Friday, August 12, 2011

Mick Fleetwood Blues Band

On 8 February 2008 the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band played the Sheldon Concert Hall in St Louis Missouri. Apparently the intention was to do homage to the Fleetwood Mac founded by Fleetwood, Peter Green and John McVie as 2007 was the 40th anniversary of the founding of one of the great brand names in blues and AOR.


Fleetwood is the drummer in this 4-piece blues combo. He has played behind two of the greatest guitarists ever, Peter Green the bluesman and Lindsey Buckingham the pop-rock guy, and on this night one Rick Vito is the guitarist. In the late Eighties Vito replaced Buckingham as guitarist in Fleetwood Mac.


The concert was recorded and the results have been released on the CD album Blue Again!, along with a second CD of 4 studio recordings with 2 Peter Green instrumentals and 2 Rick Vito instrumentals. The studio is in Hawaii and the four instrumentals have a decided island flavour.


The set list comprises of 6 Peter Green tunes, 5 Vito compositions and one classic Elmore James blues. This means that seven of the songs played by the band are from the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac, the band to which Fleetwood lent his surname and in which he made his fortune. Mick Fleetwood had probably been in the Buckingham Nicks incarnation of Fleetwood Mac for far longer than he ever played with Peter Green and I have no idea how often he returned to the blues during his years of AOR fame and fortune but here he is, in the heart of blues country, fronting 3 Americans who, proficient as they are, tend to be more show biz blues than roots blues.

In this day and ager of reunions of all kinds of old bedfellows, for nostalgia or money, it is almost strange that Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Christine McVie have not played at least some reunion concerts. Peter Green is one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time, especially the modern time, and if Eric Clapton can still be seen as hovering near the very peak of that particular pyramid, Peter Green deserves a spot right next to him.


The difference between the two is that Clapton, though serially a junkie and an alkie, moved beyond his addictions, survived his afflictions and continued to have a smart, commercially viable career, whereas Peter Green apparently could not handle the LSD he took so prodigiously, was dealt a bad hand with the medication he was put on subsequently and when he did recover elected to follow a much more low key career path, concentrating on the blues and avoiding pop stardom. Both of them recorded the Robert Johnson songbook but only one had a commercial impact with his renditions. Peter Green is not that guy.


Anyhow, Mick is a great drummer and has long been part of one of the greatest rhythm sections ever. He does not sing, he does not write songs, he just hunkers down behind his drum kit and empowers the musicians in front of him. His style is simple, effective and swinging. Fleetwood knows that the drummer is the engine room and not the top deck and he never gets in the way. He may be the band leader but he does not showboat and just serves the musicians.


When Vito sings he sounds like a kind of Cajun guy from the swamps, though not with the accent, and not exactly like a downhome bluesman. He plays guitar well and digs deep into the tunes but cannot quite shake off the cover band image when he plays the Green tunes. Although the album sleeve notes claim that the band is not attempting to do a straight imitation of Fleetwood Mac's blues and do make an effort to bring their own stuff to these well-known tunes, there is still a sense of homage gone wrong. The most glaring shortcoming is that Rick Vito does not bring any of Peter Green's naked emotion to songs like "Looking For Somebody", "Love That Burns" and "Black Magic Woman" and turns them into slightly ordinary renditions of otherwise deep blues songs. The lightness of touch in the original arrangements is sorely missed. These versions do not exactly plod (Mick Fleetwood's drumming is much to supple and subtle for that), nor do they exactly take off and soar.


"When We Do The Lucky Devil" is a great Zydeco hoedown that fits the Vito style perfectly. The rhythm section bounces along merrily and the swamp guitar picking is sprightly and joyful. This is Vito's own song and this is probably why he inhabits it with confidence and owns it.


On "Shake Your Moneymaker" it is Jeremy Spencer's vocals that are sorely missed. Vito bellows the lyrics a bit and does not have that sly intonation that Spencer brought to an arguably naughty song. The band rocks out nicely and the beat is as infectious as ever. The enforced audience sing-a-long at the end is truly showbiz and unnecessary.


Fleetwood Mac prided itself on being as authentic a blues band as a bunch of White boys from England could be and they were pretty damns authentic to my ears. Although blues is still a career path for musicians and will probably always have its practitioners and adherents, it is as if the deep blues no longer really matters. The latest generation of blues musicians for the most part have had no direct contact with any of the original bluesmen. The likes of Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, Johnny Winter and Eric Clapton not only met but also played with some of the giants of the blues and gain first-hand knowledge and experience from these guys, who started it all. Nowadays the aspiring blues musician must rely on recordings and DVDs to be able to have any kind of influence from the older generations. In this context Mick Fleetwood is probably a kind of elder bluesman. He can also lay claim to having met an older generation of bluesmen and should therefore be in a position to pass on some of what he learnt from them.


The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band is not an exercise in blues education. It is a vehicle for playing blues, in particular the blues of Peter Green, to an audience who may or may not be purist blues fans but who would recognise the name and attend almost purely because of the star attraction and perhaps like what they think of blues as well. After all, it's difficult to beat a backbeat and a fluent lead guitar for party fun. Blues isn't all sad or maudlin; a lot of it is dance music, party music, sex music, and that can't be bad.


I would imagine Fleetwood recalled Vito to his blues conglomerate because he knows the guitarist from his days in Fleetwood Mac and not because Vito is much of a bluesman in the first place but on the evidence of Vito's tunes in the live set he has something of the swamp thing in him and could well have a heritage that is mostly Cajun and not Delta blues but still in just about the same ball park of southern music.


Vito cannot replicate Peter Green's melancholy vocals or his floating, stinging guitar but he can do the Zydeco style quite well. His voice and blues rock guitar are better suited to that kind of party music as the upbeat raunch works better for a guitarist with not much subtlety.


Nobody does Peter Green like Peter Green. Gary Moore came close on Blues For Greeny and Lindsey Buckingham, who must be the polar opposite of a bluesman, did "Oh Well" proud. Vito learnt the songs and the licks and tries his best to do something new and exciting yet retain the original magic but he cannot quite get there.


This live set would probably have been a great night out for the audience. I am not quite so sure whether it is the kind of album that would stay on my CD player for any length of time. I would rather revisit the Fleetwood Mac recordings of the same tunes.


There has always the question of whether a bunch White guys, even well-meaning, committed White guys, could ever do justice to the blues of a bunch of old Black guys from the Mississippi Delta. In the case of the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band the question is whether a bunch of White guys (however professional) can do justice to the blues of another White guy. Sadly, they cannot quite hack it. Entertainment is all right; and slickness is not always a pejorative.


In this instance I would have preferred more toots and more guts. Peter Green deserves a touch of purism..

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