Chris Harland Blues Band with Steve Russell

The Folkus Room 31 October

Steve Russell opened the night’s entertainment by playing Robert Johnson’s blues standard, Kind Hearted Woman, on his new ‘little parlour’ guitar, a wedding present from wife, Trudi. ‘The only up-side to losing your guitars is you get to buy new ones.’ (Is there anyone in Canberra who hasn’t heard about the theft of Steve Russell’s guitar collection, amongst many other precious items?)

Earlier in the evening, when I had expressed my sympathy for his terrible loss, Steve had just smiled and responded ‘I’m a Bluesman’. He sure is. And he left no doubt when next he offered Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out, recorded by Bessie Smith in 1929, followed by another song from that year, Blind Blake’s Diddy Wah Diddy, which Russell claims he has played for thirty-five years and never ‘got it right’. Sounded pretty good to me.

With a ‘might get the slide out’, Steve changed guitars to a gorgeous Resonator ‘one of the ones they didn’t get’ and launched into 1924’s C C Rider. Slide played on a metal body made such a pretty sound while Steve’s rich, deep voice had its own touch of reverb. It was a beautiful version. Then he moved on to Love In Vain, ‘another Robert Johnson song’ (I’m starting to think this guy’s a fan), complete with sad train sounds (and, sadly, yob sounds from the bar). For a surprise shift of genre, he performed Jimmy Cliff’s reggae number, Johnny Too Bad. It’s a great tune with an upbeat feel that defies its lyrics – which were not entirely devoid of a blues tone.

With a laugh, Russell continued with ‘must be time for another Robert Johnson song’ and started up a deep, deep humming intro to Come Into My Kitchen. Anyone who knows The Folkus Room will have seen the large image of RJ painted on the side curtain. I can’t be certain I saw him smile but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.

Robert Johnson

Spotted. At front-right of stage. A knitter in the audience. Seems there’s always one lately. Momentarily distracted by my knitter musings, the gorgeous sound of Steve’s guitar brings me back. Next up was Henry ‘Ragtime Texas’ Thomas’s Fishing Blues. ‘This is the oldest song I know…first learnt it off a Leadbelly album…he did it on a squeezebox.’ A fun song with a great beat, a real ditty. Russell introduced his next song, a Harry Manx number called Only Then Will Your House Be Blessed, and as he sang the lyrics ‘the blind lead the blind’ more pissed blather came wafting over the back wall. I think that’s called irony. This number had a ballad feel with some stunning slide and it occurred to me that those guitars are called Resonators with very good reason.

The next song came with a warning ‘I’m the man to put the ‘harm’ in harmonica.’ ‘As the Folkus Room is ostensibly a folk venue, I’ll play my favourite song.’ As Russell proceeded to play harmonica in public for the first time in thirty years, we were aware that this was indeed an historic moment. And it was an admirable effort. Even the noise from the kitchen couldn’t spoil the quiet and highly emotional, Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) with its incredibly moving Woody Guthrie lyrics.

In Steve’s opinion, the Dutch Tilders-penned Step A Little Lighter is ‘one of the great blues songs of the last twenty years’. He certainly did it proud with a lovely guitar break (accompanied with some almost in-tune dishwashing sounds). ‘Almost kept to my two glass limit’, said Russell as he downed the rest of his red wine. ‘Almost is a great word.’ With a voice full of feeling, Steve then presented the wonderful People Get Ready by Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. This last song of the set showcased an excellent voice and exquisite slide work. Russell is a great solo performer and, apart from a loud argument in the kitchen and all the distracting bar noise, his set was a real pleasure.

A picky point, I get the economic and logistical truth that the night needs to finish on time but the break was not long enough. As a plus, I was pleased to see the new wall between the restaurant and performance space. Another step in the Folkus Room’s evolution.

Chris Harland Blues Band

The Chris Harland Blues Band took to the stage and the guys were looking’ good! Chris’s nod to the Seventies included flares and a gorgeous velvet jacket, Paul wore a cool suit and it was basic black for Jon. Starting with a very smooth and laid back intro of Buddy Guy’s Mary Had A Little Lamb, the band then moved onto Stormy Monday by T-Bone Walker followed by a boppy original, Hume Highway. Another up-tempo original, Had Enough Of You, with its wailing guitar and very solid rhythm section support, provided more bop. Despite Billy’s nervous announcement, ‘This is as electronic as the Folkus Room will get’, the room sound was excellent.

‘Here’s a song by Buddy Guy. Saw him this year’. Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues featured a fatter sound with some great bass along with squeakin’ and screechin’ guitar moving through to a soft, gentle finish with especially nice drum work (and did I detect a little Star Wars Blues from the Star Wars tragic playing the guitar?) Overheard an ‘anonymous’ guitarist in the audience remarking, ‘He’s getting too good. I’ll have to break his hands’. And when too much Buddy Guy is not enough, the next song was the cruisy There Is Something On Your Mind, which is performed by Buddy Guy but was written by Big Jack McNeely. Chris has a clear knack of choosing songs that suit both his voice and his guitar-style and take you away from everyday life. I guess that’s the job of the blues.

Chris Harland Blues Band

Albert King’s Crosscut Saw, with its solid rhythm, had just the right effect to inspire the dancers and they stayed up for Everyday I Have The Blues by BB King with its singing guitar. All the while, Paul reliably underpinned the music and looked like he was really enjoying himself. The dancing continued when the guys moved on to Let Me Love You Baby, another Buddy Guy number and the last song before a break, during which Kev Austin, soundguy-extraordinaire, continued to tweak the system. Gotta love a perfectionist sound man.

The second set began with an old blues standard, Robert Johnson’s Ramblin’ On My Mind, which eventually merged with Mayall’s Have You Heard. ‘I go ramblin’’, could have been describing the music – subtle and driving by turns. By now, as my blues-mate Bron observed, Chris had the whole room mesmerised. OMG, I just LOVE this band. And so did the rather enthusiastic, loud and burbling drunk punter at the back of the room who had stepped in to take over from the bar and kitchen racket. OK, that’s my last mention of *beep*ing noise. Guess I’ll just have to get over it.

There was more dancing and (almost) disco lights for Messing With The Kid, a Junior Wells hit and I’ve noticed this three-piece does a great job in seeking a balanced overall sound and achieving it most of the time. While the seated audience lapped up Chris totally putting his instrument through its paces (I was especially impressed with his Theremin effect), one couple stayed on the dance floor to sway in time during a particularly sensational lead break.

The next song, Blues Guitar, was a magnificent original. ‘All I really wanna do is play the blues on my guitar.’ I can see why and I hope he always does. Eerie and atmospheric with a little echo and some strange whale-like noises, Blues Guitar takes us ‘somewhere’ on a musical trip and then brings us gently back. This one really needs to be recorded and put out ‘there’. In my view it could/should be their first single. On the other hand, Somehow, Someday, Somewhere, is another brilliant but quite different original. It delivers a raunchy beat with a deliberately grungy edge. Hard to choose between them.

Chris Harland Blues Band

The Blind Joe Reynolds delight, Outside Woman Blues ‘When you lose your money, please don’t lose your mind’, was incredibly groovy. One of those songs that immediately takes me back to ‘another time, another place’. Cream’s Politician is appropriately strident and driving as is Five Long Years, an R&B tune made popular by Eddie Boyd. By playing several songs of similar vibe in a row, combined with very good sound, the band offered a most enjoyable and extended flow of music. By this time all the CDs brought along by Chris (recorded in a previous life) had been bought and there were calls for more. Since there are no more, I think it’s time these three got their act together to meet the needs of their fans.

Chris Harland Blues Band

‘Wadda ya say? We get Steve Russell back on?’ With Steve Russell right up front, they launched into Albert King’s Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven and the sound those two made together was mind-blowing. Was Steve’s electric guitar another new purchase? No matter. They were able to make their guitars talk to each other, settling in for a session of call and respond and showing off BIG TIME, ‘Testosterone can be a wonderful thing.’ ‘Sometimes.’ However, after several calls to applaud Chris and Steve, I began to wonder why only Chris and Steve? Why not Jon and Paul? (Sounds like a Beatles quiz).

Chris Harland Blues Band

Chris then took the lead break that confirmed my early suspicions. Anyone who didn’t make it along to this gig, MISSED OUT! There was more rapt applause for Chris and then it was Steve’s turn again, with Chris behind him playing response once more. ‘Time for more?’ The answer? ‘One quick song or ten minutes.’ They quickly jumped into Diddley’s Before You Accuse Me and a bunch of dancers rushed onto the floor. Suddenly the place was raging to some pretty rocky blues until Steve and Chris decided they had to finish it up. Those guys loved playing together and it certainly looked like they were having lots of fun. But wait. So much for that being the last song. There was still a bit more raunch to squeeze in with the Willie Dixon-written and Muddy Waters-recorded Hoochie Coochie Man. OK. Wow. Now that was a guitar band. But they couldn’t have done it SO well without their rhythm guys and when Jon and Paul were finally introduced they scored a big burst of roaring applause from a room full of happy, satisfied punters. What a night. Next time these guys play near you, try to grab some of what they are offering for yourself.

Words: Shelley Clarke
Photos: Fred Mitchell
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