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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Bobby Rush Bobby Rush

The Barbican, London - Sunday April 10th, 2005 - by Nick Morgan

The Barbican may not be an inspired venue when it comes to atmosphere, but they have got an inspired booker – and in putting together their It Came from Memphis series of concerts he or she has delivered an almost unrivalled series of gigs from some of the South’s most legendary performers, themed largely around the great Memphis record labels and studios of Stax, Sun, Ardent, Fame (famed for the Muscle Shoals rhythm section), and Hi Records. Spaced over three weeks, and supported by an intriguing selection of talks and films, on paper at least this is one of the R&B (in that grumpy old man’s meaning of the word) treats of the year.

Of course anticipation and reality can be two different things, and having read a review of the Fame evening (featuring the remnants of the Muscle Shoals boys and a large part of the Country Soul Review) I maybe should have known what to expect of our Delta Blues evening, a repertoire performance by four veteran Memphis bluesmen (actually three Mississippi boys – two from blues heartland Greenville – and one from Louisiana). Possibly disjointed, variable performances, perhaps laboured, and not quite the sum of its parts. Of course, I hadn’t quite bargained on the Bobby Rush effect.
Given that it was a Sunday I shouldn’t have been too surprised at the holier than tough demeanour of much of the fairly full congregation, here for a solemn act of worship, or so it seemed, rather than a juke-joint blues night. And lets face it – the Barbican ain’t no juke joint. “I say darling, it must have been awfully rotten being washed away in the great Mississippi flood of 1927” – pause to turn page of glossy Sunday newspaper supplement – “don’t you think. No wonder he sounds so miserable. Let’s have Moby instead”.
That certainly seemed to be the vibe that first-up T-Model Ford got. “Don’t you’all go to sleep now” he cautioned half way through a set of droning guitar (it looked as though he’d bought a new one from J C Penney), shouted lyrics and simply groovtastic drumming from accompanist Spam.
Rough and raw as befits a Greenville boy this was about as suitable for the Barbican as second act, the accomplished yet charmless Kenny Brown and his band. Clearly unused to such a large venue Kenny and his boys (who, not unlike Michael Howard, had a touch of Deliverance about them) were as tight as ninepence, bashing out high-speed bottleneck blues in a style somewhat reminiscent of the Kings of Leon without the marketing.  
Kenny BrownLeft: Kenny Brown
I think a few folk tapped their feet, but by and large Kenny and Co seemed as bemused by the ferocious earnestness of their audience as T-M-F. The exception was the drunk woman (did I mention her?). Front row, middle seats, arms waving, obviously too much communion wine she was, in truth, the liveliest person in the place. How she managed to get out at the interval was a mystery to me – how she got back to her seat even more so. It took Little Milton, notionally top of the bill, to ratchet things up and break down the audience’s sedentary torpor.
Little MiltonLittle Milton
  Born in Greenville his career took him to Memphis (where he recorded for Sun), Chicago (Chess) and back to Memphis (Stax). Backed by a studio-tight band featuring guitarist Paul Gomez, he worked through a repertoire set that included ‘Just one moment’, ‘Back Streets’, and ‘Little Bluebird’. Charismatic, with excellent singing and some showboating guitar-work Milton succeeded in breaking the ice – managing to get at least half the audience on their feet for his finale ‘The Blues is Alright’ – sort of from reverential to revivalist. Tightly timed from the sound desk he left the stage reluctantly, introducing in his wake ‘one of the baddest men in showbusiness’, Bobby Rush.
Now, let me tell you about Bobby Rush. He was born in 1940, no, 1936; hang on, he told us he was 72 – well whatever, he’s been around for a long time, over fifty years in the business. Born in Louisiana (‘the son of a preacherman’) he now lives in Jackson Mississippi and endlessly tours the local clubs with his band and dancers – ‘the King of the chitlin circuit’. Wide cut pleated pants, sneaky spat shoes, greased back hair he just looks like a bad man – and believe me, he is. Brought in as a last minute replacement Rush is supported by Little Milton’s band – who clearly not well rehearsed, spend most of the set wondering (like the audience) what on earth could be coming next.   Bobby Rush
Bobby Rush   With Bobby is one of his famous troupe of ‘booty dancers’, and believe me this young lady has booty in vast proportions. Just as well given Rush’s material, which as I recall went something like, ‘I got a big fat woman’, ‘My woman she done big and fat’, ‘I woke up this morning with a big fat woman by my side’, ‘When a man loved a big fat woman’, ‘Did I tell yo ‘bout how big and fat my big fat woman is?’ The stirrings of discomfort amongst this most PC of audiences were palpable as Rush jumped and jived, lurched and leered while his bootimunificent lady displayed the material evidence to support Rush’s penetrating lyrics – ‘Let me tell yo’ bout my woman, she’s big and fat, but that don’t matter Lord, Mr Bobby Rush likes ‘em like that’. Actually he sang really well, played the harp like a demon and at one point surprised us all (band included) by picking up his guitar and playing some pretty soulful delta style blues.
But by that time it was really too late – Bobby had outstayed his welcome – the stage-manager was trying to get him to finish, the audience were starting to leave, the band were at their wits end, and the drunk lady was heading for the stage. Blind to his predicament Bobby misinterpreted the audience standing up as a sign of enthusiasm – fixing them like rabbits in the steely headlights of his twinkling eyes he cajoled them to claps hands, sing along (“Mr Bobby Rush says …”) and dance. The shambles that ensued was mighty to behold as the bewildered audience finally headed for the doors.
“For a man of 72 he really should be more mature,” muttered one sour-faced social worker in the foyer. “It was so demeaning”, spat another. “And that girl on stage – she even seemed to be enjoying it!” Of course, fact of the matter was that Bobby had brought folks face to face with the bawdy reality of the blues as it is still played and enjoyed in its homeland. And they didn’t like it – the message was clear: Bessie Smith’s back door man is ok when he’s preserved in aspic on vinyl – but don’t let him out on stage. Me – I thought it was heaven - like a little bit of Memphis sunshine finally bursting through the London clouds. - Nick Morgan ('blue' photos by Kate).

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