The Songs of Chuck Berry / Andy Fairweather Low and guests

Southern Fried Festival:
Perth Concert Hall
27th July 2017

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What you have to remember when you read any review from Perth’s Southern Fried Festival is that it will only scratch the surface. There’s so much going on, not only in Perth Concert Hall, but outside, and in venues all over the burgh. Some of it is free, some events are ticketed. But the point is that although the reviewed gig may be over and done, by the time you read it there may still be time to nip down to Perth and catch something else, or at least to get a plate of soul food. And you can make a note to get in on the action next year – the festival has been going for ten years and shows no sign of stopping.

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It’s often said of the late Chuck Berry that he only wrote two songs – My Ding-a-Ling and the other one. That’s a little unfair. It’s true that he recycled intros, solos, licks and tricks, riffs and biffs, and even whole tunes, but there was never a single song that didn’t feel original when you heard it. In the opinion of Geraint Watkins, who played electric piano on the night for Andy Fairweather Low’s Hi Riders, as well as bagging some solo spots, any songwriter who could come up with lines like “I was campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat” was a poet, pure and simple. I think that in Nadine Chuck Berry fought against the impulse to make that “Southern Democrat” as a dig at Governor George Wallace, but still as a songwriter he had a simple, imaginative genius for narrative.

Time was when the folks at Southern Fried made the introductory concert of the long weekend a kind of casual affair, with artistes sitting at café tables and strolling over to the microphone to give an unplugged tribute to a chosen songwriter. Now, with Andy Fairweather Low and the Hi Riders hosting and providing the musical platform, what you have is a full-on gig. Of course it asks visiting singers and players to step out of their comfort zone, sometimes to have to read the lyrics from a music stand – perform a kind of all-star karaoke, if you like – but what is eventually produced is a compilation of interpretations, not covers. This is because of the diversity of the performers. Two peripheral things struck me. Firstly the fact that the combined value of guitars on stage must have been astronomical. Secondly that the stage crew’s activities were perfectly choreographed, as they changed mics and mic-stands, handed over and took back instruments, making the sharp-eyed aware that the night’s performance was not as ad-hoc as all that.

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Andy Fairweather Low is still the King of Bustle, hustle-bustling around the stage in his immaculate mohair suit. “I’m not a good guitarist,” he lied. What he isn’t is a shredder in a smoke-and-lights stadium band; what he is is a solid, rocking, R&B guitarist, with fifty years of practice. His solos drove along most of the performances tonight, and what they didn’t drive they backed up. Not all the guests were on the bill – there were one or two surprises. James Hunter turned up and rocked it, as you would expect. Andy and James were on the same wavelength, although I believe this was the first time they had met, let alone played together. Angeleena Presley brought her young son on stage to duet on Hail, Hail Rock and Roll.

Chuck Berry wanted to be a Country and Western singer, and in fact thought of himself as that. This was brought home when the likes of Doug Seegers tackled Oh Carole, or during an unplugged interval when Flats and Sharps delivered a bluegrass version of Sweet Little Sixteen. For Promised Land Geraint Watkins stepped forward with a small, dry-tuned piano accordion and paid tribute to Johnnie Allen’s version and Belton Richard’s Cajun playing style.

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Cyndi Cain

I mustn’t leave out any of the performers, or their interpretations. The Hi Riders are an enlarged version of Andy’s Low Riders, with added keyboards and horns, and they gave a lot of body to the sound (but see my overall views on sound, below). Cyndi Cain, with her soaring voice turned I Do Really Love You into a soul ballad. Hamish Stuart made Havana Moon into something so cool, so laid back, that it almost took on a spooky sound. Amythyst Kiah – oh how I love her voice, her intense, serious delivery! – turned It’s My Own Business into a relaxed country blues. Steve Gibbons, barely touching his Gibson Les Paul, managed to inject a little Elvis into No Money Down. Throughout there were jazz, country, blues, rock, and big band echoes. The final ensemble numbers provided the nearest you could get, this side of the pond, to the Louisiana Gator Boys. The audience was by then, of course, on its feet.

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Flats &  Sharps

One or two things didn’t work. The Concert hall is a great venue, but trying to balance the sound in such a switch-and-swatch format must be a nightmare; as a result some solos tended to get lost. But it was a party. Maybe it would have been more of a party if they actually had sung My Ding-a-Ling and got us to join in, but you can’t have everything!

Reviewed by Paul Thompson

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