BluesWax Spotlight On
The Queen’s Head
August 24, 2012
By David Scott
Photos by Graham Smout
Rothbury Roots was started by Lindisfarne legend Rod Clements with the laudable aim of “keeping music live” in this picturesque village in the heart of Northumberland. His successor is the amiable Scotsman Andy Craig, local entrepreneur, professional photographer, and male voice chorister, who is doing a superb job in attracting the best in folk, blues, and roots music to this rural venue. Recent artists have included Johnny Dickinson, State of the Union, and Frenchman Claude Bourbon, such is the ambition to bring the best of American and European blues to the Simonside hills.
The visit of Michael Chapman filled the venue to its 100 capacity, with fans travelling from all over the country to see the 71-year-old self-confessed white bluesman, who turned professional in 1967 and has been touring ever since. His set opened with a medley of his train-song guitar compositions, including “The Last Polish Breakfast,” “Little Molly’s Dream,” and “Flahey’s Flag.” This virtuoso performance made Tommy Emmanuel look like Bert Weedon, as Chapman used the slide to sail effortlessly across the strings, complemented by intricate finger-picking, his thumb providing a deep, steady bass. Somehow he also added innovative riffs and solos, producing a mellifluous tone which put the audience in a trance, the subtleties in the notes and the spaces in between giving the listener time to reflect upon the music.
Not surprisingly, John Fahey is right in your head, but so is Kelly Joe Phelps and Mississippi John Hurt; above all Michael Chapman is unique. As Charles Shaar Murray explains, Chapman’s music grows from, “The gritty solidity of the blues, from fields to factories, from Delta electric slide to chugging overdriven funky electric, deeply rooted in struggle, sensuality, and hard work.” He tells stories in a Dylanesque kind of way but in a much gravellier voice, and his lyrics are inspired. In “Just Another Story,” a song about a truck stop waitress, he comes up with the immortal line, “ With her ponytail and pickup truck, she’s high on her heels but down on her luck.”
The riff underpinning “Kodak Ghosts” from the Survivor album is remarkably similar to Jimmy Page’s “Stairway To Heaven,” but Chapman got there first; enough said! Some of the songs are essentially in the folk idiom but the themes are rooted in the blues, such as the fear of “That Time Of Night,” the abandonment of “Shuffleboat River Farewell,” and the train journeys ubiquitous to both genres, encapsulated in “’The Mallard.” As Chapman was writing the latter on York station he reflected on how “It’s the glamour that gets you down.” Well, his existence may not seem glamorous to him but it is a glorious one for those who are priviliged to see and hear one of the best English guitarists and songwriters of his generation. This was confirmed by the encore, “La Madrugada,” a haunting, echoing, spellbound instrumental inspired by visits to churches in northern Italy and Spain where Chapman confessed, “I played to God in case there is one!”
Dave Scott is a contributing writer for BluesWax
About the Author: