The British Blues Boom of the 1960s is rightly revered as the vehicle for the progenitors of rock guitar – Clapton, Hendrix, Page, Beck et al. But not everyone became God in those days. Dave Kelly and his big sister Jo Ann had been playing in folk clubs since the late ‘50s, before Dave even hit his teens. He soon fell in with the like-minded Tony McPhee of The Groundhogs, who taught him the rudiments of slide guitar of which Dave went on to become a master; he and Jo Ann moved on to the blues, both playing slide and singing, and Dave honed his craft playing open-mic nights in New York before returning to the UK in 1966 and finding himself at the centre of a burgeoning blues scene. McPhee and the Groundhogs made a crust backing the mighty John Lee Hooker, while Kelly joined the John Dummer band, who served as the equally mighty Howlin’ Wolf’s touring band. Kelly was invited to be a founder member of the Paul Jones-fronted The Blues Band in 1979, which also featured guitarist Tom McGuinness and drummer Hughie Flint from the duo McGuinness Flint. Despite Paul Jones’ unarguable love of the blues, his twinkly-eyed boyish good looks, crisp, foghorn-powerful voice, posh home counties accent and West-End theatre endeavours always seemed an ill fit for the genre, whereas Kelly’s working class appearance, smoky vocals and down-home slide style couldn’t help but come across as more authentic. At last, his long and fruitful career is given the vehicle it deserves in the shape of this 3 CD set – the first disc features 19 Dave Kelly originals, with the second made up of cover versions of all kinds of disparate stuff, mostly (but not all) non-blues. Disc 3 is all live, but back to the rocking bluesy material. Altogether, the set brings together his solo incarnation, his duo with Christine Collister, the Dave Kelly Band, and the British Blues All Stars featuring Zoot Money, Pick Withers, Gary Fletcher and Pete Emery.
I was not familiar with the opening number of disc 1, but it still seemed like meeting an old friend. A four-to-the floor, rolling rocker named Straight Line To My Heart, not massively heavy, but with a chunky, good-time beat, it could have come straight from the later Status Quo stable, were it not for Kelly’s superior voice and classy slide playing. This first disc contains a massive 75 minutes of Kelly’s own songs and co-writes, mostly studio, but with a few live recordings thrown in. The style ranges from the Byrds-style jangly pop of Come Kiss Me Love, a highlight in this reviewer’s opinion, to the oom-pah country folk of Waiting For Bessie, to a live rendition of the excellent pub rocker Going Home from the Blues Band’s debut album. Listen out for the occasional accordion backings, gospel-style backing vocals, electric violin or horns, depending on the mood. Another highlight is the up-tempo but subtly restrained If It Fits, reminiscent of Dr. Feelgood’s Hong Kong Money. In fact, the pub rock strain is strong throughout, with plenty of Quo-style rockers and a steady stream of Feelgood references, in addition to plenty of west coast soft rock vibes.
Disc 2 is a different animal again, kicking off with a good-humoured homage to the Elvis classic Return To Sender, sounding for all the world like one of Quo’s cheesy 1980s covers. Dave Kelly’s own band covered a lot of ground in addition to the blues, and this set includes a cover of The Band’s country folk number The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay, and great instrumental renditions of Oklahoma! (featuring an unexpected vibraphone solo), and Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine, which is just superb. Highlight of this set though, has to be the Matt Bianco-style jazz rocker Ee Do Do Qua Qua, an original number written by a couple of Dave’s mates. There is a gaggle of great blues-rock numbers on this disc too though, especially the pub-rock harmonica number Rooster Blues.
Disc 3 is culled from any number of various quality live recordings. Surprisingly, it kicks off with one of the most muffled numbers, a rendition of Rolling Log from The Blues Band’s 1982 album Brand Loyalty. Most of the set is clearer, although there is some quality issue with most of them – a loose ending, muffled vocals, a bit of amp hum, an unmiked piano, or some such. Nevertheless, there is some great stuff on here too, especially the six-minute cover of the Muddy Waters standard You Shook Me, with its screaming wah slide solo. The whole shebang is rounded off in fine style with an extended jam version of Grits Ain’t Groceries, again from Brand Loyalty.
OK, I admit, I’ve been a fan of Kelly’s since I first heard The Blues Band’s 1979 debut album, and I imagine most of his fans would have cottoned on to him via the same route. I’ve always felt he was underrated, especially as an exponent of the slide guitar, although I never realised how close he was to the original flowering of the British Blues boom. This set sketches out a broad overview of his work, his playing, singing, songwriting and versatility, and it’s a great document in its own right. If you want to hear his best work, I still think you’ll need to revisit The Blues Band’s discography, especially the first two releases The Official Bootleg Album and Ready, and maybe the 1983 live set Bye Bye Blues, which features a guest spot from Jo Ann. If you’ve already got those and played them to death, then this magic 3 CD set, with its vast array of guest musicians, should be next on your list.