Saturday, 21 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Arkansas Dave - Sandwell Arts Cafe, West Bromwich. Friday 20th July 2018

Two weeks into their current UK tour and it was a case a finally catching some Arkansas Dave in a mode that best reflects a road band. A slight jolt from a late entry to the Maverick Festival a fortnight earlier swiftly ironed out and, as they entered the final furlong of this current trip, a drop off in the West Midlands presented an opportunity to see them away from the hustle and bustle of a fully blown festival line-up. This four-piece combo led by Dave Pennington lived up to reports, both from word of mouth and from published reviews, as they adapted well to surroundings not always conducive to live music.

This lunchtime performance in West Bromwich was the first of two shows during a one-day visit to the area. Both initiated by the Birmingham Jazz and Blues Festival; a celebration of genre driven music held for a 10 day period across multiple venues on an annual basis. The evening gig would present the band the opportunity to ramp up the volume, but this 50 minute midday set still possessed enough velocity to blow a hole across a venue that has had a somewhat checkered past.

Sandwell Arts CafĂ© may not be a well-known name across the West Midlands, but folks will remember the furor around the Public in West Bromwich town centre. This ill-fated arts venture with the striking structure may well have split opinion in its early days, but it is now reborn as an extension to the burgeoning Sandwell College, all while the layout to this industrial town has re-shaped. The open nature to the venue’s location within the building looked out onto the lunchtime shoppers, but full focus on the band offset any distraction.

In the past, open atrium-styled, performing spaces can struggle with live rock music. However, a low hanging roof over the stage helped compress the sound and few complaints could emerge that the band did not come across well. In the presence of around thirty or forty attentive folks for this free show, Dave remained on acoustic guitar, letting his lead accomplice Drew de France raise the heat with the rocking work. Bass and drums provided the usual solid framework as the band leapt forward with a raft of tracks from their current album mixed with a fine assortment of apt covers.

Before you ask, they do hail from Arkansas – Camden to be precise, a contrasting quip added to the repertoire after spending time in the somewhat different London version. Their style of blues is straight from the strand of Americana where this named style melds with country, gospel and any other roots-infused influence. Early on, Dave commented on Arkansas and its neighbouring states’ claim as the cradle of Americana, citing both Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash while covering classic songs of theirs.

Champagne & Reefer’ and ‘Get Rhythm’ were clearly identifiable numbers added to the set celebrating the impact of the Southern greats on music active today. From the self-titled debut Arkansas Dave album released earlier this year, ‘Bad Water’, the Tom Waites tune ‘Chocolate Jesus’ and ‘On My Way’ led the way, with the latter closing the set with everybody in humming mode.

A little post-gig research revealed that the band have visited the area before with a Birmingham show in July 2017. There has been slightly more press about them on this trip and hopefully momentum can build to a return in the future where they get a fully-fledged gig that’s promoted in conjunction with their pure Americana attributes, which clearly frame this brand of blues rock.

As the band headed north to perform at the more acclaimed and focused SummerTyne Festival on the final leg of the tour, small but significant memories formed of the time lunchtime gig goers ventured down to West Bromwich town centre to sample a slice of real deal Southern USA.  Live music operates in mysterious ways and the world is healthier for it.