Preamble: I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that Dave Spark was to start a monthly Blues club at The Anchor Inn in Benfleet, Essex. To add to that, he had managed to secure the appearance of one of the best of the many up and coming Blues artists in England at the moment, the remarkably talented singer Malaya Blue and her band, for the Grand Opening Night. And for me it got a whole lot better, as he kindly put me on the Guest List. The opportunity then presented itself for an interview with the lady herself. So after a couple of messages between Malaya and myself; and her manager Steve Yourglivch, it was soon set up.
I arrived early enough, and as I parked up, I bumped into guitarist Dudley Ross in the car park, who was unloading his guitars and kit from his car. So I gave him a hand lugging it in. Once inside the Function Room, I met Malaya and manager Steve. Soon she was ready for the interview, so we stepped outside onto the patio where her husband Graham joined us. But we’ll leave them sitting out there just for a minute…
The Essex Blues Scene I’m glad to say, is in fine fettle these days. We have several very good venues that either cater exclusively for Blues acts; and some that book a Blues band occasionally; plus numerous pubs that have a Blues or Blues-Rock band on at weekends; or a mid-week Jam Night. Yet such is the popularity of the genre in our neck of the woods, that there is still room for more!
Dave Spark’s Rockin’ Blues Night: Dave is a local man (from Canvey Island). He is a long-term Bluesman and has played in local bands, so he knows a lot of musos, and more than a thing or two about music. He’s run Blues Nights before (on Canvey), but has now reinstated the project over the Causeway in Benfleet, at The Anchor Inn. Having made a lot of contacts in the business over the years, Dave had managed to secure a class act for the Grand Opening Night. With her name on everyone’s lips at the moment Malaya Blue was great choice as headliner – and with an entrance fee of only a fiver too!
The Venue itself is the charming and historic, 600 year old Anchor Inn on Essex Way, Benfleet. Dave had booked the Function Room at the back of the pub, seperated from the original old buiding by the lovely patio area. The Function Room itself is a bit on the small side, but as it turned out, not a vast amount of people turned up, so it didn’t get overcrowded. But I think once these Blues Nights get established, it may be a bit squashed in there! Among those who were present however, were a good number of local musos who’d turned out to support both Dave and Malaya (More on them later). There’s no stage in the venue as such, just a performance area at one end; and a bar the other. It served its purpose anyway.
Last Minute Personnel Changes: Due to some clerical error, some of Malaya’s band (guitarist, saxophonist and drummer) were unable to attend the gig. So manager Steve had to call upon the services of some last minute replacements. Such are his connections though, that he manged to secure the services of some very fine musicians indeed, at short notice. None other than guitarist, Dudley Ross (currently nominated for two awards at the BBA); well-respected drummer Geoff Cooper; and the veteran saxophonist, composer, and arranger John Altman. (who, of course, has worked with innumerable high profile musicians over many years). The other two members of the band remained unchanged: Trev Turley on bass; and Andy Cooper on keys.
The Malaya Blue interview: Malaya is an affable lady; well-spoken, and easy to chat to. I began by congratulating her on her (unprecedented, I think) four nominations at the British Blues Awards (BBA). ‘Yes, What happened?’ she replied, laughing with a genuine modesty. ‘I guess you’ll win at least a couple’ I observed.
‘Well I don’t know’ she said, ‘its a bit of a double-edged sword really because its great to be nominated so early on, but of course the flip side of that is that I haven’t been around for a very long time, and I’m still heavily into building the profile and the numbers’.
‘Assuming you do win a couple or more awards; your career is going to sky-rocket’. I observed. ‘That means you’ll be gigging much further afield; so how does that fit with your family life?’
‘It fits’ she replied. ‘It was one of the things that we had to consider before we even started this, to be honest. I spoke to the kids and to Graham. And Steve (Youglivch) said “This is what I think you need to be doing”. And we thought “will it logistically work with the family and everything?”. Everyone’s 100% behind it though. The kids think “Mum’s cool!” But I do need their support. When Graham and I wrote ‘Hope’ (the new single) together, my son loved it. He plays the piano as well, and learnt it; and kept asking: “Mum, can you sing it?” That’s brilliant. There’s not much more of an acolade you can get. A lot of my children’s friends are big fans too.
Malaya mentioning ‘Hope’ had anticipated my next question. I’d noticed that the single and ‘Let’s Reinvent Love’ (its B-side – to use the old vinyl terminology!), are both very Soul influenced; and I wondered if this was the direction that Malaya intended to take her Blues – bearing in mind that the Bourbon Street album has quite a wide range of Bluesy styles within it – ie, in which direction will she take the second album?
‘Yes it is intended. I think because I really came from a Soul background, and then I moved into the Blues – which is great. I don’t want to move too far away, for sure. Before I wrote ‘Hope’ and ‘Lets Reinvent Love’, I had various meetings with different producers with very different ideas; and somebody said to me (and this was only one person’s opinion, but it was quite poignant, I thought); he said “Boubon Street is a lovely album, but its quite safe, and I think you need to move outside of your comfort zone a little bit”. And I really internalised that and thought “What does that mean?” So with ‘Hope’ and ‘Let’s Reinvent Love’, I just wanted to do something a bit bolder. There’s a little bit of me that’s anxious about the second album. Its always difficult. Do you do the first album again? Or do you move into something new? What happens then to your fan base? So the double-single was really a bit of a test-bed. We wanted to stretch ourselves musically. Wanted to record something with the band (who were not on Bourbon Street). Wanted to go into a recording studio and record the whole band in one go; which was all very new to me. So it seemed safe to have a couple of new songs to give the fan base something new to listen to. I just want to be a little more experimental, but there is the danger of people buying the second album, and the first thing they do is compare it to the first. But I have the oportunity to be better, bolder, brighter – bring something slightly unexpected.’
Malaya is apparently half way through writing the second album. She has all the song titles but not the name of the album yet, and it should be ready for March/April next year. ‘We were in rehearsals last Sunday and we tried out three of the new songs; with the boys putting their own ideas in. But we’re not doing anything off the new album tonight. We are still peddling Bourbon Street !’ It looks as though the double-single will appear on the new album, but she hasn’t made a final decision on that yet.
Given that she came from a ‘Soul background’ then, how did she get into Blues?
‘I was introduced to the Blues by my lecturer when I was doing my music degree. We all had to do a module on an aspect of music that we hadn’t really discovered or had much to do with – because I’d had a long Soul background. So I got into Ma Rainey. I looked into it. It was old; Rootsy; Bluesy. I thought “This is great!” It was really earthy.’
Next I asked Malaya about her name – which of course is a stage-name. Her real one is kept largely under wraps! ‘Where’s the divaship and the mystique if I told you?’ she laughed. ‘I like having a stage-name!’ So how did she come by such an exotic name?
‘Several years ago I was sat at my desk searching for words. I found a word: Malaya, which meant moth. Because I always song-write in the early hours, I thought it would be a good stage name for me. Alas. I can no longer find the reference and sometimes wonder if I actually have my facts right! But that’s it as I remember it! A lot of fine wine has been consumed in the interim! We added Blue because Malaya pulls up Malaysia in a Google search, and so Malaya Blue arrived!’
I’d heard that Malaya is a workoholic…
‘I do try! I take everything I do very seriously; and I know that the bit that everybody sees is 10% of the effort and 10% of the work that’s involved. Steve works incredibly hard; and I do. Its something that we learnt about each other very early on; and I think that’s why, so far, things are working out; and we’re making good healthy progress; because we are at it 24 hours. There are very few hours that go by when we are not working towards what we need to be focused on.’
Malaya and the band have been gigging ever further afield from their Norwich home-base lately: up to Brum and down to Southampton. If she wins any of the awards at the BBA of course, she’ll be much more in demand; and Europe will beckon…
‘Yes, Steve is very heavily connected; he knows a lot of people who are very current at the festivals etc… he is already talking to some people out in Europe; so hopefully we’ll get to go out there at some point. I hear a lot of people drawing very strong comparisons between the UK Blues circuit and the European Blues circuit. I think if we could do a mutual swap (where you go out with another band’s promoter, and they send their band over here to your manager), that’s something Steve and I are hoping to do’
Her career really got off the ground when she was doing session vocals for producer Andy Littlewood…
‘He came to me and asked me to do a song for somebody else’s album: the track ‘Lady Sings The Blues’; and I recorded it. Then it went crazy! Everyone was saying “Who is this girl? We love her voice!” So Andy said “Let’s write an album in a similar Jazz-Blues genre.” So we did; and Bourbon Street was the end result. The collaboration was over 9 -10 months. So he certainly started this pathway.’
Interview concluded, I thanked Malaya; and she and Graham went off for the sound-check, leaving me to scribble down a few notes. She had been very forth-coming, but careful not to give away anything that was still under wraps – and fair enough too! I enjoyed meeting and talking to her. She is friendly, modest, and chatty; yet very focused, and determined to take her career as high as it will fly. I think she’s on the cusp of a major breakthrough; and good luck to her.
The Dudley Ross interview: I hadn’t planned to interview Dudley; purely because I didn’t know he’d be at the gig until a couple of days before – and I don’t think he knew either! But once the sound-check was completed, I saw the opportunity; and asked if we could have a chat. He was only to pleased to oblige. Like Malaya, and most musicians, he is an amiable person who is keen to talk about his work; or just chat about music in general.
I asked about his current project: an EP in collaboration with Noel McCalla. He is very enthusiastic about it. Its a five track opus and is nearing completion. It should be ready by the final night of Dudley’s forthcoming tour with Kirk Fletcher at The Borderline in London at the end of September.
Would Dudley be Kirk’s duelling partner on the tour, I wondered? ‘Well, I don’t know about that!’ he laughed; adding modestly ‘I’ll be his bag boy basically! (Now that is modesty coming from a man who has deservedly been nominated for ‘Best Guitarist’ at this year’s BBA!). ‘I learnt a lot from Kirk last year. It was great fun last time; and its going to be better this time, because we had the first year to get used to each other, so the bar’s going to be raised’.
But there was a problem with the Kirk Fletcher tour last year – money. ‘If they (the promoters) don’t know you, they won’t pay the money. This is what we had with Kirk last year. He’s amazing; phenomenal; but I lost about £3,500 because no one knew him. It was a three year plan. I had to do the first one and be prepared to take a knock. But this year we’ve been approached by venues, and they’ve said they’ll pay X-amount as a fee; so the risk has been taken out. But I’m still paying off the debt from last year!’
I asked about his work with Katie Bradley too. (With whom he is joint-nominated as ‘Best Songwriter’ at the BBA).
‘I’ve had a good year with Katie. We had the Anchor Baby Sessions album out which did quite well. Me and Katie are good mates, and we’re doing a new album in the new year. She’s in France at the moment. We’re meeting in Germany on Thursday. The European scene is where its at, at the moment; it really is. We’ve only got two or three gigs over there, but its a good start. Once you’ve got your foot in the door, more will come of it becase they love the Blues out there.’
Dudley talked about his love of song-writing, and thought it would be more satisfying to win that award than the ‘Best Guitarist’. ‘Me and Katie got the runner-up award two years ago for I Hear The River, So its nice to be recognised as a song-writer, because that’s what I love.’
And we talked about Dudley’s previous albums…
‘I’ve done loads of stuff for people, but I’ve only released one in my own name; that’s the only one that I sell. I’ve done another one but I withdrew it because I was unhappy with it. It was an instrumental album – Progressive Rock. I never really felt it was good enough. But it is online, so you can listen to it. Its called Even Rock Stars Have To Wash Up. Its got some great musicians on it; but it was mainly the production – I thought it was rushed.
I thanked Dudley for his time; and he kindly gave me a copy of his album The Note That Told A Thousand Tales.
Blues Blah Blah!: The patio at The Anchor was full of Essex Blues people! I had a good long chat with Nick Garner; harp player and generally considered as something of a Blues guru. Nick knows a lot of things and a lot of people from many years back, so he’s a very interesting bloke to talk to. I enjoyed speaking to guitarist Jamie Williams of The Roots Collective, too. Photographer Steve Dulieu was there – resplendent in a Hawaiian shirt as usual, and there to do a little video work. Tanya Piche (‘The Female Howlin’ Wolf’) was there too, but I didn’t get a chance to chat, unfortunately.
But most interesting for me was when I got a chance to speak to the renown saxophonist and composer John Altman. This is the man who has played with everyone who is anyone since the 60s; from Hendrix to Winehouse, and is very well respected in the music business. Probably the biggest name present. He told me he was in the middle of writing a score for a recently renovated silent film, Shooting Stars, from the 1920s. Apparently he doesn’t use any instrument to compose; he just writes straight from his mind onto the stave. Among other things, we got round to talking about one of my heroes, who John knew personally – Peter Green. We talked about his genius and his decline. He dispelled or confirmed some of the stories and rumours that I’d heard surrounding Greeny. Fascinating stuff, but unfortunately outside the scope of this piece.
The Snakeoil Set: Snakeoil (confusingly one of many bands with the same or similar names) are a Southend based five-piece band (two guitars; bass; drums; and harp), who ‘…play an eclectic mix of Country, Punk-Skiffle, Rock’n’Roll, and a bit of Jump-Jive’. They played a lively set of what I describe as good ol’ British R’n’B. I didn’t see all of their set because I was too busy chatting outside (My apologies to the band), but I saw their last few songs, and I liked them. They looked a bit squashed in the limited space of the performance area with The MBB’s gear taking up most of the space, of course, but they got on with it nonetheless. I heard a few good tunes, including: ‘Big 10-inch’; ‘I Don’t Mind’; ‘Catfish Blues’; and a good cover of Dr. Feelgood’s ‘Down At The Doctors’. Plenty of harp and some bottleneck. A good set, but I didn’t get a chance to chat unfortunately.
The Malaya Blue Band Set: Malaya looked stunningly immaculate in her LBD as she took up the mic for the opening number: ‘Guilty’. Singers are always the focal point in a band; but female vocalists even more so. The visual impact is important, and the lady does not disappoint. But she immediately demonstrated that she was there to sing, and we were in no doubt about that right from the off. A great opening number it was too.
A lovely little flurry from Dudley on his Vigier, heralded the start of the album’s title track ‘Bourbon Street’. Its interesting how this band’s interpretation differs from the recorded version, but it was at least equal, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Malaya’s vocals were superb; and there was some tasty sax from Mr. Altman too.
The laid back ‘Forgiveness’ was sung especially well. And if you were not already aware of the tightness of the band, this track would have certainly demonstrated it for you. Lovely keys indeed from Andy; sax was sublime again; and Dudley was remarkable too. We could have been in Downtown Chicago! I love this song on the album, and I loved this live version too. (But wait! No cheeky whispered ending, Malaya?)
Another favourite of mine from the album, the Soulful ‘Cold Light Of Day’, followed. I like this song because of its unusual vocal melody – it didn’t go where I thought it would when I first heard it, which left me pleasantly surprised. This live version was good too. Again, a great solo from Dudley. ‘Promised Land’ was up next, and also did not disappoint. And nor did the rockin’ Blues of ‘Bluesville UK’, with more fine solos, courtesy of Messrs Cooper, Ross, and Altman; and its classic Blues-song finale!
At this point Malaya introduced the band; and each received a well deserved round of applause. Manager Steve appeared at my side then, and asked ‘Enjoying it?’ ‘Brilliant…’ I replied ‘…absolutely brilliant!’
Next was the song that started it all off for Malaya; and one of my personal favourites from the album: ‘Lady Sings The Blues’. This was indeed ‘…a beautiful rendition of the sweetest melody’. Sleepy and mellow, It was ‘…amazing when the lady sang the Blues’.
We were then treated to a cover of the Etta James classic ‘At Last’. Now, everyone who knows me, knows that I like a good cover – as long as its not a meaningless carbon-copy of the original. I was very happy with this version, and found myself nodding along to it. Malaya made it her own to some extent. JA played a blinding sax solo too. The song fitted the MBB set very nicely I must say.
‘This is a song about you naughty boys that break our hearts, and treat us girls badly!’ said Malaya as she introduced the song that had been nominated as ‘Best Song’ at the BBA – ‘Bitter Moon’. (No Malaya! Its you girls that break our hearts – as countless Bluesmen would testify!) It certainly is a great song; and one of my five favourites from the album. To be honest, any of those five could have been nominated as far as I’m concerned. It was well sung; with nice lead guitar from DR.
The lively vibe of ‘Cold-Hearted Man’ with its fine Hammond intro came next. Dudley’s Vigier produced a fine sounding solo; but John and Andy not to be out-done played their part well too. The Ska groove of ‘Lost Girl’ followed smartly; with its muted staccato guitar rhythm; swirling Hammond; and tasty sax.
It was time to air one of the new songs: ‘Let’s Reinvent Love’. It was sung with a Soulful passion; and only marred by certain people in the audience chattering throughout. (A pet hate of mine). Malaya and her boys were professional enough not to be fazed by it though. The other newly penned song from the double-single followed: ‘Hope’. Again a passionate rendition; and with a lovely guitar solo.
The main set finished with ‘How Did You Do This?’ Its another winner and used as a vehicle for a drum solo from Geoff. All night he and Trev on bass had been tight and consistently reliable as a rhythm section, and shouldn’t be overlooked. ‘Do we want some more?’ asked Dave Spark. Of course we did…
The final offering was ‘Dawn’ – a kind of Jazz-Blues ballad; and perhaps an unusual choice as a finishing number. But it was sung with an anguished, Bassey-esque intensity that was very impressive indeed; and left us with no doubt that we’d just witnessed a magnificent show, by a wonderful performer; backed by an excellent band playing a fine set of songs.
It was congratulations all round as soon as the show finished; and well deserved too. It was a classy act that any reasonable person would find impossible to criticise. Quite possibly the best Blues gig I’ve attended so far this year; for a number of reasons. I managed to have a little chat with Malaya, Steve and John (and Dudley about his Vigier guitar) before congratulating them all and saying my goodbyes.
In conclusion, I think that the whole Malaya Blue Band package (The lady herself for her vocals, song-writing, and stage presence; the band for their talent and professionalism; and the guidance of manager Steve), is currently poised for a take-off to the stars. All it needs now is for some one to light the touch-paper and the whole show is going cosmic! The countdown has begun! Very impressive indeed.
The British Blues Awards: If any of the punters present had any doubt about who to vote for in the BBA, their doubts would surely have been allayed after watching Malaya’s performance at this gig. Personally I think she’ll walk away with three – maybe all four – of her nominations. She’s up for ‘Best Album’; ‘Best Song’; ‘Female Vocal’ and ‘Emerging Artist’. Its a tough choice, but if you haven’t voted yet, you may want to consider this exceptional artiste.
Likewise, if anyone had been unsure of Dudley’s prowess as a guitarist, they would surely be in no doubt as to his abilities after witnessing his performance at this gig. His skill as a song-writer (nominated for his collaborations with Katie Bradley), was not on display tonight of course, but its well-known anyway. Its quite possible that he’ll win both of his nominations too.
Several people have been asking me who I’m going to vote for in this category or that. I don’t mind them asking; but I’m not saying – I prefer to stay neutral (officially), and there are a few nominations in which I genuinely haven’t made up my mind yet, to be honest. We still have until the end of August anyway. All I’ll say is, that there were two artists at this gig who have six nominations between them; and I’m writing this piece all about them!
Future Gigs The next Rockin’ Blues Night at The Anchor is on 4th September 2015; and features The Tanya Piche Blues Band supported by Bif Bam Pow! Unfortunately I probably won’t be there as I’ve just realised I will be at another gig that night. (Why do good gigs always pop up on the same night!!) But if you’re from Essex and love the Blues, then it’ll be worth getting down there for the next night. I’m interested to see who Dave will book for future Rockin’ Blues Nights – there are a couple of names that I’ve put his way that I think would go down well; but we’ll just have to wait and see.
Stop Press! Just before putting this article on line, I received an email from Tanya Piche with the exciting news that she will be now be joined by none other than the remarkable Katie Bradley for her gig at this venue next month. Katie is her ‘Blues-Sister’; and a lady also nominated for two awards at the BBA. I may be writing a piece on Tanya soon.
Thanks to all involved: performers; club and pub staff; Kelly on the door; and especially Dave Spark for putting on a wonderful evening. PTMQ
Malaya’s website… http://malayablue.com/
Dave Spark’s Facebook page…
The Anchor’s website… https://sites.google.com/site/anchorbenfleet/home
British Blues Awards site. (You’ve got till the end of August!)