyrics (“You got fire engine lipstick/Honey on your tongue/You speak in careless whispers/Spreading rumours just for fun”) but also a terrific guitar solo from Frank McConnell channelling his best inner-Carlos Santana on a Latin-flavoured blues rave up.
With its rinky-dink keyboards/guitar opening figure, “Look How Hard I’m Lovin’ You” does stray perilously close to a Britblues pub chug-a-long but it’s saved by Steve Pearce’s piano solo – a break from the twin guitar attack of the band – and again some well-observed lyrics which highlight Highet’s innate narrative songwriting talent.
The slow blues ballad “Be Tender” contains another blistering Frank McConnell guitar solo and shows the band can also smoulder as well as burn.
However, for my money, Backbone hit a musical and lyrical zenith on their standout track, the funk- and hip-hop-influenced “Am I Right?”. Lyrically, it’s a heartfelt plea for universal peace and tolerance (well, that’s what I think it is. The band may disagree!). The bass-accompanied mid-song rap is a musical tour de force and with its call-and-response lyric (Band: “Am I right?” – Audience: “I know you’re right”) and powerful lyrical coda (“Don’t ask what the blues can do for you/But what you can do for the blues”) it’s a bona fide crowd pleaser and a track which also hit home with a the large audience the following day at …

Ground Zero Blues Club
Clarksdale, MS

… where from 11-30am to 2pm Backbone headlined their own showcase gig billed as “The Big British Blues Brunch”. With the graffiti-encrusted Ground Zero stage also adorned with the band’s trademark Union Jack bunting, Backbone concluded their tour of the southern USA at this world-famous blues venue.
In the audience was Ground Zero co-owner and Mayor of Clarksdale, Bill Luckett – a big fan of the band. Joining the band on stage, Luckett recounted how he had gotten a surprise when, two years ago, this British blues band had showed up at the club out of the blue and asked to play. “Well,” said Luckett”, “there wasn’t any fee available but we let ’em play anyway and they were so darned good that by the end of their show the tip bucket was overflowing!”
At the end of this performance the tip bucket was again overflowing. Backbone played another dynamic set at Ground Zero, the outstanding moment being their version of “Am I Losing You?”, the Cate Brothers’ song probably most associated with Sherman Robertson. Duncan Highet’s vocals were outstanding on this emotional tear-jerker but the real kudos should go to guitarist Frank McConnell who pulled out one of the most blistering, emotionally-evocative, heart-wringing solos you’re ever likely to hear this side of the Mississippi.
“Not bad for a bunch of Brits,” as I overheard one punter remark and a fine finale to what had been another very successful tour outing for the Backbone Blues Band in, to coin a phrase, the land where the blues began. – Scott Duncan