Orkney is a stunning archipelago situated off the north coast of Scotland which is rich in ancient history, culture and magnificent, wild scenery. The main island hosts the popular annual Orkney Blues Festival which makes it the most northerly event of its kind in the United Kingdom but attracts musicians nationally and from across the globe. In recent years these have included Peter Green and Dr. Feelgood from the UK, the Florida based Charlie Morris Band, Tasmanian Rob Tognoni and former Alaska resident Son Henry.
My first experience of this musical extravaganza held over three days and featuring dozens of artists including the best local talent was nearly two decades ago. The iconic Peter Green was headlining the festival in the most spacious hall available but he was completely upstaged by a young local journalist, Leah Seator, performing with her band SAS Blues in one of the smallest venues.
A charismatic singer, Leah had a voice reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald in terms of her timing and jazz inflections. In my review, I wrote: “The music started and it was sensational- the sound, the singing, the freshness and the vitality of Leah and her band. It was very innovative music; this singer has exceptional talent.”
Subsequently, I have often wondered where Leah’s vocal aptitudes had taken her, a mystery revealed when I read a review of this year’s festival written by my former colleague Colin Campbell from Blues Matters! who had singled out a band called Bad Apple:
“Another local band was up next; Bad Apple, a five-piece band mixing funk blues and soul. Lead vocalist Leah Seator is a real find, a great singer with power and passion throughout the well-chosen set. Starting with “Road Runner” which was well appreciated by the audience. Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Me Like A Man” was delivered well; sharp clear vocals and bluesy guitar licks made this a highlight. A band to watch out for.”
I caught up with Leah, now editor of The Orcadian newspaper, to find out what she has been up to in the past 17 years (see her interview below) and to give some background to her recent project, a celebration of the songs of Delta blues legend Robert Johnson. Leah explains:
Entitled the King Of The Delta Blues Show, A Tribute To Robert Johnson, it was put together by Orkney Blues Festival director Dylan Pepper especially for the 2019 festival and featured stalwarts of the blues scene in Orkney all coming together in one band for the first time. We put our own slant on things for the most part and it was very enthusiastically received so we thought we might take it out of Orkney in 2020, but of course, the pandemic came and put a stop to all things fun!
This year, we brought it back for a short slot at the festival, just with the core members, myself, Douglas, Dylan, Andrew and David, and we had London based Italian blues singer and composer Marco Cinelli sit in on keys. I think we all feel as a band that it is really quite a special line-up, but everybody is heavily committed in other bands, so what more we can do with that will depend on people’s already busy schedules. I’m starting to write again. I’m hoping to put a band together especially, with more travelling in mind. So, watch this space!
It is a space well worth watching if the videos of Leah and her killer band performing their tribute to Delta blues legend Robert Johnson in 2019 are anything to go by.
The up-tempo rolling and tumbling version of “If I Had Possession (Over Judgement Day)” shows that Leah’s sense of timing, vocal phrasing, and powerful delivery remain undiminished alongside her natural showmanship and clear enjoyment of the music. Some tasty slide guitar work from Andrew Taylor, Fraser Retson’s neat harp interpolations and a mesmeric rhythm section comprising drummer Dylan Pepper and bassist David Flanagan add to the authenticity which turns the venue into a rocking juke joint.
Leah’s versatility is affirmed by her more mellifluous tones on Robert Johnson’s song, “They’re Red Hot,” which was unique to his repertoire and a contrast to his devil-haunted lyrics. It is difficult to sing because it is essentially syncopated ragtime dance music with a fast pace which evokes the life and times of a bygone era. Leah nails it perfectly through clever phrasing and by creating a light-hearted vibe evocative of the 1930s world of medicine shows and street merchants. The backing is superb from David Flanagan’s upright double bass, guitarists Andrew Taylor and Stewart Shearer with spectacular solos courtesy of Douglas Montgomery’s fiddle and David Griffith on clarinet.
Leah’s intriguing story is a reminder that dreams can be fulfilled in many different ways and it is not always just about being at the pinnacle of a career. She may not be a high profile blues singer although with the right breaks has the talent to be one if her journey takes her in that direction. In the meantime, Leah is enjoying family life and work, forging new friendships, bringing happiness to audiences and helping to keep the blues alive on Orkney.
Interview with Leah Seator: The Story So Far
I’m from Northern Ireland originally, and moved to Orkney when I was 14, having grown up listening to everything and anything, but mostly loving rock and roll and motown classics, Little Richard for example was a big favourite, and eventually getting more into blues and soul. I first got into the blues when I was about 16 — totally by accident. I got a knock on the door from the most hairy, bearded man I’d ever seen. He said he was a drummer. “I’ve heard you can sing…do you wanna be in a band?”
I don’t know where he’d heard that, and I was terrified, but jumped at the chance, and soon found myself graduating from backing singer to lead lady in Blue Mother, with the late great Orkney blues guitarist, Ian Cooper, Ian Farquhar (bass) and Keith Berg (the hairy drummer). That is really where I fell in love with the blues, starting out with blues/rock classics, and then delving back into the older standards. I was only 16 — they were all in their 50s. And initially, as a total newbie to band life, I was more or less told what we would be playing — so these were mainly songs that were made for male voices, and I think that set me up to have to be creative as a singer, because you’ve really got to do your own thing. Free and Cream, Canned Heat — you get the picture. I got to do some Etta James, and things later on with them, and by the time I was ready to leave Orkney to study music at 18, I was heading into more jazz and soul territory.
I had a brief encounter with Blues ‘n’ Trouble when I was about 17 — we supported them in the late 1990s when they came to Orkney, and guitarist John Bruce spotted me and asked me to come and guest on their next album, Devil’s Tricks. So, I went along to the studio in Edinburgh at just 18, and jammed with Tim in the vocal booth. John told me after we recorded it that he didn’t think Tim would ever let it see the light of day, as my vocals were “too bright” along with his gruff blues voice. And I never heard another peep from them. I’ve never heard that album but when John was here at the festival in September, I asked him if he had any recollection of it and he said no!
That encounter turned me on to a new collection of folk in Edinburgh — the producer in the studio hooked me up with some guys who were hoping to set up a soul/dance band. I did record a bit with them but it wasn’t for me. I wanted to play blues, and I got the feeling in Edinburgh at the time, much as I put the feelers out, there wasn’t much of a scene, and definitely I got the impression that singing the blues at 18 years old just simply wasn’t going to impress anybody. It was the Pop Idol era, and really was quite disheartening for somebody who had grown up following the acts of the 60s and 70s, making it the hard way and really shining for talent and creativity. I didn’t really want to play disco hits and chart music is the truth, and so I never really got off the ground or fell in with the right folk, and instead moved to study journalism as a fail safe, in the hope I could write about music and still play for fun.
I came back to Orkney and a short slot became available at the Orkney Blues Festival, and so I put that together, and did it under my own name with Stewart Shearer (guitar), Ian MacKay (bass) and Graham Simpson (drums). A fortnight later we were in that wee cafe in Stromness, doing what felt like a very natural, informal, round the table at home kind of performance. It was the first time I had a set up without a big crash drum kit to compete with, and it was a pleasure to be able to show off the light and shade of my voice, probably for the first time. To get the feedback you gave me was really a milestone moment, from a person who knew the industry and that scene so well — and it was the first sign of hope for me that I hadn’t been barking up the wrong tree, as a very young singer trying to make a name in a genre that within my peers, probably wasn’t very cool. I started writing music, and we went away and played some festivals after that. We did a mini tour here with the Moonshiners, a Glasgow-based band, with guitar maker Jimmy Moon, and we took Perthshire/Italian comedian, Roberto Cassani along for the ride.
In the years that followed, I had my family, two beautiful and very musical girls, and I sang to them every day, not that they were always the most appreciative audience! I got the bug again in 2012, and did a reunion gig with Blue Mother, to a crowd of about 1,000 up here. That was very special, and out of that came Bad Apple, because my good friend and guitarist, Colin Drever was in attendance. We decided there and then to start something new and fresh. We recruited Malcom Dowell on drums, Will Scott on bass, and Wayne Drever for guitar no. 2 — and here we are ten years later, playing blues/rock, funk, soul, peppered with some bigger rock tunes too, to keep the masses in Orkney happy. Bad Apple isn’t really aiming for the stars — it’s all about fun, covers and craic, and we’ve made it last a decade. All bands have politics at some stage — but not this one! Then, the King of the Delta Blues show was born, and that really was just out of a genuine passion for those old delta standards that the Orkney blues contingent share. It made perfect sense — let’s get together and perform them, and see how they come out, and as we hoped, it was pretty special.
Now, with another band, 58th Street, I am playing more than I ever did between the two bands, and I also guested on Andrew Taylor Group’s debut album, Drifting Days in 2019. I feel I have absolutely found my mojo as a singer and a performer, and I love a challenge, but the blues is home. When we have our festivals, we attract performers from all over the world, and it is a pleasure to be a part of that scene in any way shape or form. Once they come, they are a part of the Orkney blues family forever, and they generally always return. So, I am inspired by these friendships and the success of these wonderful, down to earth people who are making waves in this brilliant blues scene we have, keeping it alive and fresh. I’m keen to be a part of that more and more, and I’m starting to write again. I’m hoping to put a band together especially, with more travelling in mind.
As for my current blues interests, I’m obsessed with Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, mainly the live album Fowl Play, and an American band called Southern Avenue. I’ve been listening to Lake Street Dive, formed at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston which isn’t really blues, but it has the absolutely amazing Rachael Price and a very clever, creative band who make the most beautiful noise together.