UK bluesman Ian Siegal came out blazing, setting the Monster Stage on fire at Bluesfest Wednesday night, with his three-man contingent of bass (James Cloyd), guitar (Carlton Washington), and drums (Curtis Sumter), whom he hand-picked only days ago when he set down on Detroit soil during his latest North American tour. His trip into Canada from there was his first, updating the list of countries he’s toured over the last 25 years now to 43.
Picking up the guitar at age 18, blues was all he ever wanted to play. He later left his university studies to busk across Europe and found his calling as a full-time musician, playing solo gigs in clubs, and quickly gaining the attention of other musicians. Siegal talks about his first big break, when he was picked up by Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings:
“I suppose it was my first big break, really. I had worked with some of the members of the band before. Bill was looking to replace Tommy Emmanuel as their opening act, and the guys from the horn section put my name up. Bill checked me out, liked what he saw, and that was that. I had three tours with him.”
Along with Siegal’s steady solo career, he has played, recorded, and toured with many other musicians and bands across the UK, Europe, and the US, and most recently with Jimbo Mathus, with whom Siegal has recently released a live album entitled Wayward Sons (March 2016). He lives in Amsterdam now, and his current backing band are a trio of young musicians (Rhythm Chiefs) whose average age is 22. I asked Ian if the dynamic of the music changes when he’s paired with different musicians:
“The songs that I play with my band sound different when I play with other musicians. It’s good – it’s all positive. None of my stuff is written in stone. I let people do it their way. They’re like, “do you want me to play this bassline or that guitar part”, and I say no, just play it your way. It’s a more natural vibe and it keeps it fresh for me.”
Siegal played a selection of mainly originals from his many albums, of which he has received numerous awards. He came hard out of the gate with the very Johnny Cash flavoured “I Am The Train” (Candy Store Kid, 2012), filling the warm night air with his deep-barrelled raw guitar style and gravely vocals. “Revelator”, was soaked in deep down dirty blues, where Siegal moved from his Wolfman Jack-like lower register to a half-whisper/half-growl during the quiet segment of the song. By this time, he had reeled in a growing audience, who were captivated by the steeped-in-blues essence this man was delivering. “She Got The Devil In Her/Gotta Try You”, also from his Meat & Potatoes (2005) album, was pure North Mississippi Hill County goodness: “if you know your blues, you’ll know this music,” Siegal quipped, as his voice tore through the song in a higher, clearer register, which displayed his amazing vocal versatility.
“Hard Pressed”, brought more infectious blues that stirred up the blood with its uptempoed funkiness. He threw another solo moment over to young guitarist Washington, who tossed his head back and played his heart out, while the intense rhythm backbone of the bass and drums continued to reverberate deep in the chest as the song really began to cook. The riffing veered into a portion of Prince’s “Sign O The Times”, which bumped the groove factor up another notch, and set the crowd in motion. He demonstrated his slide guitar prowess on his rendition of the classic, “Groundhog Blues”, complete with more of his raspy, Cocker-styled vocals. Siegal took a few minutes to thank Bluesfest’s organizers for their hospitality, and noted the fact that it was refreshing to see so many young people at the festival.
The meaning of the blues came in loud and clear to me with, “Falling On Down Again” (Meat & Potatoes), an original he wrote 22 years ago. His voice rang out into the night, and I was mesmerized by its achingly inspirational combination of music and lyrics. He captured the essence of the Blues from its mournful down-and-out moments, to the rising exclaim of defiance in the face of despair. During the course of the song, he named off artists like Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, all of whom conveyed the same common denominator of soul and passion in their music. By the end of the one-hour set, the audience was left in the throes of having experienced something that shook them to the core.
If you love the blues, any one of Ian Siegal’s albums need to be added to your essential blues collection. For more info, visit his website.