Words & Pictures: Jon Theobold / Jon Theobald Photography
When I originally heard that a new blues festival was taking place in Gillingham – where I grew up – at a school with somewhat of a reputation at that time, I was in parts excited, curious and slightly nervous. On arriving at the newly-named Woodlands Arts Centre the latter emotion evaporated as I walked into not an old school hall, but now a purposely-fitted out theatre/concert space with a permanent lighting rig, powerful PA, black diorama drapes, tiered seating and a surprising number of people for a warm, sunny September Saturday afternoon.
Keen to kick the day’s music off, Kent Blues Collective co-organiser Steve Borkowski took to the stage to welcome the audience and introduce the first band of the day, The Robert J Hunter Band. Hailing from the Channel Islands, Robert has already amassed critical acclaim for both his songwriting and the powerful dirty blues sound he and fellow musicians James (bass) and Greg (drums) have honed in just a relatively few years of touring and recording.
Opening with the AC/DC-like riff of ‘Loving Unfortunately’, coincidentally the first track from the current self-titled album (actually the band’s fourth), they started the festival with a strong, catchy tune that got many a foot tapping after the first few beats and Robert’s clean-cut looks belying his characteristic deep, gruff voice. More conventional blues-chords introduced ‘Rumour Mill’ followed by ‘Mr. Winter’. iTunes Blues chart no.1 single ‘Suzy’ was next up, with the tight backing rhythm from Greg and a melodic bassline from James.
Robert was genuinely surprised by the already three-quarters-full nature of the room, despite the allure of some Autumn sunshine and the early start, and the band enthusiastically rattled through what seemed a much shorter than the 12-song set it was – to me always the sign of a great band. Finishing to great applause with the slower paced ‘The Fool’ and ‘Flaws’, they certainly made a memorable start to the festival.
Taking the stage next were The Della Grants, a five-piece band from Leicester, founded in 2014 and fronted by old friends Max Manning and Tom Best. Their blend of laid-back rock, blues and Americana was amply demonstrated in their first two songs ‘Too Fast’ and ‘Wayward Man’ with keyboardist Tony Robinson breaking out the trumpet and [muffler] on the latter. The Hawaiian-style shirts the band wore somehow typified the lighter, musically more colourful sound that has become their trademark style. With Max and Tom sharing vocal and guitar duties and the rhythm section of Andy Boulton (bass) and Tom Walker (drums) having played together for over a decade, the band have both variety and a solid stage presence. In addition, they have a strong catalogue of original tracks, but aren’t afraid to dip into blues history and pluck Little Walter’s ‘Hate To See You Go’ out from the fifties – more recently covered by The Rolling Stones on their Blues and Lonesome album. Set staples ‘Gone’, ‘More Than Pray’ and ‘Midnight Special’ mixed up the tempo before the DGs (as they are known) finished with the high-energy ‘Red Mist’.
The DGs’ youthful looks were sharply contrasted with the next artist – the legend that is Del Bromham. Del, who was the founder and guitarist/songwriter with 70s rock band Stray, has been touring recently with his Blues Devils Band and took the middle-slot at the festival. It became immediately obvious that many of the audience knew Del and his former band well as he sauntered, nattily behatted, onto the stage to rousing cheers. With a knowing smile and the glance at the audience of a seasoned performer, Del struck up the first chords to Bobby Bland’s ‘This Time I’m Gone For Good’ and (somewhat appropriately given the venue) the lesson in old-school rock and blues began. Notes and tracks flowed effortlessly from Del’s Fender Strat and vintage Gibson guitars as you might expect from someone with 50+ years of experience (as he selflessly confessed to) on the frets. The driving riffs of ‘House of Love’ and more melodic ‘Slave’ from his solo album Devil’s Highway gave way to ‘You Don’t Know How I Feel’ and ‘The Ballad of JD’ (yes a song about that THAT whiskey man) from Nine Yards. Stray fans were rewarded with the classic ‘After The Storm’ and then a couple more solo songs before Del finished up with the old Traffic number ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’.
When the Kent Blues promotors were faced with the challenge of ‘how to follow that?’ they chose wisely by asking harmonica virtuoso Will Wilde to take the penultimate slot. Striding onto the stage wearing a bandolier, filled not with shotgun cartridges but harmonicas, Will cut a striking stance with his Norse god-like blond hair and muscular stature, and almost literally blew the audience away.
Starting with a track from his Unleashed 2010 debut album, ‘If I Get My Hands On You’, Will then continued to select his from his impressive range of custom-tuned harmonicas to match his versions of original songs and covers – at one point playing two harmonicas at the same time. ‘Angel Came Down’ and ‘Can’t Hold Out’ from the second album, before focussing on the current release Bring It On Home, with ‘Locomotive Breath’. After ‘Bonnie To My Clyde’, Will chatted about the current single and how he was inspired by Gary Moore and wanted to honour him with a unique harmonica rendition of ‘Parisienne Walkways’. As if that wasn’t enough to display his virtuosity, Will then started up with the opening chords of Black Sabbath’s ‘The Wizard’ to an in-awe audience. Finishing with ‘Lazy’, also off the current album, both Will and the crowd drew a well-deserved collective breath and shuffled to the bar to replenish and await the headliner.
Kris Barras really needed little introduction by co-organiser Steve, as he is one of the hardest working British blues musicians around. Sandwiching this gig in-between his current Divine and Dirty album tour and being straight back out on the road supporting Joanne Shaw Taylor, Kris and the band took to the stage as if it was the first night. Starting with the up-tempo ‘Heart On Your Sleeve’ from his Lucky 13 album, Kris and the band (JJ Manning – keyboards, Elliott Blackler – bass and Will Beavis – drums) ploughed through the rocket-fuelled bluesy ‘Kick Me Down’, ‘Stitch Me Up’ and ‘Blood on Your Hands’, before taking a breath and delivering a new song ‘What A Way To Go’ and the classic Creedence Clearwater Revival cover ‘Fortunate Son’.
It was hard to notice that Kris was suffering from the effects of a cold that had struck the entire band twice on the tour as he launched into the rock radio station’s 2018 playlist favourites ‘Propane’ and ‘Hail Mary’. It transpired that Kris had to cancel a show a few days later – his first in twenty years. Pausing for a break after ‘Small Town Blues’ for Will’s drum solo, ‘Nothing to Hide’ segued into ‘I Don’t Want The Blues’. A quick guitar change for ‘She’s More Than Enough’, started the last leg of the set.
Kris dedicated the next track ‘Watching Over Me’ to his father, who passed away a few years ago and was an enormous influence on Kris’ life and music career. Kris told the audience his dad gave him his first guitar when he was six and how he used to play his first gig at age nine in his Dad’s band!
The kick of the bass drum and Kris’ foot stomping launched into the driving (and audience sing-a-long) ‘Lovers Or Losers’ which closed the set on a high, the packed auditorium applauding with aplomb. The three festival organisers Steve, Andy Davies and Mark Matthews took to the stage to thank the bands, audience and the crew and staff at the venue before inviting Kris and the band back on stage for a rousing encore of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Running Through My Veins’.
This little festival surprisingly excelled in a number of ways: the venue was superb, combining seating and floorspace with inky black backdrops helping focus the audience on the bands; the PA and Vic Wintergreen the sound engineer filled the room with full, crystal clear, never distorted notes all day long and the organisers pulled a first class bill together for less than a fiver per band. A temporary bar and hot-food from the onsite café, served by cheery and enthusiastic staff ensured everyone would be fed and watered all day long. My only wish for next year, would be that the addition of a couple of varilite-type lights to add some more colour, wash and spotlight movement for the artists on the stage.
Thanks to the Kent Blues Collective for putting the show on, support from charity FORM, the Sevenoaks Guitar Centre and Neil Kay.