Blues On The Bay
Van Morrison's appeal remains undiminished in his third year headlining, but elsewhere the Warrenpoint festival seems restrained by contemporary preconceptions
Since its modest inception in the late '90s Warrenpoint’s Blues On The Bay Festival has established itself as one of the key music festivals in Northern Ireland, with appearances over the years from every blues band in the country and from visitors ranging from Muddy Waters’ son to Jimi Hendrix’s brother.
This year’s festival astonishingly features over one hundred performances – and even more astonishingly for all but two of them admission is free.
Headlining the festival for the third consecutive year, Van Morrison includes in his set several songs that, while perfectly enjoyable, are rather slight. Only that prevents his concert from being as transcendent and as heart-shreddingly moving as the very, very best Morrison concerts can be, for vocally he is in stupendous form.
On ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’, for example, his singing is gloriously impassioned; ‘Magic Time’, a characteristic Morrison song about the past representing some kind of purer, more authentic time, is sung with great expressiveness; Lester Young’s ‘Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid’ is performed joyfully; and Billie Holiday’s poignant ‘Trav’lin’ Light’ is interpreted with exemplary sensitivity.
Accompaniment is by a quintet of exceptional musicians whose subtly textured playing provides an exquisite setting for Morrison’s singing. On a medley of Big Joe Williams’ ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, Them’s 1964 hit, and Slim Harpo’s ‘Don’t Start Crying Now’, a previous Them single, however, the band’s classiness serves the songs less well than the feral power of Them did more than half a century ago.
On the aforementioned ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’ backing singer Dana Masters channels her inner Cliff Richard and duets beautifully, while a verse from ‘Sometimes We Cry’ exhibits a real gospel fervour.
Morrison encores with ‘Gloria’, the band this time playing with suitable raunchiness, leaving the audience in awe of a singer, now 70, whose thrilling talents seem undiminished by the passage of time.
His former Them colleague, guitarist Jackie McAuley, plays as a duo with multi-instrumentalist Pier Luigi Cioci. The set includes an extraordinary version of JJ Cale’s ‘Cocaine’, a song often played in celebratory fashion. But here McAuley locates something rather more troubling, rather darker, in the lyrics suggesting the helplessness of the addict rather than the pleasure of the dabbler.
The Ronnie Greer Band, a quartet, are marvellously versatile, playing in a range of blues styles and with Greer himself incorporating elements of bebop into his guitar playing. Johnny Shines’ ‘Where Were You When The Sun Went Down’ is played with searing power, with shocking venom in Greer's singing while keyboard player Kyron Bourke growls the lyrics of John Lee Hooker’s ‘You Shook Me’ with splendidly creepy sleaziness.
Scottish harmonica player Rev Doc, resplendent in brown derby and red and black waistcoat, is accompanied by the Bourbon Swing Band, a traditional jazz sextet. Doc sings ‘CC Rider’ rather affectingly and, once the band has finally agreed on a key, ‘Careless Love’ is performed attractively.
Sporting beards of Biblical proportions – or at least of ZZ Top proportions – the hard-rocking Crow Black Chicken take no prisoners on ‘Messing With The Kid’ and original material. One knows from the Cork band's albums that their songs are interesting, but the pulverising volume and poor sound balance, with guitarist Christy O’Hanlon’s vocals ear-piercingly loud, renders the lyrics unintelligible on this occasion.
The Chicago Blues Mob are indeed from the Windy City but they don’t bear the generic native blues sound. Their showing includes several Texan songs, for example, including T-Bone Walker’s classic slow blues ‘Call It Stormy Monday’ which is played stylishly and features a delicate solo by guitarist Gene Kilty.
In his fast paced set, in which he's accompanied by bassist Marty McDermott and drummer Paul Faloon, guitarist Pat McManus shifts, from moment to moment, from gorgeous lyricism to crunchingly heavy rock. A flamboyant player, McManus is a master of crowd-pleasing guitar hero poses and stunts and our old friend, playing-guitar-behind-your-head, of course gets an outing.
But he also has virtuosic technique, demonstrated on the likes of ‘Back In The Saddle’, which is dedicated to 'all you bikers out there', Taste’s ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘The Bolt’, a scintillating instrumental inspired by Olympic sprint champ Usain Bolt.
Veteran Belfast guitarist Rab McCullough plays deep blues, with an unflinching understanding of the violence and bleakness of the songs he sings. ‘Hey Joe’, for example, is darkly atmospheric with no attempt to gloss over the murderous misogyny of the lyrics. By contrast, however, ‘Georgia’ is sung tenderly and features an exquisite harmonica solo by McCullough’s duo partner Cuan Boake.
The Bluez Katz, a sextet fronted by festival promoter Ian Sands, includes jazz-rock and funk elements in their playing. Albert King’s ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ featured a fiery trombone solo from Matthew Benson and an incisive guitar solo from James Sands and the band ambitiously attempted material like Herbie Hancock’s jazz standard ‘Chameleon’.
Bluez Katz are an impressive example of a band trying to stretch themselves. But unfortunately blues has come to be seen by many as merely a form of rock guitar and evidence of is was plentiful in Warrenpoint. For a music of such historical richness, which once had innumerable regional and stylistic variations, to have become so constrained is surely a dismal development and profoundly regrettable.
Follow Blues On The Bay on Facebook to keep up with its latest news and updates. Listen back to highlights from across the weekend on Ralph McLean's BBC Radio Ulster show. For more upcoming festivals check out our Outdoor Events Not to Miss this Summer feature.