Somnambule - Writing About Music

Little Axe

8th April 2006

The four men performing tonight (including someone who never takes the stage and who goes unacknowledged except for the billing) almost literally reek of history. If their names - Doug Wimbish, Keith LeBlanc, Skip McDonald and Adrian Sherwood - don’t prove familiar, you might just be acquainted with someone they've performed with. How about Grandmaster Flash or the Sugarhill Gang, Tackhead, Living Colour or Mark Stewart? Little Axe is guitarist Skip McDonald and his shifting band of players. So called, perhaps for his diminutive height and his instrument or maybe it’s something to do with the Bob Marley song, Little Axe’s first album appeared in 1992 and was the first of six albums released to date. Each one has engaged with the Blues via a marriage of live performance and samples fused together with Adrian Sherwood's electronic dub productions. 

Tonight’s performance is part of a month-long Blues festival at the Spitz, an intimate venue located in the old Spitalfields market at the edge of London’s financial district. Given the current, low profile of the form, the organising of such a festival may be deemed to be fairly courageous. Certainly, the crowd is different from that for the more common electronica and jazz gigs at this venue - people are generally older and there's a fairly percentage of blue denim'ed rockers. Skip McDonald, dressed in white dress shirt, black trousers and leather civil war-style cap looks out at the audience and announces "Tonight is going to be very special, we're gonna howl at the moon, awhooooo..." With which he launches into a brief swirl of ambience before striking power chords that usher in Wimbish's bass and LeBlanc's drums. That bass could swallow you whole, such is its glottal roar. Skip sings clearly, but every so often raises his chin up, closes his eyes and rocks from side to side as he delivers a scorching solo that's a fascinating mixture of restraint and generously tactile pleasure. Two guest singers take to the stage for a number of tracks and at times as they sing together the music takes on a sense of gospel. At other times it goes into boogie overload. The invisible Mr Sherwood launches samples of the group and other artists into the brief intervals between songs and the band clearly take these up as challenges either to launch with or away from. The effect is bracing, full of an uncertainty the Blues isn’t usually associated with. Little Axe does what any real artist has to do: engage with tradition and extend its boundaries. All too quickly Skip McDonald’s calling time and the audience is baying for more. We only get a single encore, but it’s a mighty one and for the song’s final section the music seamlessly metamorphoses into a delicious slice of dub reggae. This group can move effortlessly between musics without being showy in any way, merely revealing the connecting lines that run deeper than the divisions. As the lyrics to All In The Same Boat declare “it’s the same boat brother, if you rock one end you’ll rock the other...”

Colin Buttimer
Published by Me

Image of Skip McDonald singing