For Perthshire singer/songwriter Lins Honeyman, Saturday evening was something of a homecoming. When he led his band of friends and musical collaborators on stage at Dunbarney Church Hall, he was performing just along the road from his home village of Forgandenny. Amongst the capacity crowd were several people from the area who have known Honeyman for decades. But alongside that geographical homecoming, Saturday also saw a musical returning; Honeyman led the band back to his musical roots, which burrow down deeply into the Blues & Spirituals of African-America.
The evening began with the music of Bruce Cameron and then Paul Becher. While both these guys are basically solo acoustic guitar/voice acts, their two sets could not have stood in greater contrast. Cameron's studied intensity sought to convey the thoughtful poetry of his spiritual lyrics, alongside his intricate guitar work. Becher on the other hand engaged the crowd in singing-along with him as he attacked the likes of Pinball Wizard and American Pie.
After an interval with food served(!), Lins Honeyman and friends took to the stage; opening up the second half of the evening with a rip-roaring version of Johnny Cash's Fulsom Prison Blues. It was good to hear Lins performing in the context a full band again, after some smaller-scale events recently. Blues gigs can sometimes dissipate into jams which can either work brilliantly, or completely flop - but which are inevitably too long! This certainly was not the case on Saturday, when Les Dalziel (keys, organ, double-bass), Lins Honeyman (guitars, mandolin, dobra, keys), Jon Assheton (drums & percussion), Bryn Rees (electric bass), and Andrew McCully (electric guitars) - showed how hard they had worked together to nail their performances pretty darn tightly. Sound-man Gilbert Spiers managed to produce an admirable sound-mix, in a size and shape room which must have created a few issues to overcome!
To an audible "oh yes" of approval Lins announced that their second song would be drawn from the catalogue of the great Ray Charles - an uptempo blues called "Unchain My Heart". Like Ray Charles who I think saved his very finest performances for his pure Blues work, this band just seem at home in that musical landscape, the Hammond organ being unleashed in a way that no doubt Charles himself would have approved.
Lins' self-penned number "Charles Atlas where are you now?", provided a nice little study on the difference that a band can make to a performance. While recent solo performances of this song have been good, the presence of the band enabled him to crank this track up to a completely different level. This was most notably the case during the funky guitar solo/break, in which Lins and drummer John Ashetton sparked off each other, whilst exchanging appreciative grins. "Where can I find my peace?" found Honeyman in pensive, reflective mood - a true lament in the tradition of the Psalms. Anyone who remembers Clapton's famous "unplugged" album will remember "Hey-Hey", which came next, although the band were careful to correctly credit it to Big Bill Broonzy.
The first of two so-called "Negro-Spirituals" followed, "Oh Mary Don't You Weep". The sacred was swiftly followed by the profane and a rocking version of "Money: That's What I Want". Honeyman mused that "I want your money" wasn't a sentiment he subscribed to, without any apparent sense of irony that he was saying this to a paying audience! Thankfully I restrained my urge to heckle at that point. The second ancient 'Spiritual' was "I want Jesus to Walk with me", a haunting song, with deep words - sung and performed with real conviction by the band.
Elvis' Lawdy Miss Clawdy lightened the mood and facilitated some entertaining soloing from McCully, Honeyman and Dalziel. It was multi-instrumentalist Dalziel who was responsible for a new jazzier arrangement of Honeyman's version of the 23rd Psalm. Tight, edgy, fascinating and neatly executed, this was the musical highlight of the evening for me; and you can't fault the lyrics either! "Stranger Blues" brought proceedings to a conclusion, giving Lins a chance to play some good Blues harmonica.
Someone then mistakenly turned the house-lights on full - suggesting that no encore would be offered. Thankfully several people (including my wife) wanted their money's worth, and called for another track, so Lins returned and led the crowd in a singalong of "It must be love".
I am privileged to know the guys in this band, and to have such talented people amongst my friends. They also have an appreciation and respect for the history of the music they play - and are not embarrassed to play a Blind Willie Johnson song from 1926, if that is what they want to do. The only slightly negative aspects were the rather reserved crowd, who I felt significantly under-appreciated the band, and the absence of soulful vocalist Morna Young. Her collaborations with Honeyman on the African-American spirituals are something special. This was though a terrific night's entertainment, which could easily have graced a far more illustrious venue than a country church hall.