“I always thought there was a crossover between punk and blues......It’s the passion it’s lyrical and it’s driving.”
When the wind blows through the streets of Sheffield it seems that it blows harder than in most places. Maybe the architecture here reflects that. It's not like London or Manchester or even Leeds where the buildings seem to reach higher. Ours are solid, foursquare, prop-like against a constant eroding force. Of course it's a bit of an illusion as well, we do get the good days winter and summer when the sun shines and the Botanical Gardens, for example are pretty enough. Then again Sheffield isn’t a city that resides only in its own surface, there’s something more substantial here.
Chicken Legs Weaver are a more weathered band than most we interview. Check out their press shots and it could be Easter Island’s stone faces gazing menacingly out at you. Pete Mella in a live review for Sandman memorably described them as 'the scary old men of the Sheffield scene and described their unusual sound as being 'located somewhere between the Wicker and the Bayou.' An apt description if you exchange the Bayou for the Mississipi Delta.
Chicken Legs are also, deep breath, a blues band, not that they’re particularly keen on the label but undeniably, uncontrovertibly that is what they are.
So, on the surface, we have a blues band made up of old men.
The Red Lion in Heeley is a nice place for a pint. While waiting for the band to show-up we have a pint with Martin, their manager, a man who resembles what the protagonists in Easy might look like now if rednecks hadn’t shot them at the end of the film. It’s been a busy week for the band. The Wednesday saw them playing Catch-22 in London, the Thursday took in a great set at Sandman’s night at the Corporation while today they’ve been recording a live session for Radio 2XS, the Sheffield based global internet station. (Have a look at www.radio2xs.com to find out when it will be broadcast.) There’s a couple of albums, one of which was recorded in the States, out soon as well.
This week, as we’ll find out , isn’t a typical one for a band that played its first gig on February 22nd 1996.
The first thing to point out as the band arrive is that only in the music industry would these men be considered remarkably, almost biblically old. Andy Weaver, singer / songwriter and guitarist, Norton Lees, double bass, and Mik Glaisher, drums, are in pretty good nick, although I doubt they’d thank me for saying so.
The second thing is that while they most certainly are a blues band they have little in common with bandanna wearing oafs widdling the piss out of unoffensive fretboards and kidding slackjawed audiences into confusing technical virtuosity with the primal punch that marks and defines good blues.
Chicken Legs are a lean, at times stark, three-piece who are old enough to know what to leave out of the music while Andy’s songwriting, he avers, aims to transplant the passion of Delta blues to this particular Northern English city. One advantage they have is that they were among those whose lives were altered by the first waves of punk. The spirit, if not the sound, is as important to Chicken Legs as Robert Johnson.
“I wouldn’t have done anything without punk.” says Mik, ‘before that musicianship was a requirement to be in a band and it was expected to be of a ridiculously high standard and it put me off. I just thought ‘shit I can never do that ‘and punk blew all that away.”
Andy agrees, “I always thought there was a crossover between punk and blues. Now, what we do - on one hand there’s the stripping down to the early country blues sound, which was a very simplistic thing before it got formularized in the 40s, but there’s also an attitude to it that’s a bit punk, I mean, I can’t play guitar solos so there’s none of that kind musicianship involved. It’s more about interesting takes on stuff. Most of our songs are three chords at most and we do as many as we can on one.”
It’s the passion it’s lyrical and it’s driving. Robert Johnson’s stuff was driving, it wasn’t mellow was it? It’s dirty, gravelly and from the street.”
Mik and Norton are locals, one from Sheffield the other from Rotherham while Andy hails originally from Bristol. It’s still apparent in the burr of his speaking voice, pretty different from the tortured growl with which he sings.
Between then and now only Mik has really had a musical profile outside the city. In the 80s and 90s he was the drummer in the Comsat Angels, one of Sheffield’s best known bands of the era. During the interview he’s a relaxed and funny presence. So he bloody should be: Checking websites out we came across an interview he did in 1980. Presumably he’s used to them by now.
Norton, on the other hand, has played in many bands the best known of which he claims was Don Valley and The Rotherhithes, a Country style band who “wrote all our own songs about Britain in the North, stuff like ‘I’m so far in the red I’m blue’ and ‘I dream of the day Margaret Thatcher’s Dead,” – “a bit ambiguous that.” Andy interjects.
“Yes and it all suddenly became obsolete one day in 1990” says Norton sadly.
Despite the band's growing longevity until recently Chicken Legs had failed to stretch their claws much further than the city boundlimits – aside from a brief university tour supporting Baby Bird in 1997. Part of that seems to stem from the brewing process where the band were trying to find what it is that they wanted to be doing.
“We went down several avenues before deciding where it was that we wanted to be going. At one point we were doing straightforward light indie-pop songs and then bible-quoting things in the same set. It lost a few people, there was just too much variety.”
Originally the band included Mitch Genner, currently drumming for Texas Pete / Chuck and The Motherfuckers (again Andy sees the city’s garage bands as ploughing a similar furrow to their own,) and, for a while Hoggboy frontman Tom Hogg on guitar. “he’s a good player but he was playing, I suppose a grungier style. When Tom left I think that was when we started to move towards what we’re doing now.”
Freekspert’s Tank took over drumming from Mitch until a year or so ago Mik, who’d stopped playing for a while, joined up.
“It was just great material to play. That’s why I joined.”
Johnny Dowd, the American singer / songwriter thought so too.
“We were supporting him at The Barfly, we’re big fans of his, and I gave him a CD of some of our stuff. He liked it and offered to produce us.”
February saw the band decamp to Ithica in upstate New York for a couple of weeks of hard work in the studio, leavened by Mik’s cooking, and presumably, the fact they had something good on their hands.
As remarked elsewhere in this issue Sheffield (and England we suppose) can be the sort place where prophets have to venture further afield to pick up recognition. Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth man and general soothsayer to the American underground scene has been praising Chicken Legs in interviews and this appears to have had a knock-on effect.
There is a live album, ‘Wishbone Hands’ being pressed on very limited vinyl. The cover is a woodcut image from the hands of Billy Childish, the artist and leader of The Buff Medways, the sleeve notes have been written by legendary NME scribe Nick Kent and there are connections also with the influential American writer Byron Coley.
The thing positively groans under the heavyweight approval and as Martin points out “all we need is for Lester Bangs to be reincarnated, joined in and then we’ll be buggered!”
They’re realists who seem cautiously excited about what’s going on but at the same time they’re well aware they’re unlikely to find themselves playing the same bills as Justin Timberlake.
Sandman was chatting to an A&R man recently and asked him what sort of stuff he was looking for, “anything really but they’ve got to be young,” he replied.
“It’s not new though is it?” says Andy. “It was the same in the sixties, well, except for Tom Jones, he’s always looked like that.”
But at least their timing couldn’t be better. When Sandman saw The White Stripes at The Leadmill last year our first thought was ‘they’re a fucking good blues band.’ Perhaps it depends on how it’s served to people but there is obviously a receptivity to this kind of music that maybe wasn’t there a few years ago. Chicken Legs agree.
“Yeah, they are a great band, one of my favourites at the moment and there are parallels you can draw between us.”
We’re coming to the end of a pop boom at the moment. Not the clever, joyous pop that it can be but the vacuous, lowest common denominator, we’ll buy it because we haven’t got time to listen to it pop. This is what it was like at the end of the 80s when Pete Waterman had the keys to the house while everyone else was sleeping. Two things seem to happen at this phase. Something new, zeitgeisty and era defining emerges (we hope) and there’s a shift back to music with more body and the physicality of live music is a good place to start.
Much like Richard Hawley, Chicken Legs are mining sources older than a single generation for their music and with a bit of luck and the fortuity of timing they’ll be able to keep on not merely doing what they do but nourishing something more fundamental than chart places.
They’re a blues band, they’re not young (“but we couldn’t have played like this when they were young” they rightfully point out) and they tell really lousy jokes. They’ve also taken the blues to America and sound like they want to sound.
There are a few copies of Nowhere on the pub table. It’s Andy’s first album. “I’ve been waiting since 1969 for this.” He says.
Chicken Legs Weaver
words: Jack Tractor
pics: Martin Bedford & Pete Stanners