In today’s ever-changing, sometimes downright frightening world, certain bands capitulate under pressure: others, meanwhile, keep rolling on.
Luckily, for the Climax Blues Band [now into their sixth decade of performing and recording despite the last of the original members having passed several years ago] and their loyally devoted fans, the veteran British rockers fall very much into the latter category- and despite the inevitable cynicism they continue to face from certain armchair pundits, they don’t look likely to ever stop. And good bloody job too.
The irony is, the longest-serving members of their current incarnation [keyboard maestro George Glover, joined 1980: Neil Simpson, bass, joined 1990: Roy Adams, drums, also joined 1990] have now all been in the group longer than any of the original band bar the late Colin Cooper ever were: not one of the other founders [Derek Holt, Pete Haycock, Peter Filleul] made it to being a 30, let alone 40-year man in the job, and even vocalist Graham Dee and saxist Chris Aldridge, ‘new boys’ no longer, are about to begin their second decade of tenure now. So technically, if you were to ask me these days which incarnation most boasted the spirit of the real CBB, I’d say that in retrospect it’s this one. And though they’ve just suffered another setback in the departure of long-term guitarist Les Hunt [joined 1986, retired 2021] the fact that they’ve simply been able to replace him with his long-term pupil and protege Dan Machin makes, again, perfect sense.
Sure, admittedly, they don’t play that much ‘actual’ traditional Chicago blues anymore- but be fair, they’d more or less stopped doing that in Cooper and Haycock’s day anyway, scoring a series of surprise chart hits between the mid 70s and early 80s with a brand of still blues-based, but ultimately commercial, adult oriented funk-rock. And great stuff it was too- whack on Couldn’t Get It Right in a classic rock club even now, and the dancefloor still fills. It’s one of those tunes. Thus, the modern-day, Glover-led, Dee-fronted CBB is an outfit that essentially has to fulfil three criteria: it has to be true to the spirit of the original, blues-wailin’ combo that made such great records as Plays On and Tightly Knit, it has to satisfy the AOR fanbase who discovered them at their commercial zenith off the back of Gold Plated and Real To Reel, and it also has [perhaps most importantly of all] to move in a new direction that respects both roots whilst ultimately breaking fresh ground. In short, not the easiest of jobs.
But nonetheless, it’s a task they can handle. I know they can- I’ve seen them live enough times now to know they have the necessary nous and chops. More to the point, their last studio outing Hands Of Time  which most certainly did launch that new, smooth soul-based direction to wide acclaim from fans and critics alike- was my hands-down favourite record of that year, and if it wasn’t for a certain virus spreading round the world [and, more importantly, the panic and fear that spread in response to it] they’d have probably released another one by now. In fact, in early 2023, they plan to [and I’ve heard some vocal excerpts from it already, but I’m keeping them firmly sealed under my hat, so don’t even bother asking]
And, by and large, the 120 or so fans assembled here at the Flowerpot tonight are well aware of the current lineup’s strengths- which is why they’re now confident enough to kick off the set with Straight Down The Middle [from the aforementioned 2019 outing] before launching into the late 80s/early 90s fave Fool For The Bright Lights. Indeed, though both songs stem from entirely different eras, the fact that Dee’s vocals sound so much like Cooper’s, albeit slightly more mellifluous and less gritty in timbre, means the join is almost unnoticeable: and bearing in mind that three of the musicians who played on the original are still here, it’s as authentic as could be. This is essence, their vintage- but it doesn’t end there, and a mere three songs in, they’re already tackling a swaggering Louisiana Blues [from Whole Lot Of Bottle, an album on which none of them played] with equal aplomb. And you know what? They’re so good at it, nobody bats an eyelid.
Of course, much like folk music, the joy of blues – which as we all know is indigenous Black American folk music anyway – is its openness to interpretation: in other words, you can write all the songs you want, burt they’ll still always bear some stylistic resemblance [or in many case, direct homage] to their forebears. Therefore, in the same way, you can ‘cover’ or ‘reinterpret’ a standard as many times as you want and still keep making it new, twisting and reshaping its bare bones til you rebuild the entire body whilst retaining the essential soul within: and thus, when the CBB play Howlin Wolf’s Spoonful [which the old band first covered on Tightly Knit] tonight, or Willie Dixon’s Seventh Son [which also first appeared on …Bottle] they’re not simply replicating them, they’re redefining them, drawing on a tradition that’s there to be utilised as a constant source of inspiration. On the latter, which sees Glover’s fusion-inflected piano dogfighting with Aldridge’s fluent horn runs and Simpson’s supple pluckage, we’re almost in Weather Report/RTF territory: even more encouragingly, they’ve now reached the the point where they’re able to turn their self-penned recent material – in particular 17th Street Canal and Hands Of Time itself- into extended funky jams, which, on a warm mellow night like this
Obviously, there’s not one single substandard musician in the entire lineup, and the newly-appointed Machin is on fire throughout: however, it would be churlish as a writer to deny that a great deal of the band’s renewed stage presence doesn’t derive from the charismatic Dee, who’s fast shaping into one of rock’s more interesting and individual frontmen. An affable, likeable, [if slightly menacing-looking] Cockney ex-Mod with an extremely individual sartorial sense, predominantly comprised of a flat-top Mohawk and a most becoming collection of grey jackets, tight jeans, wraparound shades and black jerseys, his unusual combination of vocal influences- Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Van Morrison, Dennis Greaves, Elvis Costello- and stuttering, lurching steps are entirely his own: trust me, I’ve seen many a classic band in recent years make the mistake of hiring a new singer who thinks their job is to merely ape their predecessors, but that kinda schtick certainly won’t do for this geezer, and his resultant originality has not gone unnoticed by blues and rock lovers alike.
OK, he’s also a cheeky fucker [particularly with regard to his occasional comments about the current Dr Feelgood lineup, who to be fair, boast about as many original members as this lot do] and he does occasionally look a bit overly cocksure of himself, but in today’s cut-throat rock and roll world, you HAVE to believe in your product: besides which, if you’d joined the greatest RnB outfit in the world on lead vocals, you’d be happy [and I dare say a bit smug] too!! I for one am immensely jealous of the bloke: every year for several nights at a time, he goes out on tour with five other shit-hot musicians, pays homage to the greats and gets to sing his own co-compositions [Ain’t That A Kick In The Head, Bad Luck and the astounding Right Time Wrong Place being just three of them] whereas I just watch the six of them do it before having to sit indoors writing about it several days later [OK, I get in free, but even so…] Best of all, though, he gets to sing “that” tune, now prefaced by a haunting, Procolesque hymnal introduction from Glover- and make an entire room, me included, boogie our arses orff. Jammy sod…
In late 2022, the strength of the Climax Blues Band- originally from the West Midlands, now from everybloodywhere – lies as much in their present as their past- and though Dee still has to explain their continued existence onstage for the benefit of those unaware [much as he also explains that Cooper’s son continues to act as creative advisor to the group] most of their fans have moved with them by now, and quite rightly so. Sure, purists may scoff, but I fail to see why a ‘purist’ of any kind would come to see an electric blues outfit anyway: if you want the same tired old 12 bars, there’s bound to be some old fart down the ANBTB Bar in Soho churning ’em out, so head there instead. If, on the other hand, you want to see RnB [in the PROPER sense of the term, none of that Quiet Storm cobblers] continue to grow and flourish as the art form it is, then get ready for the next album, because it’s going to be an absolute belter. As indeed will be whatever the Climax Blues Band of about 45 years from now releases, by which time everyone in this lineup will be either dead or retired. And so on, and so on. Like the Feelgoods, Molly Hatchet, the Ides Of March, BST, the Albion Band, Gong and Tangerine Dream, it’s an ongoing thing: the concept, much like the music itself, will never end, and [ironically] much like the blues, that makes me a very happy man indeed. CBB forever, literally.