blues festival:
Songbook one could still at times see evidence of the rapport between the two men that made their long partnership so magical as on a chucklesome “Cocaine Cowboy” where McDowell’s embellishment of the lyrics with enthusiastic snorting and equine sound effects was matched by witty instrumental interjections from Armstrong.

McDowell, still a singer who combines massive power with great sensitivity, sang with compelling authority on “Willin’”, which featured an elegant solo from Armstrong while the raw power of “Hoochie Coochie Man” blew the audience away.

Armstrong also guested with Taste, who are now led by drummer John Wilson from the band’s classic Rory Gallagher-fronted line-up, playing scintillating slide on, again, “Hoochie Coochie Man” and thrilling the audience with his old showcase “Summertime”.

“Will you please be upstanding for the National Anthem,” requested Wilson at one point before the band launched into a rampaging, wildly exciting version of “Gloria”, a song that is indeed an anthem in Northern Ireland.

“In 2007 I was at BB King’s club in New York recording a live album with the Yardbirds and thinking that it doesn’t get any better than this – but it does: playing our own songs to our own audience is better,” proclaimed Mercy Lounge harmonica player Bill Miskimmin, who has returned to live in Belfast.  “An obvious nutter,” I hear you say, but the sentiment seemed heartfelt and the band electrified the audience with convincing originals and interpretations of the likes of “On The Road Again” and “Wang Dang Doodle”.

“The band is about to get 150% better looking,” announced guitarist Ronnie Greer as he brought on stage guest singer/guitarist Grainne Duffy. Which was a massive understatement. Still, leaving aside the relative levels of beauty between the twenty-something Duffy and the beer-bellied, white-haired, balding veterans of Greer’s Almost Big Band, the musical match was sublime.

On “Wild Horses”, Duffy’s performance was harrowing while a sizzling “Rock Me Baby” left some of the men in the audience needing revived.

Woodstock Rhythm & Blues Festival, Belfast

11 – 15 August 2011

A standing ovation after the opening number is a new one on me but the reunion after nearly twenty five years of singer Kenny McDowell and guitarist Jim Armstrong was an intensely emotional experience for the Belfast audience who took to their feet after the duo began their set with Russell Smith’s “One Love”.

Why the emotional outburst? Well, during the Troubles, when Belfast was consumed by darkness and convulsed with brutal sectarian hatred, McDowell and Armstrong, as well as playing as a duo, fronted a series of world class blues-based bands, their gigs providing an oasis of sanity for local hipsters during grim years.

Armstrong, an ex-Them guitarist, now lives in retirement in Las Vegas, where he has been recovering from a stroke, while the locally-based McDowell is now also virtually retired. For local fans, then, to see such revered legends together again felt like a miracle.

Inevitably there were moments of raggedness but in a set that ranged from blues to country to Western Swing to rock to The Great American

Greer himself soloed throughout with searing intensity, on the likes of “That’s All Right” and “Reconsider Baby”, which somehow incorporated “Bags’ Groove”.

Jazzers Linley Hamilton (trumpet) and David Howell (tenor) soloed exhilaratingly, the band’s Rolls Royce rhythm section, Alan Hunter (bass) and Colm Fitzpatrick (drums), played with customary panache and keyboard player Johnny McCullough’s playing on “Roll ‘Em Pete” and elsewhere was exemplary
The Pontiax played solid, hard-hitting versions of “Big Legged Woman”, “Worried About My Baby” and “Blow Wind Blow”.

The Mike Wilgar Band impressed with tight versions of standards like “Key To The Highway”, “High Heel Sneakers” and “The Thrill Is Gone” and several effective originals with Wilgar himself contributing tough harmonica and growled vocals.

Eric Bell, whose playing was bracingly unpredictable, performed mightily powerful versions of “The Things That I Used To Do” and “Killing Floor” and touchingly dedicated “Whiskey In The Jar” to his late friend Gary Moore. – Trevor Hodgett
Blues in Britain October 2011    
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