Buddy Holly 75th Tribute Concert

Scene Alive:
Buddy Holly 75th Birthday Tribute
Chick Hall’s Surf Club, Bladensburg, Maryland, September 10th 2011

Following his success at the Buddy Holly 75th Birthday Bash in Lubbock on September 7th (Holly’s birthday), J.P. McDermott organized and hosted his tenth Buddy Holly tribute at Chick Hall’s Surf Club three days later. The Surf Club (which is slightly closer to the sea than its namesake in Clear Lake, Iowa) is just outside Washington, DC, in Bladensburg, and is known as “the last of the Maryland honky-tonks”.

Five local rockabilly bands (who share a lot of the same personnel) were on the bill, and between them they played more than half of the Buddy Holly songbook (I counted 41 songs). J.P. McDermott & Western Bop were on stage for the majority of the evening, and Hangover Royale, Dave Kitchen & Andy Rutherford, The Spectacles and The Jelly Roll Mortals each performed five or six numbers. There were the occasional softer songs, including a couple from the ‘string sessions’, but mostly it was harddriving take-no-prisoners rockabilly. None of the outfits are ‘oldies’ bands or ‘tribute’ bands – they all take their music seriously and play their music in the way that would have made Buddy proud. And what really added to the evening were the remarks from J.P., reporting on his experiences in Lubbock (where he played two sets with The Prophets of Rockabilly, met Travis and Larry Holley, Peggy Sue, the Tolletts and Jack Neal, and visited Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis).

The bands played songs from all periods of Holly’s all-too-brief career. The Hangover Royales, with the Australian Angus Mackay on string bass and vocals, gave us ‘Gotta Get You Near Me Blues’, one of Holly’s first recordings with Bob Montgomery and a song that I don’t think I have ever heard performed live. J.P. gave us a couple of ttie Clovis, pre-‘That’li Be The Day’ tracks – ‘Rock-a-Bye Rock’ (a song that always sounds as though Holly never quite finished it) and ‘Baby Won’t You Come Out Tonight’. As you would expect, many of the classic Nashville tracks were featured: Dave Kitchen – who has the perfect lean, bespectacled look – and Andy Rutherford did a great version of ‘Midnight Shift’ (I ‘ve often wondered why Holly ever thought he would have a hit with a song about a hooker!). Before performing the Ben Hall composition, J.P. reminded us that Holly used to tell people down in west Texas that ‘Blue Days – Black Nights’ was “a big hit in Washington, DC’, knowing that no one would ever be able to confirm or deny the claim!

All of the Clovis hit recordings, and every one of the so-{;alled ‘B’-sides (‘Take Your Time’, ‘Lonesome Tears’, ‘Fools Paradise’, etc.) were very well received by the crowd, most of whom were dancing, and it was interesting to see that everyone seemed to be mouthing all of the lyrics – so deeply eng rained in our DNA have these songs become. Western Bop featured local pianist Eric Meany on ‘Little Baby’ – another song that I don’t think I’ve heard performed live before. This version was harder and heavier than the light-fingered original – a real piledriver, in fact.

For several numbers J.P. brought members of The Jelly Roll Mortals on stage to add backing vocals, and on these selections they came very close to the Holly I Crickets I Picks I Roses sound – their version of Tell Me How’, for example, was absolutely spot-on. Chris Watling blew his sax on a couple of tracks – ‘Modern Don Juan’ (J.P. mentioned that its co-composer, Jack Neal, had congratulated him on his performance of the song when he performed it earlier in the week in Lubbock) and ‘Reminiscing’ (a Holly I King Curtis experiment that I’ve always felt didn’t quite work).

It is interesting that the final Holly apartment compositions have now become so much a part of any Buddy Holly tribute. J.P. performed three of them with just his guitar (they got a great response from the audience), and Dave Kitchen & Andy Rutherford performed hard, rockabilly versions of ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ and ‘Crying, Waiting, Hoping’. It was also good to hear J.P. and Western Bop’s versions of the two demos Holly wrote for The Everly Brothers (‘Wishing’ and the classic ‘Love’s Made a Fool Of You’): J.P. mentioned that Phil Everly had spoken at the placement of the Holly star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame on September 7th.

The evening ended at 1 :00 am, and what was amazing was that the audience was still there, despite the fact that it was a ‘dry’ evening (the club had recently lost its liquor licence). Western Bop finished with the song that both J.P. and I consider the greatest single ever recorded – ‘Rave On’ – and a cry of “Thank you, Buddy!”

For those of you who couldn’t be there, some of the highlights of the evening can be heard on J.P. McDermott & Western Bop’s latest CD, ‘It’s Not Too Late – Nearly Forgotten Buddy Holly Songs’ (we’ll ignore the fact that none of these songs have ever been forgotten by us hardcore fans!). The CD includes a dozen tracks, ranging from the early Clovis days – ‘I Guess I Was Just A Fool’ – through to a couple of the ‘apartment’ tracks – ‘Dearest’ and ‘That Makes It Tough’ (these feature just J.P. and his guitar). The collection also has some perfect early rockabilly – ‘I’m Gonna Set My Foot Right Down’ – and a wonderful macho strut through ‘Ting-A-Ling’. Featured consistently is brilliant guitar-playing from DC legend Bob Newscaster (the other legendary DC guitarists were, of course, Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan). Backing vocals are included on some tracks – ‘Tell Me How’ (always a huge hit on stage) is just perfect, and the chorus on ‘It’s Too Late’ is much more restrained than on the overdone original (which managed to smother Holly’s vocal and guitar). ‘Lonesome Tears’ is performed without back-up vocals, which is how it should be. The stand-out track is the opener, ‘You’re The One’. Instead of the sparse improvised backing on Holly’s original (which was of course never intended for release), J.P. has given it the full treatment – a great Holly-style guitar solo from Newscaster and some just perfect ‘Oh Boy’-style backing vocals. At the tribute, J.P. mentioned that as he was driving to the old KDAV studio (where Holly recorded ‘You’re The One’) he turned on the radio and heard his version of the song booming out! You can hear snippets of each track at www.westernbop.com. but buy the whole thing since I know you won’t be disappointed!

Colin Davies

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