Rab McCullough's Blues

Having played with some of the all-time greats, Belfast's finest bluesman tunes up for the Ards Guitar Festival

So admired is veteran Belfast blues guitarist Rab McCullough on the British blues scene that legendary saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith – who played in seminal bands like Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Colosseum – hired him for his Blues And Beyond album in 2001.

And so blown away was Heckstall-Smith by McCullough’s contribution that in a subsequent interview he declared that McCullough was an ‘astounding singer and guitar player… ridiculously good, so good you die; he’s something else – a wild, wild guitar player'.

McCullough, who plays at the upcoming Ards Guitar Festival – which runs in venues across Newtownards until October 5 – reacts modestly to hearing Heckstall-Smith’s praise quoted. ‘You’re the first has told me that,’ he says. ‘I don’t read much about myself. If I see my name in the paper I put it away out of the road. And I don’t even listen to my own recordings. I always go, “God, I can play better than that.” I’m my own worst critic.’

McCullough’s colleagues on Heckstall-Smith’s album were some of the most esteemed blues and jazz musicians in the UK, including drummer Gary Husband, who has collaborated in bands with the likes of Gary Moore, John McLaughlin and Jack Bruce, and guitarist Clem Clempson, who has played in major bands like Humble Pie and Colosseum.

To have been recording complex, unfamiliar music with such major league, virtuosic musicians must surely have been nerve-wracking for McCullough. ‘Absolutely terrifying,’ he admits. ‘But I gave it my best shot. And Dick was an absolute gentleman, and a monster player. Blowing that horn, man, you could have heard him four streets away.’

McCullough learned his skills on the fertile mid-1960s blues and rock scenes in Belfast, performing in bands like Sam Mahood’s Big Soul Band. Mahood was one of the hippest, most extraordinary characters of his era and McCullough remembers him fondly: ‘Sam was a really flamboyant guy with a bright orange, three quarter length coat, big white boots, hair way down his back and a beard. He was a real hippie and a really dynamic performer.

‘We played the Jazz Club, the Maritime, Betty Staffs, Clarks, the Marquee, Birdland – there were 20 gigs in the town then. But once the Troubles got really hard in late ’71, it killed the scene. People were insulated in their own areas. Shebeen-type clubs were popping up around areas like the Falls and the Shankill, and bands were starting to play them, but there were no central gigs.’

After a career lull, McCullough took stock of the situation, and subsequently sensed an opportunity. Recognising that there were no hard-rocking bands in his home area of west Belfast, he launched a new band.

‘In west Belfast it was predominantly pop music, so I saw there was a niche and formed Baraka, a heavy rock band, in 1976, doing Jimi Hendrix , Alllman Brothers and Cream stuff. I started a gig in the Clubhouse Bar, on a Wednesday, and six people came. But within six weeks you couldn’t have got in. You’re talking 500 people, standing up, jammed tight. We’d be getting £80 a man, which was good money then.’

After another career hiatus, McCullough re-emerged with first the Boardwalk Blues Band and then his own band. Now exclusively playing blues-rock, McCullough began gigging occasionally in the States and, in 2000, entered the International Blues Challenge, annually organised by the Memphis Blues Society.

Creditably his band came third, and a debut album, Belfast Blues, raised his profile yet further. Indeed the album was honoured as Album Of The Year in the respected North American magazine, Real Blues. McCullough, touchingly, dedicated the album to Rory Gallagher and Belfast blues pianist Jim Daly.

‘Two friends. And I thought it would be a gesture seeing the two of them were dead. Jim kept the blues alive here for years. He was the best-kept secret Ireland ever had. In the States, I’ve played with [ex-Muddy Waters pianist] Pinetop Perkins and Jim was as good, if not better. He was one of the best barrelhouse/stride players I’ve ever heard. He had a tremendous left hand and a presence with him when he started to play.

'He was so good. And Rory did a lot for Belfast and the blues scene here, and he never forgot that it was in Belfast that he’d made his name. He never forgot people or forgot where he came from and besides being a great player, he was a great human being.’

A follow-up album, Belfast Breakdown, in 2003, on the prestigious French label Dixiefrog, included a guest appearance from guitarist Hubert Sumlin, a blues immortal for his work for over 20 years with Howlin’ Wolf. One wonders how that collaboration would have worked. Would McCullough have given Sumlin any guidance on what he wanted him to play?

‘Give Hubert any guidance? No,' McCullough gasps good-humouredly. ‘Absolutely not. Me? Guide Hubert Sumlin? That would take a large step for mankind, right? No, I just said to Hubert, “You do what you do. I’m going to leave it to you, totally. You’re the man with the experience".’

The album repeated the success of its predecessor. Several American blues magazines reviewed it enthusiastically and McCullough found European audiences receptive. ‘I was on tour in France when it went to number 1 on the blues charts there,’ he recalls. ‘That was surreal.’

One of McCullough’s greatest accomplishments is sustaining for 16 years a Thursday night residency in the Empire Music Hall in Belfast’s Queen’s Quarter. Somehow he has managed to keep the gig fresh for both himself and the audience, who fill the venue every week.

‘We call it the 18-80 club,’ he jokes. ‘You get a great mix of people there and we keep getting these influxes of student kids. The freshers from the year before say to the new students, “You got to go down on a Thursday night". And I let kids, young musicians, get up and play with the band and that keeps it fresh too.’

The Ards Guitar Festival runs in venues across Newtownards until October 5, and also features Pierre Bensusan, Frank Vignola and Vinnie Raniolo, Colin Reid and Brian Keenan and others. Rab McCullough performs at the Ivy Bar on October 3.