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Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings

Cambridge Folk Festival, 29 July 2001

Anthony Davis writes to BtP

This renowned band played as the penultimate act on Stage 1 on the closing night of the festival. The atmosphere in the tent was already charged from the playing of Suzanne Vega and her accompanying bass-player, who had drawn the audience into her world, where they embraced her quirky songs and ballads, full of words that cried out to be seen and felt as pictures.

As the sound-crew made ready, the last rays of the setting sun were in the trees on the edge of the site and immediately to the rear of the tent, though the size of this east-facing V-ridged structure, albeit modest in terms of the more frequently-played concert venues, made the word ‘tent’ seem strangely inappropriate: much more like being in some huge, airy, low hangar, waiting for an airship to descend.

And descend it did! Before one knew it, the group had been announced from the compère’s mike to the audience left of the stage, and Bill Wyman, wearing dark trousers, a blue shirt over a white T-shirt, and tinted spectacles, had emerged alone on to the stage. ‘Any from the [Cambridge] Corn Exchange last year?’, he asked (he was later to be heard saying that he liked playing Cambridge because it was ‘local’ for him). Two or three voices near the front answered. ‘No,’ he concluded, before encouraging the assembled crowd, which spilled back from the tent nearly the same distance as its length, to ‘enjoy yourselves!’. Almost everyone watching was standing, and the injunction was met with enthusiasm.

In the meantime, the rest of the band had joined him. Gary Brooker, who was located on the right and sporting what looked like dark brown trousers and an orange short-sleeved casual shirt with broad decorative strokes on it, kicked off the proceedings.

First, to the injunction ‘Everybody, let’s have some fun!’, was the Louis Jordan number Let the Good Times Roll. The audience didn’t need to be asked twice. With Gary on lead vocals and keyboard, the rhythm kicked in, the sax-players (Frank Mead and Nick Payn) picking up the beat, and the backing singers (Beverley Skeete and Janice Hoyte, of whom more later) and Georgie Fame (on the far left of the stage) adding their voices to this rocked-up jazz number. The crowd seemed to approve of where this was all leading.

The rhythmic emphasis continued as Gary sang the opening verse of Tutti Frutti, with snort-like sax punctuation of the main thrust of the music. Bill Wyman could be seen strumming his headless bass as Georgie Fame contributed his characteristic style of playing on his much-adorned keyboard, which bore testimony to time spent on the road around the world.

In the following item, which was announced as a composition by Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor (guitar), Georgie Fame’s vocals came into their own (‘Here comes Georgie Fame!’, we were told), and Gary receded into the background for a while. Next up was Albert Lee on vocals, giving a rendition of Jump Jive and Wail. The lighting, previously not striking (except for the vivid purple of the previous song), was greens and blues, and the swing treatment was completed by Frank Mead and Nick Payn moving the horns of their instruments, as if around the confines of two squares that we could not see.

Now was the time for Beverley Skeete to come to the front and sing a couple of songs with her very distinctive and powerful voice, Melody and Love Letters. She showed that, in this all-star line-up, she was a force to be reckoned with, and the quality of her timbre was only matched by the stunning sunset that could be seen by those that turned to the opening of the tent.

As Beverley rejoined Janice and the lighting turned to oranges and reds, Georgie Fame resumed lead vocals; it was now nearly ten past nine, and the highspot of this number, which Gary Brooker nearly missed by disappearing backstage, was a guitar solo by Martin Taylor, in which he played notes with a real insistence. The audience responded by almost unanimously dancing on the spot - the rhythm had found its mark.

Next came Janice Hoyte’s turn to come from towards the rear to take centre stage on vocals, in front of the brightly illuminated Charles Wells posters. This was a song by Ruth Brown, given a slick rock’n’roll treatment, complete with another dazzling guitar solo. The Kings were showing that there was a wealth of talent, and that everyone was to get a turn to display it.

The number Hit the Road, Jack began, after a keyboard intro from Gary Brooker, with him singing ‘Don’t treat me so mean’ in a gravelly blues voice that matched the violet/blue lighting and moody sax, as the audience clapped to the beat. This then led to a trio with Beverley and Janice, which in turn became the inspiration for a sax solo that reprised the theme. It was after this, arguably, that the treatment began to lose its way, turning, as it did, into an extended (i.e. overly long) vocal display by Gary, which was determined, yet lacking in direction, and which left me feeling that I had been taken a very long way without reaching anywhere. This criticism, of course, has to be seen in the context that this was only one out of a total of thirteen pieces, and, of course, it’s not always possible to please everyone.

Another lead vocal from Beverley followed, rendering I Put a Spell on You in an expressive voice, accompanied by blues guitar from Martin Taylor and flute from Nick Payn. It was a treat to hear the amazing vocal range and dexterity that the song drew out, as well as a well-executed sax solo from Frank Mead.

Everyone knew from the time that the end of the set was in sight. Before that, the Albert Lee Express was leaving, which, as the audience was informed, has a rival in the non-stop Cambridge Express service to King’s Cross (although you can't buy your ticket on the train). Georgie Fame, who had also left the stage, returned at this point, and the band struck up to the words ‘Train, train, coming down the line’ with the strains of bluegrass, complete with harmonica from Nick Payn. Albert Lee was the backbone of the piece, and played a fine solo, only rivaled by Nick’s skill in imitating the honking sound of the railroad horn, even neatly echoing the disappearance of the express into the eventual distance, with just a last few notes, when we thought that it had gone for good, to remind us of its existence. Good fun, and the audience appreciated it!

Tear it Up turned out to be the last item, with Albert on solo vocals in this upbeat version of a blues standard. It was to end by showcasing the dueling guitars of Martin Taylor and Albert, vying with each other as to who could have the last word, with Albert even coming around behind Martin to play on the same instrument. But, as the audience applauded and the Kings left the stage, that surely couldn’t be it ...

It wasn’t. Bill Wyman came back onto the stage and introduced the whole band one by one, even playing tribute to ‘Georgie Fame’s wonderful organ’, which, as he knew it would, raised a mighty laugh. Straight in then with (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, which promptly fell apart as the wind-up that it was, and gave way to the rhythm’n’blues of Saturday Night at the Hole in the Wall, with Gary Brooker masterfully in control again on vocals. Another superb sax solo gave this the finishing touch, and completed the finale of a very entertaining hour and a quarter of music, which had had the crowd on its feet and moving to the beat of these legendary rhythmic entities.

Order the single Love Letters from Amazon UK

Order this CD from Amazon UK

Rhythm Kings: 1998 tour, 1999 tour, 2000 tour, 2001 European tour; 2001 US tour

More Rhythm Kings information here

Wyman / Brooker interview excerpts here.

Bill Wyman talks to Record Collector about Gary Brooker

Rhythm Kings on record

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