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A touch of the blues in London

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-07-2017 Sanjoy Narayan

Last Saturday, a million people had turned up on central London’s streets to watch and take part in the annual Pride Parade, this year’s being significant because it also marks 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK. Central London’s main streets, always thronged by tourists, were bursting with so many people that afternoon that it became a huge and seething mosh pit of humans. If you found yourself in their midst, as I did, the direction you moved in was no longer in your control. I was trying to find a blues bar, one that I had gone to a decade ago, and several things, the mosh pit included, were making things difficult. I was visiting London after many years and my sense of direction was confused; my phone was out of juice so Google’s helping hand was missing; and, worse, for reasons I shall spare you the mention, I was feeling a bit low—all factors that can combine to quickly dissipate the best intentions.

On the verge of giving up the effort, I spotted Kingly Street, a narrow lane on which, behind the Hamley’s toy store, the Ain’t Nothin But Blues Bar is located. Every day since 1993, when it was established, in this tiny barroom, tucked away like a secret haven just steps away from the insane crowds in Oxford Circus, the blues come alive—starting in the afternoon and going on till late at night. Step in and it’s like walking into a Mississippi delta blues bar: a small stage where the musicians play, a well-worn bar, sticky floor, and full of people who love the blues. I badly needed a dose of the blues to get rid of my own touch of the blues—a kind of hair of the dog cure. When I waded out of the throng and managed to walk in, it was around 4 in the afternoon, and an acoustic set was on: two men with guitars, one of them singing. The singer, Waqar Hussain, a Londoner, had a distinctive Flying V acoustic guitar (named for its wing-shaped body) and he sang old classics as well as original compositions. His mellow vocals and laid-back style as he sang Albert King’s I’ll Play The Blues For You immediately put me in the mood. The accompanying guitarist, Marc Buguera, a bluesman from Barcelona, produced sounds from an acoustic guitar that were so fluid that they made you wonder what magic there would be if he shredded on an electric.

At the core of Ain’t Nothing But Blues Bar is a tightly knit community of local regulars—both musicians and patrons—but as word has spread, it has attracted travellers, tourists who chance upon this nook as well as blues aficionados who seek it out. Yes, there is a sprinkling of unserious wanderers who talk loudly and pay scant attention to the music but the more serious types usually outnumber them and, after some time, the former leave. The walls have posters, old ones, of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. Old instruments, including a ragged guitar case, are fixed to the ceiling, and the bartenders are busy, hard-working and very accommodating. The ales are great too!

On Saturday, Jack J. Hutchinson, British blues-rock guitarist and songwriter, was emcee-ing the acoustic sets. Long-haired, bearded and sporting a black fedora, Hutchinson looks like he’s burst out of a 1970s rock band. His infectious style and announcements, peppered with friendly cursing, set the mood. I met him at the bar on one of my countless trips to get another pint and mentioned to him that Hussain was so good and he said: “Mate, Waqar is a godsend.” That was before I saw how good Hutchinson himself was with his guitar. Joined by Buguera and a blues harp player, he ripped up the place with versions of songs by Elmore James, B.B. King, and Fleetwood Mac.

But the day’s true surprise came in the form of Phil Hughes. I had seen him outside the bar in the early part of the afternoon, a spry and wiry man, white-haired, puffing away on hand-rolled cigarettes. After tons of those, he came on stage, armed with his harmonicas and the microphone. Hughes would do a capella numbers first, Hutchinson said. And then it happened. He sang, and it was electrifying. Hughes, a Londoner who learnt to play the harmonica when he was 35 (he is well past 60 now), has a mighty voice. He kicked off with Sonny Boy Williamson I’s Welfare Store Blues, his gravelly but powerful vocals taking that song to new heights while his harmonica riffs punctuated his singing. This was the blues in their simplest form—raw and hard-hitting.

Hughes then moved on to a Tom Waits song—Jesus Gonna Be Here. Also sung a capella. I shut my eyes as he sang: Well, Jesus gonna be here/ He’s gonna be here soon/ He’s gonna cover us up with leaves/ With a blanket from the moon/ With a promise and a vow/ And a lullaby for my brow/ Jesus gonna be here/ Gonna be here soon. With my eyes shut I could see Waits himself standing up there at the mike as Hughes sang that mighty song. I opened my eyes and saw that the two women next to me, marchers who had come in after the Pride Parade, had their eyes shut tight too.

***

The Lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. Trouble So Hard by Phil Hughes (cover of Vera Hall’s song) on YouTube

2. The Sky Is Crying by Waqar Hussain (cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s song) on Academicartisan.com

3. Rotten Break by Alexis Korner from The Alexis Korner Blues Collection, Vol.1

4. Tuesday Morning by Paul Kossoff from Back Street Crawler

5. Rockin’ Boogie by Fleetwood Mac from Blues Jam In Chicago

First Beat is a weekly column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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