Skip Little Axe McDonald
A blistering set from an aging artist intent on bringing delta blues bang up to date
After a disembodied voice welcomes us to the Black Box for this Moving on Music Festival gig, singer-songwriter Isobel Anderson kickstarts the evening. Brighton-born but Belfast-based, Anderson's opening track features rich fingerpicking on a classical guitar and lyrics about love lost and found, a theme that recurs throughout her set.
After a few solo numbers, Anderson is joined on stage by a fiddle player and later a percussionist on Cuban box drums. While the box drums add rhythm to the performance, the violin works as an excellent counterpoint to Anderson’s bass-heavy guitar tones, adding a sense of urgency to her songs.
The set ranges from Spanish influenced cantes (which suit the percussion well) to throbbing PJ Harvey style laments. A personal highlight is a haunting cover of Portishead’s 'Glorybox'. Anderson’s vocal here is at once full of youthful exuberance and genuine sorrow.
When Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald jumps on stage for his headlining set, he prefaces his performance with a disclaimer. Speaking in polite, comforting tones, he requests that, should he ‘get too loud, or go too far out', the audience should tell him to come back down to earth.
After introducing his only band-mate, Alan Glen on harmonica, Little Axe eases the audience in gently. He is, after all, a firm believer in ‘starting slow and ending drunk’, as he puts it.
The opening track is a masterfully executed Howlin’ Wolf style electric blues jam punctuated by Glen’s wailing harp. The lyrics are sparse, but when present they are booming, hypnotic, gritty and heartfelt, rasped as Little Axe prowls across the stage with his guitar.
After this stripped down introduction, Little Axe launches into the main body of his set. Although there are only two men on stage, Little Axe manages to create a huge wall of sound by cleverly looping his riffs, effectively performing as his own backing band.
An impressive effects rack and drum machine are controlled entirely at his feet, and the results always feel as if they are complimenting his sound, rather than creating it.
One or two technical issues arise, but Little Axe remains unflustered, simply stating that ‘if something doesn’t work, try something else’. It is this mentality that ensures the performance is driven by a man and his guitar, enhanced by technology, rather than the other way around. At the same time Little Axe maintains a sound as raw and intense as the earliest delta blues masters.
A huge melting-pot of influences are evident, ranging from gospel dub to calypso to scorching funk. This is unsurprising from man who has performed live and in the studio with artists as diverse as James Brown, Afrika Bambaata, The Sugarhill Gang and even Megadeth. Glen also has serious chops, best known for his work with The Yardbirds.
Whilst the most enduring aspect of the show is undoubtedly Little Axe’s ferocious guitar technique, he peppers the performance with political messages. Always polite and charming, this is a man who clearly lives and breathes the blues as well as just playing it.
The night climaxes with an apocalyptic number, Little Axe lamenting that ‘too late will be our cry’ as we ‘can’t eat money’, with the guitar and harmonica wailing in unison.
By the end of the evening, I understand Little Axe’s initial concern that he might go ‘too far out’. His sound is at once steeped in traditionalism, but so far out of this world that it can barely be contained in one small room. I’m just glad nobody brought him back to earth.