February 19, 2020

On a bitterly cold night in Sheffield, what better way to warm the heart and soul than by hearing some of the very best live sounds around – no exaggeration. The Backroom stage at the rear of The Greystones is proving to be a consistently fine venue in Sheffield, with a varied line-up of acts with a “bedrock” of blues-based sounds. The evening started with a very punchy set from Troy Redfern, who together with his backing band is supporting Wille and crew for the whole tour. Troy produced some blistering blues-rock, and is no mean hand on guitar, even if he got carried away occasionally! But good stuff nonetheless.

Wille and the Bandits have been around for a surprisingly long time now, they’ve been released four studio albums over a ten year period, which by common consent have got stronger and stronger. They’ve also released at least one if not more live albums (to my limited knowledge!) – it being their live performances for which they’re most noted, having built a reputation throughout the UK and Europe as one of the best live acts around, playing over 200 gigs a year. Among the artists they have shared festival stages with are Joe Bonamassa, Deep Purple, J.J. Grey, Beth Hart and Wilko Johnson to name but a few!

For the purposes of this tour (see dates on the flyer above) – and hopefully for a good deal longer! – the band has grown from a trio to a four-piece, their live sound now benefitting from timeless Hammond keyboards and second guitar as well as 3-way vocal harmonies. Wille’s three compadres are Finn McAuley (drums & percussion), Harry Mackaill (bass, ukulele & vocals and new guy Matthew Gallagher (keyboards, guitars, percussion & vocals). As Wille chortled later in the show, the three first-mentioned are all Cornwall-based and still occasionally try to live up to “beach-bum” expectations(!), but Matthew hails from Preston where surfing on the River Ribble is both very dodgy and extremely cold!

Live, the band have an incredible ability to provide a simply stunning range and breadth of moods, tempo, dynamism, light and shade; within a hugely entertaining mix of musical styles. One moment they’re pounding out full-on heavy blues-rock, the next they’re bouncing joyfully to a reggae beat and then Santana-esque latin funk before you’re listening to modern-day folk tunes. Wille’s thoughtful and socially aware lyrics combined with the band’s multi-instrumentation makes for the most original and refreshing sound I’ve heard in a long time, whether recorded or live!

First song is “Bad News”, with a delicately picked intro before the band launch into the blues-rock meat of the song, complete with wailing vocals, a riff Jimmy Page would be proud of, swelling Hammond organ-work in the background. The track is soaked in the blues, and gives Harry and Finn as the newly-recruited rhythm section ample opportunity to display their craft. This is going to be a very good night! Next up is “Find My Way”, from the latest album, 2019’s Paths. This continues the heavy-weight riffing, interspersed with bottle-neck licks that Wille is so adept at, all the while howling great blues-driven vocals. In the middle of this though, you get the first taste the band’s knack of musical interplay, a bridge section held together by bongos!

The third track is still blues-inspired but completely different. Gentle picking and smooth vocals lead in a tender ballad before a wonderfully catchy and tuneful three-part harmony chorus kicks in, followed by further gentle work and a quite beautiful lead guitar lick. Lovely stuff. Next is “Keep on the Down-Low” which although it’s based on a blues-lick, has such a funky, bubbly rhythm and rapping-style lyrics and again an extremely catchy chorus. It’s rootsy acid-rock with a hippy-ish happiness, and totally addictive!

It’s followed by “Livin’ Free” which in another timeless piece of blues-rock, and then “Still Go Marching In”, which Wille introduces as our chance to join in as The Sheffield Gospel Choir! Its a traditional finger-picking pedal-guitar number, slow, soulful, warm and very funky, rolling bass and made so fresh by the four musicians. I have to point out at this stage that Wille alternates between two or three nice looking guitars, including a beautiful Les Paul; and a frankly beaten up old lap pedal-steel guitar, strapped to what looks like a cannibalised old hospital-bed tray base that’s definitely seen better days! And for good measure, he quite often plays both within a song. Given his adroitness in vocal styles as well, Wille is almost a one-man band in himself! But that would be so unfair on the rest of a great quality band, the addition of the keyboards (plus occasional Spanish guitar and reserve bongo-playing) from Matthew gives that depth and “timbre” to the overall sound. I should also highlight here the quality of the sound-mix. Without over-doing the volume, so important in smaller venues such as this, the sound is full whilst crisp and crystal-clear, doubly necessary for this sort of rootsy rock. Well done team!

“Judgement Day” is next, nicely illustrating the last album. It’s basically blues-rock but so fresh with a funky, bouncy, rootsy arrangement, another track where the Hammond really ratchets the warmth up. Imagine a blend of Santana and Joe Bonamassa, the best “badge” I can think of is New Age Acid Roots-Rock?

“Mammon”, the next song, is another that has that Santana-like feel, I think this is the one Wille introduces by saying it’s about trying to live a lifestyle without money…and failing, but as a song it’s totally infectious! Great bongos! This is followed by “Four Million Days”, another classic rootsy ballad off the last album, with another massively catchy chorus and gorgeous lead guitar bridge section, a really powerful, heartfelt song. Buy The Album! You can imagine this band being amazing live at any venue, right up to the very biggest festivals around. The three pics below between them show the four performers:

Wille introduces the next song as being written for his mother, but tonight it’s dedicated to a friend from Sheffield who has recently passed away. This is the epic “Angel”, starting with lovely acoustic work from a sitting position (having begged a stool from the back of the audience!) The classical cadences are a mix of flamenco but also somehow Indian, the finger-work mesmerising to watch, and this is the first section of a musical work that builds and fades, with riff-led sections and amazing bass lines, it rises and falls over an epic 11 minutes of musical delight. There’s no lyrics to speak of, there’s a touch of ‘sound-vocalising’, an almost grungy guitar work in the middle section that bears more than a passing resemblance to Neil Young’s Like a Hurricane; and the omnipresent Hammond ‘crooning’ in the background. It never rambles, its totally organic and hypnotic, a wonderful composition.

Next up is “Make Love”, which I have to say seems a little light-weight on the album? – that’s just my personal opinion, compared to the rest of the beauties. But live, it comes to….life! In hindsight, you could imagine that some of their songs are recorded specifically with live performances in mind, having just had great fun in the rehearsal room! Again funky, bubbly and upbeat, the audience cant help having a simply great time!

After the almost ‘frivolity’ of Make Love, Wille very much brings us brings us down to earth with “Crossfire Memories”, a powerful, heart-rending reflection on refugees, losing one’s homeland , relatives, family, the sheer dislocation that ensues. It’s another example of Wille’s perhaps surprising soul-searching ability to write some profound lyrics – the moral here being don’t pre-judge beach-bums! The song itself is another sample of a delicious arrangement and playing, in a style that does frankly defy description except “appreciate and enjoy”.

“Victim of The Night” is then another song off the last album, and as before it’s just a great rocky song, hugely radio-friendly (I hope he could get away with lyrics about being bat-shit crazy, it wouldn’t be the same otherwise). The last song of the main set is then an old favourite, appropriately called “1970”. It’s pretty much a standard four-bar rock song, blessed with a great riff and Wille’s voice – see the video of it live below, it gives you a good idea of the band’s live show.

Having finished the main set to rousing applause, and after the shortest of “stage exit lefts” I’ve ever seen, the band bounce back for two encores, that merge into each other. Bravely, these are two quite old tracks, “Jack the Lad” and “Virgin Eyes”, both of which are quite bluesy again. Brave because I for one thought other stuff off the last album might be showcased, and these two aren’t seminal crowd-pleasers (I don’t think so anyway!)

It’s clever stuff though, Wille is basically rapping to Jack the Lad, it’s very up-beat “beach party” stuff, (I’m just jealous, dreaming of warm, sultry evenings on a Cornish beach!) illuminated with some neat work again on the Les Paul, and some more great slide work and trademark “groovy” guitar on Virgin Eyes.

So, how to summarise?! Somehow it’s the way that the band encompass such musical diversity of instruments and song arrangements that makes their music so appealing. They have a feel for the late 60’s and 70’s mixed into a completely fresh “One World” sound that contains elements of blues, world music, latin, and dance music, in a style that I suggested earlier blends Joe Bonamassa and Santana to create something unique. The bottom line is I haven’t ever enjoyed a live show “cold” so much before (i.e. someone I wasn’t already familiar with and a fan of) – I certainly am a BIG fan now, go and see them on this tour, and check out their studio albums as well. The tour poster says it all – even the Daily Telegraph names them as one of the best live acts in the country, and they’re never wrong… 🙂

Key word – ENJOY!