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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

The Union Chapel, London
March 22nd 2010

I have no doubt that Peter Green is the greatest British blues guitarist that ever lived, and I’m sure he probably has a place in the world’s top five.  He was, as I read somewhere recently, the only British guitarist whose talent ever scared B B King.  He was in a different league from the school of musicians who preceded and followed him in John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker academy.  And his style was very different from the greatest of those, the popularly proclaimed deity Eric Clapton, despite the fact that they both looked to the same regal triumvirate of Kings, Albert, B.B. and Freddie, as their main source on inspiration.   

Peter Green

Clapton was (is) a brilliant technician who easily assimilated and mimicked a huge range of styles; he was fast, and as he showed with Cream was capable of holding his own with a pair of pretty formidable jazz musicians.  But what distinguished Green was his remarkable and quite effortless fluidity, and, something sometimes lacking in Clapton’s work, the depth of emotion that he could convey with a few well-chosen notes.  If you don’t believe me then go and listen to ‘Love that burns’, from the Mr Wonderful album, or even Green’s take on Duster Bennett’s ‘Jumping at shadows’ on the Fleetwood Mac BBC sessions.  It was almost as if Clapton played at the blues, while Green lived the blues, something which later events probably confirmed.  And there was another difference too.  Green’s haunting voice, although I think often overlooked, was as powerful as his guitar technique.  Combined, the two were a force of nature, supported of course by the unique sound that Green produced from his famous Les Paul, with the reverse-fitted neck humbucker, or was it the out-of-phase centre position wiring, or both?  That, you may recall, was the guitar that Green gave to a young Gary Moore almost forty years ago, the very same one that Moore sold for allegedly over $2 million dollars in 2006.

Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac circa 1970

I’m sure that I don’t really need to recap on Green’s rise and fall from musical grace.  He replaced Clapton as an unknown in the Bluesbreakers, left after a couple of years to form Fleetwood Mac with drummer Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, and found number one notoriety  in both the UK album and singles charts with an expanded group that included guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan.  On the other side of the Atlantic, Carlos Santana adopted Green’s ‘Black magic woman’ as his signature tune.  Blues morphed into a more contemporary style with songs such as ‘Man of the world’, ‘Oh well’, and ‘Green Manalishi’, the lyrics of all of which spoke of Green’s increasing disillusionment with both fame and fortune, which  went hand in hand with an increasing experimentation with narcotics.  His epic encounters with LSD and mescaline are well documented, as is the binge at a private after-show party Munich in 1970, which his then fellow band-members still believe was the final trigger for the mental illness which has plagued him ever since.  Green left Fleetwood Mac shortly after the Munich incident, and without him the band slowly imploded (Spencer walked out on tour in the US to join the Children of God cult, of which he is still a member; Kirwan, an alcoholic, was eventually fired and is still thought to be living rough in London), before reforming with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, and recording Rumours, one of the highest grossing albums of all time (and developing a collective cocaine habit to match).  Green gradually withdrew from the music world, famously worked briefly as a grave digger in North London, had a short time in prison having threatened a former accountant with a shotgun, all the while suffering from extreme schizophrenia, and the enduring effects of treatments such as ECT.  Surprisingly he re-emerged in the late 1990s with Peter Green’s Splinter Group, and a series of well-regarded albums.

I have to say that seeing Green with the Splinter Group back in about 2001 was a fairly distressing experience, but perhaps that’s because I hadn’t quite known what to expect.  Despite the encouragement of fellow band members Nigel Watson and Roger Cotton (who almost nursed him through the set), Green seemed very uneasy and uncomfortable on stage, played mostly rhythm guitar to Watson’s lead, and could barely string a few words together.  I wasn’t surprised when he quit in 2004, or that questions were raised about the probity of the band, and the benefit that Green was getting from it. 

Peter green

But he’s back again with Peter Green and Friends, and on the basis of this performance at the Union Chapel, a little more relaxed than formerly.  He’s got a pretty good band, Nick Lowe collaborators Geraint Watkins and Matt Radford are on keyboards and bass, the well-travelled Martin Winning on tenor saxophone.  Fronting the band was Mike Dodd, a willing but frankly rather irritating cheerleader, no doubt deemed necessary as a foil to Green, who barely addressed the audience, and rarely looked up from his guitars.  The set was really a run-through of standards (at times frankly quite pedestrian) and some highlights from Green’s back catalogue, like ‘Rattlesnake shake’ and Freddie King’s ‘The stumble’.  A less patient and forgiving audience could have become ill-tempered, but we’d all queued for at least an hour to get in (there was some sort of cock-up with tickets) and we were all very much on Mr Green’s side.  As he warmed up he rewarded us with occasional glimpses of Green brilliance.  He was positively animated when he played two songs by New Orleans guitarist Robert Parker, ‘Steal your heart away’ and ‘Blues get off my shoulder’ (which he also sang very well), when you could just close your eyes and imagine what the rest of the evening could have been like.  But all too often his playing was hesitant, and if I may use a technical term, ‘clunky’, and his voice lacked the power and conviction of the past.  The audience, as you might imagine, went wild for a medley of ‘Oh well’ and ‘Albatross’, and Green’s final encore, ‘Black magic woman’, which he strangely played more like Carlos Santana than Peter Green.

I’ve no doubt Green must find some pleasure in these gigs, and he certainly seemed to have a few jokes with the band as the evening went on.  And no doubt there is some therapy in it too.  But it’s still quite distressing, and uncomfortably voyeuristic, to witness what the ravages of drug abuse and ill-health have done to someone who, at his best, was little short of a genius.  Which I suppose is where I prefer to remember him. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

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