Nine Below Zero Tour
5th, 11th, 18th May
The Concorde 2 Brighton, Chinnery's Southend and 229 The Venue London
Nine Below Zero are a Blues/R&B/Rock band, formed in South London in 1977 by guitarist and lead vocalist Dennis Greaves. For the first two years they were known as “Stan's Blues Band" before changing their name to “Nine Below Zero”, after the Sonny Boy Williamson song, in 1979. The original line-up included harmonica player Mark Feltham, bassist Peter Clark and drummer Kenny Bradley. They built up a local following in and around South London pubs and clubs including the ‘Apples & Pears’ and ‘Thomas A’ Beckett’ on the Old Kent Road. It was there they were spotted in 1979 by Mickey Modern who signed them up to A&M Records. Drummer Kenny Bradley was replaced by Mickey ‘Stix’ Burkey and in 1980 they released the seminal ‘Live At The Marquee’ album. A formidable live album that captures the raw energy and electric atmosphere of the gig perfectly. Definitely in my top ten live albums of all time!
By the end of 1980 they had moved from selling out the Marquee to selling out the Hammersmith Odeon. In 1981 their first studio album ‘Don't Point Your Finger’, produced by the legendary Glyn Johns, was released and climbed to number 56 on the UK Albums Chart. Not long after the release of the album, bass player Peter Clark left and was replaced with Brian Bethell. During this time the band went on to support high profile bands such as The Kinks and The Who. They also made appearances on the Old Grey Whistle Test and the South Bank show. In 1982 they appeared on ‘The Young Ones’ comedy show performing the track ‘Eleven + Eleven’ before releasing the ‘Third Degree’ album, which reached number 38 on the UK Albums Chart. The album's iconic image was taken by David Bailey.
In 1982 the band split, Dennis Greaves went on to form ‘The Truth’ with Mick Lister. The musical direction moved away from the Blues Rock to a more Mod/New Wave sound. They had two top forty hit singles in 1983, appearing on Top Of The Pops several times. In 1990 Nine Below Zero got back together for a sell-out 10th Anniversary Concert at the Town & Country Club in Kentish Town, London. Along with Greaves and Feltham were bassist Gerry McAvoy and drummer Brendan O'Neill (both ex-Rory Gallagher's band). Feltham left again in 1992 only to return in 2001. Harmonica duties during 1992-1995 were handled by Alan Glen and then 1995-2001 by Billy Boy Miskimmin. In 1994 the band had the prestigious honour of being invited by Eric Clapton to support him over twelve nights at the Royal Albert Hall.
Nine Below Zero formed their own record company ZED Records in 1997, releasing the ‘Refrigerator’ album in 2000. In 2012 Brian Bethell, from the 1982 ‘Third Degree’ era, re-joined replacing Gerry McAvoy. Then in 2014, Mickey ‘Stix’ Burkey from the 1980 ‘Live At The Marquee’ era re-joined replacing Brendan O’Neil, thus completing the classic ‘Third Degree’ era line-up. The band went on to celebrate their 35th Anniversary with a UK tour with the classic ‘Third Degree’ line-up to rave reviews. In 2016 saw the first appearance of the Nine Below Zero ‘Big Band’ with the release of the ‘13 Shades Of Blue’ album. Brian Bethell left in 2016 to be replaced by Ben Willis, Mickey Burke stayed on to become a permanent member.
Over the band’s career they have played alongside The Who, The Kinks, Chuck Berry, Brian May, Eric Clapton, Ray Davies, The Stranglers, Eddie & The Hot Rods, Bruce Foxton, Dr. Feelgood, Wilko Johnson, Squeeze, Jools Holland & Glenn Tilbrook. This current ‘Big Band’ line-up consists of Dennis Greaves (guitar/vocals), Mark Feltham (harmonica/vocals), Mickey Burkey (drums), Ben Willis (bass), Charlie Austen (vocals), Andrew Noble (keyboards), Chris Rand (saxophone) and Paul Jordanous (Trumpet). The 2018 tour is billed as the ‘Live At The Marquee’ tour, which is a celebration of the release of the iconic debut album, and is being played by an eight-piece band for the first time.
I attended three gigs on this tour, The Concorde 2 in Brighton on 5th May, Chinnery's in Southend on 11th May and 229 The Venue in London on 18th May. The set list appeared to get noticeably shorter as the tour progressed, perhaps due to set refining and/or venue curfews. The first five songs of the set are absolute Blues/R&B classics, ‘Tore Down’ (Freddie King cover), ‘Homework’ (Otis Rush cover), ‘I Can't Help Myself’ (Four Tops cover), ‘Hoochie Coochie Coo’ (Hank Ballard cover) and ‘Can I Get a Witness’ (Marvin Gaye cover), and were given the full on Nine Below Zero special treatment! In other words speeded up and attacked with vigour and vitality! All five feature on the ‘Live At The Marquee’ album and were bang on the money and set the bar high for the rest of the set! These guys are the real deal, playing live is in their blood and it shows. The band are totally locked in and nailing the grooves. Dennis is a natural born leader who oozes charisma by the bucket loads, he is also an extremely talented guitar player to boot! Every song is delivered with fervent dedication, total passion and relentless panache!
The set then slowed down slightly with ‘Don't Play That Song (You Lied)’, which featured Charlie Austen on vocals. A good performance from Charlie, and a slight departure from the Nine Below Zero norm. Another nice slow Blues song next, ‘You're Still My Woman’, featured Mark Feltham on vocals. Both these songs are on the 2016 album ‘13 Shades Of Blue’. Usually the harmonica is the driving force behind ‘Ridin' on the L & N’ (Lionel Hampton cover), but on this tour the horn section and keyboards get in on the action. The harmonica does get a look in though and is skilfully played with nimble dexterity by the legendary Mark Feltham. The song was also played at a slightly slower pace on this tour, perhaps to allow more room for the keyboards and horns to embellish. However, it is still a full on slice of boogie magic! Mickey Burke’s drumming swings like a pendulum, his chops fully restored after being out of the music business for almost thirty years!
Another slight departure from the usual Nine Below Zero sound came ‘Ter-Wit Ter-Woo’, with Charlie Austen taking the lead vocals once again. This track is on the 2011 album ‘The Co-Operative’, a collaborative album with Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze. Following on from this, at the Brighton gig only, was the barn storming ‘Don’t Point Your Finger At The Guitar Man’, an awesome hard hitting classic Nine Below Zero track from the 1981 album ‘Don’t Point Your Finger’. The pace then slowed right down on ‘Stormy Monday’ (T-Bone Walker cover), with Mark taking the lead vocal on this classic Blues gem. Dennis's guitar solos got to take flight and soared to new heights!
Proceedings then revved up a few more notches and slammed into top gear with the superb ‘Got My Mojo Workin'’ (Muddy Waters cover), a whopping great high energy R&B song from the ‘Live At The Marquee’ album. Much audience participation taking place with call and response vocals in action, a great crowd pleaser and everyone’s happy! ‘Soft Touch’ was played in Brighton but not Southend or London, which was a shame as this is a first-class melodic Heavy Rocker from the brilliant 1992 album ‘Off The Hook’. Sublime guitar playing from Dennis and rock steady drumming from Mickey. ‘Rockin' Robin’ (Bobby Day cover) is a quirky fun little song that has the audience eating out of Dennis's hands. ‘Woolly Bully’ (Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs cover) steamed ahead with potent force. Both tracks are featured on the ‘Live At The Marquee’ album.
Also performed in Brighton but sadly not in London was ‘Three Times Enough’, a gritty Punk offering from the 1981 album ‘Don’t Point Your Finger’, played with bullish vibrancy and lashings of snarl and bite! In London we got ‘Stop Your Nagging’, which is a fast paced chunk of Punk Blues Rock! ‘Twenty Yards Behind’ (Dr. Feelgood cover) was written by and dedicated to the legendary Wilko Johnson, a jittery galloping Ska style song, top notch stuff! ‘Watch Yourself’ (Little Walter cover) was delivered with assured strutting posturing and sauve sophistication. One of my favourite Nine Below Zero covers sees the set draw to a close, ‘Pack Fair And Square’ (Big Walter & His Thunderbirds cover) also featured on the ‘Live At The Marquee’ album, drives forward at full throttle! A hard hitting, no nonsense, heads down boogie rock out!
The encore featured the anthemic and Punky ‘Eleven + Eleven', an excellent track from the 1982 album ‘Third Degree’. The playing was as tight as a nut and thundered along with commanding determination. Also played in Southend, as part of the encore, was the incredible 'Checking On My Baby' (Junior Wells cover) and the beautiful ballad, 'Why Don't You Try Me Tonight' (Ry Cooder cover). Nine Below Zero continue to deliver quality shows and their musicianship never fails to impress. The expanded eight-piece line-up added new dimensions to the sound and over-all presentation of the material. A hugely enjoyable tour, long may they run!
Steven C. Gilbert