On meeting up with The Hardchargers’ Lonesome Chris Todd earlier this month I forgot to bring along my copy of the Universal Compendium of Blues Artists, which is a shame, I could have used it. Lonesome Chris is steeped in the history of the blues, with an encyclopaedic knowledge reaching back to the early 20th century. And it’s precisely that which has helped cultivate what has been the most authentically rootsy blues band on the Irish music scene for almost a decade.
The devotion to music in general and blues in particular, began early; at twelve he began picking up tips on guitar technique from older kids at school, before he even owned his own guitar. Music seemed inescapable; his father, though a worker in a textile dye house, had also been a band roadie; his mother worked in Belfast Central Library which housed a world of music to borrow, including an extensive blues collection; his uncle spent weekends gigging with local band Richmond Hill and Chris would watch him spend Saturday nights loading gear into an old Renault car, desperate to get his hands on his huge Fender bass. It was destined to be.
There were other genres which impacted upon Chris in the early days. As a teen in the ‘90s he felt that the distorted grunge sounds of acts like Nirvana or Pearl Jam offered a type of music that seemed somehow more achievable than the technically skilled guitar virtuosos that he loved such as Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. Punk music was also hugely important, and he spent time in thrashy punk bands after the fashion of Discharge and Extreme Noise Terror. It wasn’t just the loud, manic sounds that appealed to him, but also the punk sensibility; the notion of using music as a means to rebel against the weight of politics and religion which could hardly be ignored when growing up in the middle of East Antrim.
That early punk band marked Todd’s first foray into both songwriting and recording. Early demos were sent to the likes of Earache Records and other thrash metal labels but got nowhere. “It was ridiculous really, who did we think we were?”, Chris asks now, but the drive to make a life in music was present from the start.
Completely self-taught, Chris picked up his skill here and there, wherever he could. A little book handed down to him from his dad helped him to learn altered chords and thirteenth chords which would eventually be very useful to him as a blues musician. He garnered whatever knowledge he could get his hands on; live footage, TV documentaries, even hanging around music shops watching older, more experienced guitarists play. Honing that skill seemed to him at the time like a kind of justice, a way out from under the stifling influence of religion.
Another influential factor on Chris at the time was also the fact that Andy Kearns of Therapy? came from his home town. Given Therapy?’s success in the ‘90s with songs that Chris recognises as pretty challenging, it gave him and his bandmates a sense that that level of frustration could be harnessed, it could be done – even if you are from Ballyclare.
A defining moment in the evolution of Lonesome Chris came in the form of his father’s record collection. Filled with typical artists of the day – Zappa, Pink Floyd, Tom Waits and the rest – one album was somewhat different. A two-disc vinyl compilation entitled The Story of the Blues, appealed to the young musician because it was like nothing he had ever heard before. That scratchy old record entirely changed the path of the young Chris Todd who heard it and immediately began seeking out everything he could find on traditional rootsy blues music, “It completely changed my perception of what music I liked, and what I perceived could be done with guitars”.
Through that record, Chris was introduced to a veritable “Who’s Who?” of the blues; Fra-Fra Tribesmen, Blind Willie McTell, Barbecue Bob, Furry Lewis, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, through to the ‘60s and the likes of Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. After that, things would never be the same. He began to notice Howlin’ Wolf or Chuck Berry tracks used on TV adverts for Levi Jeans or Wrigley’s gum. He scoured the shelves of the central library for blues CDs and he picked the brains of the blues fans who worked there for recommendations. Another game changer was the discovery of Paul Jones’ blues show on BBC Radio 2 where he could hear some blues tracks he knew and many more that he didn’t, in order to to continue his education.
This applied to his musical education only however. Despite having a pleasing set of GCSE results, Chris dropped out of school just a matter of months into his A’ levels, and by his own admission broke his mother’s heart, being as he was the first in his family to gain a place at the Ballyclare grammar school. The problem was he explains, that he just couldn’t get the sounds out of his head. He listened to those precious borrowed CDs and to those radio broadcasts and he just had to learn how to achieve those sounds he was hearing – and school he felt, wasn’t the place to learn it.
Sometime after that, he progressed to playing and touring in his first professional band, with the esteemed blues player Billy Boy Miskimmin, which Chris describes as an education in itself, “playing with someone like Bill, lifts your game. You’re constantly trying to raise your own game, professionally or technically.” However, after a period with that band, he got to a point where he felt he couldn’t develop any more by himself and so he enrolled in a music HND in Manchester.
The Manchester era transpired to be a particularly productive time for Chris musically. On the one hand he had a tutor who was himself a guitarist with bands like Brix and the Extricated, who encouraged him to have better technique. On the other, he spent every Tuesday night at a jam session in the renowned Arch Bar in Hulme, where he had the opportunity to play with top-flight musicians. Throwing himself into it, he found that he had to dig deep and learn to turn his hand to just about anything. Interestingly, during his time in Manchester he played everything but the blues; funk, soul, anything to avoid what he feared, which was getting stuck in a rut.
On his return to Northern Ireland in 2004, the diversity of his musical journey continued when he joined not one, but two bands which couldn’t have been more different. In The Afresh Band he joined Zimbabwean musicians Gabriel Makamanzi and Wilson Magweyere in their particular brand of traditional Zimbabwean and traditional Irish music fusion. And it was in that line-up that Chris met the Slovakian Uhrin brothers one of whom, Jan, would become particularly important to Chris’s story later as one of the current members of The Hardchargers.
Alongside The Afresh Band, Chris also played with Doghouse. Though a cover band, they had the interesting mix of Gary Murdoch from Ashanti and Buck Murdoch from punk veterans The Defects, and together they play of all things – ska! All the while though, Chris had a hankering for something earthier, and so had formed The Hardchargers. Eventually this, his main band, became so busy he had no choice but to give notice to The Afresh Band and Doghouse, and for a long while The Hardchargers took off in a big way.
For the next eight or nine years they became a regular fixture at blues festivals up and down the country; Monaghan’s Harvest Time Blues Festival, Warrenpoint Blues Festival, Knockanstockan in the Wicklow Hills, Vantastival in County Louth all appeared in their gig diary, as well as headline sets in the likes of Sweeny’s and the mighty Whelan’s in Dublin. It was not without cost however. Chris recalls difficult times on the road; driving themselves to the point of exhaustion, sacrificing time with family, and at times even having to toss up between eating that day, or making sure they had enough diesel to get them to the gig. “We were so broke, and sometimes we were starving. It was like, right I have enough money for a coffee or a sandwich, but not both. It was crazy. But we believed in it, you know?”.
And the band faced other challenges too. Living in the North they often felt in a kind of musical limbo; a little outpost that is somewhat off the radar of both Southern Ireland and mainland UK, being neither really one nor the other, so booking gigs could sometimes be challenging. Another difficulty was the fact that they were so different from everything else that was around. At the time there was less of a proliferation of bearded men with resonator guitars than there is today, and even fewer beards with washboards and thimbles, so they stuck out a country mile. A positive you might think, but in a scene where blues music is – in places – watered down to the point where audiences want to hear nothing more challenging than standards that they recognise, The Hardchargers are not always an easy listen. “We didn’t feel like the blues scene really wanted us and neither did we care”. For Chris and the band what was important was that they believed in the music that they were making, and still do, and they are doing their bit to bring authentic blues music to the people, whether the people want it or not.
In his effort to keep the music as authentic as possible, Chris has also developed a vocal style that is all his own. There is no denying the fact that when you hear Lonesome Chris sing for the first time, it jars a little; Frank Sinatra he ain’t. Chris claims that this sound is more by accident than design, “it’s sort of an accident of a lack of ability, of just trying to find a way that I can express the songs… it’s just the best I can do”. He says he’s fully aware of the Marmite quality of his voice, but I think that underestimates the charm of his sound. It’s true you may never have heard anyone who sounds quite like him, but fans will tell you that it grows on you with every listen. In fact, in his own opinion, far from being influenced by anyone else, Chris’s vocal style is even more singular than his guitar playing style and has developed as a result of his aversion to the notion of trying to sing in some phony American accent which he abhors.
2017 saw some major changes for The Hardchargers. The beginning of the year brought the recording of their first complete album, Scarecrow. Before the end of the year though, two of the long-standing members had left and Lonesome Chris Todd had moved on to play with a pool of other well-known local musicians; bass players Ali McKenzie and Jan Uhrin and drummers Davy Kennedy and Gerard O’Scolaidhe. On a recent live recording from the Belfast Empire, McKenzie and Kennedy were in attendance together with Irish jazz sensation Scott Flanigan rocking the Hammond organ. On an even more recent tour across England, Todd was accompanied by Uhrin and O’Scolaidhe. It’s an unusual set-up but is working well for the band and Chris feels that the various possible permutations of line-up has not only been an awful lot of fun but has inspired him to have the confidence to take a new direction in his songwriting.
In just a few weeks from now he’s back in the studio to record an acoustic EP with Cormac O’Kane in the IFTA award winning RedBox Studios. By autumn of 2019 there are plans for The Hardchargers’ second album, which I am told to expect will be quite the curveball. In new songs he relinquishes the resonator in favour of the electric guitar and sometimes a more purely acoustic sound. Fans may already have heard emerging songs like Dark Horses and Red Lion Yard which have been going down a storm at band and solo gigs. Other old favourites like JoJo and Mean Town Blues may be given a rest now and again. After eight or nine years of playing practically the same setlist, there was an element of self-doubt about whether the band could continue to work with new players, but having taken it out on the road, and introducing some of his new material, he feels confident now that this new chapter is gonna be a good one.
The English tour which was eight gigs, ten days, and 1,900 miles, received incredibly positive feedback; in a tour of small clubs, only two of which were specialised blues venues, they were hailed as highly original and the band are likely to return to England for more dates soon on the strength of that feedback.
My final question to Chris before leaving the hospitality of his Ballyclare home had so be, why so Lonesome? That little sobriquet, he told me, had been the idea of Colin Harper. Harper is a friend and keen supporter of Chris’s, without whom the Scarecrow album couldn’t have happened. When he was first getting to know Chris and the band he noted that Chris often sidled off and spent time alone playing guitar or some such. That and the fact that his surname suggested he like to be “on his tod” made it seem fitting. Just a few weeks later, somewhere in England on a night off during a Billy Boy Miskimmin tour, Chris ventured into an open mic night and while sitting alone at his table a group of people approached him and asked if he’d like to join them as he looked “lonesome”. And thus, the name stuck.
After a recent time of unrest in the band, things certainly seem to be looking up for Lonesome Chris and The Hardchargers. With new ventures on the horizon, first-class musicians on the books and brilliant new material emerging, the next year looks like an exciting one.
You can catch The Hardchargers this weekend in Bray, Co. Wicklow on Friday, or tickets are available here for their homecoming gig in the Courtyard Theatre in Ballyearl on Saturday. That one will be a show not to be missed!
For details of all other upcoming events see here.