I first saw Monkey Junk – Andy Turnbull and John Nellist – play when they were inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in September last year. I’ve become a big fan of delta blues, but hadn’t seen anyone play them in quite this style before – a combination of slide and finger-picking guitar with a howlin’ and a “hollerin’” vocal alongside…….well, to slightly mis-quote Paul Jones, “suddenly I liked it”!
Andy and John also run the Monkey Junk Blues Club on Heaton Road every Thursday night – well, let’s be honest, it would be a helluva coincidence if anyone else ran it, wouldn’t it. The name of the venue is nearly as quirky as the name of the band/club – The Butterfly Cabinet. It’s a smallish room for bands to play in, but a reasonable size for the day job as a trendy café/restaurant.
Facing you as you enter the building is a really long ornate mirror with “Butterfly Cabinet” emblazoned on it – look down, and there’s donation box for ‘The Blusicians’ (I like that as well) on the table by the door..…and the place is full of other attractive interesting stuff.
There was a good ambience in the place, and once the music got going, it was clear, to me at least, that this place is well suited as a blues venue. The banter between Andy and John and the clientele showed that there were plenty of regulars in, along with us interlopers, and it created a lively, warm and welcoming atmosphere….
….and as for the music – Monkey Junk really are top drawer! They played five or six numbers of high quality foot-tapping traditional blues. During the first number, Andy used a new slide, which, he said, kept falling off his finger, although you could have fooled me! So he went back to “the smelly old one”, which he said that he’d used unwashed since he was 11, for ‘Going Down That River’,,,,and Andy was happy again (to the rest of the room, he plucked and slid along those strings fantastically well on both numbers).
Robert Johnson’s ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ showed off John’s top ‘hollerin’ vox’, as it’s described on the Monkey Junk website, and reinforced Andy’s credentials on the guitar. John also demonstrated that he’s not just a pretty beard with a big voice, by playing the harp pretty darn well. I would have liked more of this – the sound of the harmonica, when played well, really gets the emotion that’s required when playing the blues.
After a short break, Gypsy Dave Smith took over, and began by explaining how he got the moniker – from the Woodie Guthrie song of the same name, minus the Smith – only it took him a bit longer to tell the story, which set the tone for his set.
There was a lovely twang to the stainless steel-faced guitar – it really is a distinctive and different sound to other guitars, and well suited to folksy numbers like the one Gypsy Dave kicked off with. He proved to be a really talented player, which he demonstrated brilliantly on ‘Wild Horses’, a Stones song done in a most unusual way. I can’t recall hearing a guitar be made to sound like violins by the fast jerky movement of the slide. It was very slow version of the song – Mick and Keith were never that laid back!
We were treated to a couple of Leadbelly songs, including ‘Good Morning Blues’, which Gypsy Dave told us was his first taste of the blues at the age of ten, and he played it brilliantly, proving that he’d practiced well over the few decades.
Slide and finger picking are Gypsy Dave’s forte, and he did it pretty well, with his heels slamming down on the wooden floor to create a decent beat. However, much as the sound made by the guitar suits the folk and country numbers, I’m not so convinced that it suits traditional blues numbers quite so well.
The set included a few of Gypsy Dave’s own compositions, but only a few –”there’s been enough shite inflicted on the world!”, he says…..how true! But this one most certainly didn’t fall into that particular category of song. And that’s not just my opinion – it persuaded his wife to marry him, weaving a good tale. “Jacqueline, you got under my skin….you’re the lock to fit my key.” How could she refuse!
Back to a cover for his final song – the great ‘Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out’, written back in the 1920’s by G Cox, and sounding great in Gypsy Dave’s hands. He puts on a decent show, but it would be much improved if he cut down on the chat and played a few extra numbers in my opinion.
So, Monkey Junk ‘the Brand’ – Club and Band – proved every bit as good as I had hoped and expected. Earlier in the week, Andy and John hosted the first of their weekly blues nights in a new pub in Silksworth Row, Sunderland, called Dandy Longlegs. A visit there is already in my diary!
Reviewer: Geoff Scott
Photographer: Russell Poad