We’re more likely to get excited about a good record hop than a live band, but when Big Sandy and the Flyrite Boys hit the country it’s an event not to be missed. Their short pre-Xmas tour was a true UK event, with appearances top, bottom and far left and right of these isles. Strictly speaking. Penarth was the closest for us, but the gravitational pull of the Smoke and the chance to catch up with old pals for the last gig of the tour was too great a draw, so we found ourselves just a few days before Christmas striding up the Gray’s Inn Road to the Water Rats pub and venue.
Sure enough, the pub was crowded even before the doors to the venue at the rear were opened, and the boys had to combine final preparations with renewing old acquaintances as they tried to make their way in and out. We dived in as soon as possible, and seized a spot at the corner of the stage, though the venue is intimate enough that no one was going to be far back from the action. On a night like this, there was going to be no room to dance, so promoter Little Carl just set the mood with some suitable country bop.
Support act for the tour was John Lewis (the Real one) performing his solo bluesy set accompanying himself on guitar and footboard. In a cosy venue like the Water Rats, surrounded by a partisan crowd, the selection of self-penned, reflective and often self-deprecating numbers went down a treat, showcasing the talents of an individual who has been part of the live rockin’ music scene for a very long time, yet who has retained his innate modesty and humour (not to mention the penchant for the odd tipple that forms a theme for many of his songs!). Half an hour flew by and the stage was quickly set for the main event.
At the end of an intense tour, with a lot of travelling and socializing with a passionate bunch of British fans, you could tell that the band were loose, totally in each other’s groove, and ready to make this a suitable end to the tour. As an added treat, the Flyrite Trio’s original bass player, Wally Hersom, was back on board to join current Flyrite Boys, both Brits: guitarist Ashley Kingman and drummer Ricky McCann. This set the scene for a setlist that ranged across Big Sandy’s career, from when he made his first acclaimed visits at the end of the 80s and covering nearly a quarter of a century since. That element of retrospection was heightened by the presence in the crowd of Barney Koumis, who’d recorded the band at Toe Rag Studios for his No Hit Record company, and DJ Mouse, who’d championed Big Sandy’s records on the dance floors of his clubs. That brought Mouse on stage to be reunited with Ashley Kingman, with whom he’d appeared in both Red Hot and Blue and the Space Cadets, and to duet with Sandy on a couple of Burnette Brothers numbers.
Otherwise, apart from a couple of nods to the festive season in ‘Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me’ and ‘Jingle Bells’, the night belonged to the Big Sandy back catalogue. The spirit of the night lent itself to a harder rocking set, with Ashley letting rip on the solos and Sandy pushing his voice to the limit. As ever, the performance was punctuated by the delivery of fresh drinks to the stage and, in one slightly bizarre moment, a burly cab driver working his way to the front to deliver two packets of cat treats for Ashley’s pet – ‘You can’t get ‘em in the States’, he informed us.
The grubby set list I rescued from the stage afterwards tells me they must have performed around 20 numbers, and the proximity to closing time when they finally finished that they’d been on stage for well over an hour. It still felt too soon when, with licensing hours on their heels, they finally quit the stage. Although internationally renowned, Big Sandy and the Flyrite Boys have a spiritual home in the UK where their style and music chime perfectly with the UK rockabilly scene, and where small venues show them at their best. Let’s hope it’s not too long before they’re back here.
This article originally appeared in Now Dig This – reporting on the Big Beat for 40 years.