American Blues music initially found its way to the UK by means of records brought over by merchant seamen and GI’s stationed here during the Second World War. How fitting it is then, that the Liverpool docks are the setting for tonight’s gig which hosts two of the finest Blues musicians England and America have to offer.
Sam Lewis @ Johnny’s Blues Club
Sam Lewis – the evening’s support artist – was taught guitar at the age of 11 by his father back home in East Nashville. Combine this near lifetime of playing experience, with his tender James Taylor vocals and you have the recipe for a stunningly smooth sound.
Wearing blue jeans and leather boots, Sam opened with ‘Reinventing The Blues’ and followed with ‘Bluesday Night’. Already it’s clear that Sam wasn’t kidding when he told the audience of his love for John Prine. There are definitely similarities in playing style, and as comparisons go that’s a great one.
At one point I realised I’d been totally drawn in to watching Sam’s fingers pluck the strings. It was during ‘Virginia Avenue’; a song about the street where his grandparents lived. The precision, discipline and composure in his playing cannot be ignored, but together they result in a mellow, wistful melody which is only emphasised by his heart-felt lyrics.
Sam played a great set by any standards, but it was all the more impressive when he revealed this was his first performance on UK soil. It’s not hard to see that Sam takes genuine pride in what he’s achieved so far, and what he’s able to do when you sit him behind a guitar. This was plain to see when he announced “I wrote this”, gave a triumphant smile and launched into ‘Love Me Again’.
There is indeed much for Sam to be proud of in his lyrical ability. One line which still lingers in my mind is “I’m a river full of heartache that you’ll never swim. Take one step closer, and I’ll pull you in.” Wow.
Before playing his closing cover of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’, Sam – with every ounce of sincerity – told the gathering “This song has been on my mind today. I’m gonna see if I can pull this off. Thank you all so much for listening, this has been awesome.” It certainly has, Sam.
Martin Harley @ Johnny’s Blues Club
Once the crowd were well and truly warmed up, it was time for Martin Harley to take his place up front. Even before he picks up his guitar, Martin strikes a chord with everyone in the room. Sitting proudly in his black boots, blue jeans, white shirt, waistcoat and tie, you’re fully aware this is a man who has a few tales to tell.
He calmly announces “I’m gonna kick off with songs about heartbreak, misery and loss.” Then while illuminated by the dim blue stage lights, this Blues evening shifts up a gear with the first notes of ‘When I Go’. Immediately afterwards, Martin moves into ‘Cardboard King.’ At this point I felt slightly uneasy that my two favourite Harley songs have come and gone so early in the set list. However, as he continued, I quickly discovered I had many more than two favourite songs.
The combination of his Weissenborn slide guitar and often heavy handed slapping of the strings provides the perfect combination within a song, and could almost do the job of a standalone three piece band. The melodic chord changes and almost percussive strumming are complimented beautifully by the intricate slide riffs Martin manages to play over the top. When you throw in his soulful voice that could tell a story while reading the weather forecast, you essentially have the most amazing one man blues band that Liverpool has seen.
Once again, I found myself almost hypnotised by the playing in front of me. From heavy hitting on the strings, to the most gentle of bass notes, and a delicate ballet on the high end, this is a truly talented musician. The only way we can compare some of Martin’s slide solos is to reference the Theramin; a weird wailing instrument used to achieve a Beach Boys effect. Martin manages the same limitless sound with none of the pretentious gadgetry. Just one man and his guitar.
I’d like to point out; if you’ve seen Martin Harley videos on YouTube or heard any of his CDs, you don’t know Martin Harley. I would struggle to think of someone whose live performance is so much more powerful than what’s communicated by their recordings.
Just as the audience are about to entirely fall under the spell of the Weissenborn, Martin uses a break between songs to strike up conversation. The man is as likeable as his music. One of his anecdotes included the problems of finding a capo large enough for the neck of his slide guitar. The best solution; improvise one from knicker elastic.
Following this, we heard a fantastic performance of Muddy’s ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’. My only thoughts after hearing this were along the lines of “If he can do that with old knickers wrapped around his guitar, what the bloody hell am I doing wrong?!”
Another witty interlude heard Martin ask the audience “I grew up in Woking. Anyone ever been there?” To which one lady screamed “Woooo!”. As cool as anything, Martin looked up with a perplexed look on his face and replied “On purpose?” He followed this up with a quote he once heard on the road. “Woking is a town where people still point at aeroplanes.” Well, Woking. We love your guitarists but apart from that we won’t be rushing to visit.
Martin then played ‘Winter Coat’ and followed it with a tale of how that very tune reduced two large tattooed men to tears after they heard it on their car radio. I got the feeling there were one or two not-so-dry eyes in the house afterwards. He is truly a pleasure to see and hear. He gazed intently at Sam’s guitar during their songs together; gave a big smile when he nailed an intricate fill; and the pair gave each other handshakes of genuine gratitude after each song.
In summary, Martin Harley is a down to earth, genuine Bluesman who can tell a story just as well as he can write a fantastic song. To seal the deal, his performance of ‘Ball And Chain’ on a slide guitar made for him by a friend truly shows that an evening listening to Martin Harley, is an evening not to be missed.
Born and raised in the city, all things Liverpool strike a chord deep within this 22 year old. His passions are summarised in his favourite website www.SelvedgeYard.com. Max takes every opportunity to travel (recently, a road trip around the Southern USA), discover new music (street bluesmen singing the sounds of the city in New Orleans), and undertaking new adventures in business (Pickup PR).
“I don’t believe in that phony hero stuff.” – Steve McQueen