Mike ‘Dr Blue’ McKeon is a bluesman with a voice like a bear who has been singing and playing the blues for many years. Mike has agreed to write a diary to show us what a bluesman’s life is like, the venues he goes to, the characters he meets, his experiences.
He sends in chapters of his diary when he’s ready. Who knows what adventures he will have.
Chapter 19 Summer Tour 2017- Part One
Dedicated to Heathcote Williams (15.11.1941- 1.7.2017)
The historic city of Edinburgh, at the beginning of June was to be the start of my summer tour this year. It was a busy weekend, with a couple of bar gigs and a spot on a pop up stage in the Grassmarket with stunning views of the Castle. At both bar gigs, members of my Blues family turned up. A couple from Leith turned up on Friday night to the Waiting Rooms (Bar). It was lovely to see them again, they had been at a gig I did in Brighton earlier in the year, and they had promised they would pop in when I came north again. On the second night at the Golden Rule, an Edinburgh based couple turned up, who I have gigged for before, members of the vibrant Blues Dance scene. I love chatting with the audience after a show; I only regret that it is usually at the same time as I am packing up.
It was a clear crisp Edinburgh night. A stunning full moon lit the cobbled street, as I loaded up my gear in the back of the van. There was a warm farewell from my Scottish agent and good friend Steven Mackay who runs Fortune Promotions, with promises of more work and fun times in August when I am due to return to perform during the first week of the 70 th anniversary Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Steven Mackay (Fortune Promotions)
I headed south to spend a couple of days on a camp- site overlooking the Holy Isle, Lindisfarne. I had a break for a couple of days, so had decided to spend some time writing and mooching around.
My planned monastic solitude was interrupted by a request for an interview from a student, (hearing I was in town,) who is producing a radio documentary as part of her Masters degree. Intrigued, I jumped in the van and headed back to an Edinburgh radio studio to meet Nadine Schwizer aka: Mad Nad Bo
Mad Nad Bo
Nadine (Nad) and I chatted about the current British Blues scene, and I played a few tracks live. The radio documentary is about Blues in Britain in 2017. It has yet to be aired so I wont say much more, other than as the session was winding up, I turned the tables on Nad, switched on the recorder on my phone, and took the opportunity to record an interview myself.
Nad is from Switzerland where she first fell in love with the blues when she heard BB King play ‘Rock Me Baby’, (a great place to start to my mind). Nad described the ‘Blues as her life’.
I asked Nad what it was about the Blues that she loves and she said to her it feels so real, so genuine- so raw. ‘It just touched me’. Nad described how Blues really grabbed her, how she had not heard anything like it, it was / is ‘so pure’, not as in polished, but genuine music that comes straight from the heart. Nad it turns out is not only a passionate lover of the Blues, but also has an almost evangelical ambition to get more young people into the Blues. Nad spoke of how she has recently started to write and perform Blues music herself. ‘Blues is amazing’, she eulogized, ‘I want others to experience the Blues’, ‘I want to help make the genre bigger ‘ and sees the documentary as part of this mission.
It was such a joy to meet someone who so eloquently described how I feel about the music I love. I wish Nad all the best with the documentary and will report back to the readers with further details of where it will be aired. With passion like hers, I think the future of the Blues is in safe hands. Mad Nad Bo has an EP out soon. Ill keep you posted readers.
On the Wednesday I checked into some lovely digs just outside Darlington. A lovely couple, (who are mates with a friend of a friend), David and Yvonne, had offered me a bed. I don’t mind crashing in a bar, or in the back of the van, but it is never going to compete with sleeping in a decent bed.
The next gig was in the center of Darlington, my third visit to the town in less than a year, (see earlier Diary entry.) This time it was in a popular music venue called the Quakerhouse. I arrived just as three bikers roared up, giving me a foretaste of the clientele of this very popular (mainly rock music) venue. However these particular bikers were not here for the music as such, there was a fundraising meeting upstairs, I was to set up in the bar downstairs. The bikers meeting was to briefly make an appearance in my set, as I agreed to take a break so they could run a raffle, raising funds for the local air ambulance, (I won a bar of Toblerone).
This was not the only unscheduled break in a set that was going down well with the appreciative audience of locals. Half way through the second set there was a power cut; the power was returned relatively quickly in all of the premises, except the bar I was in. After a quick consult, candles were lit, the audience was encouraged to come and sit by the stage and we did the rest of the night ‘old school’, purely acoustic. It’s been a while since I did anything other than a tune or two at a party without amplification. The gig was a success, the audience pleased to enjoy the unexpected non-amplified set. I even had a query about playing at a local biker festival next year.
The experience of playing without amplification put me in mind of some of the early greats like Howling Wolf and Bessy Smith. They had to play shows in front of bands with little or no amplification. They had to compete with a band. It is no wonder that they had such big strong voices. Many of the bars and Juke Joints in the southern states of the USA were without electricity particularly in the segregated parts of town. If you were the singer you had to work hard to be heard.
Sticky Fingers Middlesborough
From Darlington I moved to Middleborough, to the Sticky Fingers Bar. Located next door to a well renowned music shop (Steven James Guitar and Amps), that shares an employee in the sound man (who also runs the shop). After setting up, I got to try out a few of the guitars, always frustrating when you are time rich and cash poor!
The gig at Sticky fingers, played through an awesome PA, went well. I thought it was going to be a typical Friday night drinking crowd, with me providing the sound track to someone else’ piss up (night out). However, by the second set 2/3 of the room had pulled up their seats closer to the stage and it became something more akin to a theatre gig with some noisy, people chatting at the back!
Either way it was fun, and the manager asked about my future availability later in the year.
From Middleborough it was off to a couple of Blues Festival gigs, providing support for some Blues heavy hitters. Durham and Cleethorpes Blues Festivals were both headlined by Dr. Feelgood a band I have loved all my adult life, but sadly never seen. I stayed to watch them in Durham.
I like Stephen’s Stanley’s (Solid Entertainments) curation of his festival line-ups. There was a good balance of old and new talent. Pleased to see a younger band like Red Butler on the main stage as well as some great women. I particularly liked Debbie Bonds set.
There was a swirl of excitement in Cleethorpes as a rumor was circulating that Wilco Johnson might make an appearance. I was gutted as I had arranged to stop of with some friends in York, and had to leave promptly after my spot, and thus would have missed him. As it turned out Wilco did not make an appearance, I know he is in the studio at the moment working on new material (according to Planet Rock), I don’t know the man personally- I’ve seen him play solo a few times now. He opened at Knebworth in 1978, roaming up and down the massive stage with an extra long, coiled white guitar lead (in the days before guitar radio mics!), and later in the 90’s at a bar gig in Islington. In the days when Islington was still edgy and had a vibrant pub based music scene.
After a quick guest spot in Leeds at the Gaslight Club on the following Monday, I drove home through the night. It was good to get home and I was keen to sleep in my own bed.
The Gas Light was one of many popular acoustic singer song – writer nights, that are popping up across the country. They offer younger performers a place to try out new material and to get important stage time where they can hone their performing skills. These nights attract very appreciative audiences who sit and listen intently. They remind me of a lot of the Folk Clubs I went to (and played) in the late 70’s early 1980’s.
I had a few days in Brighton, time to catch up on the Laundry, restringing guitars and then it was off again, to do three gigs at Glastonbury in the Poetry Tent. I was to accompany Roy (Hutchins) performing some of Heathcote William’s short poems. Roy has been performing Heathcote’s work for many years; Heathcote is a bit of a hermit, preferring to send Roy out to voice and perform his work. In addition to the fun of performing with Roy, a high spot for me was watching John Hegley. Once again I saw this poetic ‘magician’ turn a tent full of tired, stoned festival goers into bright eyed 6 year olds, sitting up attentively watching and performing the actions in ‘The Gillimot’, one of John’s festival standards. I Love it. Gigs done, fun had and joy of joys – no mud! It was a dry Glastonbury this year. No Glastonbury Festival next year, it will be a ‘fallow’ year.
After another short break at home I set out, once again with Roy. This time he would be accompanying me on keyboards. We had a lively night in Sidmouth at the Marine Bar performing our acoustic set, another repeat booking.
The Sidmouth gig was followed, by two performances of the: Nothing But The Blues show at the newish Shaftesbury Fringe Festival. This Fringe, in its second year, is a community- based affair based in the atmospheric and very picturesque town centre of Shaftesbury. It uses a range of pubs, hotels and established spaces as well as some more quirky venues, my favorite being the local cattle market. The sun shone and the very popular event was in full swing by the time we arrived at our first venue to set up. The streets were filled with bunting and lots of families and other locals enjoying the atmosphere. Our first gig was in the curiously titled Angola 76 (a local themed bar). It was heaving, Cally Beaton, a fab comedian was on ahead of us, standing on top of a couple of pallets and smashing it in the noisy room, they loved her. Cally had been performing at the Blue Man in Brighton during Brighton Fringe where I performed my story telling show Irish Jimmy.
Nothing But The Blues
On the following evening Roy and I were sitting in the evening sun, enjoying a pre gig beer when we got the news that Heathcote Williams had died. This was a shock as Roy who was a friend, and had worked with Heathcote for more than 30 years. Roy had seen him during the previous week, and he had appeared to be on the mend after a brief illness. There will be much written about this legend who spent his whole life writing, performing and engaged in activism on a range of issues, predominantly on the environment, producing a huge body of iconic work.
I had the honor and privilege to write and perform the music in one of his later polemic works called Poetry Can Fuck Off, later re-named- Fiery Tongues, for the more established poetry audiences who failed to appreciate the irony of the polemics’ title! I met him a couple of times, on one occasion he performed some conjuring tricks for which he was famous. I liked the man and I hope to be performing in the near future to honor and remember his genius.
Despite the shock of this news we decided to go ahead with the gig, knowing that Heatcote would have had more that a few words to say if we had cancelled. It was the first of many gigs I (we) will do to honor Heathcotes memory.
This seems like a good point to take a break from recounting my busiest year as a musician. Part two of the summer tour will appear soon.
‘Remember, If it ain’t the truth, it ain’t the blues’
© Copyright Mike ‘Dr Blue’ McKeon for British Blues Archive