Birmingham Blues

crayLast weekend we dashed down to Birmingham for a very last-minute treat – a concert by the Robert Cray Band.

I’ve been a fan of Cray for years, ever since I heard his famous track ‘Right Next Door’ on a compilation Blues album.  I shouldn’t like it really since it’s borderline soul which I’m less keen on, but the catchy tune and poignant lyrics have stayed with me and it’s still one of my favourites.  So I was delighted when he turned up on Later With Jools Holland the other week, and even more delighted when Dave suddenly said, “He’s touring.  He’s coming to Birmingham!”

Cue a mad scramble for tickets, not helped by falling foul of Viagogo (overpriced and under-ethical, but more on that later).  But two days before the event, the tickets arrived and off we went.  And the concert was worth every penny.  The first half hour was filled with a back-up act, Jeb Loy Nichols, who sang southern US blues/folk, accompanied only by his own guitar, and quipped about his recent move to Wales.  He was surprisingly good and an excellent choice, but paled by comparison when the lights darkened again and Cray and his band came on.

Like so many legends, the difference was striking and immediate.  The sheer professionalism, the passion, shone through.  His guitar playing is every bit as skilled in real life as it is on his recordings (so no tweaking by the production team) and his voice is as smooth as molten molasses, if you’ll pardon the cliché.  What I wasn’t expecting, but loved, was the sense of mischief as he pretended to grumble at his roadie, told the audience “We not so bad after all” and teased his band by keeping them in suspense at the end of some of the tracks.

We got an hour and a half of great music and entertainment.  Not much of a light-show, perhaps, but then he really didn’t need any gimmicks or extras – the power of his music alone carried the event.  I loved every minute and would happily go and see him again.  Just not using Viagogo for the tickets.

A word of warning – Viagogo aren’t an official seller, they purely act as brokers for people trying to re-sell unwanted tickets for a range of music and sporting events.  And they’re not particularly honest.  They add vast amounts to the face value of the tickets in the shape of tax, handling fees and postage (even for e-tickets!), which can bump the cost up by three or even four times.  They don’t make this clear during the purchasing process; the price you see when you click ‘confirm’ is nowhere near the price you end up paying.  And there is no way, at all, of cancelling the transaction or getting a refund.  All you can do is sell the tickets back to them, presumably at considerable loss to yourself.  In the end, we were ‘lucky’.  The tickets arrived in time (some don’t).  They were legit (some aren’t).  And we only paid three times face value (some cost even more).

But I’d never, ever use the company again, and strongly recommend that nobody else does either.  Over two hundred quid for a concert that should have cost sixty?  Now that really is the Blues.


‘From Blue to Black’ by Joel Lane

from blue to black 

The title of this book is wonderfully appropriate, both in its suggestion of the book’s noir genre and in its reflection of the incredible monochromatic atmosphere Joel Lane conjures up.

Because there is almost no colour in his narrative. Everything described is either black, white or in endless shades of gray, with only the occasional explosion of vivid colour (a pink sunset, a blaze of orange fire) to break the monotony. But this isn’t a criticism, since the device captures the mood of the novel to perfection. Its prose may be colour-less but it’s never colourless.

The main character, David, himself lives a colourless life, playing bass in a band and drifting through the suburbs and bars of Birmingham, footloose but hardly fancy-free. Until he meets Karl, the tortured genius lead-singer, and falls in love. Karl brings colour to David’s life, but it’s colour of a strange, dark sort, all dark tones and heavy shadows. Because Karl is a manic depressive and a burgeoning alcoholic, and in trying to destroy himself he begins to take David down with him.

The ensuing relationship between the two men, told in the context of the rise and fall of an eighties indie rock band, is an emotional roller-coaster and the book packs a powerful punch, so much so that I was emotionally black and blue by the end. Happily-ever-after this book emphatically ain’t.

Every nuance of language is masterly. The pared down narrative flows from the dingy back streets of Birmingham to the dingier backstages and bars of a rock tour via the dark, even nightmarish landscapes of a depressive’s mind. The descriptions are vivid and sometimes shocking, the action tense, and there is an eerie, ghostlike quality to some of the scenes.

‘From Blue to Black’ is not a book to cosy up with. It lacks any kind of a happy ending, its characters are sometimes aggravating, sometimes downright unlikeable and the downward spiral of destruction is relentless. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Yes, I was exhausted by the time I’d finished it, but I felt that I’d read something worthwhile, something different from the endless array of bright romances and glitzy thrillers that fill the bookshop shelves. Black and blue it might be, but it’s also extremely good.


This article first appeared in Forbidden Fruit.