Geno Washington

Gonzo hits, a manic roar and stories of Van Morrison in the 60s – the legendary blues singer sets the Black Box alight

Geno Washington is the best kind of rock legend: gifted with an undiminished talent, still keen to perform anywhere that will have him, and madder than a loyalist who has just had his flag taken away. 

Washington, 69, and his latest band, Yo Yo Blues, are one of the main attractions at this year’s Out To Lunch arts festival in Belfast, and a sold-out Black Box has sweat dripping down the walls before the foursome have even taken the stage.

Guitarist Greg Lester, bassist Steve Bingham and drummer Geoff Hemsley – all veterans of the Indiana-born maverick’s live groups – warm things up with an attention-grabbing instrumental, before the man himself joins them for a set of ‘the type of blues you get across the railroad tracks’.

His shirt open to the chest and a maniacal grin plastered across his face, Washington bellows, ‘We’re gonna play it for the freaky people! Get your groove on!’ The demonically tight outfit proceed to crank the energy levels from – as the inspiration for the Dexys Midnight Runners hit ‘Geno’ puts it – ‘stage four’ to ‘stage eight’.

Anyone expecting the funk and soul material that saw Washington’s pioneering Ram Jam Band dominate the UK album charts in the late 1960s might be disappointed to hear one blues standard after another. But tonight’s repertoire is undeniably top-drawer stuff, with the frontman’s voice defying the abuse five decades of hard rocking and harder living must have put it through.

‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’, ‘Dust My Broom’, ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘Got My Mojo Working’, ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’ and the like are summarily dispatched, as is a raucous take on Them’s garage-band classic ‘Gloria’.

Washington reminisces about having hung out with Van Morrison in the 1960s, which may help explain his mental state – though the indefatigable showman is clearly far less of a diva than Belfast’s own 'Man'. We’re 45 minutes in before he reaches for a towel and a full hour before he even takes a drink of water.

At one point, the singer mentions it has been seven years since he last played Belfast, but it’s hard to trust the word of someone who seems unlikely to know where he is right now let alone seven years ago. Still, he’s a magnetic presence, and never dull.

The show is interspersed with whacked-out anecdotes about Washington’s ex-wife, who he claims left him for his best friend, and his ‘daddy’, apparently ‘a liar, cheat and thief’ who spent much of his life in handcuffs. Oh, and he threatens to kneecap anyone who tries to leave the venue before the end. Twice.

Schtick or a man on the edge – who knows? But when Washington demands ‘blues claps’ and ‘funky waves’ – the latter of which resembles a Benny Hill-style breast-grab – the audience perhaps understandably play along.

Due to an unusual seating arrangement, it takes a while for people to hit the dance floor, but as Yo Yo Blues keep cranking out the tunes, each one faster and more gonzo than the last, the fans gradually shimmy from each side of the room until they meet down the front, to a smile from Washington a mile wide.

The frontman’s enthusiasm after so long in the game proves as impressive as his sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll-defying roar.

Out To Lunch 2013 continues in Belfast until January 27.