When you can count Eric Clapton as one of your mentors, George Harrison as one of your uncles and your dad worked on Zeppelin’s seminal IV album (not to mention The Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street) you could say the bar’s been set pretty high. Okay, so there’s no real reason why you should be any good but still...it’s a pretty impressive pedigree. Happily Will Johns more than lives up to it, taking inspiration from his heritage whilst clearly putting his own unique stamp on things.
In a 15 year career he’s played with Joe Strummer, Jack Bruce, Bill Wyman and Ronnie Wood as well as forming a band with Ronnie’s son (GLYDA) but now finally he’s performing under his own name, playing an electrifying mix of rock and blues. Tonight’s gig, part of the 28th Birmingham International Jazz & Blues Festival (one of the City’s underrated musical gems), is in support of his second solo album released just 24 hours earlier on Birmingham’s very own Big Bear record label.
Tucked away in a corner of the Garden House pub (next to the kitchen door...not ideal but such minor niggles were swiftly despatched) it’s not the biggest or most glamorous stage Will’s ever played but that clearly didn’t matter to him or his band, a crack unit of musicians (keyboard, bass and drums) with the musical chops to keep up with him. And they’re some chops. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to a less grizzled Tom Waits Will and co blazed through three sets of originals and covers but even that wasn't enough and the crowd just didn’t want to let them go. It’s easy to see why. As a performer Will’s both a gifted musician (that’s some darn fine blues guitar playing there) and vocalist, blending a bluesy growl together with a lighter shade that’s perfectly suited to some of the slower numbers and covers – including a hugely enjoyable romp through Dire Straits’ MTV staple Money For Nothing. More importantly though what comes across loud and clear is that he clearly loves performing, exuding a kind of bug eyed excitement that’s pretty infectious. It’s almost as if he’s as impressed at the sound coming from the band as we were. From the testifying blues hollerin’ of original track I Believe (off the new album Hooks and Lines) through some of the standards of the genre (like Sweet Home Chicago and a heart melting Need Your Love So Bad) and on to some excellent cover choices (Will’s version of Purple Rain was suitably majestic this evening) the whole set was a masterclass in how to put on a show. Blues anoraks will appreciate the playing, anyone just out for a good time will have one. Guaranteed. Simply one of the best live blues bands on the scene right now.
PS: Will’s signed to Big Bear Records run by Jim Simpson who has a pretty good ear for discovering talent...as well as putting on early gigs by Led Zeppelin he signed some band called Black Sabbath back in 1969...