Blues In Britain Volume 1 Issue 73 £4.25 ISBN 1475-9721
The Steve Darrington Band
The Grand Hotel, Swanage 17 November 2007
Those highly influential men of the blues Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy and George Gershwin were born in the same two years the Grand Hotel was being constructed. Over 100 years later the hotel was still standing majestically gazing over Swanage Bay, but tonight the place was rocking to the Steve Darrington Band!
A veteran of 50 albums and one-time house pianist at the legendary Blues Loft in High Wycombe, Steve moved to Swanage after many years of touring and started the Swanage Blues Festivals. An accident three years ago put him in a wheelchair, but tonight he was walking again and back leading his band on piano and organ.
Sharing the frontman honours was harmonica wizard Hugh Budden, with Somerset swing drummer Steve Groves and experienced local bassist Tommy Marsh completing the ensemble.
Steve Darrington has a holistic approach, establishing the mood with a mid-range rhythm to get everybody settled, before breaking away in flights of fancy and cascades of notes, prodding and encouraging the others to try new ideas. Throughout the evening his wry sense of humour kept bubbling up to delight and entertain us.
Boogie woogie is his stock in trade, as is his optimistic philosophy and both were encapsulated in “Meet Me At The Bottom And I’ll Take You Right To The Top”. But there’s a lot more to this man.
Steve took the simple song “Bright Lights, Big City” and drew us in to a private world of hurt emotions before astounding us with an eyes-wide-shut jazz-tinged piano solo. Not done yet, he enacted an argument between the slighted male and female transgressor with some vocal gymnastics that had us in fits of laughter. And that was just one song!
His version of “Hound Dog” started gently with a rolling New Orleans piano feel that slowly moved through a DJ-type cross fade into an explosive, driving rock tour de force on screaming Hammond that took me back to the great festivals of the 1970s.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get no higher, Hugh Budden took over the honours as front man and the energy levels went through the roof.
Ex-Producers Hugh is a consummate professional on harmonica and vocals whether leading The Ju Ju Men and Blues Etc or working with guitarist Pete Harris, but tonight in the company of Steve and the sidemen, he was on fire.
No additional effects were needed, no quarter given as Hugh’s harp honked, cajoled, moaned, screamed and wailed its way into that part of us that makes us feel good to be alive.
The audience lapped up favourites such as “She’s Tuff” and “On The Road Again”, as well as the original self-penned tongue-in-cheek composition “Top It Up”, about an unsuccessful mobile phone romance.
On “Help Me”, the Hammond laid down that “Green Onions” riff while the whole band managed to capture the twists, turns and fusion of grooves from the classic original. Steve, no mean harmonica player himself, provided a totally sympathetic accompaniment to Hugh’s soulful performances.
But hey, this evening was also about Fun! While Steve ruled the roost from behind his keyboards, Hugh was mobile and out among the audience with his radio mic and flashing zebra-patterned shoes.
Looking round the audience it was a long time since some of them had got their mojos working, but local keep-fit instructress Jan shook her maracas on Pretty Thing, and everybody joined in to exalt the names of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and the crowd pleaser “Mustang Sally”.
It was only on the way home that my companion and I discussed the absence of a guitarist. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good guitar, but tonight was, well, different… with a great deal of subtlety and interplay between the keyboards and harmonica that we might otherwise have missed.
Good on yer Steve! Thanks for a great evening, for keeping going in the face of adversity, and we look forward to your next performance and your next festival.
The Grand Hotel is one of the 18 free admission venues taking part in Steve’s 8th Swanage Blues Festival on 7, 8, 9 March 2008. There’s a wide range of accommodation available throughout the town, but The Grand is doing bed, breakfast and evening meal for only £60 per person per night, see www.swanage-blues.org
(Reproduced by kind permission of
Blues In Britain magazine )
Steve Darrington, ex-pianist with The Boogie Band, was making his first solo appearance in Wycombe's haven for artists, poets and musicians, who had turned out in force to see what he had to offer. Considering his impeccable CV - appearances with amongst others Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, Billy Boy Arnold, The Mighty Flea, Mark Knopfler before he was famous, Lonnie Donegan, Don Everly and Albert Lee, and with over 50 albums to his credit - our curiosity was rightly whetted.
Steve's repertoire reflected his extensive musical background as he switched effortlessly between barrelhouse, blues and boogie woogie classics from Albert Ammons, Memphis Slim, and Otis Spann to the jazz-blues of Dave Brubeck's "It's A Raggy Waltz" and Mose Allison-influenced standards such as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore". His rich voice was particularly suited to favourites such as "Kansas City" and "Sweet Home Chicago" and his ability to set up different rhythms with his left hand while playing flowing melodic lines with his right and singing across the beat at the same time, was both fascinating and exciting.
As he sat at the piano, eyes closed and body swaying, a customer whispered to me "He's so natural, he could be at home playing for himself" and his performance is indeed a lesson in relaxation. The evening closed with a surprising but beautiful instrumental version of "That Old Devil Called Love" because "The landlord and landlady just got married and anyway tomorrow's St Valentine's Day", reminding me of the top blues entertainers who are not afraid to step outside the genre. The delighted crowd refused to leave and he came back with a borrowed harmonica and surprised everybody yet again by giving a virtuoso display combining licks acknowledging Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson.
All in all, an extremely enjoyable evening by a man whose career spans four decades and who should, in my opinion, be much more widely known than he is at present. Catch him if you can. Compelling.