Storm Warning at the Limelight Theatre in Aylesbury on 21 Feb 2017.
There’s an old saying that goes “a week is a long time in politics”: if that’s the case, then the same period is evidently an eternity in the world of blues-rock.
The last time I saw Storm Warning- at Cambridge Rock 2016- they seemed to these eyes to be in possession of something truly special, something which elevated their performance way above that of yer average bog-standard festival blues act. And, even if I admittedly only watched them for 25 or so minutes, I still got enough of a glimpse during that brief encounter of what seemed to me to be a unique talent in the genre, so much so in fact that I actually regretted leaving their tent to watch cumbersome local tribute band “Pure Floyd” No wonder, then, that upon doing a little research a week later, I discovered they’d won at least one award for their commitment and dedication to the cause of British blues (which is fair enough, as they literally never stop playing) Similarly, the acclaim with which their three album releases had to date been received seemed entirely justified. However, in the seven or eight months that have followed, certain key factors seem to have changed drastically- and I’m sad to report, not for the best.
Granted, everybody seems pleased to have seen original frontman Stuart “Son” Maxwell return to the band during the last couple of years, especially after his replacement Steve Norchi didn’t quite gel (although ironically, with me being a perverse git as per usual, the Norchi-fronted album Strategy is actually my favourite). Lest we forget, in contemporary UK blues circles, whether as a solo artist, a member of this band or a frontman for Bad Co axe hero Mick Ralphs’ solo combo, Old Son is actually something of a legend: he’s also one of the most shit-hot mouth-harp players these isles have ever seen, so, on all those fronts, one can understand why audiences nationwide are still frothing at the mouth to welcome him back.
Unfortunately, though, the prodigal Son that’s returned simply doesn’t seem to be quite the same one we saw depart. For one, he seems to have inexplicably descended into some sort of piss-taking parody of himself: where he once possessed the fatal charm of a wise-cracking gangster that just happened to like collecting Buddy Guy and Robert Cray albums, his onstage mannerisms now resemble more those of a pissed-off roadie. In addition, the formerly “gutbucket” vocal power that was always his trademark seems on several occasions tonight more like a phlegmy groan (although to be honest, it is fucking freezing in Aylesbury at this time of year, so he may well have a cold) while sartorially, it would appear that a Hawkwind t-shirt and baggy jeans are favoured these days over the sharp suits that once earned him the mantle of “the Buckinghamshire Brilleaux” Worse still, he doesn’t even remove his woolly bobble-hat (a fashion faux-pas in any genre with the possible exception of reggae) till about halfway through, by which time his usually-distinguished grey locks have been reduced to little more than a sodden mop: not a good look for either a great bluesman or a hard rocker.
Yet I could quite easily live with all the above, and shrug it off as another developmental phase in the career of a band I’ve otherwise always liked, were it not for the material. At some point over the last year, guitarist/bandleader Bob “Mad Dog” Moore has obviously had a massive change of heart: though their albums up to this point have always contained a large number of originals, he’s decided to turn the group (in a live setting anyway) into a glorified covers band, and as a result, half of the songs I actually came to hear don’t get a look-in anymore. Admittedly, whether the rest of the audience is that bothered remains a moot point (trust me, Aylesbury audiences in 2017 aren’t the artful aesthetes they were during the heyday of Friars) and sure, they do still play their best ever track “Which Came First, The Woman Or The Blues” (famously covered, although apparently the band are still awaiting payment, by Chris Farlowe) but even so, one still gets the feeling at several junctures that we’re edging dangerously close to cabaret territory here. And that’s not a good place to be.
Sure, of course, I know what you’re going to say. “Of course they do loads of covers, Drewe, you arse, they’re a blues band!” And in one way, you’d be absolutely right. The original Mississippi Delta artists all covered each others’ material (which is why no cunt to this day knows who actually wrote “Hey Joe”) and, thanks to the convenient invention of terms such as “Trad Arr”, subsequent geographical generations of 12-bar craftsmen from Chicago to Twickenham have more or less followed the same template. In other words, it’s not about the composition, but the interpretation: and in that case, four originals out of a set of twenty numbers is probably about right, much the same as one might have got at a classic early Yardbirds, Climax, ‘Hogs, Ducks, Feelgoods or Rockpile gig. And, much like their Canvey Island mentors, they do essentially play pub rock (even in a seated theatre) but the good stuff, the very essence of what that scene strove to recapture in the early ’70s from the maws of its proggier counterparts .
However, even if that is the case, I still don’t think Storm Warning, 2017-style, are “interpreting” certain standards within that repertoire, such as “Big Boss Man” as well as they used to. Or rather, I don’t think Maxwell is (except during his harp solos, which, as usual, are faultless) In fact, I can’t knock the musicianship of any member in the slightest: Moore is an incredible, fluid guitarist, Ian Salisbury handles both piano and organ with a classic late ’60s Brit feel redolent of such greats as Pete Wingfield and Rod Argent, and Russ Chaney and Derek White (drums and bass respectively) make for one of the tightest rhythm sections you’re ever likely to witness, which upon reflection is hardly surprising given that one of them was in Capability Brown. And, likewise, the overall sound remains as warm, engaging and rootsy as it did the first time I heard it. That much, I’m fully behind: that much I dig, brothers and sisters.
It’s just that every time they hit a potential groove, be it a mellow one or a rocking one, the frontman (whether by default, design or sheer indifference) somehow manages to fluff it- and though I know his crotch-grabbing “womaaan done me wrong” antics during one extended slow number were intended to be ironic, the rest of his performance tonight simply doesn’t contrast enough with the tomfoolery to successfully get that point across. Perhaps he just needs something to give him more focus: at Cambridge Rock 2016, with the band one man down, he was forced to handle keyboards himself, and the result was a more measured, laid-back performance (a la Gregg Allman/Gary Brooker) that simply oozed class. Maybe, just maybe, he could take to permanent organ while Salisbury continued piano, thus also opening up further improvisational possibilities: it’s certainly an idea.
Yet even so, none of that explains why his schtick, demeanour and movement seems so much more forced now than previously- which in turn leads me to wonder if it’s really down to him at all. After all, a recent online missive from Moore did say he wished to re-mould the band into more of a “good time, rocking, covers-based blues outfit” (or words to that effect) and if this is his current aim, then it’s very possible, therefore, that it’s him, rather than Maxwell, that one should be taking to task. Maybe, just maybe, the vocalist’s extreme clowning is a subconscious reaction against such things: moreover, I personally feel the choice of covers – such as, for instance, the rendition of Hendrix’s “Stone Free” that opens the show, or the well-trodden Zep-via-everyone else “Custard Pie”- hasn’t been that well-handled either, and get the distinct impression that Moore’s hand may be at the drivin’ wheel there too. The two exceptions to this are an Otis Rush number and a final encore of Alex Harvey’s “Swampsnake”: at least a knowledge of either of those artists represents a willingness to look beyond the obvious.
The one thing you can’t deny is that as a unit, the band still know how to rock- and at the Limelight, a venue which in truth doesn’t get offered that many chances to shed its Jam & Jerusalem-style community centre trappings, such things are very important indeed. Trust me, this town needs bloody perking up every once in a while, and tonight, that certainly happened: I just wish Maxwell, Moore and their bandmates still had the same faith in their own material (its subtle greatness amply demonstrated on increasingly rare outings such as “Lonely Guy”) that they clearly possessed before cynicism set in. After all, you can see a covers band anywhere these days. OK, maybe not one with the same flair, panache and raunch as Storm Warning: nor, for that matter, one whose sound is so uniformly heavy throughout that it even makes songs written in 1940s Louisiana sound like they fell straight out of Richmond (Surrey, not Virginia) circa 1969. But in a way, that only makes the lackadaisical attitudes displayed of late all the more inexcusable.
Make no mistake, it literally pains me to pass negative comment on an artist of whom I’m fond: but conversely, I don’t say these things unless I feel I have to. I didn’t get into this business (21 years ago as it stands) to be the sort of lazy writer who slags bands off simply because negatives are easier to dispense than superlatives- and I don’t intend to start now. More to the point, I’m pretty sure the band themselves don’t give two deep-South train-whistle hoots for my stupid critiques. It’s just that sometimes, one has to call it as one sees it- and I firmly believe that unless they start heeding the portent in their own name again soon, the most ominous danger Storm Warning stand a chance of falling prey to is of fizzling from a full-on raging tsunami to a harmless, inoffensive drizzle.