(Photography by Beckie Howes)

Rollo Markee started playing blues twenty years ago at the age of seventeen and has played all over the International Blues circuit. The Tailshakers were originally formed in Leeds & Nottingham in 1998, though the current line-up has only been together since 2013. The band uses vintage instruments, microphones and amplifiers to shape a sound that echoes the classic American recordings from the 1940s & 50s, and their style combines Chicago Blues with West Coast Swing. They present a mixture of Blues standards and original material in the same vein, and have one self-released CD, The Real Harmonica Blues, Live at The Donkey in 2011. They continue to work frequently in Blues clubs and bars throughout the UK.

I return to the New Crawdaddy Club on the second evening of a mini-heatwave that's seen temperatures in the 30's (that's over 85 degrees Fahrenheit for us old codgers!) and thunderstorms of frightening intensity. The heat is still sweltering, the clouds are gathering ominously, and Paul Dean of The Heaters is outside trying to get a signal on his mobile. Tonight's guests are Rollo Markee & The Tailshakers, who are arriving as I enter, and it's always nice to see a band that aren't too big to roadie their own gear in.

The Heaters

Paul Milligan - Guitar/Vocals

Dave Milligan - Guitar/Vocals

Paul Dean - Keyboards

Chris Patching - Bass/Vocals

Paul Reynolds - Drums

A chilled bottle of Directors is going down nicely when the Heaters take the stage at around 8.30. After some good natured banter with the bar staff, they kick off with the eponymous Mr Walker's “T-Bone Shuffle,” featuring a long guitar workout from Paul Milligan and some very nicely executed stops. “We haven't played that for a while,” says Paul, though I suspect they've run through it a few times since it was released on Bad Moon's Essex Delta Blues sampler in 2004. Paul Dean's piano leads the band into Muddy's “Young Fashioned Ways,” and then they slow the pace for Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's “Don't Touch Me.” Though they're playing the Robert Cray arrangement, it's almost identical, full of complex chord runs and timing breaks, all reproduced with great accuracy, and Mr Milligan tops it with a tuneful and heart-felt vocal.

Bespectacled bassist Chris Patching, looking very “It Ain't Half Hot, Mum” in his knee-length shorts, joins in on the vocals for “Bright Lights, Big City,” with help from second guitarist Dave Milligan, and an appropriately insistent rendition of Elmore James' “Cry For Me” follows, before the momentum slackens for Robert Johnson's downbeat “Little Queen Of Spades.” Whatever the measure, drummer Paul Reynolds remains impassive behind his tinted lenses, keeping the beat with clockwork precision.

Paul Dean's piano introduces Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman's Elvis classic “A Mess Of Blues” as the three guitarists blend their voices again, and the younger Milligan takes his first lead break, but the carefree Rock'n'Roll is soon replaced by a sad dedication to albino Bluesman Johnny Winter, who had passed away only a couple of days previously. The band breaks into the doleful “Life Is Hard (And Then You Die)” and as if in response to the sombre mood, the skies outside darken balefully.

In an effort to cheer things up again, the group embarks on the remorselessly jaunty “They're Red Hot,” once described as “possibly Robert Johnson's most annoying song ever,” but it doesn't really take, and after much changing of guitars the guys kick into Gary Clark Jr.'s heavy, riff-laden “When My Train Pulls In.” Dave takes the lion's share of solos here, while the skies behind him turn black and foreboding. Lightning flashes, and though I can't hear the thunder, the hard, driving music seem to provide perfect accompaniment for the apocalyptic weather.

Paul M. wraps the set up with Little Walter's “You Better Watch Yourself,” Dave and Chris provide backup vocals, and solos are handed out to all and sundry. The crowd shows proper appreciation for this slick, versatile band who work so diligently to bring Blues to Billericay, and during the change-over, Mr Patching announces the coming attractions, and calls the raffle. Yours Truly, mirabile dictu, manages to win a bottle of Pinot Grigio, which I look forward to sampling at my leisure.

The change-over between bands is something of a transformation scene in its own right. The pedal boards, amps with reverbs and drive channels, and bass stacks with built in graphic equalisers and tuners disappear. In their place rises something simpler, a stripped-down drumkit, a nameless 1x12” cab, a bass amp of the same size, and taking pride of place, a vintage 1961 Fender Concert, 40 watts of pure valve power pushed through four ten-inch speakers in a handsome, brown Tolex cabinet. That's Rollo's baby, and everyone had better know it.

The Tailshakers

Now Rollo Markee is a man who evidently cares passionately about the history, and the authenticity of the Blues he plays. A tale hangs on every song, which he relates sometimes before the music, and occasionally during it, as he does in the lively rumba that opens his set. Between verses he explains, for fans who may have seen his old band at the previous New Crawdaddy (the now defunct Belvedere in Crays Hill) that these Tailshakers are new, and improved. I wouldn't want to quibble, though a little Googling later suggests that Rollo was playing with guitarist Dexter Shaw and bassist Francesca Shaw in The Wolftones a year or two ago, apparently after taking over the harp spot from Wes Weston.

Rollo Markee - Harmonica/Vocals

So maybe Rollo discovered the new Tailshakers, or perhaps they discovered him? As the old TV saying goes, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent! Meanwhile, some appropriately-styled guitar from Mr Shaw introduces the eponymous Mr Walker's “T-Bone Shuffle,” (déjà vu anyone?) and the band begins to swing. Though Rollo seems relaxed and confident, Dexter appears to be locked in battle with his large hollow-body Gibson. Maybe it's the heat, but he seems to be fighting it for control of the notes, and not always winning. On the next number, Rollo dedicates a one-chorded, Bo Diddley-type song to his Blues mentor, “Julius Junior,” and when he tries to instigate a clapping solo as a piece of audience participation, the response is still a little half-hearted.

Dexter Shaw - Guitar

But it's when Markee stops to tell the crowd about the career and recordings of George 'Harmonica' Smith, allegedly one of the earliest exponents of amplified harp, and evidently one of his heroes, that things start to come together, and from the beginning of Smith's 1955 “Telephone Blues,” the band really hit their groove. Dexter wins the war with his guitar, generating cool, jazzy tones and sharp, stabbing runs, while Rollo delivers a stylish, self-assured vocal, and blows long, sinuous lines on the harp. This slow 12-bar seems to recall the spirit of American Blues as it might have sounded in Chicago clubs and juke joints, halfway through the last century, and wins great approval from the crowd.

Francesca Shaw - Bass

With this one under their belt, the new Tailshakers launch into Jimmie Rogers' swinging “Rock This House,” and even though Dexter flubs the Hollywood Fats guitar intro, (and believe me, most of us have!) it doesn't matter, because the band are truly rocking now, and the crowd are with them. Even in her high heels Francesca hardly reaches to the headstock on her upright bass, but she slaps it with vigour and determination, while white-shirted young drummer Robert Porkony plays with great discipline and accuracy, albeit that he looks rather like a schoolboy revising for an exam.


There's some knob-twiddling from Rollo, who plainly isn't getting exactly the tone he wants from his harp, before he tells us of the cold wind in Chicago that they call The Hawk, introducing Sonny Boy Williamson II's time-honoured “Nine Below Zero.” A trained dancer and actor, Markee puts a lot of personality into his performance, selling his songs and his new band to the crowd, which he does as he introduces his own “Hey Girl” as “a dirty Blues.” To me, it's just a Humpty-Dumpty Shuffle, and one that's considerably cleaner than some Blueses I've heard, but as Shaw's hard, spiky guitar starts to punctuate the infectious, assertive rhythm, the performance lifts the song above the mundane, and makes it something rather more special.

Rollo on the harp

There's some trouble with Dexter's sound though, it seems the mic's not picking it up right, so while they fit a new one, Rollo shares with us the legend of his precious Fender Concert, and how he nearly electrocuted himself when he first plugged it in, not understanding the difference between US and UK voltages. It leads into a build-up for the next song, one that he alleges he's sung to just about every girl he ever dated, always with the assurance that “I wrote this one just for you.” It's called, predictably, “Baby, I Love You,” but the audience enjoy it immensely and repeats the chorus back to him as he sings. He blows a formidable solo, and exclaims in mock surprise, “ I think I broke my harmonica!”

Then it's time for the big finish. Rollo apologises for not having a CD to sell, but invites us all to listen to the band for free on Soundcloud, and congratulates himself for having the wisdom and good taste to put together such an awesome band. Junior Parker's acclaimed “Mystery Train” begins with his harp, and the other players pick up the locomotive theme. During the song, each musician takes their own little spot, Dexter wrestles with his guitar, Francesca dances around her big bass, and Robert takes a very tasteful – and seemingly effortless – drum solo, all much to the delight of the audience, so it's no surprise when the combo receives an enthusiastic and well-deserved encore.

Robert Porkony - Drums

Rollo announces, “the test of a band is a Slow Blues, and the test of a Slow Blues is Muddy Waters!” and as they launch into Muddy's “Mean Red Spider,” the Tailshakers definitely seem to be in their own particular comfort zone with this most demanding of styles, which would show up many a lesser group's weaknesses. Well, if this is the test of a band, these guys pass with flying colours! And as the applause dies down, Rollo leaves us with one more George 'Harmonica' Smith number, his uptempo swing version of St. Louis Jimmy Oden's “Going Down Slow.” Now there's one you really can shake your tail to!

The Tailshakers were founded to recreate the sounds we associate with the classic Blues recordings of the 1950s, and they do so with great success. But more than that, with Rollo's engaging personality and impressive harp at the front, the band manages to be educational as well as entertaining. Whether you want to recapture the feeling of bygone days, or just jive, bop and swing, Rollo Markee & The Tailshakers will fill the bill.


Stevie King 18/07/2014