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Blues In Britian – “This is a magnificent band, of world class.”

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In the same weekend as the Belfast City Blues Festival, in nearby Newtownabbey, the Ronnie Greer Almost Big Band headlined the Shoreline Festival. This is a magnificent band, of world class. Greer himself, after all, is the country’s greatest blues guitarist, his style compellingly incorporating elements of be-bop jazz, and John McCullough, who also holds down a gig with Grainne Duffy, is the country’s greatest blues pianist; bassist Alan Hunter and drummer Colm Fitzpatrick are the most subtle, supple and swinging rhythm section in the country, and Anthony Toner, an elegant slide guitarist, is the most admired singer-songwriter on the local scene. Here the band expanded to include jazz trumpeter Linley Hamilton, you guessed it, pretty well universally acknowledged as the greatest in the country – the magnificent, normally New York-based tenor sax player Meilana Gillard and wonderful South Carolina singer Dana Masters.

‘That’s Alright’ featured a masterful piano solo from McCullough whose playing on ‘Roll ’em Pete’ was exuberant and virtuosic. The later was marvellously enhanced by sweetly soulful sax and trumpet from Gillard and Hamilton, each of whom is a terrific improviser. ’32-20 Blues’, based – very loosely on Cassandra Wilsons’s arrangement, featured inventive soloing from McCullough, Toner, Hamilton and Greer respectively and was sung menacingly by Masters, who also impressed on a swinging ‘I Got A Woman’ and an exquisitely sung ‘Georgia On My Mind’.

Toner sang Dylan’s sombre, bleak ‘Blind Willie McTell’ expressively with Hamilton adding a wonderfully apposite trumpet solo which ingeniously alluded to ‘St James Infirmary’. Steely Dan’s ‘Do It Again’ was played with and assurance and sophistication beyond the dreams of most blues or rock bands. Indeed this is a band that, quite simply, operates on another level to every other blues band in Northern Ireland and indeed to the vast majority of bands on the British blues scene.

Trevor Hodgett

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