Last month I was lucky enough to photograph the Ben Poole band in the expansive surroundings of London’s Shepherds Bush Empire. Ben was the support act on the UK leg of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s spring tour. I say ‘photograph’ and not ‘see’ because the ‘three songs and out’ rule at larger venues meant that after around 10 minutes I was escorted to and shown the wrong side of the stage door whilst waiting for Shepherd’s performance. My experience of Ben Poole prior to 21st May then primarily consisted of watching dusk envelop a dingy Shepherds Bush alleyway with a faint drone of bass guitar seeping through the walls of the Empire. As Yazz would say had she embraced the past tense, the only way was up.
What I did appreciate though in those minutes of photographing Ben Poole was that he was an artist I definitely wanted to see again. So, when he and his band dropped into the leafy (and local) surroundings of Surrey’s Farnham Maltings arts centre, it was an opportunity upon which I jumped.
If the Shepherds Bush Empire is something of an aircraft hanger, the Cellar Bar at Farnham Maltings is anything but. It’s an intimate space with a low ceiling, although the management does set tables too far from the stage. This separates the artists from their audience and does suck some atmosphere out of the place. A great shame and I do wish they wouldn’t. By 9pm a sizeable crowd was in attendance and Ben and his band weaved their way through them to the stage.
They fired up with Let’s Go Upstairs, a staple opener for his live set and title track of his solitary studio album to date, recorded in 2012. It’s a great piece of music and simultaneously demonstrates Poole’s talents as a guitarist, singer and songwriter. As the set reveals itself, it’s clear that as well as possessing a gravelly soulful voice, Ben Poole really is an extraordinary guitarist. At times he sets the fret board ablaze with very technical and fast passages, but he is far from just a speed demon. He also plays with real touch and feel, understanding that what he leaves out is just as important as what he puts in. I particularly liked the way he seamlessly switched between using a pick and his fingers, slotting his pick in and out of the index and middle fingers of his right hand as he did so. It’s an impressive sleight of hand. I wouldn’t want to play him at poker.
One nice thing about Poole’s performance is that it’s not just an excuse for a succession of guitar solos residing in some undistinguished songs. His own material is extremely solid but he also plays some well-chosen covers: Freddie King’s Have You Ever Loved A Woman is a joy and features the tremendous skills of Sam Mason on keyboards. The Otis Redding/Steve Cropper classic Mr. Pitiful also gets a run out, but the highlight cover of the night is a close to fifteen minute version of Hey Joe with which the band close out their first set. This song had some of the most powerful guitar work I think I’ve ever seen – at times delicately played with the volume at zero and just the ring of unamplified strings on maple; at times played with a real ferocity and some wild string bending that must have required enormous strength. Still, he does have the arms for it.
The crowning moment of the second set was Time Might Never Come, a Ben Poole original that was dedicated to the late guitar genius Gary Moore. Moore had met Poole before his death and rated him as a player – and you don’t get many higher accolades than that. Appropriately, the Les Paul was the guitar of choice for this brooding song that built and built and built until Poole was released and then did he make it sing.
Poole’s touring band is a flexible affair, determined by whichever top draw session musicians are available at any given time. Tonight, as well as Mason on the keys, Ben is backed by Bart Davies on bass and Ben Matthews behind the drums. This rhythm section is as tight as a parachutist’s backpack and there is real chemistry between all four of them. The set list resides in their heads and an unused acoustic guitar in the rack implies they pick and choose songs at random.
Ben Poole is just one of a number of young stars currently lighting up the UK blues and blues/rock circuit. With Poole, and others such as Laurence Jones setting the standard, for those of us that like this kind of thing the future looks rosy indeed.
The Ben Poole Band at Farnham Maltings on 21st May 2015
Review and Photography by Simon Reed who has his own great site at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk