The Customtones at The Coach & Horses Blues Jam 20/08/2014

The Customtones

The Customtones are a London band, the brainchild of slide guitarist Martin Fieber. Their first and only CD was “Brassfinger,“ released on the independent “Twangtown” label in 1998. They've been dormant since the untimely death of keyboard player and founder member Ray Bartrip, who was also founder of Leytonstone's Heathcote Blues Jam. The Jam relocated to Leyton's Coach & Horses in 2009, under the leadership of House Band bassist Terry Duggan, who has now joined the Customtones. The recently re-formed band are currently playing local gigs, pubs and private parties.

The Coach & Horses Blues Jam doesn't normally have guest bands, but as the saying goes “it's the exception that proves the rule,” and since the band leader's relationship with this long-running jam goes back to its inception over ten years ago, maybe it's about time that old adage was put to the test.

Front-man Martin Fieber is probably one of the best-kept secrets of British Blues. He's a creative songwriter, who wraps catchy tunes around wry, quirky lyrics; he's a strong and expressive singer, capable of delivering Blues, and Country, with passion; he's a gifted musician, who's developed a genuinely inimitable bottleneck style; and he's a skilled luthier who makes all his own guitars, under the “Customtone” brand name. He's also recently branched out into the drum and bass scene, with a release on Fracture & Neptune's Astrophonica label, as further proof of the man's versatility. I can only conclude that the reason he's not a gigantic, international star is because he's quite happy not to be.

Martin Feiber

The Customtones we're seeing now is the band's latest incarnation. The original line-up included Dave Heley on bass and the Jam's founder, Ray Bartrip, on keyboards, and it was this crew that recorded the lovely, and extremely rare “Brassfinger” CD in 1998. Sadly, Dave Heley's career was cut short by health problems and Ray Bartip passed away tragically in 2010 after many years of illness, but Jam organiser Terry Duggan (bs.) and regular Jammer Steve Taylor (kybd.) have recently given The Customtones a new and richly deserved lease of life, filling the empty seats and reuniting Martin with drummer Micky Parker, so we can all enjoy another trip to “Twangtown..“

Wearing their Country hearts quite literally on their sleeves, Martin appears in a black cowboy shirt and cuffed jeans, while Steve sports a studded, fringed jacket and rock star shades. Terry conveys informality with a Customtones T-Shirt, and only Micky departs from the theme with a dazzling yellow Hawaiian shirt and Mad Hatter headgear. They open with a short, jaunty instrumental entitled “Strolling With Al” before beginning to show their Blues credentials with the mellow swing of Martin's “Long Time Baby,” the ringing tones of his slide dominating the band's sound. Bassist Terry and drummer Micky are polar opposites, one impassive and the other animated, but they work smoothly together and keep the beat solid while Steve offers up a jazzy organ break. Micky shouts the responses on the chorus, encouraging the audience to join in, and the near-to-capacity crowd erupts into spontaneous applause at the end.

Terry Duggan

The band delves deeper into the Blues with Muddy Waters' seminal “I Can't Be Satisfied,” driven along by Micky's rattling snare. In their interpretation, the song respectfully retains its original eleven-and-a-half bar format, as Martin says, “if anybody's counting,” and enjoys a lively barrelhouse piano solo from Steve as well as imaginative, locomotive embellishments from Mr Fieber. Then it's time for Martin to put down his shiny blue “Twangalux” - for each of his unique guitars has its own name – and strap on the box-shaped, Bo Diddley-styled "Deep Six," a beautiful beast of a baritone guitar, tuned down to a low B, which provides the rich tones for a wistful instrumental named "Holiday In Hainault," featuring some prominent military drumming from Mr Parker. I suspect only Martin knows exactly how the tune evokes this suburban area in the London borough of Redbridge, but he's not telling.

Surprisingly, the nautically-named “Deep Six” still boasts the same strings Martin gave it when he built it in 2008. Perhaps the secret to their longevity is, as he confides in his song “Twangin' The Blues,” “I don't sweat much, 'cos I don't fret much.” While the words seem simply to suggest that Mr Fieber's not a worried man, they also allude to the fact that, when he plays, his strings have more contact with his brass bottleneck than they do with the fretboard. But while I'm still wondering about it, the band has already launched into “Good Taste,” a catchy stop-start number about a man whose habits are very far removed from good taste, who enjoys “watching 'On The Buses' eating processed cheese” and “drinking advocaat with a cider top” among other social faux pas. The tune ends with a snatch of the suitably tasteless 'Birdie Song' and inhabits track 4 on the hard-to-find “Essex Delta Blues Volume II” sampler from Bad Moon Records ( there's one left on Amazon if you're quick!)

Steve Taylor

Then it's back to the “Twangalux” for the frantically-paced “Do It All Again,” where the insistent rhythm almost threatens to drown out his vocals, but the tuneful, country-tinged slide solo comes across loud and clear. Finally and unexpectedly, Martin howls his own bizarre introduction to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' unforgettable “I Put A Spell On You,” which The Customtones imbue with rather more restraint and melody than the original. Micky rides gently and resolutely on the cymbal, flamboyantly twirling his other stick in the brief stops, while Martin's soaring guitar gives way to piping organ work from Steve as the song reaches its conclusion. It ends on a sweet chord, which Martin completes by dropping the tuning on his bottom string. The audience respond with whoops, whistles, and loud applause, and the band steps aside to make way for the night's Blues Jammers.

After a couple of hours' well-organised jamming, featuring a surprisingly talented array of amateur and semi-pro musicians, The Customtones return to close the show, as is the Jam's tradition. Picking up his “Blues-O-Matic,” a sunburst axe with a silver scratchplate, Martin leads the band into a red hot, Jump Blues version of Albert King's “Natural Ball.” He begins with five choruses of bottleneck guitar, and I'm almost sure I heard a bit of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” creep in there. Terry and Micky keep the beat pumping as Steve contributes a somewhat Sooty-ish organ solo. Martin plays another few choruses of slide - is that a snatch of “I'm Beginning To See The Light” I hear this time?- and the tune closes with not one, but two perfectly executed false endings, taking the crowd (and me) by surprise.

Micky Parker

The applause has barely died down before Martin hits the long, drawn-out chord that heralds the intro to “Brassfinger,” a foot-stomping instrumental with a shouted chorus that sounds suspiciously like a slide guitarist's response to the Bar-Kays “Soul Finger.” And then, as the emcee announces that there are only five minutes left, Martin leads the group into a rocking cover of Lubbock-born Texan Delbert McClinton's “Blues About You Baby,” bringing this jam night to a lively, upbeat end.

This band plays Blues with an undeniably Country flavour (Martin's other instrument is, naturally, the lap steel) but also with that self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek British humour that inspires all Martin's other songs about “Twangtown” and the kooky characters who inhabit it. Other titles we didn't hear tonight, such as “King of the Small Time,” “Not Too Bad At All Blues” and “Speck Of Dust On My Datsun,” might give you a further clue as to their nature.

The new members have already formed a tight, responsive unit that makes an ideal springboard for Mr Fieber's fretless flights of fancy, and the overall result is both entertaining and amusing. The Customtones may not be setting their sights on super-stardom, but Martin Fieber's unique vision lifts this group well above the average or the commonplace. If you get a chance to see them play, be sure not to pass it up.

Stevie King 20/08/2014