“Lead Belly was not an influence, he was the influence. If it wasn’t for him, I may never have been here. I don’t think he’s really dead. A lot of people’s bodies die but I don’t think their spirits die with them.” Van Morrison
Last Monday 15 June at the Royal Albert Hall saw the newly knighted Van Morrison and former Animals’ frontman Eric Burdon locked in an embrace, and blues guitarist Walter Trout triumphantly road testing his new liver, while the image of legendary folk and blues musician Huddie Leadbetter smiled down on them.
That the Lead Belly Fest, a four-hour tribute to the supernaturally gifted songwriter and 12-string guitar virtuoso attracted such an illustrious line-up, is testament to the influence of Huddie Leadbetter (1888-1949) on a generation of musicians including The Beatles – ‘no Lead Belly, no Beatles’ as George Harrison’s once said.
Now I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool blues aficionado – I wouldn’t know Blind Lemon Jefferson from Incontinent Willie McPhee – it is simply that I can trace all my favourite songs back Lead Belly.
From my parents singing Irene Goodnight to me as a toddler, then Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line, Led Zeppelin’s Gallow’s Floor, Ry Cooder and the Bourgeois Blues and Nirvana’ s Where Did You Sleep last night, to this day I’m still discovering that a songs such The House of the Rising Sun were written by this musical polymath.
What was to be a riveting evening kicked off sedately with the National Anthem as Sophie Countess of Wessex was in attendance – the festival was a charity event with The Shooting Star Chase Childrens’ Hospice Care and the Lead Belly Estate and Foundation as beneficiaries.
Among the line-up paying musical homage were veteran jazz man Chris Barber, Ruby Turner, Rose Royce’s Gwen Dicky, Blues Inc, Gemma Ray, Slim Chance, Robert Plant look and sound alike Dana Fuchs, as well as Josh White Jnr and Tom Paley both of whom had met Lead Belly; at 87, Paley can still play and sings a mean On A Monday.
Meanwhile, 23-year-old blues rock guitarist Laurence Jones carried the Lead Belly baton for a younger demographic and proved why he was voted Young Artist of the Year at the British Blues Awards 2014. At times, it was like watching a young Rory Gallagher.
In between sets, Lead Belly’s turbulent life story unfolded on large screens which took us through his hardscrabble childhood in Louisiana, prison chain gangs and time spent serving a murder sentence, all the while writing songs, singing and entertaining inmates and visitors. Huddie was eventually released, going on to record and tour, with life rollercoasting on until his death in 1949.
Opening the second half was Billy Bragg, who like Lead Belly is not one to shy away from difficult issues, and then the never less than brilliant Eric Bibb who has just recorded a Lead Belly album, gave us an acoustic version of Bourgeois Blues, which as he explained was a brave stance on racism for Lead Belly to take given the times, and still sadly relevant.
The reincarnation of Walter Trout, who was introduced by his wife Marie saw the guitarist in rip roaring form. As this was the first time he’d played in public since his liver transplant two years ago, he was like child prodigy in a sweetie shop. He will be touring the UK, including Glasgow, later in the year.
All the while, Paul Jones was either standing in the wings smiling, or giving it laldy with the harmonica. He seemed almost surprised when Van Morrison asked him to join in his set. Both as a musician and broadcaster on his Radio 2 Blues Show, the former Manfred Mann vocalist is a force of nature when it comes to promoting the blues.
Eric Burdon proved similarly untouched by age and was in fine voice for The House of the Rising Sun and a Where Did You Sleep Last Night as chilling as the original; was clearly having a ball and looked like he wanted to sing all night.
Then shortly before midnight, on came Van Morrison, sharp of suit and tender of voice, and yes he was singing Astral Weeks, accompanying himself on 12-string guitar, with Jools Holland on piano.
Everyone joined Morrison on stage for what else but Goodnight Irene, a moving coda to a belter of an evening. The work that must have gone into to making it happen was monumental, but the good news is that it’s going to be reprised at the Carnegie Hall in December.