I feel a bit of a lightweight writing up one of the Marcel Bontempi gigs that Colin Silcocks staged in Cannock in March, because the whole concept of his visit to the UK was to present a double-header showcasing the two sides of Herr Bontempi’s talents in a pair of themed nights, the first with a solidly rockabilly sound and the second exploring the western swing talents of Marcel’s Snake Oil Company. But domestics prevented us from doing both nights, and the Friday night’s feast of rockabilly was too good to let pass without coverage. As ever with Colin’s gigs, one band and one DJ is never enough for him, so the event kicked off at 5.00 pm with the first of four live sets interspersed with three DJs (sadly too early for us to fight our way through the Friday night M5/M6 gridlock). That was a real shame, as the first band up was the Tennessee Hotshots, down to provide backing for the main attraction and of which more later. We arrived just in time to hear Annaleigh spin her last record before Ruby and the Prowlers took the stage, delivering a solid and enthusiastic set with the eponymous Miss Ruby (Harley Botham) on bass, along with Andy Bradley, Derrick Botham and Trevor Magson. A brief session on the decks from Mac’s Wax gave time for the Hayriders to set up, not a band I’d seen before, but when we saw Ricky McCann and Pat Reyford preparing to take the stage we knew we were in for a good set. Ricky, of course, took the drummer’s seat, with Pat joining him in the backline on stand-up bass, sharing vocals with Neil Wright on rhythm guitar and with Darren Lince completing the line-up on lead guitar. In keeping with the theme for the evening, they stuck to a hard core rockabilly playlist, but not without some playful vocal exchanges between Neil and Pat, not least an eccentric rendition of ‘Ain’t Got No Home’.
Although Colin took to the decks as the Hayriders came off stage, the break in proceedings was short and the crowd quickly started seizing prime positions for the headline act – and weren’t disappointed. The venue was perfect for Marcel and Miss Ira’s blend of style, humour, and full-on rockabilly musicality, with the band and audience on the same level and almost nose to nose. I’ve written it before, but this guy is obscenely talented – great songwriter, great guitar player, witty front man, and when he’s not actually on stage, a graphic artist with a genuine 50s flair. The playlist drew heavily on his Witches, Spiders, Frogs and Holes album, which was a good thing as we’d have lynched him if it didn’t, but there was also the usual sprinkling of standards, including Wayne and Jimmy’s ‘Love Me’, and his own more recent tracks like Haunted House. Miss Ira Lee, as ever, brought her own sense of humour to the proceedings, along with a rock solid rhythm guitar and a keen ear for the PA set-up which ensures that the audience are going to hear what they’ve come for. The Tennessee Hotshots were an inspired choice of backing band, clearly determined to achieve the Bontempi sound faithfully, but with their own talent shining through. We were particularly absorbed by Martin Barrett’s work on lead guitar – his ability to complement Marcel’s own guitar licks whilst laying down something distinctive of his own put me in mind of Glen Campbell’s work (there’s a slight physical resemblance there, too). Sy and Paddy on bass and drums respectively were spot on, too – you’d have thought that the whole group played together regularly.
After a night of storming rockabilly, it was hard to believe that Marcel, Miss Ira and the DJs would be back the following night with a complete change of mood , to be joined by the Hoedowners, the Hot House Four, and Glenn Doran performing a tribute to Hank Williams. Given the recommendations we were getting from old and trusted friends in the audience, we’d dearly loved to have been able to get back for it, and after reading about it on social media afterwards, we were gutted we hadn’t – heigh ho. Thanks go yet again to Colin Silcocks for his dedication in making sure the West Midlands has a string of great rockin’ events, and here’s hoping that it won’t be too long before Marcel Bontempi comes back again.
This article first appeared in Now Dig This, the UK’s longest running magazine devoted to the Big Beat scene.