Samantha Fish + Wille & The Bandits
Wednesday 26th October 2022
Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
"Every comparison of any other contemporary that comes to mind is discarded…. Ana Popovic? Joanne Shaw Taylor? Susan Tedeschi? Nope, Samantha Fish is a BETTER singer and BETTER guitarist with BETTER material than any other female Blues performer that I think of." That was part of our glowing Islington Assembly Hall take on the genre-bending guitarist, singer and songwriter, Samantha Fish, from back in March 2020! Understandably, on the back of that London review, two well-received album reviews, namely 2017's 'Belle Of The West' and 2019's 'Kill Or Be Kind', plus reports that her incendiary live performances had been mesmerising audiences around the world, I thought is was high time that I witnessed this American phenomenon myself in the flesh at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in March 2021.
Unfortunately, a worldwide pandemic had other ideas, as that IAH gig ended up being our penultimate gig review before lockdown, with coincidentally, Joanne Shaw Taylor being the last! With Samantha's UK tour once again being postponed in 2021, the irony of her newly labelled 'Faster' tour, named after her latest album released in September 2021, could not come any faster! Anyway, whoever came up with that old adage of "Good things come to those who wait", obviously hadn't taken into account Covid as part of the equation, although, by the end of this evening, he/she was to be proved damn right!
Indeed, the bonus ball of tonight was support from Cornwall-based Roots Rock, Blues infused outfit, Wille & The Bandits, following the release at the end of January of their fifth studio album, 'When The World Stood Still', on their independent label, Fat Toad Records. Earlier in March this year, we had caught them headlining a UK tour, although personally I had not seen them since that beautiful 2019 Summer's day at Maidstone's Ramblin' Man Fair, very reminiscent of early ZZ Top, off the back of their latest album, 'Paths'.
Fast forward three years, and there has been a major personnel change in the Cornish combo, with long time cohorts Matt Brooks and Andrew Nauman departing, with the three piece now expanded to a four piece, with the addition of a keyboard player Matthew Gallagher and a new rhythm section of Harry Mackaill on bass and Matt Partridge on drums. The constant of course is vocalist/guitarist Wille Edwards, the principal creative force behind the band, who takes a left field approach to song writing, although for this particular support tour, they had also added Chris Haddon on second guitar.
From the new album, Edwards' Floydish lap steel guitar solo intro to eclectic opener, 'Caught In The Middle', was essentially a microcosm of what was to come and set the scene for their 45 minute set. The powerful 'Refuge', another from the new album followed, before Wille quite movingly added, that "he always wanted to play here", treading in the footsteps of such greats as Joe Bonamassa, as they launched into fan fave track from their previous album, ‘Paths’, namely 'Keep It On The Downlow'. Putting down some funky grooves, the extra dimension that the flat-capped Gallagher's keys added to the party, was now more evident. Putting a new twist to an old track, 'Still Go Marching In', from 2013 album 'Grow', Wille asked the healthy Empire crowd to be his London Gospel choir, calling for peace in Ukraine. Complemented by Edwards howling 'Jaggeresque' vocal plus some more cool lap steel, fittingly, everyone to a man/woman reciprocated, clapping and singing along to its hopeful chorus, "When Will That Rainbow Come".
Inspired by the TV series 'The Wire', the Nick Cave/Tom Waits sounding 'Judgement Day', segued into another from 'Paths', the outstanding, very moving ballad, 'Four Million Days'. A joy to be behold, it showcased both Matt's high-energy drumming, despite his kit being precariously positioned front of stage left, plus the power of Wille's husky vocal, however, its piece de resistance was indeed Edwards signature lap steel Gilmouresque solo. Although taken from the new album, the Bluesy driving Roots Rock of 'Good Stuff' brought back memories of that Ramblin' Man ZZ Top vibe, while, despite its title, and taken from their 2017 album, 'Steal', '1970' similarly brought to mind The Cult as they powerfully rocked out on this penultimate number from their set. They closed out with 'Bad News', another explosive track from 'Steal', although it wasn't all bad news as the charismatic front man made the most of one final lap steel solo, as The Bandits went out with a bang. "Thank you", said Edwards, as they all took a deserved bow to rapturous applause. With the Empire now under their wing, Wille & The Bandits are on a roll. Indeed, a must-see live band when another headline tour stops off at London's 100 Club on Saturday 25th February next year!
During the interval, the eagle-eyed among us spotted award winning Blues Rock duo, When Rivers Meet, in the crowd, fresh from their Rocktober appearance at this very same venue the previous week. Grace and Aaron had safely taken their seats in front of us before the taped stage intro music of MC5's 'Kick Out The Jams', saw Samantha Fish and her band, consisting of drummer Sarah Tomek, bass guitarist Ron Johnson and keyboard player Matt Wade, take to an extremely expectant and very welcoming stage.
And of talking of jams, an opening loosener ended with the immaculate looking Ms. Fish demanding, "Come on, let's see those hands" on the stompin' beat of 'Kill Or Be Kind' Rock Radio single, 'Bulletproof (Tangle Eye Mix)', with Kansas City's finest immediately rockin' this joint with some outstanding slide guitar and a powerful vocal. Switching her guitar to a Gibson SG, Samantha asked "How are we doing? We're gonna have some fun tonight!" Cue the classic Stones-style licks and soulful vocal of 'Better Be Lonely', the first song of the night from the new album, quickly followed by another, the much heavier 'Twisted Ambition', with its Jimi sounding intro, a driving rhythm and awesome guitar solo reminiscent of Bonamassa at his best, a vocal that soared and sighed (think Chantel McGregor), plus Tomek's red hot drumming, matching the colour of her hair.
The variety in Fish's work was never more evident, than when she again took things down a notch with a delightful cover of Barbara Lewis's 1961 R&B single 'Hello Stranger', that saw a cool solo from Wade, an opportunity for Samantha to chat with the eagerly attentive crowd plus an amazing vocal bordering on Amy Winehouse territory. Things were hotting up as Samantha removed her jacket, before adding "Come on y'all", requesting everyone to clap along to Sarah's pounding intro on 'Forever Together', another from 'Faster'. Next it was back to 2015's 'Wild Heart' and 'Highway's Holding Me Now', with Fish rockin' back and forth on another stand out solo, that immediately segued in to 'Faster's' (slower and) aptly named 'Hypnotic', as Samantha's instruction to "Shake it", was willingly obeyed as sassy Fish beguiled the audience with her mesmeric guitar and vocal.
As I touched upon in my preamble, I have waited a long time to see my favourite track from 'Belle Of The West', namely the Delta Blues of 'No Angels', and wow, was I not disappointed, with Matt's keys and Samantha's slide jam, plus a singalong, adding another welcome dimension to this classic. Awesome. "Do you want me to do something from the new record?" Well, we weren't going to say no were we? "Lets see those hands!" Cue clapping plus the blistering album title track, and an absolutely fantastic guitar and vocal from Fish. And if Samantha hadn't already owned the Empire stage already tonight, she then proceeded to own it in her own right with two solo acoustic numbers. The first of which was a Charley Patton cover of 'Jim Lee Blues, Part 1', Fish jokingly telling the delighted crowd to "Let's not rush it now" as they joined in clapping, with her crystal clear vocal duly matched by her amazing acoustic guitar technique. The second, 'Need You More', was introduced as "One of her own songs" - again amusingly adding - "What a bummer", before qualifying that with "I always like to see smiles before we turn on the bad songs."
With her band back alongside her, Samantha kept hold of her acoustic guitar, introducing Neil Young's 'Don't Let It Bring You Down', from his 1970 album 'After The Gold Rush'. as a "Super happy song - very optimistic", although, amusingly, the premature arrival on stage of one of her guitar crew to change over to her electric guitar, did not phase the cool Miss Fish, on this well constructed cover, and as expected, she actually smashed it with another exceptional solo. "Feeling good? Let's see those hands" as Samantha took a well-deserved sip of water after ripping it up on the opening of 'Wild Heart's, 'Bitch On The Run' before handing things over to the excellent Wade on keys for a well overdue solo, as well as introducing the fedora/shades wearing Johnson and Tomek, and closing with an audience singalong to the chorus, "Right now, right now, I'm feeling it." Indeed, we all were!
"Another song eh?" cue the up-tempo killer track 'So-Called Lover', another from 'Faster', before the stage went black and then the band reappeared for the slower, epic 'Dream Girl', with another welcome Wade solo, not to mention its Bonamassa/'Mountain Time' vibe. The crowd were not only holding their breath as Fish duly rocked back and forth on another incredulous solo, but also when she knelt down to adjust her trusty White SG guitar pedal settings, given her very tight fitting leather flairs! They closed out a sensational set with the title track of her 2013 album, 'Black Wind Howlin', with its Blues intro and 'Voodoo Chile' vibe. "Give it up for the band" Samantha insisted and again we duly obliged as each of them played their part as they jammed out to this eleven minute monster, that saw Fish climb on to Tomek's drum riser, despite those heels. Incredible.
Follow that! Well thankfully they did, as the blonde bombshell asked us to "Shake it" for a final time, with a cracking, climactic encore and cover of Bukka White's 'Shake 'Em On Down', it's pounding beat featuring Fish on slide on her cigar box guitar and yet another Wade solo. As she ended the night by handing out plectrums and setlists to the crowd, Fish added "You're amazing! Thank you so much. We love you Shepherd's Empire!" Well, so are you Samantha! We love you too! Indeed, picking up on Wille's point earlier on, tonight actually took me back to the feeling I had when I first saw Joe Bonamassa perform at this very same venue back in March 2007. Just cannot say fairer than that! Anyway, please don't leave it so long till next time Samantha. And, just for the record, she plays two final dates in Germany this week and has also joined forces with outlaw country badass Jesse Dayton for an upcoming album of collaborative music, due out in May 2023 via Rounder Records.