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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
VELVET VIPERS, Yale Hotel, Vancouver, 27th September 2005
NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS, Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver, 28th September 2005
On the face of it Vancouver’s Yale Hotel, originally a bunkhouse for railroad workers, and then a hostel for transient loggers and prospectors heading north (and no doubt also for many, struck by ill-fortune and unrealised dreams, heading south), seemed like a good end point for our British Columbian adventure. It is, after all, the self declared home of rhythm and blues in Western Canada, and I have to observe, a venue of such quality - even the one drunk, dressed unseasonably in shorts and Hawaiian shirt, managed not to bump into folks as he careered around the place like a pinball on speed - that one rarely comes across in London (more of which later). Velvet Vipers
Pity ‘though about our timing, a quiet Tuesday night in late September. A few days earlier and we might have caught Alvin Youngblood Hart, a few days later and we would have seen Serge’s beloved Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express (a sort of Brora of the jazz world, or so it seems). As it was we had to make the best (after a very good dinner – of which also more later) of local band the Velvet Vipers.
Velvet Vipers
Jack Velker
Led by Vancouver veteran Jack Velker, keyboard player extraordinaire and available for hire to play at your corporate dinner parties, or even in your own kitchen or dining room, the Vipers performed several sets of largely uninspiring blues and R&B standards. ‘St James’ Infirmary’, ‘Ain’t she sweet’ (!), ‘Caledonia’ were mixed together with Dylan (‘All along the watchtower’) and Boz Scaggs (‘Somebody loan me a dime’) with whom Velker has frequently worked.
To be frank Jack carried the band - good vocals, great work on the Yale’s resident Hammond organ and a confident charisma that made up for his rather soulless four piece. I’m not going into details, and I promised not to be cruel about saxophonist Dominic Conway, for whom the phrase ‘having a bit of a bad night’ was probably originally intended. Let’s just say that I broke the reviewer’s golden first rule, put down my notebook in despair, and danced the night away. So the Vipers were good for something.
And that might have been it, blurry memories and sore calves, had it not been for the fact that we literally bumped into two thirds of the North Mississippi Allstars over dinner. They (very nice young men who certainly knew their way round a tub of oysters) it transpired were playing in town on Wednesday. So we changed our plans and the next night found ourselves (after another very good dinner) in the plush interior of the city’s famous Commodore Ballroom. Another fantastic venue that puts the likes of London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire or Astoria (and their owners) to shame. Back here it’s more often than not push and shove, beer and swill, crumbling Edwardian grandeur, Ajax encrusted lines of coke in the filthy toilets – you get the picture. But the Commodore, an art-deco temple to popular entertainment built in 1929, and recently subject to a $3.5 million refurbishment by its current owners (it’s tied up with the House of Blues organisation I think), is stunning interior design, comfortable bars, waitress service, relaxed seating, and an out of this world sprung wooden dance floor. Oh yes – and pretty dammed good acoustics too. And the tickets were about half the price of what the Whiskyfun expense account would normally have to bear. London are you listening ?
North Mississippi Allstars
Luther and Cody Dickinson
The North Mississippi Allstars are guitarist Luther Dickinson, drummer (well mostly drummer) Cody Dickinson, and bassist Chris Chew. The two D boys are both sons of Jim Dickinson of Memphis’ Ardent Studios. Chris Chew, it should be observed, is so huge that he makes a Fender Precision Bass look like a child’s toy. The band famously emerged on the blues scene in 2000 with their quite breathtaking album Shake Hands with Shorty. Since them, ‘though their live work has been much admired their recordings have been somewhat patchy (avoid, for example, Polaris) until the release of the brand new Electric Blue Watermelon, so new that it’s not available in Europe yet, though I do have the Photographer’s autographed copy for safekeeping.
The format of their work is simple, though quite mesmerising. At its core are hypnotic rhythms (perhaps ‘grooves’ might be a better word) drawn from the roots of the Delta Blues tradition, and great vocal interplays between Dickenson (Luther) and Chew. The NMAS cite the recently deceased R L Burnside as a particular influence; now although he’s probably better known for his collaborations with the likes of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (“We ARE the Blues Explosion”), and particularly by Whiskyfun readers for the recently re-released A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, you need to go back to his first recordings (R L Burnside’s Original Recordings) from 1968 to see where these young boys really take their inspiration from. A moaning repetitive drone, often built around a single chord, some slide guitar, scant lyrics, real blues. And on Watermelon some interesting flashes of rap (or is it hip-hop?) too.
So the NMAS sensibly focussed on songs from their first and last albums for the two and a half hours or so that they played for us – which given that they didn’t come on stage ‘till 11.00pm was quite possibly an hour too long (especially as we’d already endured two incredibly loud sets from locals Slammin Jack and She Stole my Beer, who curiously counted five drummers and not too much imagination between them) You see their other trick is that they take these old tunes, like Burnside’s ‘Po black Maddie’, Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ‘Shake ‘em on down’ or Charley Paton’s ‘Mississippi bo weevil blues’ and use them as jumping off points for long, incredibly well structured (but sometimes just a tad lengthy) improvisations.
The musicianship of the three is quite outstanding, with Chew often patiently waiting for the two brothers’ excursions to finally find their way back to the tune. Luther D’s slide guitar is simply on another level from most other players, his brother’s drumming ranging from powerhouse bass-pedal rocking to gentle snare drum rhythms (the introduction to ‘Mean ‘ol wind died down’). And they showed their knowledge of their rock forebears with witty references to the likes of Carlos Santana, the Allman Brothers, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. To be honest the only problem was that they were enjoying themselves so much that they simply didn’t know when to stop.
North Mississippi Allstars
Chris Chew
But to have an opportunity to enjoy such virtuoso and good humoured self-indulgence is a rare thing these days (especially in a London where gigs normally end on the dot of 11.00pm), so it’s churlish to complain.
Thank you Vancouver. Great gigs, great venues, and such nice people, even the pretty ladies dancing with hula-hoops, apparently something of a fashion in these parts. Whiskyfun readers, please buy Shake Hands with Shorty, and Electric Blue Watermelon – if you can find them in the stores that is (yes, you can have the best product in the world but never overcome poor distribution). And if you want to explore their Mississippi Delta roots then take a look at R L Burnside, or even the new album by T Model Ford (who we saw struggling against the sterile Barbicanites earlier in the year), Pee-wee Get my Gun. Why, you can even book Jack Velker for your next posh dinner party. It’s worth the price of a bottle of your favourite. - Nick Morgan (all photos by Kate The Photographer)

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