The prestigious Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival has brought renowned international musical talent to Scotland’s capital for over 40 years whilst also showcasing the best homegrown blues artists. However, superstars Curtis Tigers and Jools Holland must have forgotten the old adage “Never work with children, animals or Jawbone Walk,” because Edinburgh’s latest band featuring Nicole Smit as special guest steals the show, if not the entire festival, with a scintillating display of lovingly crafted authentic songs from the genre’s golden era.
Away from the glitz of the Festival Theatre’s headliners, a more intimate city venue hosts this aptly titled Legends of the Blues – From Mississippi to Chicago. Front man Toby Mottershead is also a highly respected solo musician, master of slide guitar, blues scholar and historian who is dedicated to keeping alive the roots of 1940s and 50s traditional blues and classic gospel songs.
Swedish-Indonesian singer and songwriter Nicole Cassandra Smit also stars in the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s sell-out concerts Queens Of The Blues and Blues! with the award winning The Blueswater featuring Jed Potts. She has recently released her debut album, Third In Line, on Liljekonvalj Records.
The Assembly Roxy is a converted church with soaring acoustics and a spiritual vibe, making it a perfect setting for the inspirational and timeless opening gospel duet, “Get Back Satan” by Rev. R.L. Worthy and his sister Bonnie Woodstock. Nicole and Toby start singing in call-and-response mode backed by his fingerpicking electric guitar before harmonizing magnificently as the rest of the band join forces to provide an empathetic backcloth.
It was 1928 when Leroy Carr recorded “How Long Blues,” and yet the electric piano of Luke Cunningham replicates the rawness of the original keys with guest harp blower Gordon Jones adding an atmospheric further dimension. Toby’s soul comes pouring out of Ray Charles’ “Sinners Prayer” with some fabulous interplay between the guitars, harp, and keys. Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used To Do,” preceded by the first of many trademark Mottershead anecdotes, marks the return of Nicole’s expressive, wide-ranging, and powerful vocals.
“Mother Earth,” a Memphis Slim classic, doesn’t faze the brilliant Cunningham as Toby pleads in anguish: Don’t care how great you are/ And I don’t care what you worth /Because when it all ends up/ you got to Go back to Mother Earth. Toby’s vocal rendition of Sonny Boy’s “Help Me” adds an innovative jaunty feel to the song complemented by some upbeat harp phrases.
What sets Jawbone Walk apart from many other blues performers is their choice of lesser known material such as Little Willie John’s “Deep Blue Sea” aka “My Love Is” which introduces the audience to one of the tragic stories of music history, the untimely demise of a great American R&B singer who died in a state penitentiary at the age of 30. Another example is Billy Butler’s instrumental “Honky Tonk” with Toby and bassist Ewan Gibson hitting the deep grooves. Tributes are paid to Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush and Robert Johnson, the latter’s “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” highlighting Toby’s considerable slide guitar acuity.
A dynamic, percussive introduction to Dr John’s instrumental “Storm Warning” is the precursor to another thunderous, flawless performance from Vid Gomac. Mississippi Hill Country blues enters the mix with a stunning version of R.L. Burnside’s “Going Down South.” The majestic Nicole Smit returns for the finale comprising “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” by Chicago blues legend Otis Rush, and Blind Willie Johnson’s seminal gospel song, “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” both sung with passion and integrity.
This is only Jawbone Walk’s third gig and the guys play with all the adrenaline and freedom of Beale Street buskers while achieving the musical synergy and maturity associated with long established bands. Let’s hope Toby saves his resplendent flat cap, granddad shirt, braces, dungarees and brogues for the day he takes this worthy, ambitious project to the top of the bill on Edinburgh’s iconic Festival Theatre stage.