When we caught Big Sandy in London during his tour last year, we were tempted to repeat the experience a couple of nights later when he played Penarth, so when we discovered he was appearing there for one of only two UK gigs in his ten-show 2023 European tour (the other being the Wildest Cats in Town weekender), we were off across the bridge to Wales like a shot. The gig was organized by the multi-talented John Lewis, who kicked off the proceedings with his one-man blues set, as featured in last year’s Big Sandy tour, but with the addition of local blues harp exponent Tony Thompson. Together they mastered a wide variety of John’s self-penned tunes along with classics from the likes of Sonny Terry, Little Walter and Doctor Ross – all familiar enough to highlight the quality of their performance.
And so to the Big Sandy show – and what a show. In contrast to the intense atmosphere of our previous gig, with the crowd packed in to the Water Rats’ space, the Penarth Club lent itself to a more relaxed performance, with the low stage in the heart of the room making for an intimate feel. It was clear, too, that John was intent on giving his local audience the best possible experience, with a finely mixed sound balance that brought out every nuance of the set list. Launching into ‘If You Should Come Back Today’, ‘I’m Through Dreaming’ and ‘Hold Me, Everything’s OK’, we knew that we were in for a set drawn from across the full span of the Big Sandy catalogue, from the band’s early days after forming in 1988 (during Wally Hersom’s first incarnation as the band’s bass player) and their first album, through the tunes that have hallmarked their many appearances before UK audiences. After a few more Big Sandy classics, including ‘Blackberry Wine’, ‘Spanish Dagger’ and both sides of the ‘Fine Fine Superfine’ single release, there was a diversion to explore the Freddy Fender songbook that has inspired Robert Williams’ journey through the Big Sandy stage persona, including the touching ‘I’ll Be There Before the Next Teardrop Falls’.
It wouldn’t be a Big Sandy gig without a couple of guest spots involving respected fellow musicians pulled from the audience and this was no exception, beginning naturally with John Lewis himself, joining the band on Johnny Burnette’s version of ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’. The next treat was local R&B guitar virtuoso Ruzz Evans who took over duties from Ashley Kingman for an excellent take on ‘Jumpin’ From Six to Six’ – it was the first time we’d encountered Ruzz but we’ll be looking out for more chances to catch him on stage. Back to the Big Sandy oeuvre, and no sign that the band were in any mood to wind up their ‘play for an hour or so’ set. A storming rendition of ‘Wildfire’ took Big Sandy out into the audience to serenade assorted ladies and, for a lighter touch, yours truly (a true NDT journalist brush with fame moment) before departing the stage on the classic ‘Chalk it Up to the Blues’. Of course, they weren’t getting away that easily, with drummer Ricky McCann the first to respond to the enthusiastic audience, and retake his seat. An encore of ‘Walk Me to the Door’ followed (we’ll forget the impromptu duet with the audience on ‘All My Loving’, though it was great fun), before they finally wound up almost two hours of performing with an all-guns-blazing ‘Miss Tracy’, with Ruzz Evans back on stage and duetting with Ashley on a single guitar, joined by a selection of audience members performing ‘clapper boy’ duties (including photographer Tony Bruce for once stepping the other side of the lens).
Whether on the big stage at a Weekender, a steamy city club in front of a crowd of friends and fellow musicians, or a friendly local rock’n’roll club, you can rely on Robert, Ashley, Ricky and Wally for a performance of fine musicianship, good humour and warmth, not to mention a whole bunch of fine south-western tinged rockabilly tunes. Huge thanks, too, go to John Lewis for giving us this unexpected winter treat.
This article originally appeared in Now Dig This magazine. Black and white photos by ace scene snapper, Tony Bruce.