Review by Pete Finn for MPM
One of the pleasures of working for Metal Planet Music, means it has the potential to bring up the fabulous scenario I’ve experienced this week.
At the weekend I was with over 70,000 Metal Heads in a field in Castle Donington for the Download Festival, and tonight I’m travelling to Buxton Opera House for a gig on a slightly smaller scale.
So, after a brief period of separation the two old Muppets, myself and MPM Tog Statler Manson are re-united. The purpose of our trip to Buxton is to see Blues Legend Walter Trout, who has special guest Elles Bailey opening the show.
After our journey across the Derbyshire Dales, we arrive in Buxton, and a brief tour around looking for a parking space, Manny’s local knowledge (he used to go to school in Buxton) proving invaluable as we park up on a side street. We set off on the 5-minute walk to the venue.
The Buxton Opera House has a 902-seat capacity, and was built in 1903 and designed by Frank Matcham, who designed the London Palladium, the London Coliseum and many other theatres throughout the UK. The wonderful old traditional façade leads into a small reception area, where smartly dressed ladies provide us with our passes. Looking at the other attendee’s as they arrive Manny and I are the only two wearing shorts.
Once inside the quirkiness continues, there are ‘Muppet’ boxes down the sides covered in gold leaf paint, I’m sat in the stalls and on the back of the seat in-front of me there is a pair of binoculars I could hire for a £1, now, they would have been far more useful at Download.
Opening tonight is Elles Bailey, based in Bristol this silky voiced singer-songwriter has risen to the top of the British blues and roots scene in recent years. With three studio albums to her name including, ‘Shining in the Half Light’ which was released in February this year, and a single on the N.W.O.C.R. Vol 1 compilation album she has become a ‘must see’ artist.
The lights go out and Joe Wilkins (guitar) walks out onto the stage and sits down, shortly followed by Elles Bailey. Elles, carrying a tambourine says “Tonight, is a celebration of live music”, which is greeted by applause.
Joe starts strumming, the first track is ‘Cheats and Liars’ which is the opening track from the new album. The lyrics and sound are moody, almost haunting but passionate. Straight away it’s obvious why Elles’ singing receives such high praise. The gentle tambourine tapping fits perfectly within the atmosphere of the song. The Buxton audience liked that one.
Elles comments on The Opera House being a fabulous venue, “Wow, just wow”. Next, it’s ‘Walk On Water’, this is a quicker track, Joe adds backing vocals to compliment the jangly guitar sounds of the acoustic. Elles voice is strong and intense as she grips her microphone and looks skywards, as if she was praying.
From the new album we have ‘Stones’. This is slower and bluesy, Elles words lingering, adding to the feel of the song The guitar sounds from Joe remind me of a Western film soundtrack it blends with the rest of the song perfectly. His slide guitar work has the audience hanging on every note. They showed their appreciation with cheers and whistles at the end.
Elles says the next track is for the Janis Joplin fans, it’s ‘The Girl That Owned The Blues’ taken from the 2017 album ‘Wildfire’. Elles is now stood behind the keyboard, her lyrics are slow, she’s telling us a story, is it a biography about a hero or an influence on her? Joe adds to the vibe with subtle slide guitar. The only sounds in the hall are coming from the duo on stage, they have us.
Elles finishes the track and is laughing saying how difficult it was to play piano in heels on a sloping floor. No-one noticed.
We go back to 2019 and the second album ‘Road I Call Home’ for ‘Help Somebody’. The slide guitar intro by Wilkins gives this track a real blues feel. You close your eyes and picture the smoke-filled bar and Elles voice cutting right through it, straight to your ears. We’re encouraged by Elles to join in and sing the chorus, Joe gets to flex his fingers as he increases the tempo. Elles comes to the stage edge to coax the audience into singing louder. As the track finishes Elles tells us the singing is just a warm-up as we’ll be singing in the final song too.
Apparently, the next song is about a con-artist, someone who duped Elles out of some money. Like a medicine man who tricks people into buying pointless ‘cures’. From ‘Road I Call Home’ it’s ‘Medicine Man’. This is bluesy, Joe has the slide out again. The words are tied together with emotion. Elles stamping her feet in time to the beat. The music is subtle and respectful to the portrayed sentiments. The tempo increases towards the end, amplifying the passion. Elles is sat on the drum riser singing along.
Elles thanks the audience for coming down early and supporting live music, she asks us for a round of applause for Joe. It’s the final song of the set, we’re going to be singing again. The quick beats of ‘Sunshine City’ from ‘Shining in the Half Light’ gets the heads nodding and toes tapping again. Joe gives a great solo mid-track before we get to sing ‘Sunshine, Sunshine City’. The track finishes and Elles and Joe take the very well-deserved applause, cheers and whistles. I, like the Buxton audience have been very impressed by Elles Bailey’s singing and Joe Wilkins’ guitar playing tonight.
Setlist: Cheats and Liars, Walk On Water, Stones, Girl Who Owned The Blues, Help Somebody, Medicine Man, Sunshine City.
The fire screen drops in front of the stage, the lady opens the ice-cream kiosk in the corner, and those of a certain age take a comfort break. Interestingly, the queue for the toilet was longer than the one for the bar.
Walter Trout’s career began on the Jersey coast scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He then decided to relocate to Los Angeles where he toured as a guest guitarist for John Lee Hooker, Percy Mayfield, Big Mama Thornton, Joe Tex, and many others.
Between 1981 and 1984, he was the lead guitarist in Canned Heat. He toured with them extensively in the US, Europe, and Australia. From 1984 to 1989, he was the lead guitarist in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers following in the footsteps of guitarists such as Peter Green and Eric Clapton.
Unfortunately, his off-stage lifestyle was self-destructive and he was rescued from a complete descent into alcohol and substance abuse by a post-gig encounter with Carlos Santana.
In June 2013, Trout got the first signs that he was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. With his health deteriorating, he continued to tour until being told he needed a liver transplant within 90 days. Supported by donations from fans, his wife raised the money needed for the operation.
On May 26, 2014, he received the lifesaving operation. Trout recovered from his cirrhosis and subsequent liver transplant and was in a hospital bed for eight months, during which time he suffered from brain damage, which caused him to lose the ability to speak, play the guitar, and recognize his family. Due to being bedridden for so long, he also lost the use of his legs.
He had to relearn how to speak and walk. Trout has also stated that he spent eight hours a day over the course of a year to relearn how to play the guitar. By 2015, Trout had recovered and was able to go on tour again.
His discography makes very impressive reading, he has been involved in an amazing 41-albums either as a band member or as a solo artist, with the most recent being the 2020 release ‘Ordinary Madness’. He has also picked up over 10 major Blues or Guitarist awards.
The fire screen rises and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ starts playing, Walter Trout leads the band out, we have an impromptu sound-check. Walter thanks Elles Bailey, then says he’s always wanted to perform in an opera house, and proceeds to belt out a couple of “La-La’s” much to the audiences amusement.
Tonight, on stage Walter’s band is Johnny Griparic (bass), Bob Fridzema (keys/organ), Michael Leasure (drums) and Andrew Elt (guitar).
The show opens with ‘I Can Tell’ from the 1994 album ‘Tellin’ Stories’. The rock lead break start immediately grabs the attention, the quick switch to an upbeat blues tempo gets the foot tapping straight away.
Fridzema on the organ and Leasure’s quick drum beat are a strong feature. Walter Trout introduces himself to the audience with a powerful solo, with his guitar high up his chest, it is a fabulous dirty sound. Johnny Griparic is stomping his feet in time to the pounding beats. A great opening track.
Next, it’s ‘Bomp a Bomp’ (I got it from the bands setlist, courtesy of Bob Fridzema) which is, “a bit of a blues romp with improvised lyrics thrown in.” However, I did pick up sections of ‘Walkin’ in the Rain’ from the self-titled album ‘Walter Trout’ released in 1997.
Trout brings the track in with a nice a slow blues break, he has his guitar purring tonight. The drums from Leasure steady and purposeful. Griparic’s bass is rumbling in the background as Trout’s vocal continues the slow and sleazy sounds. Trout’s fingers generate some amazing notes from the strings. Pausing, Walter tells us, “After a year and a half of sitting on my ass, it’s great to be out playing. Actually, it’s great to be out anywhere.” He lifts his leg, leans back and continues with a screaming solo. Wow.
Something from the latest 2020 album ‘Ordinary Madness’ is next, it’s ‘Wanna Dance’. Andrew Elt has joined them on stage. This is an upbeat number, it has a modern feel, quite a bit different. The vocal is slow and passionate, but the pace builds and creates a full rich sound nudging the stadium anthem qualities.
Staying with ‘Ordinary Madness’ we have ‘All Out Of Tears’, written with, and for his friend Teeny Tucker whose son passed away. A song about loss and grief, and the best way to pay homage to someone close who you’ve lost. It’s a slower more traditional blues track, Fridzema’s key work playing a prominent part. Trout produces a solo that has you closing your eyes and letting the sounds carry you away to a place of happy memories. His vocal is full of emotion. The audience, like me totally captivated.
Walter introduces the next song with a story. About how he used to play in a Beach Bar Band, one of the patrons fell in love with the barmaid, they got together, but eventually split up. This song is about him. We return to the ‘Walter Trout’ album for ‘Got a Broken Heart’.
The rhythm sections beat control the intro, there’s a nice mix of a Hammond sound from Fridzema and Trout’s guitar as the track develops, this is heavy dirty blues. Griparic is rocking out. Trout produces a huge solo, then moves into battle with Fridzema as the pair duel over the top of some heavy beats from Leasure and Griparic. Brilliant.
Trout then recounts the story of his illness, hospitalisation and recovery. He also tells us it’s the day before the 7th Anniversary of his ‘Recovery’ concert, at The Royal Albert Hall, before starting ‘Almost Gone’ from ‘Battle Scars’ released during 2015, this is another heavier track. It reminds me of The Who’s ‘The Seeker’ in places. It has a driving sound that adds feeling. The guitar solo from Trout could be from the classic rock songs of the late 70’s as it screams out the riffs. Elt is adding backing vocals.
‘Playin’ Hideaway’ is from ‘Battle Scars’ too, it has a real ZZ Top boogie feel to it. Walter is belting out the lyrics, Leasure is hammering out the beats as Griparic is prowling the stage nodding along. The solo sees Walter arching his back as he picks and bends the strings. This is high tempo rock, this is awesome.
Walter tells us he has a special guest in the house tonight, he invites Rod Mayall on to the stage. Rod is John Mayall’s brother, and a keyboard player, Walter mentions that John helped save his life by giving him a reason to play. Bob Fridzema offers him his seat, a quick warm-up, Walter tells him the key is C, and we’re off for a fabulous ‘Jam’, as Walter first then Rod give us a couple of solo’s encouraged by the rhythm sections quick beat. It’s great stuff, and as it closes the band and the audience applaud Rod off the stage.
‘Ride ‘Til I’m Satisfied’ is taken off of ‘Go The Distance’ which was released in 2001. Andrew Elt is back on stage, he and Griparic sharing the backing vocals. Fridzema plays a big part in the track producing a smooth ‘Hammond Organ’ sound. There are a couple of tempo changes as the instruments duel for attention. Elt starts the audience clapping, before we get to join in with the vocals, Trout encourages us to sing louder. Leasure is holding his sticks high above his head before smashing them down onto the drum skins. As the track closes, Walter says we sound good and applauds our efforts.
The title track from the latest album ‘Ordinary Madness’ is next; this is slow and sleazy blues. The steady beats of Leasure and Griparic, along with Trout’s spoken lyrics create the image of the old-fashioned blues club. Trout is really telling us a story, both vocally and with the amazing sounds he is producing from his guitar. I look around and see that most people are watching with wide eyes and open mouths. This track is all about Walter Trout and his wonderful abilities.
Walter Trout shouts “1, 2, 3, 4” and we have ‘Red Sun’ a cover of Floyd Lee’s 2004 song. It can be found on Trout’s ‘Survivor Blues’ album from 2019. Trout is shouting the lyrics, this adds real feeling, almost angry. We get treated to another heavier sounding solo. There are punching riffs and beats simmering under the surface, the odd one bursts out and slaps your senses. Walter momentarily quietens the band, to remind everyone that he’s only on stage due to someone’s generosity in donating an organ, and it’s something we should all consider, to help save a life. He then introduces the band who all take a turn with a solo, he also thanks Rod Mayall. The tempo is ramped up to a big crashing finish. Loved it.
The band thank the audience. It’s goodnight, Buxton, as they line-up across the front of the stage and take a bow, as the audience are cheering, clapping and whistling. The band are waving and smiling as they exit stage left.
Returning to the stage to the cheers of the crowd, Walter tells the audience that although he’s been sober for 34 years the sloping floor of the stage makes him feel “Shit-faced”. The next song is for Rory Gallagher as it is the anniversary of his passing. He calls for everyone to stand up.
The band start the rock ‘n’ roll ‘Bullfrog Blues’ a cover of the William Harris ‘song it’s the final song of the evening. A great party tune to finish with. The crowd are clapping along. If it wasn’t for the confines of the seats, I think that there would be some “a jumpin’ and a jivin’” going on. Griparic has his foot on the monitor driving out beats. Trout comes to the front of the stage for the solo leaning over the front row, there’s plenty of rock ‘n’ roll riffs. It’s been a great demonstration of musicianship from the whole of the band.
Setlist: I Can Tell, Bomp a Bomp (Walkin’ in the Rain), Wanna Dance, All Out Of Tears, Got a Broken Heart, Almost Gone, Playin’ Hideaway, Jam, Ride ‘Til I’m Satisfied, Ordinary Madness, Red Sun, Bullfrog Blues.
The trip to Buxton Opera house has been a fantastic experience, both from the venue and the artists that have performed this evening. If you ever have the opportunity to see any of them, then you must. On our walk back to the car, Manny points out a couple of his ‘Personal’ landmarks, but that’s a story for another day.
Photography by Manny Manson for MPM