(Photography by Beckie Howes)

Bad Influence was founded in 1986 by vocalist/guitarist Val Cowell and slide/lead guitarist Richard Hayes. The rhythm section has been subject to some change over twenty-eight years, and current members are Harry James (Thunder, Magnum) on drums and Pete Stroud (Papa George, Peter Green, Buddy Whittington) bass, though tonight Harry is busy and Clive Jenner (Proclaimers, Groove Armada) sits behind the kit. They've released five (or is it six?) CDs to date, and play an average 100 gigs a year, at venues of all sizes, from festivals and clubs to pubs and parties, sometimes appearing in a duo or trio format. Val also performs with with Sam Kelly's Primo Blues Band.

The atmosphere's a little different when I visit the Crawdaddy after The Heaters frontman Paul Milligan's recent resignation from both the band and the club. Drummer Paul Reynolds and bassist Chris Patchett are both still there, along with keyboard man Paul Dean, who doubles as the club's booking agent, but the Milligan brothers are conspicuous by their absence, and the large banner on the backdrop that proclaims the club's long-established name is also missing.

I quiz Paul D about the future, but he won't be drawn, except to say that he hopes the Heaters will play again, and that the club can continue, but that he intends to takestock when the venue closes for its annual Xmas/New Year break. The Heaters and The New Crawdaddy Club have been a stable constant in Essex Blues for the last fifteen years, and it's hard to imagine the place without them. Tonight, however, there is no support band, and Bad Influence are to play both sets.

As I survey the scene from behind a glass of house white, I see some classic “kit,” two vintage Vox amps, a blue Strat, a Les Paul Goldtop and a set of Ludwig drums – only the ubiquitously modern Mark Bass stack seems out-of-place, the rest is timeless rock gear. Richard Hayes comes on to tune up, sporting an eye-catching Peerless with a gold sparkle finish, followed by Pete Stroud and his personalised fretless, and as Clive Jenner seats himself behind the kit, Val Cowell straps on her blue Strat and takes centre stage.

The stage before the gig

Val's pretty eye-catching in her own right. Blonde, and buxom almost to the point of being Amazonian, she commands the stage as the band launch into “I'm On Your Side,” a rocking, 16-bar shuffle which gives instant confirmation of her rich, soulful voice and Richard's tasteful slide guitar. What comes across strikingly and almost immediately is how much these people are enjoying themselves, and that rather refreshing sensation communicates quickly to the crowd, even to this curmudgeonly critic.

The next song is “Fly,” the lead track from their 2005 album “Closer.” Kicking in with a catchy guitar riff, at a tempo like a John Lee Hooker boogie, it's “the story of a woman who's always on the road.” “You might think it a little strange,” Val sings, “still rockin' at my age, but I know that you would do it if you could,” and I'd say “amen” to that, though unfortunately at this point I can't actually hear the words. The vocals lack clarity, though by way of compensation, Richard's dazzling bottleneck becomes the focus for an extended instrumental workout that provides the climax.

Pete Stroud (bs/vocs)

As it ends, Val confesses there are problems with the monitors, and these are swiftly remedied in time for the slower, more melodic “I Hope” which Keb' Mo' co-wrote with the Dixie Chicks. There's a gospel feel about it as bassist Pete joins in on the choruses, and the band deliver this touching and tuneful piece over an infectious, pumping beat. “That's one of the covers on our Carousel CD,” Val announces, “and this is the other,” introducing Randy Week's “Can't Let Go.”

Though Cowell credits the song to Lucinda Williams, their interpretation's less overtly countryfied than hers, and considerably more restrained than the sledgehammer Beth Hart/Joe Bonamassa version, though none are as minimal as Week's original. Richard offers some nimble soloing, and in the extended finale he seems to be competing with drummer Clive to see who can hold out longest without actually ending it. Next in line is Delbert McClinton's “The Jealous Kind,” the Country influence reinforced as guitars replace the electric piano and sax of the recording. Hayes' understated slide solo earns spontaneous acclaim from the audience, and Pete Stroud slips in some elegant bass improvisations on the outro.

Val Cowell (gtr/vocs)

After so many eclectic covers, the inclusion of Stevie Ray Vaughan's “Pride And Joy” is quite unexpected, but the band's take on it is much more relaxed, and almost jazzy. There's a real sense that these guys are just jamming, but that they're so familiar with one another, there's never a note out of place, and they work the number up to quite a climax with chorus after chorus of soaring slide. As the applause dies away, Val's Strat strums out the intro to “If It Hadn't Been For Love,” written by Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson, founder members of Bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, and more recently popularised by Adele. Cowell's expressive vocals give way to an angry guitar solo, punctuated by Jenner's fluent fills, and as the song ends the drums take over, his touch becoming gradually lighter, till he slows and fades, like a clockwork toy winding down. The audience response is tremendous.

Clive kicks himself back into life to lay down a funky intro for a re-arrangement of Ray Charles' “I Got A Woman,” the gender of the lyric suitably reassigned. The maturity of the musicianship, and the ease with which these guys spark off one another, gives a new lease of life to even these hoary old standards. The kick that they get out of working together is so obvious that, though they've been together nearly thirty years, you could never accuse this band of just going through the motions. The first set closes with “I Can't Change,” a Cowell composition from “Carousel.” It's a light, Eagles-styled Country ballad that's instantly appealing, tuneful and catchy, yet with a wistfulness in the lyric as Val admits how she sometimes yearns to escape her helter-skelter lifestyle.

Clive Jenner (drs)

During the break I look at my raffle tickets and wonder if there's any significance to the fact that the first number is 666, but if there is, the devil isn't doing me any favours tonight, and I have to console myself with the fact that the price of a round has gone down since 8.30! Though Bad Influence are billed as a Blues Band, I've heard so much Country tonight that I'm wondering if I've missed the turning for Billericay and ended up in Texas. Perhaps it's just symptomatic of the blurring of borders that seems to be happening in so many musical styles now, but either way I've got no complaints.

As the guitarists amble back up on stage, Richard Hayes chivalrously tunes Val's Strat before he picks up the Goldtop and launches into another Hooker Boogie. I can't place the song, but the chorus tells me “the road keeps turning” and it morphs into a shuffle behind a driving guitar solo before coming to a rather abrupt end. Following it comes Bonnie Raitt's “Love Me Like A Man,” from the pen of Folk/Blues performer Chris Smither, which opens with Val and her guitar, and builds as it goes along. Hayes plays a beautifully restrained solo, answered by Jenner's drum fills, which earns great spontaneous applause. The drummer's off in his own little world, having an absolute ball, and as the performance continues to intensify, he contributes a massive, Moony flourish at the end, earning yet more plaudits.

The next song's the Junior Wells standard “Messin' With The Kid,” where Richard sidelines the slide and Peter Stroud takes an excellent, extended bass solo which, with the judicious application of effects pedals, becomes quite fugal at times. Working closely with the drums, he constructs a tremendous rhythmic pattern that leads the band into a fiery guitar solo, and by the end these guys are really playing their asses off. Paul Dean claims, “this is, without a doubt, one of the best blues bands on the circuit, and it defies all logic that they have not had the recognition they so richly deserve,” and I can't for a moment disagree.

Rchard Hayes (gtr/slide)

Staying with the standards, but completely changing the tone, their next number is Etta James' “I'd Rather Go Blind,” extended through four chords instead of the customary two. This poignant ballad shows yet another aspect of Val's versatile voice, and she displays soulfulness and sensitivity in equal measure. Richard's slide returns on the solo, and as the notes soar higher and higher, Clive responds to the increased intensity, putting his whole body behind the beat, then suddenly the volume drops back to a whisper and the vocals return, eliciting much spontaneous applause. They follow up with “Amarillo,” not Tony Christie's pop classic, but a moody minor key composition from American Country band Big House, taken from their eponymous 1997 debut album, with a striking chorus that asks, “will I wake up in the rain?” The slide's off again, and Richard pulls fierce sounds from his Goldtop, to echo the anguish in Val's voice.

After “Amarillo,” they invite Crawdaddy regular Nick Garner up to join them on harmonica. Garner organises and promotes Chelmsford's annual “Blues In The City” charity event, and also plays the mouth-organ in Jamie Williams' Roots Collective, whose online biography describes him as a “harpist extraordinaire,” Unfortunately he displays none of his extraordinary talents as he jams on Peter Green's “Stop Messin' Round,” but the band and crowd offer him great encouragement all the same. Then it's back to the funk with The Temptations' “Shaky Ground,” already covered by Etta James, Delbert McClinton, and many more. The Bad Influence version is as tight as the proverbial, and offers an opportunity for name-checks and another dynamite bass solo from Mr Stroud.

Nick Garner (guest harp)

Hot on its heels comes the K.C. Douglas Trio's vintage paean to the American automobile, “Mercury Blues.” The band have a host of big name covers to compete with here, including Steve Miller, Alan Jackson, David Lindley, Brian Setzer, Canned Heat, and Meat Loaf, but they easily come out on top with a truly transcendent performance which is simply bursting with energy and vitality. As it ends, the crowd explodes into applause, and I don't know if I've ever seen an encore so richly deserved. They return with Barrett Strong's “Money,” resurrecting yet another rusty relic, and it's great to watch these people plainly having such fun playing together. They exchange smiles while they take risks with the arrangement, and still pull everything together perfectly. There can't be anyone in the band under 45, yet they play with the ardor and intensity of teenagers, giving their all to their music and their audience. Bravo, Bad Influence! Long may you run.

Bad Influence is an extremely capable band, who can turn their collective hands to a wide variety of styles without ever seeming to stretch themselves too far. Val Cowell's voice is melodic and meaningful, the repertoire's engaging, and they lack for nothing in instrumental proficiency. They're tight and entertaining, their songs are well-written, their albums beautifully produced, and it really is hard to know why they haven't achieved greater status in British Blues. I strongly recommend that you go and see them at the earliest opportunity, buy their CDs and T-shirts, and applaud them long and loud.

Bad Influence with Nick Garner

Stevie King 17/11/14