The name Climax Blues Band always seemed a bit of a misnomer. Although they started off as a blues band, (indeed, their original name Climax Chicago Blues Band thoroughly spilled the beans as to their influences), the band moved away from purist blues early on. By the time they had their only top 10 hit Couldn’t Get It Right, from their classic 1976 album Gold Plated, they had become more of a soft rock or soul outfit. The journey away from blues continued as they progressively softened their sound throughout the 1980s. Three of the six founding fathers, Colin Cooper, Pete Haycock and Derek Holt, formed the core of the band, with Richard Jones joining and leaving a couple of times, the final time in 1977. After this, the band has gone through something of a revolving-door membership, their latest incarnation having no original members at all. Nevertheless, random combinations of ex-members have collaborated with a stellar cast of musicians over the years, as well as meeting up for various projects – Jones especially has been gravitating towards folk; indeed, one of his current bands is named Climax Ceilidh Band, which is a great nod towards his past life. The latest project is the duo of guitarist Holt and multi-instrumentalist Jones – named, not unreasonably, Holt & Jones – who now present their debut album Shadowman.
The basis of the project was a song, also named Shadowman, which was recorded by the Climax Blues Band during sessions for Gold Plated, but didn’t make the final cut at the time. Holt and Jones had been mates since primary school in Stafford and were prompted by the release of a recent biography of the band, to get together and re-record the song. However, they had such a blast doing it that they couldn’t help writing more stuff and ended up recording an entire album. The resulting set makes for an interesting crossover, but don’t expect anything approaching either rock or electric pub blues – the album is a reflective, cool set of chilled numbers in the vein of Gallagher and Lyle, or perhaps The Carpenters but without the orchestration. They played most of the instruments between them, sharing the vocals while Holt provides guitars and bass, with Jones contributing keys, guitars, accordion and bouzouki. Guest musicians include saxophonist Richard Martin and Pete Spencer on drums.
The set opens with Playing For Love, a Tom Petty-ish upbeat ballad about playing music for the love of it; the lyrics outline the early days of the Climax Blues Band, recording alongside the likes of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. It took me a while to identify which song the keyboard intro line reminded me of, which turned out to be Confusion by ELO. By contrast, the second song Waiting For Payday is a smooth, jazz blues with bongos, a cool horn section and beautifully constructed stereo-panned backing vocals. The instrumental mid-section is alto sax and smooth, mid-range guitar with all the treble knocked off, the whole package owing a debt to Steely Dan.
The title track starts with acoustic blues guitar and electric slide; downbeat and understated, there is some bass, keyboards and a rasping sax, but no drums. Again in stark contrast, this is followed by the jolly calypso of I Gave All My Money Away, with its staccato piano and accordion backing and quietly thudding drums. Despite the disparate musical influences, the set is extremely laid-back, although after this point it does start to warm up slightly – I’m Crying is a more upbeat, funky pop song; kind of Foghat played on acoustic guitar if you can imagine such a thing. Come Over With A Kiss is a piano and accordion heartbroken ballad which could almost fit as a West End stage anthem, perhaps from Les Misérables or some such story.
Valentine’s Day is a surprise reversion to their earliest influences; it starts with an ambient vocal line before dropping into staccato blues underpinned by various guitar, keyboard and other instrumental effects. This line is taken a step further by Sleepy Head, which is a genuine pub blues of the acoustic variety and an album highlight, with thudding bass and some groovy acoustic guitar. Considering it also has drums, keyboards and harmony vocals, it’s surprisingly restrained and subtle, featuring an actual electric guitar solo too, played with an utterly clean, dry sound over ragtime chords.
So far, so gently entertaining, but then they unexpectedly come out with an environmentally-aware anthem in Time’s Not On Our Side, the album’s lead single and another genuine highlight. It’s basically an upbeat pop lament about what we’re doing to this world, with a vibe reminiscent of early Dire Straits, with a hint of Don’t Fear The Reaper. The set ends with its most fully rounded-out number, the excellent Stormy Waters, which starts with a chugging blues intro before reverting to a Gallagher and Lyle-style soft ballad. It’s actually a bit of a reversion to the Climax Blues Band, with a hooky chorus and instrumental line; something like Nick Lowe in his Cracking Up era.
Don’t expect to be rocked back on your heels; these vintage buddies are much more interested in spreading calmness than trying to recapture their youth. So put down those gardening tools, grab yourself a mug of tea and push back the recliner; save your Best of Burt Bacharach CD for when you have more energy, and just let the ambience wash over you. You’ll wake up smiling.
Shadowman by Holt & Jones is available from 4th March 2022 from Hojo records, distributed via Cadiz