Toby Venables reports on Tom Colborn – The Elm Tree, Cambridge 18 July 2007

Local Cambridgeshire Artist
It was an appropriately steamy, swampy summer night at the Elm when bluesman Tom Colborn took the stage - an atmosphere heightened by the exceptionally fierce lights, prompting the singer and guitarist to liken himself to ‘a human kebab'. A disturbing image to toy with - but this is Delta Blues, man. The music of the Mississippi and the Great Depression. It's got dark places, and it's got sweat.

Colborn has built a considerable reputation for his dynamic live performances of this earliest form of the blues - including hair-raisingly visceral covers of songs by heroes such as Son House, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. It may come as a surprise, then, that half of the songs that evening were actually his own, and several of the others, strictly speaking, weren't blues at all. (That's if we're speaking strictly, which we're not.)

Yet somehow this eclectic canon achieved a completely consistent vibe, swiftly established by the opening number - a self-penned song in a laid-back, finger-pickin' Texas blues style, called Where, If You Please. It was followed up with two more originals: You're Too Fast - a Lightning Hopkins influenced song that, I'm afraid to say, may have been about sex (You're too fast, baby - I wanna take my time / You're gonna get yours, I'm gonna get mine) and The Way He Was Raised an upbeat number that featured a kazoo solo - without the kazoo actually being present (you had to be there). Apart from some subtle clues in the always pin-sharp lyrics (‘Through the trite symbolism of this song...') all this stuff sounded as old as the hills - so authentic, in fact, that many may not have realised that they hadn't just heard old blues standards.

Next came a real old blues standard, Stagger Lee. The song's origins go way back before blues, but, this being a Tom Colborn gig, it had had its lyrics cleverly adapted to incorporate elements of Hunter S Thompson's The Nation, telling of the writer's experiences with a Californian Hell's Angels gang. Once again, all things merged so seamlessly that what might have seemed an eccentric idea instead just brought home the kinship and timelessness of its apparently disparate elements. As if to drive the point home yet further, Colborn followed with an impromptu rendition of Bob Marley's Soul Shakedown Party. How does a reggae number fit in a Delta Blues set? Pretty well, actually. Nothing jarred. It felt like blues. But it was Bob Marley. Don't ask me how this particular alchemy worked - it just did.

Six songs in came a Delta original - and it was a belter. Working Man's Blues, by Sleepy John Estes (so-called because he suffered from narcolepsy) was the kind of song that reminds you why you're here (in all senses of that phrase), put across with such ferocity that it made the hair stand on end. If anyone in the room hadn't got it before this point, they surely had now. More great and often unexpected covers followed - including T-Bone Walker's Stormy Monday and country legend Hank Williams' Lost Highway - but the real highlights were Colborn's own pieces, including the wonderful instrumental Hunger Rag, a hair's breadth from being pure bluegrass, and Settle Down, a blues that evoked Eric Bibb, with strong inflections of modern jazz.

After a short break, out came the Dobro and the slide - the weapons of choice for many of those early footsoldiers. The instrument has an amazing, evocative sound - the depth and sustain of a guitar with the brightness and attack of a banjo - and has the uncanny power to totally transport you; a sonic time machine. Again, self-penned numbers featuring Colborn's ironic, incisive and frequently very funny lyrics rubbed shoulders with classics by Leadbelly (Pretty Girl With A Red Dress On) and Robert Johnson (the almost satanically dark Stones In My Passway) - plus a few entirely off-the-wall pieces (one beautifully sparse slide solo turned out to be a Scottish air). The playing was often scarily fast and intense, with Colborn seeming to relish the numbers where he could pin the punters to the back wall with a real good holler. Then, to remind you that this wasn't all there was to it, there came the delicate and beautifully restrained instrumental Great Eastern Rag - another original, and a great piece of music. In the home stretch he tore into a paint-blistering rendition of Elmore James' Dust My Broom - if anyone wasn't tapping their foot and grinning like an idiot by now, they should have simply slunk away in shame.

Yes, this was a great gig. But as I only realised later, it sent you away with something more than just a memory of an excellent night. At the risk of invoking Spinal Tap, the evening was really a kind of Blues Odyssey; a gig that not only showed blues in all its many hues, but which also revealed the complex relationship between them, without a word of explanation being necessary.

Like a doggedly persistent gene, blues can now be found in just about every musical form - jazz, country, bluegrass, folk, pop, rock, reggae, gospel and classical. Yet the root of it all, Delta Blues, is a real rarity these days - perhaps because it takes a rare personality to successfully convey it. This, after all, was Blues before it was a style. It exists for us now in a place at the very edge of our perception, behind such a veil of white noise, scratches and clicks that our digitally remastered Dolby stereo sensibilities will barely tolerate it. So for someone to breathe new life into it - to make it relevant and immediate; to restore it to musical history, if only for an evening - is a great thing.

And there's something else. People often talk of great music - and blues especially - in terms of various metaphorical body parts: heart, soul, balls, guts. This had all that (in truckloads) but it had something else too - something equally important, and all too often overlooked. Brains.

Why does this matter? People can get sniffy about the intellectualising of music, but perhaps there's a balance to be redressed here. Let's face it, while Delta Blues is a rarity, there are probably millions of musicians capable of trotting out ‘I woke up this morning...' to a standard blues progression. It's simple, and it's direct. But what does this reduction of blues to a simple formula say about our attitude towards those poor, black and largely uneducated musicians who originated it? That their output had guts, but doesn't bear too much thinking about? Without lapsing into polemic, Colborn begs to differ, using the music itself to remind us - both through carefully chosen covers and his own original material - that the early bluesmen were far more than sad but simple souls with a great sense of rhythm. They were passionate and often fiercely intelligent human beings doing what human beings do best, taking the darkest personal experiences and somehow turning them into art that endures, fired with a spirit that is smart, troubled, witty, angry, ironic and, above all, determined.

Thanks to Tom Colborn for background info on his set - the major insights are all his, any mistakes are all mine.

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Writer: Toby Venables