BROTHERS IN BLUES
12The List 20 April — 3 May 1990
[don't know ifyou‘ve noticed. but there‘s a whole new cult of ‘authenticity‘ going down in popular music nowadays. Reacting against a pop chart full ofMancunian hedonists and admit-it-they're-indistinguishable beat-box backed dance imports. growing numbers ofconsumers are searching for something ‘real‘. a sort of polyunsaturated rock without added technology. something with ‘roots’ that has ‘paid its dues'. and has real guitars. Hell. in Rock Steady they‘ve even got their own TV show.
It‘s all part of the ageing process. really. searching for something that sounds just the same as when you were a teenage hipster. The downside of the trend has been the common tendency to mistake ‘old‘ for ‘genuine‘— witness the continuing ability ofClapton and Fleetwood Mac to shift huge amounts of ropey product. On the plus side. we have the emergence of all sorts ofleft-field country. blues or folk exponents hitherto too shy to poke their heads above the parapet in the desperately fashion-conscious early 80s.
After the folk and country booms. we have the blues revival. Remember blues'.’ That stuff that booms out in smokey pubs and features heavily in Ray Lowry cartoons with every song beginning ‘Woke up this morning. my baby done left me . . .‘ Forget it. The new blues is aiming squarely for that thirtysomething sophisticated audience. And while the A&R men were looking for blues on the other side of the Atlantic. someone was lurking in the clubs and pubs of Leeds. His name is Steve Phillips.
Phillips is in the news at the moment. not so much in his own right than as one of the Notting Hillbillies. Dire Strait Mark Knopﬂer is obviously The Famous ()ne. but it is Phillips‘ and third man Brendan (froker‘s musical styles that are more evident in the Notting Hillbillies‘ sound. Ifrecent Dire Straits records conjure up the image of a home counties theme-pub's (‘D jukebox rattling the furry dice in the (‘apris parked outside. the Hillbillies are more redolent of a relaxed sundown on the porch. with a mist coming up from the swamp. It‘s a blend ofcountry. blues and old-style rock‘n‘roll that Phillips has been playing all his life. and one that Knopﬂer recognises as his own roots (that word again).
‘lt‘s not a change for me.‘ says Phillips. ‘lt's music that feels real to me. It's hard for me to judge how others feel about it. [can't be objective. I‘ve been doing this type ofthing all my life. playing great music that moves me. With the Notting Hillbillies. myself. Brendan and Mark have the same influences that come out in different ways. We've all been nurtured on very similar types of music. Mark's always been a country and blues fan. It‘s just that he‘s never been in a position where he could exploit it in the same way.‘
Phillips has been making his love of
pre-war acoustic blues apparent
Down from the hills. Mark Knopfler’s billies are wowing thirtysomething audiences with their polyunsaturated sound. Tom Lappin chews the cud with Steve Phillip. a buddy with blues in his bonnet
since 1961 . gigging in and around Leeds and nationally. In the early 70s. he and Knopfler. then a trainee journalist on the Yorkshire Post. formed a duo called the Duolian String Pickers. and from 1977 he worked with Brendan (‘roker. a fellow Leeds-based blues and country enthusiast. now becoming better known with his band the 5 ()‘Clock Shadows. Despite widespread admiration of Phillips” style (including an offer of a contract from US specialist blues label Yazoo) it wasn‘t until 1986 that he turned professional.
‘Leeds before the later Slls was musically nowhere.‘ he explains (quiet. you goths and Soft (‘ell fans at the backl). ‘There wasn‘t a great scene in the (ins. The reason I didn't turn professional earlier was fora variety of reasons. Mainly it was because it was nothing like as diverse and interesting as nowadays. A lot of the folk clubs were very narrow-minded about what they would put on. They considered me far too vulgar. In folk clubs recently the change in attitude has been really noticeable. Everything‘s less pigeonholed now which is very healthy. It seems that in the later half of the 80s there was room for everyone's personal music preference. What I found quite a surprise is that [could do what I wanted to do. and make a living front gigging and recording.‘
Phillips. who supported Nanci Griffith on last year‘s tour. cites the American New Country acts as the best examples of the latest outburst ofopen-mindedness. and points out
their potential for opening up the market. ‘Nanci is bloody good. Not so much her last album but her earlier stuff. Her and that wacky-looking guy. Lyle Lovett. they are really breaking new ground. They really helped the Notting Hillbillies thing because the New (‘ountry has opened up a new audience — there’s people buying country now that wouldn't have touched it before.‘
Phillips is not so naive as to believe the Notting l lillbillies are attracting a completely open-minded audience. A healthy proportion of the tickets are going to Dire Straits fans looking forward to the novelty ofseeing Knopﬂer perform in a venue less than stadium-sized. Phillips doesn't believe it is a problem. ‘Well. we expected a large percentage of Dire Straits fans. We do three Dire Straits songs in the set: ‘Water of Love‘ and ‘Setting Me Up‘ from the first album and ‘Why Worry". but we do them completely differently. with a country rather than a rock feel. It helps that they‘re less well-known songs; we wouldn't really do something like ‘Money for Nothing‘ or ‘Sultans ofSwing'. l was talking to two girls backstage the other night: one was a dyed-in-the-wool Dire Straits fan and the other was a country and western fan. They‘d come along together so we're obviously getting a crossover. Maybe we’re making country fans out of Dire Straits fans. which would be quite funny.‘
The Notting Hillbillies tour and album has slightly overshadowed Phillips‘ solo album. Steel Rail Blues. released towards the end of last year to critical acclaim. With the production. and more pcrtinently. the promotion budget. of Phonogram. it has been a steady seller for the independent L'namerican Broadcasting Records. ‘The nice thing is that it's done okay already.~ he says. ‘and this tour should help it to keep selling. which will make me happy enough.‘
‘l lappy enough' is typical of Steve Phillips. He is unimpressed by being part of a best—selling album and a packed-out British tour. The idea of moving to London and cashing in on the authenticity vogue. maybe doing session work. elicits a curt ‘.'\'o bloody danger’. He has just moved to the Yorkshire coast. and is looking forward to a summer holiday when the tour ends. so he can get back to his painting and guitar—making. The Notting Hillbillies haven‘t affected his priorities in any way. ‘Some nights the band plays better than others. That happens. The gigs are fine. there's a certain degree of intimacy there. but let's face it. there‘s nothing like the buzz of playing a small club with just a couple of hundred people in."l'hat‘s roots.
The .\'ui(ing Hillbillies play the Pavilion. Glasgow (in Weill; mull/1e Play/muse. Edinburgh on Thurs 26. Steve l’liillips Steel Rail Blues has just been issued on ( 'l) by Ummeriean Bram/eastng Rerunls.