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Creative Review Music Festivals
If you are going to speak to someone of whom luminaries of the blues world have said they’ve learned a thing or two, what better time to do it than straight on the back of a harmonica workshop festival in Edinburgh when they’re knackered? This is particularly true when the interviewee, in this case the superb Liam Ward, lives in Gloucester and has just driven through the night to get home.
Nevertheless, despite the lack of shut eye Liam – who on top of everything else has only in the past week moved from his long-time base of Swansea – is full of enthusiasm, not only for the upcoming dates he has scheduled but also his ‘day job’ of teaching harmonica in situ and via Skype; an instrument of which there are a somewhat surprising amount (well, surprising to me at least) of devotees.
He’s also incredibly nice and extremely easy to chat with.
“It’s been a long weekend and pretty intense, so I’m hoping I can keep awake while we’re talking,” Liam laughed as we spoke, not so unsurprisingly perhaps, via Skype. “Tomlin Leckie, who’s based in Edinburgh and has his own You Tube channel for harmonica tuition organises the weekend at The Voodoo Rooms for around 80 people. This is the second year it’s been running and it’s a lot of fun and pretty loud as you can imagine.”
“This year we had myself, Will Wilde and Dave Barrett involved. I’ve done both years and I’m sort of the Alan Davies to Stephen Fry’s chairman on QI. It’s full on. Sort of from 8 AM until 1 AM the following day, jamming and performing and teaching. You pretty much run on adrenaline and caffeine all weekend and when it suddenly comes to a close you sort of sag a bit, which is how I am now so apologies for that.”
Harmonica, it seems, is a pretty popular instrument.
“Like I say, there were around 80 people there but this is quite a small event. In Bristol, the National Harmonica League have a similar thing where hundreds of people attend. They try to keep the groups smaller and more accessible in Edinburgh, which is great.”
“I also teach as well via You Tube, where you’ll find around 150 lessons online. I also have www.learntheharmonica.com which has downloadable lessons available. It’s kind of a double life: There’s the teaching side and the gigging side, which are connected through the music but entirely different worlds.”
The age range for students is pretty wide spread, too, with all abilities welcome. “I think the youngest student I’ve had is a nine year old autistic lad who was just a natural talent and found music helped him focus. Mostly though I’m teaching guys who have retired, love the blues – although that’s not all I teach – and now have more free time. Because it’s on Skype, though, I’m not restricted to area. I have students in India, a lot from the USA and even had one guy from The Caymen Islands. It’s really far reaching.”
Liam Ward first picked up the harmonica aged 17, once he decided his first instrument of choice wasn’t for him. “I used to play drums at school, but what got me into harmonica more than anything else was Bob Dylan. I think, because I wasn’t that good at the drums, I wanted to play something to everyone else. Everybody was playing guitar or bass, so I thought, having been listening to my parents’ records, ‘I don’t know a single harmonica player, let’s try that’. I just wanted to be something a bit different.”
“Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen also got me into it as well, so not necessarily those you’d consider for their harmonica but nevertheless guys who have inspired millions to get into music. I still love their music, but possibly not so much for their harmonica playing these days.”
“I taught myself, initially, through book that came with a free harmonica that cost about £2. That was a tuition book that taught Dylan songs but I only really wanted to learn his solos. Everything was tabbed out into Harmonica form and that’s how I learned, up until I got some lessons with Mat Walklate up in Manchester who still plays a lot around the North West.”
“Matt played a lot of Irish stuff as well as the blues, and he gave me an album by James Harman called Extra Napkins which was crammed with this superb, amplified harmonica playing. Bearing in mind my only real experience of the instrument on a record was acoustic, this made me wonder whether it was a harmonica at all it was that different and that good! It was from that point, really, that I didn’t look back and although I still have a strong love for acoustic playing, that was the moment my life and appreciation of the blues in its truest form took over.”
It was more through chance than planning that Liam met his fellow band members Matt Jones (guitar) Martin Hill (bass) and Gareth Davies (drums) to form The Liam Ward Band. “My wife got onto a graduate medicine course which meant we had to relocate to South Wales,” Liam explained. “That meant, musically, I had to start again. I’d not had my own band before, but I had written a few of my own songs and played in loads of bands, but never on my own. It was only when I moved to Swansea that I felt the time was right to start my own band.”
“I started off a couple of other bands, but all the while beneath the surface was this simmering desire to find the right musicians to play what I wanted to play. A lot of guys – particularly guitarists – who say they’re into blues are actually more into rock. That’s fine, I love rock, but I wanted to play blues and it wasn’t right for my band; I didn’t want it to be a rock band with a bit of harmonica thrown in. Instead I wanted it to be my thing, with my style. ”
For those who haven’t seen Liam Ward opportunities are coming thick and fast starting this weekend (Friday July 28th) at The Gloucester Blues Festival where he will be appearing with The Rumblestrutters, ahead of The North Wales Blues & Soul Festival in Mold on August 5th with The Liam Ward Band.
“I waited and waited, tried out a few musicians then, luckily, around 3 years ago, it all sort of came together. I got a call from a bass player looking for stuff to do. That was Martin, who even then was incredibly experienced. He suggested Matt who in turn suggested Gaz. Both Matt and Gareth were also both looking to predominantly play blues, so when it came to check lists being ticked these guys did it and then some.”
“Gaz is just this brilliantly funky drummer who takes things in a different direction altogether, whereas Matt is that rarity in guitarists; a guy who isn’t bothered about being centre stage and will play solos if asked, but otherwise is happy to groove away in the background somewhere; absolutely no ego, a bit like a Zen master who loves his green tea. As musicians, friends and colleagues they’re absolutely priceless and I can’t imagine playing with anyone else now.”
With the band fast growing a burgeoning reputation as a live act, it shouldn’t be too long before there is finally an album available. “We have the material. Now it is just a case of finding the time and finding the money,” Liam said.
“I’ve recently released a couple of albums – one with The Rumblestrutters, the acoustic trio I’m involved with, and another with The Jake Leg Jug Band – so I’ve been concentrating on those. I’m kind of hoping though, now that those projects have been realised and that we’ve finally moved home, that the next recording will be one produced by The Liam Ward Band.
“It’s certainly the next thing on my To Do list and what’s exciting is that the live set, in two years, has gone from virtually all covers to a fifty-fifty split over a couple of hours performing. We are very definitely finding our own sound now. ”
A sound which has not gone unnoticed, with legends like Paul Jones touting Liam’s talents by saying on his BBC Radio 2 blues show: ‘That’s great harp playing – I learned something!’
“That was fantastic when he said that and he was lovely when we met when I was playing with a Bristol band, Husky Tones, and Paul had played one of their songs on his show.”
“When Paul said that though, The Liam Ward Band had got a great gig in Wallingford last summer, 2016, on the same bill Wilko Johnson, and Paul plugged the festival and us with that quote, which was brilliant. Unfortunately for the band, a week before that Wallingford gig Matt Jones – aged just 42, this hippy-type, Zen master, clean living bloke I described earlier – suffered a heart attack and we had to pull out.”
“It meant that instead of the Liam Ward Band playing in Wallingford it was The Rumblestrutters, so all these people who had turned up on the back of this great plug from Paul Jones didn’t get to see this band he’d so generously touted. The main thing of course that Matt got well again and he although was desperate to play Wallingford, which took place a week after his attack, there was no way I was ever going to allow that to happen.”
Following Gloucester gig, there then follows a date with The North Wales Blues & Soul Festival in Mold, Flintshire, on August 5th; the second year running that Liam has appeared at the festival and, thankfully, Matt is now fully recovered.
“It was massive thing for us to play Mold last year as it was the first date Matt played since his heart attack. We were really nervous, particularly as we were due to play the festival’s main stage quite early in the afternoon then Yr Pentan pub in Mold Town Centre later that night. We also hadn’t played together for quite awhile and to play two sets is pretty tough work regardless of the circumstances.”
Not that you would have known from the performances. The reviews provided by fans and critics alike were all unanimously positive.
“As it turned out, in terms of atmosphere, the gig at Yr Pentan, which is a part of the festival, was the best gig we’ve ever played. It was absolutely electric in there that night and I still think about it a lot.”
“What really struck us about last year was that everybody was so nice and that the event was so well organised. I love festivals and outdoor gigs, but it is definitely harder to get a sense of atmosphere when you’re playing outside but it was great in Mold. We’re on at 2:15 I think this year, on the same bill as Connie Lush, Born Healer and Hamilton Loomis. We’ll be playing Yr Pentan again too, later, and I’m really excited to be coming back.”
“It’s great that the festival itself is thriving. There are some great names there this year, with Jo Harmon on Sunday along with Stevie Nimmo. Going back to the teaching event in Edinburgh, the American harp player we had with us, Dave Barrett, although not that well known outside of harmonica playing circles, is the most well known harmonica player in the world and his website is the most comprehensive harmonica tuition website in the world.
www.bluesharmonica.com is like the bible for blues harmonica players. So it proves that if you do something well and work hard and organise it well, the calibre of people you’ll attract to participate in things just gets bigger and wider and stronger.”
“That’s what the guys at North Wales Blues & Soul do and it shows in the talent they have attracted this year and in previous years, too. Things are sometimes a bit chaotic at events, but on the way home last year each of us in the band said the guys in Mold were bloody brilliant. It’s great for an artist to be a part of, so I’m sure as a punter it’ll be just as good with a line up that’s second to none. With Mold soon coming up again, and with more of our own songs to play this time, I really hope it lives up to it again this year, or even surpasses the experience we had twelve months ago. It’s great for Mold as a town and North Wales as a whole.”
With such a comprehensively good line up, hopefully Liam will be able to take a bit more of the festival in this year. The question is though: will it be as fan of the music or as someone learning his craft?
“That’s a good question. I’m always interested in hearing new things on a professional level and taking tips, particularly in stage craft. It’s such a big part of being a musician that isn’t always worked on consciously. Chiefly though, musicians are into playing music because they love music, so getting the opportunity to see these guys is priceless in its own right.”
“You don’t always get the chance though. I saw Rebecca Downes last year and Tom Attah, but sometimes you see nothing. The Rumblestrutters were at The Acoustic Festival in Utoxeter recently on the same bill as Fairport Convention, who I really like and had never seen. It would have been great to meet them then see them play, but we had another gig to go to and so did neither unfortunately.”
“To have the chance to be in the company of guys like those in Mold this year no matter how briefly, is a real luxury and is pretty cool. It can also be bit of funny experience at times, too, because there you are speaking with whoever’s already done this, that and the other, whereas there’s me who, in comparison, hasn’t done a great deal really. You can feel a bit of a fraud.”
And this from the man the National Harmonica League named Harmonica Player of the Year, 2012. “Yeah, I feel quite old now,” Liam laughed. “The NHL run quite a few events but the big thing they do every year takes place at the end of October in Bristol. I teach at it quite a bit now and they have different awards sections. The year I won, I also came third in the jazz section, somehow, but I won the blues and rock section. That was really nice.”
And no mean feat considering he’d only picked the harmonica up six years previously. So, if there was one artists work Liam would save from the waves of a sinking ship, who’s would it be and why?
“This is actually an easy question for me to answer. Not a lot of people, other than harmonica players, will have heard of this guy but it would have to be Paul DeLay. He was from Portland in Oregon and didn’t really travel outside of his own region, simply because he was so physically huge he’d take up two seats on a flight so it’d cost twice as much.”
“Unfortunately I never got to see him live, he died quite young – early 50s or so, around eight years ago I think now – but he was such a creative musician. He didn’t do a lot of the complicated stuff because he didn’t need to; he was that good and that soulful.”
“Coupled with this is the fact he was a great singer – which isn’t always the case – and a great, pretty self-deprecating song writer with, at times, a wicked sense of humour; all of which is a great triple thread to own. He did this song called It Isn’t Easy Being Big and it’s literally about the problems he had getting around, but in a really funny way. So if I had to pick someone’s it’d be his work I’d save.”
For More Information on The North Wales Blues & Soul Festival, 2017: http://www.nwbluesandsoul.co.uk/#artists
For a list of where to catch Liam Ward: http://www.liamwardband.com/live