Members of Tackhead never die. they just move on to a new project, as Alastair Mabbott found when he quizzed Skip McDonald about his current band. Little Axe.
in contemporary pop. Skip McDonald got where he is today via the most traditional route. A musical career that has spanned four decades began with playing guitar for a gospel vocal group in Ohio at the age of twelve and continued through the fabled chitlin circuit and ‘horrible lounge gigs'. which was where he encountered two other men unhappy with their lot: bassist Doug Wirnbish and drummer Keith Le Blane. Two months after Le Blanc joined the fold. they were the house band for Sugarhill Records. providing the tracks for such classics as ‘The Message' and ‘White Lines’ and the brilliant bttt frequently overlooked ‘That‘s The Joint‘ by The Funky Fotrr Plus One.
A stint with Tommy Boy Records in the early 80s resulted in a meeting with English dttb producer Adrian Sherwood. who persuaded the trio - now respected. high-profile sessioneers to cotne to Britain to record what became the first Fats Comet LP with him for ()n-U Records. Making that albttrn. musicians and producer forged a link which remains strong eleven years on.
With the tracks that didn't tit into the Fats Comet concept. they made the first Tackhead record. and pushed that group‘s pioneering funk-rock into the public consciousness with vocalist Bemard Fowler (now totrring with The Rolling Stones) and Sherwood on live sound. Between times. they beavered away more anonymously on records by Dub Syndicate. African Headcharge. Gary (‘lail and other ()n-U artists.
‘Do l ever get the feeling we work together too much‘." he laughs. ‘To tell you the truth. we don‘t work on everything together. There's different combinations to work on different things. If you‘re in charge of something. you have the choice about who you wanna call in. so a lot of times that winds up being the guys. because of the time and the experience. and the fact that it makes it easier to explain something to somebody you know and work with rather than getting some guy who may be really talented but you still have to go through that learning process with each other.‘
With Taekhead now taking ‘an extended vacation'. the news. late last year. that Skip McDonald had ‘formed a contemporary R&B/blties group‘. knotted a few eyebrows. What kind of take would this group. Little Axe. have on the blues‘.’ Were we talking about a funkier Ten Years After. or what“?
Skip McDonald can hear the blues ‘all around. all the time. in all kinds of music‘. So. not altogether
Though part of one of the most innovative collectives f
surprisingly. the album. The ll’olf'T/ru! House Built. turned otrt to have trrore in common with previous ()n-U productions than anyone's typical idea of a blues rock band with a hotshot lead guitarist. Co- prodtrcer Sherwood instilled it with his customary tlttb feel. he and McDonald building up grooves over interviews with Leadbelly. llowlin' Wolfand Son House and various samples which McDonald can't identify even now. There were deep reggae basslines provided by the ever-present Doug Witnbish. Le Blanc switching from reggae to funk to rock rhythms. some gospelish vocals and even tabla drums to ‘give an international flavour‘.
Not something that blues aﬁcionados would accept as part oftheir beloved tradition. really. is it. Skip'.’
‘Well. that's according to who it is. You know how that goes. how categorisation goes. 'cause what is blues? How far back do you have to go'.’ Do you go back to W.C. Handy. or do you go back to Jimmy Reed. or is it Robert Cray. or . . I" ()r forward? ‘Yeah. So everyone will have their own opinions. I‘ve been told it‘s too out-there by some people. not out-there enough by other people. It ain't blues to some people and it is blues to others. so. you know. I kinda let people form their own opinions about what
Little Axe: start choppin‘
One of .‘\/lcl)onald‘s earliest musical esperiences was playing with ‘the local ia/x heat ics‘ at the age of ten. a tnernory that one suspects is only v. ailing for the opportunity to be reawakenctl too.
‘To tell you the truth. it‘s a thing that I'd like to get closer to. Front what he (lone since W7”. I‘te hail periodicjam sessions btrt nothing actually serious. I would like to get back closer to it. bttt we'll see what the future actually holds with that. I do enjoy playing hard charrges and things. and not only izt/z; I like the Bombay Connection type music as well. where you play different scales and things: Things you have to stay awake to do. where you can't inst groove on it. you got to think about it as well.‘
So after this tour. and the sessions that are already lined up with Binr Sherman. Dub Warrior‘s. (lary Clail. Dub Syndicate. African lleatlcharge. Akabu. Jalal frotn The Last Poets and possibly a second Little Axe CD nrade up front the tracks they couldn't squeeze on to this one. it might be time for McDonald. Sherwood and company to put their own very individual slant on that l’l/l/‘I' great strand ol America's musical heritage.
LIN/e .’l\(' plat Kine 'lirl't. (f/l:'\l'l'lt' on far .‘5
40 The List 2| Apr-4 May 1995