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Ben Waters

Venue: Lighthouse
Town: Poole
Date: 09/02/19

Embarking on a year of farewells as he prepares to withdraw from thirty years in the live arena with a final stand on 17 November at Under the Bridge in Chelsea, Ben Waters is out to enjoy himself and it's clear from the outset that he's determined to bring the packed studio audience with him one last time.

Accompanying Ben tonight is drummer 'Evil' Tom, an old pal who just hours before had been sprawled out on his sofa watching Mary Poppins, or so Ben says. He got the late call to stand in for Ben's regular sideman, his sax playing son Tom, after Waters Jr's teacher called to insist he show up at the school musical - after all, he had composed all the music. Fair enough.

They hit the ground running but it's not long before Ben pulls up to deliver the first of a great many stories - this one about the late Fats Domino who Ben had taken his future wife Ruth to see on their first date. It signals a bravura rendition of Blueberry Hill that tempts most of the audience to join in before the piano man takes it away playing with almost everything any of us thought we knew about the song - dynamics, structure, arrangement - to dispel any sense of cosy familiarity.

This is music with a smile on its face and Ben Waters works it to the bone for his - and our - enjoyment. The obvious, if costly, option would be to book a farewell tour with a full band and let a swinging show do the talking, but instead this voice/piano/drums combo has to walk the hard yards to earn its royally deserved rousing reception. Ben's fingers fairly fly across those eighty-eights - and it's great to hear him on a baby grand rather than an electric keyboard - as 'Evil' drills deep into the boogie, blues, rag and rock 'n' roll rhythms.

Versions of Sunny Afternoon, Minnie the Moocher, Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On (complete with a truly blistering solo), Professor Longhair's robustly ungallant Baldhead, Louis Jordan's Caldonia and, later on, Lonzo & Oscar's I'm My Own Grandpa are the epitome of barrelhouse rabble rousing. The soulful and reflective version of Depression-era lament Uncle In Harlem is dripped in pathos and there's a sense that Ben is deliberately stretching himself by re-routing Dylan's It Takes A Lot to Laugh It Takes a Train to Cry. Even though he bursts his own bubble with a throwaway impression of the Bobster, it's a testament to his ability as a musician and arranger that it stands the test.

Dr John and Allen Toussaint's Such a Night is clearly safer territory and its treatment bristles with keen musicianship as does a superb version of Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson's Roll 'Em Pete dedicated to his "new mate"Johnny Depp, a reference to the gig at Ronnie Scott's when Ben, Depp, Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood and stellar others paid tribute to Chuck Berry - something Ben also manages tonight with his trademark recasting of Johnny B Goode as a balalaika ballad on piano in honour of his pal Igor from East Germany.

It all builds to a searing version of Ray Charles's What'd I Say that brings it home in some style before we're tongue twisted to oblivion with a singalong version of Sarah Sarah Sittin' on the Shed House Door. "Don't mess it up," we're warned, but of course we did…

So long for now Ben, it's been a thirty-year blast, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who senses the best is yet to come.

Nick Churchill

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