I've seen Martin Harley in concert three times, and each time has been completely different. The first time in London on the "Drumrolls for Somersaults" tour he performed in multi-instrumental trio, then more recently in Perth he did a solo show at Inchyra. It's very hard to say which format was better; if anything the more folky numbers like "Winter Coat" were better with the band, but some of the blues numbers on Harley's trademark trademark horizontally-held, lap-slide Weissenborn guitar, came over wonderfully well at the solo gig. This time however, Harley teamed up with double-bass player/vocalist Daniel Kimbro for a series of gigs as a duo. They weren't selling an album of new songs done together - but were reinterpreting Harley's live set, and classics from his splendid back catalogue, as they did on the "Southern Ground" album. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, or how it would compare with previous gigs - but past experience of Harley indicated that a great night of entertainment, would be delivered through unusually good songwriting, fine musicianship - and plenty of banter and repartee to keep the show moving.
Together, Harley and Kimbro delivered a great show - which had an entirely different (but very welcome) dynamic than previous Martin Harley gigs I'd been to. Harley is a superb, and very distinctive, guitarist - with a great voice to match. Daniel Kimbro is a wonderfully creative and expressive double-bass player, and the two of them seemed to feed off each other; the interplay between their instruments and voices added an exciting new dimension to Harley's songs.
Edinburgh Blues Club is using a central venue called The Voodoo Rooms for its gigs these days. The Voodoo Rooms are an interconnected set of function rooms, with a pub and restaurant a stone's throw from Waverley Station. We were there on a Thursday night, and the place was absolutely packed, the various bars and other functions were doing a very lively trade- while the gig room was bursting at the seams. Curiously, the mixture of seating and standing was arranged so that if you sat - you saw nothing, because the standing area was in front of the chairs! This oddity aside, the place was buzzing, a really great gig atmosphere. Again this was rather different from previous Harley gigs. The solo gig at Inchyra was all seated at tables, with a very restrained, crowd. The Half Moon in Putney was standing - but the crowd were really noisy - and seriously detracted from the music, which at times was hard to hear. The Edinburgh Blues Club managed to assemble a large, enthusiastic crowd who nevertheless were there to hear the music and not talk over it!
Highlights of the set included Harley's "Blues At My Window", Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene, a rip-roaring angry and defiant reading of Blind Willie Johnson's, "Nobody's Fault But Mine", which evolved into an extended improvised jam session, of duelling guitar and bass. Kimbro's country and western flavoured Laketown, added another element to proceedings which was also very welcome. "Automatic Life" was given an airing, and proved to be one which sounded particularly great in the Harley-Kimbro arrangement, as did "Drumrolls for Somersaults". "Winter Coat" was effortlessly charming and heart-warming, even though nothing can beat the band version featuring Mr Swatton's strange "stringed triangle"! "You're gonna need somebody (by your side)" was a great old bluesy standard, which had a former life as a spiritual known as "You're gonna need somebody (on your bond)". "Honey Bee" always lightens the mood, and the infectious gypsy swing feel of "Love in the Afternoon" is always a crowd pleaser - but which has never been as good live as when performed by the whole band. Unsurprisingly, it was the solid bluesy numbers which appealed most strongly to the Edinburgh Blues Club, who clapped and cheered, and demanded more!
"Chocolate Jesus", is a firm favourite in Harley's live set - and has featured in each of his shows that I have been to. It's a Tom Waits cover, which begins with some explosive Harley slide guitar, before the grimly sarcastic lyrics begin. I have to say - I prefer Harley's version to the original. Martin Harley commented that this song goes down very badly when he plays it in the American Bible Belt (not surprisingly, really!). At one gig Harley commented that this isn't an offensive song, just a funny song. I think he's probably right. As a lover of sarcasm, satire and slide guitar, but also a Christian, I'm always in two minds about this one. I suppose ultimately for me the question is whether Waits is satirising belief in Jesus per se - or merely the abuse of it. I think that there's a good case for saying that Waits is savagely dissecting the kind of saccharine nonsense that so often passes as Christianity, but is a mockery of the teachings of Jesus. The Christian satirical website "Ship of Fools" features a page called "Gadgets for God", a gallery of similar horrors to the chocolate Jesus (with Bible verse in the wrapper), which inspired Waits to write this number. There's a great article about this "immaculate confection" (which is Waits' joke btw) which can be found here.
I didn't get a chance to speak to Martin or Daniel at the end of the gig which was a shame! I'd be interested to know if the "Martin Harley Band" as was, is on hold or has been permanently disbanded. We had to run quickly out of the venue and off to try and catch the last train out to the car at the park and ride - the other side of the Forth Bridge. Sadly we had missed the last train out of Edinburgh that night - and had a very expensive taxi ride back. However, with entertainment this good - with performers as dedicated to their art as this, (and at only £12 a ticket), it was a price well worth paying, even if it meant an exceptionally late night.