Gig Review of:


Merton Abbey Mills, Colliers Wood, S London

(27 August 2023)

William Morris died here’ announces Simon, in recognition of the great textile designer poet-socialist’s connection with this Colliers Wood dogleg of the River Wandle. Then corrects himself, ‘William Morris dyed wool here,’ which is both funny, and more historically accurate.

There are three chairs centre-stage at the delightful red-plush boutique ‘Colour House’ theatre, to the right Doc Stenson curls in around his harmonica playing a high-energy mash-up of Blues-flavoured Irish reels, while to left Simon holds forth on the detailed histories of obscure Blues rarities they’re about to perform, running his hand over the smooth dome of his head in a massaging memory-prompting motion. ‘I hope you’re taking notes’ cautions Doc, ‘there will be questions later.’

They cake-walk into town on an acoustic raft of Country Blues, skiffle, jugband themes, and the swing of Little Walter’s storming stand-out ‘My Babe’. Doc adds his own ‘Get Ahead Woman’, then they share a guitar swing with shout-back audience participation.

Doc Stenson has been around long enough to have travelled to Barnes at seventeen to see a dapper Jimmy Witherspoon play. Simon Prager has been around long enough to have stepped in to duo for Sonny Terry when Bownie McGhee was ill. His 1968 album Blues Like Showers Of Rain marked him out as a musician to watch. Describing Rev Gary Davis as his hero he does a ragtime ‘Hesitation Blues’ that ‘teaches the angels how to jellyroll’ while Doc adds breathy harmonica. That Hot Tuna, and Taj Mahal have done their own versions illustrates the song’s effortless adaptability.

Simon defines ‘modern Blues’ as that which came after the 1950s. He traces a lineage from Louis Jordan to Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson and then… Prince maybe? Until you suspect that Blues – the music of the post-slavery poverty black experience, is rapidly becoming the preserve of dyed-in-the-wool white academic practitioners. What does R&B stand for today… Rum & Blackcurrant? But then they do a surging version of Levon Helms ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ to demonstrate that the spirit is ever-renewing.

Wendy steps up to occupy the centre chair to deliver a spine-shivering reading of Ma Rainey’s ‘Jellybean’, and meanders down sad song Hoagy Carmichael byways.

Simon dedicates Blind Alfred Reed’s 1929 Depression-era ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live’ to Nadine Dorries, as a nudge that financial crisis is no new thing, and that poverty is forever with us. Then they finish on a riotous ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’.

William Morris would surely have smiled.




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