Rock Island Line 65th Anniversary, Cadogan Hall, London, 13th July 2019

There’s no real reason why in the mid-1950s a form of music already more or less forgotten in its homeland should have got a revival in the UK. Yet the short-lived Skiffle craze – a wild blend of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, country blues and folk – has a lot to answer for: out went the jazz bands and the piano-led ballads, the light music of a previous generation and in came a wild form of guitar-based folk music. And recycled American folk music at that. And it was Lonnie Donegan who kick-started it all with his recording of Rock Island Line on the 13th of July 1954 – exactly 65 years prior to this portmanteau concert. It was the first flourishing of a guitar led “three chords and the truth” youth movement and it led to…everything. John Lennon and Paul McCartney got going in skiffle bands, Brian May – one of several talking heads relayed by video tonight – recounted that the first record played on his family’s home built record player was ‘Rock Island Line‘, and he’d go on to play on an all star Lonnie Donegan album in the seventies. John Renbourn, and others instrumental in the Sixties folk-boom, played skiffle as did one Jimmy Page. This concert as well as being a celebration of the influence of skiffle was also acting as a fundraiser to support Peter Donegan’s autistic son – that’s Lonnie Donegan’s grandson of course.

The first half started in a stirring enough spirit – the military rat-a-tat-tat of ‘Battle of New Orleans‘ beaten out on a single snare drum, with Peter Donegan leading the Donegan band – including such luminaries as drummer Alan ‘Sticky’ Wicket – for what is a bigger band sound on the 1958 number two hit for Lonnie Donegan. There followed a set made up of different performers doing one of Donegan’s songs and one of their own including a noteworthy performance by Chas McDevitt, the only other British skiffler to achieve international success, who offered up ‘It Takes a Worried Man‘ and his own version of Elizabeth Cotten’s ‘Freight Train‘, both as an acoustic guitar duo with Mike Read.

It’s the nature of these gigs to make for strange bedfellows: Mike Read and Billy Bragg sharing a microphone later in the evening was perhaps the most eyebrow-raising one of the night. Leo Sayer was present by dint of that same seventies all-star album, with a growling bluesy vocal on ‘Midnight Special‘ and his own ‘When I Need You’ which he said was Lonnie Donegan’s favourite of his own songs – it was suitably enlivened by Sayer’s really rather good harp playing.

Joe Brown and Dave Peacock rockneyed through the Chas & Dave tribute to the first skiffler ‘Lonnie D‘ and then ‘Darlin’ Corey‘ a song first captured for posterity by Cecil Sharp. It was a set that was all very genial and good-natured, with a little audience participation around the edges, and was closed out with a couple of songs by Peter Donegan, ‘Little Man‘ which is about his son and the Hollies-esque ballad ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again‘ co-written by his father.

Billy Bragg got a huge cheer when starting off the second set by declaring he was, “Representing for Woody Guthrie” and choosing ‘Grand Coulee Dam‘ as his ‘Donegan Song’ – it’s a lively performance which set the tone for a discursive aside on “Cultural appropriation” as an introduction to ‘Stewball‘ – a song that Lead Belly certainly knew but as Bragg points out can be traced all the way back to late 18th century Ireland. That’s the folk tradition. And, if you’ve ever wondered what ‘A New England‘ would sound like backed by an expanded skiffle band, with a saxophone break, then this was the place to find out – it succeeded at least in motivating the crowd to sing.

Chris Farlowe and Paul Jones followed after Lonnie Donegan Jnr who captured the original spirit of his father’s recordings on ‘Gamblin’ Man‘. Their take on the field cry worksong ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton‘ served as a fine warm-up for ‘Handbags & Gladrags‘ which Chris Farlowe filled with emotion, digging deep whilst sharp-dressed Paul Jones was masterly on harp.

By this time though a figure could be observed in the wings – immaculate in pinstripes, fedora and sunglasses, and having strode on stage, Van Morrison, without waiting a beat launched into ‘Mule Skinner Blues‘, his phrasing just perfect. It’s a song he recorded for 2000’s ‘The Skiffle Sessions‘, which also featured Donegan and Dr John, as was ‘Lost John‘ which Morrison smoothly segues into. It’s a mini-set that demonstrated every side of Van Morrison – there’s a gruff and tense moment when he rejects his guitar for being out of tune – but then sings a totally glorious ‘Into the Mystic‘ as if it had been his intention all along to be free to rock the mic. It’s a wonderful thing, and it seems to lift the band to greater efforts – no-one wants to be the one who let Van down. And then on to a bravura ‘Gloria,‘ Van was trading lines back and forth with Chris Farlowe, and, yes, smiling and joking before finally strolling offstage playing his harp all the way. It was a Van for all seasons.

The finale was an all Donegan brothers and band rendition of ‘Rock Island Line.‘ From the spoken introduction through the tariff avoidance by mislabelling of goods punchline – a future Brexit tale if ever there was one – followed by an ensemble rendition of the traditional closer ‘Goodnight Irene‘ which had one more chance for Van Morrison to sparkle as, following Peter Donegan’s call of, “Take it Chris”, he instead stepped right up and, wonderfully, took it. A very mixed night, as these things so often are, but, importantly, the big names didn’t disappoint.

All photographs by John McKenzie.

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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