Preamble: This is a gig that had unfortunately been cancelled twice over the last 18 months or so, due the star of the show, the wonderful Deborah Bonham, having a couple of problems….but as Debs herself would say ‘Shit Happens’! This evening was worth waiting for though, because the lady was seriously in form!
Third time lucky then… but even this show was not without its problems! I’d arranged with Debs and Dave Kitteridge of Touchline Live Music, to get to the venue at 6pm for an interview; but on the way I got a text from Debs’ husband and guitarist Peter Bullick, telling me that the band were seriously late and struggling through horrendous traffic; having been on the road for over five hours (they’d been expecting a two hour trip!) So the band turned up five minutes after myself; stressed from a nightmare of a journey, and in need of food, drink and a sound check! Debs charmingly also brings her two dogs, Fred and Kip, with her to gigs, and they needed a walk; so off she went with the pooches for a quick relaxing stroll.
Debs was soon back. My good friend Rambo turned up around that time, and we sat and watched the sound-check. The band went back-stage after that for some dinner. When she was ready, Debs came and invited us back to the Green Room for a chat…
The Interview: We began talking about Deborah’s dogs Fred and Kip – there they were snuggled up together on their bed in the Green Room!
PTMQ: Do they go everywhere with you?
DB: Pretty much… in the UK certainly. I haven’t taken them to France yet.
[This reference to France anticipated my next question].
PTMQ: I was going to ask about the French connection, because you sing in French and I know you have a fan base there, so I was wondering how that came about?
DB: I have no idea! I’m not bi-lingual but I do speak French. I was trying to get into France (and Europe) for quite a long time. We did a support tour with Foreigner about ten years ago… went down a storm in Paris… and Holland. Then we went back. We ended up playing some gig that somebody got us. Not well paid, but there was an agent there (who’s been our agent now for four years) – Laurent Milliet of 106 db (they even have my initials DB!) And he’s been brilliant; a great agent. He believes in us. He saw the band. Loves the songs – even has one on his ring-tone! He really pushed; and that has worked. So we play big shows there.
PTMQ: So the songs sung in French on your album Spirit were in tribute to your French fans?
DB: Pretty much, yeah. I did them as a thank you, really. Its a funny thing… Laurent doesn’t want me to get too good at French, because he likes the fact that I’m always trying. The audience love that. He said “Non, non, non! I don’t want you to do all ze songs in French.. zey like the English… but one in French!” And he loves the fact that sometimes I get my words wrong and say the most ridiculous things on stage, and the audience laugh!
Rambo: Are the songs written with singing in French in mind, or did you change the words?
DB: No; I didn’t do it! Laurent’s sister-in-law Natalie did it for me, because if you translate literally, its not very poetic. I gave her free rein to make it poetic and put it into beautiful French. She sent it to me and I said “Oh Goodness!” – [laughing] I’d love to take the credit for that!
Funny enough, ‘Take Me Down’ [or ‘Guide Moi‘] I originally wrote for a Fleetwood Mac film. I was asked if I’d write two songs by Phil Carson at the film company in LA. He’d worked at Atlantic Records for years when Zeppelin were there. He said “Darling, I need some Fleetwood Mac-esque songs, and you’re just the person to do it for me!” So I originally wrote it for that – and then the film didn’t happen! So when I was looking at doing the album [Spirit], I thought “I love that song”, so I resurrected it… had to change the lyric a bit though, because it was specific to Fleetwood Mac.
PTMQ: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the Spirit album?
DB: A couple of months before she died I took my Mum to see Robert Plant at Symphony Hall, Birmingham. We had a fantastic night. Then I got an email from Robert’s drummer Marco Giovino (from Band Of Joy), who said “To whom it may concern… I’m a big fan. Do you think Deborah would come and meet me after the show?” I laughed my head off at “To whom it may concern”! So I replied in a completely bogus name and said “I’ll be speaking to Miss. Bonham in a short while, and I’ll pass it on. I can’t guarantee… it depends what mood she’s in! She can be a bit temperamental!” So when I met him I said “What? Do you think I’ve got a lot of staff? My God! I’m playing clubs – not Madison Square Gardens!”
Anyway, he said he had the Duchess album and he was a big fan. I was really chuffed that someone other than my mum had the album! [Just for the record The Quill has the album too… its brilliant!]. So I booked Marco. He lives in Nashville; so I got him a flight over [to record the album]. But then my Mum suddenly passed away. He was due over two days after Mum’s funeral and I said “I’m not going to be able to do this!” So at the funeral Robert Plant said “Marco’s a great guy. Your mum wouldn’t want you to not do it. You’ve got to really dig deep and bring everything out in that record. So that’s why it became Spirit, because it took an awful lot of spirit to get through it. I think in my whole life I only had one year away from my Mum… she was my best friend. It was really, really hard.
PTMQ: Reading the lyrics of the album, its very personal… it does seem that she’s with you as you write.
DB: Yeah, its the same with John, Michael and my Dad… they’ve all gone. She was the final one in the family. It took a lot for me to deal with being left on my own… and those four being together, as I see it. So its the spirit of all of them too.
PTMQ: You mentioned Robert. You had him as a guest on the album playing harmonica; but do you regret not asking him to sing?
DB: No. I think he would have said if he’d wanted to. We’ll just hang around for the next record! Of course I want to sing with him! I got to sing with him about a month ago. I’d sung with him before, but he came to one of our shows and he got up with the lads and did ‘When The Levee Breaks’; and then we did Johnny Kidd And The Pirates‘ ‘Shakin’ All Over’. But I got my ‘knee bone’ and my ‘thigh bone’ all muddled up! But it was brilliant. We just clicked – no rehearsal. So I’d love to… Gosh, he’s one of my heroes!
I’ve done a duet with Paul Rodgers too – several actually – one on a record and some at shows. That was a ‘pinch me’ moment, to be able to sing with Paul. I’ve sung with a lot of great people – like Dan McCafferty, when we opened for Nazareth once. He’s never done a duet with anyone before, but he walked on during our set and did ‘Stay With Me Baby’.
PTMQ: Do you have any collaborations planned?
DB: No, nothing planned. But we’re going to see Bad Company up in Glasgow in October.
PTMQ: So will you be back stage? Are you going to be invited on?
DB: I don’t know yet… could be! [She said coyly!] I usually get up and do a number [Take note if you have tickets for Bad Co’s Glasgow gig!], which has been great fun… but it always makes me “Aargh!” shake!
PTMQ: You still get nervous… even tonight?
DB: Yes! Before I go on I’m always really, really nervous. Once I go on I’m fine. But we do what we do… we have a Hell of a laugh. The lads are a great family really. I guess you can get that vibe from the dogs coming? Pete’s sister is here doing the merch too. We try to have a laugh because its a weird life… sometimes its hysterical.
PTMQ: So you had a five and a half hour journey and you’re all still laughing!
DB: Oh that journey was horrible tonight! That’s one thing that’s starting to take its toll on me. I really hate being in the tour bus on the motorways. I’ve seen people drive into the back of others. It really makes me nervous all the time.
PTMQ: How about the future? Are you planning another album?
DB: Yeah, next year; I’m writing at the moment… but you know, its a long process for me, because I just write and write and write; and then think “Oh that’s crap!” I do have a built-in ‘crap-ometer’! I only really want to put the songs on that I personally love. I listen and then I think “Yeah, that one passes… that one doesn’t”. I sort of know within about an hour of working on something with the band; and say “Are you getting this? I’m not!” Luckily not a lot of that happens but it does take me a lot of time to make the record.
It’ll be out around next Autumn. We’ve got a studio at home, and Rich [Rich Newman, Debs’ drummer – who had been chilling out on the couch in the Green Room throughout the chat], is going to set it up for us; and hopefully he’s going to do the recording.
PTMQ: So will it be more of the Rock / Blues / Soul vibe? Or are you feeling like you want to branch out a bit?
DB: Yeah, I think so. We’ve got a bit of a Funk thing going on at the moment… digging a bit of a Funk vibe which I rather like. We’ll still always have a bit of Mandolin and Acoustic… Rock ‘n’ Blues… there’ll definitely be some Blues in there because that’s in the heart of me. Rich is going to lay down some drum loops… just some grooves really; because once you’ve got some drum grooves going, its a lot easier to come up with ideas.
I’ve been asked to do all manner of albums. Years ago I was asked to do a Blues album by Sony Records. I think they wanted to call it something like ‘Lady Sings The Blues’. They’d just done a blues record with Paul Rodgers – Muddy Water Blues … Grammy nominated and all that. [Just for the record, The Quill owns this album too… its also brilliant!]. They heard me sing; came all the way across America; saw us selling out shows; audiences going crazy; and then had a big meeting in their office, and they said “Right, what we want you to do is this…”. And I thought “Hold on, I’ve just done all my stuff…I want to do mine!” “No, no, no… we want you to sing like Billie Holiday!” And I thought “Hang on, I’m a middle-class white girl… I can’t compare my life to what Billie went through! So I thought “Nah!” So didn’t do it; didn’t get the Grammy… and still haven’t! But I don’t regret it for one minute! [she said, laughing].
Rambo: What sort of things inspire you to write your songs?
DB: Life! Most of it is autobiography – things that have happened to me or how things have affected me. But sometimes it just gets a bit too heavy… you’ve got to find something to lighten it up a bit. Then I dig a bit deeper and see what other people are going through.
PTMQ: Finally, do you have any snippets of interesting info for my readers?
DB: Oh, I’m a patron of a charity in Scotland. Its for animals and vulnerable kids. Really worthwhile. Its an animal sanctuary and assisted animal therapy. [Link to Willows Animal Sanctuary].
At this point Debs had to get ready for the show, so after some quick photos we exchanged thanks . ‘Let’s hope you enjoy the show’ she said. We went back out to the auditorium. By then it was full; so we got ourselves a beer and took our seats at the front (kindly reserved for us by Trudie), and waited for the show to begin.
Rambo and I enjoyed chatting with Deborah Bonham. We found her to be welcoming and friendly; informative and open. And throughout the interview she was laughing and optimistic – in spite of some sadness in her life. It is obvious that her music pulls her through the hard times, and it enhances the good ones too. A really nice person to talk to – down to Earth, fun and interesting… and with a profound spiritual side to her too.
The Jo Burt Experience’s Set: It wasn’t long before Master of Ceremonies Brian Sangwin was on stage introducing the support: The Jo Burt Experience. This was a solo set from Jo, who of course is also the bassist in Debs’ band, so he had a lot on his plate this evening. He launched into a very good set beginning with ‘Angel Hurricane’ – ‘based on the idea of the Quarter-Back and the Cheer-leader’ he said.
Jo was once a member of (as he described them) ‘the most famous Heavy Metal band in the world’, Black Sabbath; so next he played his ‘Psycho-Country’ version of The Sabs’ ‘Paranoid’ off his solo album. I’ve heard this song covered a million times… but never like this! I liked it though. His song ‘The Night-time’ was played next. He described it as his ‘escape plan’; written some years ago, and based on the Cold War. It was very good. The ‘antidote to that tune’ was ‘Enough Love In The World’; and this was followed by his final number ‘I Wanna Be Free’. All told, a fine set.
The Deborah Bonham Band’s Set: Barefoot Debs and her boys climbed on stage to great applause. The band consist of Peter Bullick (Debs’ other half – on guitar and mando); Jo Burt (bass and mando); Rich Newman (drums); and Gerard ‘G’ Louis (keys). Debs of course, is lead vocalist and also plays guitar a bit too. These are all well-seasoned musos.
MoC Brian Sangwin introduced the band and they immediately launched into ‘Shit Happens’. Debs is right… it does! But with an opening number like that you can forget your probs for a while! This was followed by ‘What We’ve Got’ off The Old Hyde album; and ‘I Need Love’ off Spirit. Both of these show-cased Debs’ remarkable Joplin-esque style vocal; with great solos from Pete on these two. It was obvious by then that the band are tight as a unit; with Joe, Rich and ‘G’ impressive and reliable.
Several other songs off the Spirit album were played: ‘Feel So Alive’ with Pete on Mando; ‘Pain Birds’ dedicated to Pete’s sister Belinda on the Merch desk; and ‘Guide Moi‘ (‘Take Me Down’) which Deborah sang in French just for me! That’s only the second time I’ve had a song dedicated to myself by a band in all these years! Je vous remercie, Debs, Je suis Honoré!
It was also very apparent around this time that Debs has a relaxed and fun repartee with the audience and rest of the band – giving as good as she got in cheeky comments from both. Her performance as a singer is as much visual as vocal – and in both she is exceptional. She is animated and passionate, and feels every song – they are her songs after all; they are about her.
And the show went on with more from Spirit: the wonderful ‘Fly’ with Jo on mando; and ‘What It Feels’ with great keys from ‘G’. Three songs from Duchess followed: the great rocker ‘Grace’; then her homage to a certain spirit from Tennessee, ‘Jack Past 8’; and ‘Pretty Thing’ with tasty licks from Pete which reminded me a little of Kossoff. Next was a rarity: ‘Heaven’ – an ’80s song that has only recently been resurrected on the Looking Back At The Moon album. Its a Rock ballad, perhaps a little Heart-like in style, but that’s not a criticism! A powerful song that got great applause.
The Old Hyde was mined again for more gold towards the end of the show. She gave us ‘No Angel’, and sung it so well, along with an exceptional visual performance that seemed to come from her very soul. Pete also made himself very useful on this one too, with some beautiful Blues chops. Then it was one of my particular favourites, the rock’n’Roller ‘Devil’s In New Orleans’. Excellent!
Finally ‘The Old Hyde’ itself was introduced, which she preceded with a heart-felt speech that moved many in the audience. It is a song about hope, love and optimism; dedicated to those loved ones sadly gone. She thanked everyone for coming and began the song. She sang it with a genuine emotion, but was impressively controlled throughout the performance, in spite of being obviously moved by it herself. Marvelous. A standing ovation ensued.
Encore! What can you follow a show like that with? Only a rocker from the Led Zep back-catalogue would do. What else but the classic ‘Rock’n’Roll’? It was delivered as near to the original as you are likely to get here in Essex, and I loved it!
Fin: We had a quick few words with Deborah at the end and congratulated her on a magnificent performance. There were several people I knew in the audience. All agreed that it had been a fantastic gig. So big thanks to everyone concerned – especially Debs – plus Dave, Trudie, Brian and Steve of The Touchline for once again hosting a fabulous show. (Dave even made us a welcoming cup o’ tea – a rare pleasure! Cheers Dave!) Lights; sound; organisation and hospitality were second to none as usual – that’s what you expect from the Touchline… and that’s what you get! Au revoire! PTMQ.