What with Colin Silcocks filling West Midlands venues with top acts, and the gang down at Burnham on Sea mounting a weekly live gig, we’re getting spoiled for choice along the rocking M5/6 corridor, but March saw us tossed on the proverbial horns, with Danny Brown offering a marathon session of top DJs in Stoke, and Rusty ‘Rockaphonic’ Brookes enticing Big Sandy and the Fly Rite Boys to Bath. Fortunately, the decision was made for us by domestic factors and Bathwards we went, and what a gig it turned out to be. The Chapel Arts Centre isn’t your usual Big Beat venue, being more used to the ‘sit politely at your table and watch’ type entertainment, but Rusty’s charm with the staff ensured that an area in front of the stage was left clear for dancing to his superb selection of records and, most importantly, for us to get up close to the big guy from California and his select band of musicians.
As he reminded us, Robert ‘Big Sandy’ Williams has been a regular on the UK scene since his first weekender appearance in 1991, hot on the heels of his first album with the Fly Rite Trio and, although his backing line-up has changed over time, it has never been less than tight. A shining example of transatlantic cooperation sees US-born Sandy and bassist Kevin Stewart complemented by British rockers Ashley Kingman on lead guitar and Ricky McCann on drums and, although Ricky has been living back in the UK for the past couple of years, the four of them are obviously still totally at home together on stage.
Some excellent sound engineering and lighting, together with the intimacy of the venue compared with the conventional weekender ballroom, allowed Sandy and the boys to showcase the breadth of styles their long experience has allowed them to add to their repertoire. In particular, the combination of Sandy’s vocal range and Ashley’s guitar styles, complemented by Ricky’s inventive rhythms and Kevin’s flawless timing, made for some lovely forays into more country-oriented numbers, along with some So-Cal and Hawaiian influences. Moving away from their programmed set list, and following a trip to the newly-rebuilt memorial a short drive away, we were treated to an Eddie Cochran tribute in ‘Three Steps to Heaven’, something that in less competent hands would have come across as trite but in expert hands oozed sincerity as well as musicianship.
And of course there was rockabilly – lots of rockabilly, fantastic rockabilly, fuelled by the endless supply of tequila shots making their way to the stage, and given an extra lift by the relaxed banter of a band clearly amongst friends and having as good a time as we were listening to them. It was especially good to see Ashley back on stage after his urgent hospitalisation had caused the band to cancel last year’s tour. Whatever the docs did to him certainly worked as his guitar work was better than ever, giving a real edge to the sound of four superb musicians, steeped in the sounds of the Big Beat, and making two 45-minute sets fly past. He even managed to upstage his own guitar solos by breaking into an impromptu version of Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ in the moments after one tray of Tequila went flying.
These short UK tours by established US-based artists are a jewel in the UK rock’n’roll scene crown, especially for those of us who can’t manage more than the very occasional weekender. Big thanks to Rusty and all the other gig organisers who pulled this one together and, of course, even bigger thanks to Big Sandy, Ashley, Ricky and Kevin for an evening to cherish – come back soon!