The Blues 2010

The Blues aint what it used to be. But the whole town still has a party.

Every August Bank Holiday weekend, the small, steep, Pennine town of Colne, East Lancashire, plays host to what some claim is the world’s biggest blues festival. Or just Europe’s biggest, maybe. Officially it’s called the Great British Rhythm & Blues Festival, but it’s known locally as the Colne Blues Festival. In Colne itself it’s just called The Blues.

It still takes the whole town over, but it used to get far bigger crowds, and visitors from all over the world. There aren’t many hotels or B&Bs in Colne, and they’d all get fully booked up months in advance. There used to be a campsite at the rugby club, and locals could make a few quid letting out their sofa or even a few feet of beer-stained carpet space.

It costs a lot to get into the Municipal Hall for the main stage. Leading attractions over the years have included people you may have vaguely heard of, like Ike Turner and Lonnie Donnegan, but other times it’s been someone whose claim to fame is that they once played tambourine on a B-side for someone who once played with someone you may have vaguely heard of. This year the headline act was supposed to be Peter Green, but he pulled out sick at the last minute apparently. Some of us thought Peter Green had pulled out sick many years ago. Most of us ignore the main stage anyway. There’s more fun to be had on the fringe: every pub, cafe, working men’s club in town has live music over the weekend, and there’s plenty more just on the streets. You just cruise the Blues.

And the Blues gives you a chance, or an excuse, to go into bars you’d normally never get round to, or wouldn’t want to get round to, or wouldn’t have the nerve to. Colne still has working men’s clubs that don’t admit women, for instance, but they make a bold exception for the Blues. Another highlight, of sorts, used to be the Conservative Club, which during the festival one year had a grand banner outside it proudly and magnificently announcing The Colne Conservative Rhythm & Blues Roadhouse. Wish I’d taken a photo. It’s now more modestly, or maybe more assertively, renamed itself simply The Venue.

And it’s not just blues music. Blues is, arguably, the root of most of today’s popular music styles, and the festival interprets the term quite loosely. You get quite a range of acts and bands. You could always get away from the noisier stuff by going to the Acoustic Stage at the Lesser Municipal Hall, or to Jim’s Acoustic Cafe. You could always get away from the denser sardine crowds by stepping off the main drag a little, down the hill on one side to the North Valley Pub (an imaginative name for a pub that’s down in the North Valley), or down the other side to the Rodney. They’re not far out from the town centre – ten minutes’ walk max – but when most of the other venues are strung together along the one main road, or just off it, that’s far enough to stop most of the crowd from bothering. You’d still get live music, and often some of the best music, and in comparative comfort. You might still not get a seat, but you’d probably be able to get through to the bar, and you’d get enough elbow room to lift your drink to your mouth. The North Valley Pub has now turned into the North Valley DIY Centre, but the Rodney’s still going strong. 

And it’s not even all about music anyway. For many people, the crowds themselves are the main stars. People meet up again after a year, friendships get made and broken. The town opens into a hundred sub-plots and soap operas, for many people a far more important element than the bands squeezed onto the stages. Everyone has their stories. Some of these stories are hinted at in the song, The Blues, which I’ll tell you more about later, but the details are obscured and left to the listener’s imagination, or memories, to protect the innocent. And the not so innocent.

If I remember, it was around 2002 when the Blues reached its peak of debauchery. The Press wittily dubbed it the Rhythm & Booze Festival.  The streets were full of drunken children by Friday night; in the pubs, punters openly skinned up spliffs at the bar, with only those requiring stronger stimulants bothering to retire discretely into darker corners. The whole length of the main street, that runs through the whole town, was a carpet of broken glass. Children played in it, drunks fell over in it. The steep back streets turned into rivers of piss, so that although everyone hopes for good weather over the festival itself, everyone was praying for rain as soon as it’s over.

There were tales of some local residents suing the council for allowing the festivities to disrupt the peace of their weekend, and winning daft sums in compensation. This attitude didn’t go down too well with most of us, though – if some sad people really couldn’t enjoy the party, just for one weekend of the year, why couldn’t they just stay in and turn the telly up, or just sod off somewhere quieter for the weekend? At any rate, the year after that, the council and the police between them clamped down hard on the festival with a new charter of rules and regulations.

They brought in a ban on drinking on the streets for instance, even from the new plastic glasses that the pubs were forced to serve drinks in. There were bouncers on every door, counting people in, and keeping you out if they were full, thanks to the new fire regulations. Police presence was more or less doubled. There was a lot of rain for the weekend too, that year, which kept the crowds away, and at times it seemed there were more police about than punters.

All this didn’t kill the festival though. It bounced back, and though it’s not as wild as it was, it’s still quite a beano. Things were crazier back when I wrote that song. You may notice it has a few echoes of a few well-known Christmas songs. Listen on, however, and it’s clear it’s not Jesus turning up in town, but the Devil. Traditionally, the Blues is the Devil’s music. He never misses a blues festival. He wreaks his mischief all over town whatever way he can. If you ban him, and put up Wanted posters with a photofit likeness, he’ll simply assume a different form. That combination of crowds of drinkers, in the streets and moving between several packed venues, plus blues music, along with overstretched police, makes an irresistible attraction for the Devil.

Some say, though, that it wasn’t the rules and regulations, or the police and the council, or the Devil, that threatened to damage the festival, but the idiots, of whom Colne, like many another town perhaps, has a plentiful hardcore deep-rooted supply. They’re known locally as throwbacks, stuck in some isolated evolutionary loop. Even in the age of the mobile phone (which they see largely as a device for carrying your own tinny rattly music around with you) they prefer traditional methods of communication, by simply shouting from the top of the hill to the bottom. Some people call them the Nob ‘Eds, since that’s how they announce themselves: Nob ‘Ed! they yell out in the street, at passers-by, at their neighbours, at total strangers. Perhaps they're obeying some local by-law that obliges them to identify themselves, or maybe they just feel they ought to warn you. Either way I don't believe they scare many people off the Blues. For some punters, the Nob ‘Eds are part of the street entertainment.

Famously, Robert Johnson met the Devil at the crossroads, and took guitar lessons from him, thus inaugurating a tradition. Going round the fringe this year though, you’d get the distinct impression that if some of these guitarists did pay for guitar lessons from the Devil, a lot of them got pretty short shrift – but then the Devil, notoriously, never quite keeps his end of any bargain. There are exceptions – there are plenty of excellent musicians turning up even in the town’s more obscure venues – but so many of these blues electric guitarists simply churn out stock riffs decorated with random shrieks and screeches, exhaust their entire repertoire of tricks over the first song, and then just repeat it for the rest of the weekend. But maybe I'm missing the point. Maybe these guitarists are being traditional. And authentic.

St Bartholomew’s church – the oldest building in town – always rings out its bells at some point during the Blues. There may be many reasons for this, or it could even be just coincidence, but it’s difficult to resist the image of the town’s Christians locking themselves inside their church for safety over the festival, ringing out their bells to protect themselves from the Devil’s music.
In reality though that was always just a myth – that Christians avoided the blues, and that Gospel music (for Jesus) and Blues music (for the Devil) were in fundamental opposition. From the earliest days of black American deep south culture, the two often went together. The same people enjoyed both, the same musicians played both. Outside certain specialist corners of the Christian church, it’s always been understood that God and the Devil are two sides of the same coin. Musicians and preachers alike both played to popular superstitions. The church has always had its dark secrets, and behind their dark glasses most hairy blues musicians, like most hairy bikers, are usually much nicer people really than they want you to believe.

But blues has always been full of myths. One of the chief ones is that blues is sad, or that it’s a depressing kind of music. Sure, it can express sadness, it can confront bad situations, and that basic 3-chord, 12-bar structure can dig down deep into the gut. But it doesn’t just wallow in unhappiness. It accepts that life is full of troubles, but it taps its foot and turns those troubles into something you can dance to. The blues is My baby left me, but the blues is also Let the Good Times Roll. You play the blues to chase away the blues. Some bands manage that better than others, of course.

But back to the song, The Blues. A few years ago a local Lib Dem councillor suggested that the council might adopt it as the official anthem for the festival. Here’s my chance for fame, I thought – a potential hit single, or a local hit anyway, with plays on local radio, and maybe bands doing covers in local dives. Sadly, when she played the record to the various officials, they decided that it might not attract the tourists, or it might attract the wrong kind of tourists. They picked up a few references to drugs and drunkenness, mental health issues, street trouble, charity shops, and rain, and reckoned that it didn’t promote the image they wanted for the town. It made Colne sound too much like, well, Colne. But I know a few people who’ve never been near the town but who’ve enjoyed the song, responding to it on more of an abstract level. For the record, bizzies is local slang for the police, and the Walking Dead are the junkies, who avoid bright sunshine (what we get of it in Lancashire) but prowl the streets at night looking for back kitchen windows that have been left open. The statue conducting the band refers to Wallace Hartley, the Colne-born bandmaster of the Titanic, whose statue stands next to the Cenotaph, one of the traditional busking points. Poisoned whisky is what probably killed Robert Johnson, but at least he didn’t have to take it from a plastic glass. He wrote a song called Hellhound on my Trail, but this being Colne, the hellhound has become a pitbull.

Here are two ways of hearing the song. You can watch a range of different acts performing it in different Colne pubs, as if that aforementioned councillor had got her way, on this video. Alternatively you can hop over to the Natterjack shop and order yourself a copy of the album figures of 8 by The Owls, which includes this track. It's here.

Either way, I hope you enjoy it, and I hope to see you at the Blues next year.


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