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Heritage Blues Orchestra

Howard Assembly Room, Leeds
Thursday 4 June 2015

After a pleasant and rather uneventful drive into Leeds tonight, on what could only be described as a warm and untypically seasonal midweek evening, I took a slow and leisurely walk into the city towards New Briggate, almost tempted to sit myself down at one of the tables on the pavement outside the Brotherhood sports bar on the corner of Merrion Street, in order to take the weight off, with a tumbler of something cold and with plenty of ice. We do tend to feel that summer just might finally be upon us when we see people sprawling out on the street in an almost Parisian manner, just before the sun goes down in Leeds.

A few doors along, patrons had started gathering on the steps of another establishment, this time the more imposing Grand Theatre and Opera House, presumably awaiting the arrival of their friends, their dates or even their colleagues to join them for a bit of Perfect Nonsense courtesy of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster. Alternatively, they might just be having a last cigarette before taking their seats upstairs in the Howard Assembly Room for an evening of raunchy blues courtesy of the Heritage Blues Orchestra. 

After a coffee in the theatre bar I joined what appeared to be a full house, all primed and ready for some blues from across the pond. Oddly enough, the support could be described as anything but the Blues. The quirky three-piece version of The Sentimentalists, a sort of Divine Comedy from Castleford, delivered a short and at times rather bizarre set of songs, all of which would probably sound better read rather than actually sung. Philip Fowler's honest poetry/songs are pretty good and the sort of topics that would normally grab my attention, Northern Soul and 45rpm records and the like. Equally the concert piano and acoustic guitar accompaniment was equally good. Put the things together though and it all appears to go sadly awry, so much so that people began to leave sporadically throughout the set, presumably heading for the bar. Still, despite failing to keep the entire audience of Blues fans enthralled, The Sentimentalists have secured a booking at this year's Glastonbury Festival and Mark Radcliffe thinks they are 'truly marvellous', so I guess that's okay then.

I actually like the way the Howard Assembly Room mixes the genres, which provides a more eclectic and therefore more interesting evening of music. The venue could easily have booked a blues singer or band as support, but with The Sentimentalists, we were treated to something different. The five-piece Heritage Blues Orchestra that followed was suitably equipped and ready to give the audience precisely what they came for, some authentic blues from a band who appear to know their stuff. Although not the full orchestra, which includes a horn section, the slightly trimmed-down five piece band began with an authentically delivered field holler, courtesy of Bill Sims Jr. The seated singer, guitarist and pianist, dressed in grey suit, bow tie and straw fedora, delivered Leadbelly's words as if he was hollerin' into John Lomax's tape recorder at Washington's Library of Congress. Sims' daughter Chaney continued the song, a soulful rendition of Leadbelly's Go Down Hannah, which provided some real grass roots folk blues to whet the audience's appetite before the band launched into the set with the gospel-tinged Get Right Church, featuring the rest of the band, Junior Mack on guitar, Vincent Bucher on harmonica and Barry Harrison on drums.

The set covered a lot of ground musically speaking, with tightly arranged adaptations of Son House's Clarksdale Moan, Muddy Waters' Catfish Blues, Memphis Minnie's Joliet Bound and Eric Bibb's Don't Ever Let Nobody Dray Your Spirit Down, each peppered with some fine harmonica playing by Vincent Bucher, who at times was almost on fire. Occasionally each of the individual musicians were left to do their own thing, whether it be a blues harp solo courtesy of Bucher, a Barry Harrison drum solo - whilst Chaney danced along beside him - a hand-clapping duet courtesy of the father/daughter combination or an acoustic country blues classic delivered by Junior Mac (Slidin' Delta), the band kept it all pretty spiced up throughout the 90 minute set.  

One particular stand out moment has to be Chaney Sims' heartfelt reading of St James Infirmary Blues, with her dad's piano accompaniment, including the bluesy Beethoven introduction on the Steinway (Fur Elise). The blues came to Leeds tonight and it didn't disappoint.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky