So we slept (I think), had our traditional off-site reunion lunch, and arrived and back just in time to catch the closing minutes of Belgium’s Belle Starr and the Boot Jacks, new, refreshing and strongly western-influenced with four-piece line-up augmented with steel guitar and closing to a warm reception in the Queen Vic in what’s often a bit of a graveyard slot but the afternoon’s attendance reflecting both the quality of the band and the appetite of the Rave crowd to fit in as much as possible. From there it was straight next door where the room was already filling up in anticipation of the set by Red Hot Riot, another of the young bands enjoying their Rave debut. Hailing from the Forest of Dean, the band are very much in the Stray Cats mode but are certainly no copycats. With strong vocals on a range of original numbers and confident backing, you can see why they’re making their mark with those with a taste for their rockabilly played loud and with a dash of neo. Back to the Queen Vic for the pilgrimage that is the Vinyl Junkies, where desirable 45s make their inexorable journey around the community of addicts while Bill Smoker and Tall Mark whet the appetite by playing all the stuff you’re unlikely to find.
Fortunately, it was easy to nip back and forth from immersion in record-related chat to catch the rest of the afternoon’s bands, including Danny ‘O’ and the Astrotones, newly reduced to a three-piece with Danny Dawkins taking over lead guitar duties along with vocals – a task for which he is admirably qualified. Like Red Hot Riot before them, this is stretching the boundaries of rockabilly, and Danny wouldn’t deny that there is a major influence from some of the wilder early 60s records he collects and spins, but it’s done with immense conviction and energy and a sense of showmanship that reflects Danny’s total absorption in the genre. An afternoon of high energy performances in the downstairs hall culminated in a frantic performance by the petite La Perra Blanco and her band who seemed to have made up for lack of sleep after a gig elsewhere the previous night by downing an entire tube of blue Smarties before stepping on stage. From the beginning, the pace was relentless, but the powerhouse vocalist/guitarist, her equally charged bass player and rock steady drummer gave no quarter. She’s a fine guitarist, with a distinctive voice and great stage presence, and I’ve a feeling we’ll be seeing her as a regular at UK events.
There was barely time to draw breath before the action moved upstairs for a reunion performance from the Crawdads, back together for the first time in 15 years for a storming set of classic four-piece rockabilly, kicking off with ‘How Can You Be Mean to Me’ and not letting go as they ranged across their past catalogue. With a driving bass line, their numbers were taken at a more relaxed pace than the frantic newcomers of the afternoon’s sessions, but with no loss of power and impact. Another reformed band were the Scorchers, forerunners of the Infernos. Although at first glance in the mould of many of the other Rave bands – a four-piece outfit performing a range of covers and their own originals – they rose above the generic for a hugely enjoyable set from a band who consistently mastered their material and the much underrated art of making each number distinct from the last. There’s something special about hearing tunes we all know intimately and enjoying hearing them live, rather than being reminded of now much we love the original record – not easy when at the same time the band’s also trying to stay true to the original too.
The Saturday night delights reached their pinnacle in the two headline bands from the US. First up was Deke Dickerson, a Rave stalwart in various guises and this time fronting the Whippersnappers, a back-to-basics rockabilly three-piece featuring Centuries’ Bert Avalos and Zander Griffith on guitar and bass respectively on their first outing to the UK. This must be what it was like to visit the Opry or the Hayride: a well-established figure backed by two talented newcomers, country-tinged and all the more credible for it – the real roots of rockabilly. A marvellous set ended with Bobby Trimble joining them on stage for a superb rendition of ‘Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor’ before that saw Deke, Bert and Zander constantly swapping instruments without missing a beat. Deke is truly a giant of our scene (quite apart from being ridiculously tall): performer, curator, rescuer of distressed elderly recording equipment and seeker out of exciting new talent as well as veteran originals. Now that we won’t need so many knighthoods for Russian oligarchs, can we give him one for services to rockabilly?
And then the Bellfuries were back. We thought we’d attended their farewell performance a few years back (and what an emotional gig that was), then their comeback fell victim to illness and the pandemic, but here they were, with their original bass player restored to their ranks and sounding as good as ever. If a single band personifies the Rave, it’s got to be the Bellfuries – creating new music in the authentic country/rockabilly idiom and so providing the soundtrack to our lives over the past 10 plus years. They unashamedly led off with the key tracks from their seminal ‘Just Plain Lonesome’, album interspersed with newer material presaged by Joey in his on-line lockdown sessions. It only goes to prove that rockabillies are at heart a sentimental bunch and that a unique voice like Joey’s, authentic musicianship and tunes you can hum are a combination that’s been the secret of popular music since it began.
After a Bellfuries set, it’s hard to pick up the atmosphere for the last act in the main hall, but the Nite Howlers from France were equal to the task, cutting straight into ‘Because You’re Mine’ (can’t beat a bit of Columbia Perkins) and keeping up the quality through a strong set, capturing the essence of the original recordings but with their own sound, dropping in their own numbers, and holding a respectable proportion of the crowd away from the club session downstairs.
The Saturday night delights weren’t over, as the Truffle Valley Boys took to the Queen Vic stage in the small hours. The runes were promising – including veterans of the scene attending their first weekender in many years just to catch them – and the packed room of fellow musicians and roots music afficionados testified to their appeal. And the reality didn’t disappoint: four guys – bass, banjo, acoustic and dobro – a single mike, a footlight stage, and stunningly authentic bluegrass sounds played at a devilish lick. These fellas hail from Italy, yet they sound like they’ve stepped straight out of some remote radio station in Kentucky, and I was waiting for an announcer to step up and start advertising cattle feed and baling twine. Absolutely breathtaking.
Sadly, work and domestics dragged us away on Sunday morning, meaning that we missed not only sets from Legacaster, The Hoodoo Tones, Doel Brothers, Matt and the Peabody Ducks, The Rimshots, Sonny West and The Spuny Boys, but also the chance to hear Paul Wragg talk about the creative process behind his ‘Teds, Rebels, Hepcats & Psychos’ book. To them – and to any of the bands I didn’t manage to see enough of to do you justice or get down all the details of line-up, here’s to the next time. We left with the feeling that the enforced drought of the pandemic has done the scene good. The crowd looked good – lots of original clothing, sharp haircuts and a welcome increase in younger faces putting us to shame on the dance floor. The bands were well-chosen, varied but all eminently watchable, the DJs kept the dance floors full, the stallholders tempted us with quality merchandize and the atmosphere was buzzing from the moment we arrived. To all of them, and of course Jerry and his team at the heart of it, thank you – it’s good to be back.
All photos by the awesome Tony Bruce, who must have slept at some point but I’m not sure when!