Review: The Blasters – Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast
The Blasters have been around since the late 70’s/early 80’s, originating out of Downey, California. They were central to the LA late punk and post-punk scene, soaked up some rockabilly influences and have at least one foot in the blues camp; they were tutored in their early days by T Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner. Fronted by Phil Alvin, the current line-up have been described as “a cross between Creedance and the Clash.” (As an aside, if you remember the Shakin’ Stevens hit “Marie Marie”, that was a Blasters song; and yes, you’d be wrong to judge them on that.)
The evening kicks off in true Belfast style with the Sabrejets, our home-grown kings of psychobilly mayhem. With a new album due out later this year, it was a chance to see what’s new with the band. The answer would depend on how you feel about the Sabrejets; there are some interesting new songs here tonight that mark a departure from their normal material but they are exactly as you want them to be – loud, straight ahead, and at times totally frantic.
On guitar and lead vocals Brian Young commands your attention, but the support he receives from Liam Killen (guitar) and the devilishly handsome Bill Johnson (double bass) cannot be underestimated.
You know what you’re going to get with the Sabrejets, and I spotted several people up dancing before the drummer had smashed out the intro to their first song. We get “Faster Than the Eye Can See” and “Tennessee Flat Top Box” with Liam and Brian taking turns with the lead breaks. One of the new songs is “Don’t Turn Your Back on Love” and it is a more complex song than usual. There’s time for some surf-style guitar twanging before the band finish on “I Fought the Law.”
Seeing Phil Alvin take the stage in the Oh Yeah Centre, I was struck by how frail he looked and I was aware that his health has not been good of late. Any thoughts of fragility were quickly dispelled as soon as the drummer launched into their first song, a hardcore rock and roll number complete with the type of guitar licks that you would suspect the Handsome Family had been listening to in their younger days.
“Go Cat Go” continues to rock the room and after the honky-tonk of “Border Radio”, I’m thinking about Creedence Clearwater Revival and how similar Alvin’s vocals are to John Fogarty. There’s not much chat between songs, apart from Alvin telling us about his attempts to pay a Belfast taxi fare with a credit card and a €50 note. The songs either get no introduction or it’s a case of “1,2,3,4…”
The band were as tight a unit as you could find anywhere. Bill Bateman on drums provided the backbone to the sound and John Bazz’s bass was lively to say the least. I’ve never seen an electric bass break a string after two songs, but that’s what happened this evening. Keith Wyatt’s guitar was phenomenal – hard, fast, full of energy and giving most of the tracks a real edge and sharpness.
“Dark Night” starts slow but is quickly filled up with big deep bass and dark guitar, giving a sound that is full of menace. This song featured in the Tarantino film From Dusk to Dawn, and you can see why. Many of the songs bounce along, although I enjoyed the old-style blues of “I’m Shakin’” with it’s call-and-response invitation to the audience.
There are so many influences in this sound. Good old dirty rock and roll for sure, but also blues, rockabilly and Texas/Louisiana and Cajun sounds. It veers between the fast and furious (American Music) and the slower and more methodical blues numbers (Daddy Rolling Stone).
It’s hot and sweaty inside the Oh Yeah Centre tonight and the band finish on Marie Marie, but this is a very different version to Shakey’s before treating us to some full-on rockabilly as an encore. This brought to mind some of the great punk gigs of the late 1970’s in Belfast, and as was pointed to me by the guy standing next to me “that’s fucking rock ‘n’ roll !”