(Photography by Beckie Howes)

Brother of songstress Dani Wilde, Will released his own debut CD, "Nothing But Trouble," at the age of 19 and has since released two albums, "Unleashed" and "Raw Blues," on the Rock The Earth label. His current band features Richard Newman (Rory Gallagher, Steve Marriot) drums, Stuart Dixon (Eddie Floyd, Geno Washington) guitar and Victoria Smith (Girls with Guitars, Dani Wilde) bass. Will has been nominated four times in the British Blues Awards for best Harmonica player and has appeared twice on the Legendary Blues Cruise playing with veterans such as Sherman Robertson, Earl Thomas and Taj Mahal. Resident band The Heaters played support.

How many times, you may ask, can I review the same band? Well, with a band as accomplished as The Heaters, and a first-class venue as nearby the New Crawdaddy, the answer ought to be “as many as I like!” But sadly, in a very sudden and unexpected development, lead vocalist Paul Milligan has now quit both the band and the club, so this may be my last time seeing them, or at the very least, the last time I see them in this line-up.

The Heaters

Some brief introductory banter about local traffic conditions leads the band into the heavy Texas funk of John Mayall's “Jacksboro Highway.” The band are sounding tight and unusually punchy, perhaps due to different hands on the mixing board, and there's some great guitar interplay between Paul, and brother Dave on slide. Jeff Healey's upbeat “Confidence Man” follows, and confident is definitely the word for Dave, who, already on his second guitar of the night, cops all the fills and solos and pulls them off beautifully. (Dave can also be found fronting quirky Essex band Penguin Party, including young Jake, yet another member of the talented Milligan family, but there's nothing the slightest bit Bluesy about them.)

Next in line is Robert Cray's “The Grinder” and this medium-slow shuffle merits a fine piano solo from Paul D., though I fancy Paul M. is having trouble hearing his solos again, so Jimmy Reed's “Bright Lights, Big City,” heralds a change of guitar with the explanation, “If you use the same one all night, it wears it out!” Then the band offers Elmore James' “Talk To Me Baby (I Can't Hold Out)” in the Eric Clapton arrangement from 461 Ocean Boulevard. This is a pity for Yours Truly, because though it may be sacrilege to admit it, I'm not a big Clapton fan, and I say so only in the comforting knowledge that this page doesn't have a “comments” feature.

Paul M. has a bash at bottleneck, Paul D. throws in a nice organ solo, and I can't fault the musicians, but it still doesn't float my boat, and I'm relieved when they move on to the classics. First there's Albert King's “Born Under A Bad Sign,” and then the Freddie King instrumental “Hideaway,” where Paul M. very capably takes all the lead guitar duties, though perhaps the number's extended through a few more verses than necessary.

After that, there's a complete change of pace with John Mayer's “Gravity,” a mellow soul ballad with a two-chord Stax groove running through it, very light and melodic and perfectly suited to Paul's passionate and expressive vocal. Warmed up from “Hideaway,” he contributes a thoughtfully constructed, slowly-building guitar solo to the outro, and his performance underscores just what a loss this man's abilities will be to the group.

The set closes with Freddie King's “That Woman Across The River,” a firm favourite from the Heaters' repertoire which features repeated timing changes from funk to shuffle and back again, executed perfectly thanks to the talents of drummer Paul R. At the end, the Milligan Brothers trade guitar licks, each seemingly trying to outdo the other, but the duel is entirely good-natured, and they finish to loud and richly-deserved applause.

Right now I can't predict the future of the band, or the club, for the rest of the year's support spots have been cancelled or farmed out to solo performers. The Heaters and the New Crawdaddy have been a mainstay of the Essex Blues scene for around fifteen years now, and all I can do is keep my fingers crossed that one's existence doesn't depend entirely on the other. Watch this space for further developments. Meanwhile, back at the gig...

Spike Milligan (no relation to The Heaters) once parodied the poem “Casabianca” by writing: “The boy stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled - twit!” and you might be inclined to feel rather the same way about the story that “Will Wilde picked up his first harmonica at the age of 16 and played it until his lips bled,” but every great Bluesman needs a legend, and I can't begrudge Will his.

Will Wilde

He begins his set accompanied only by guitarist Stuart Dixon, blowing his harp directly into the vocal mic, as he sings the opening verse of “Get Me Some,” a song about the “Wham, Bam, thank you Ma'am” side of male sexuality written by young black American Earl Thomas. Maybe that should be “Thank you Man,” as Thomas is allegedly the world's first openly gay Bluesman, though Kokomo Arnold's 1934 “Sissy Man Blues” might suggest otherwise. As the song continues, drummer Richie Newman and bassist Victoria Smith creep up onto the stage, and by verse two Will has switched to amplified harp and suddenly we're in full sonic onslaught territory.

There's been much deliberation over the years about whether or not Rock was the new Blues, but with this heavy-riffing, post-Zeppelin kind of treatment, Will excludes the kind of confessional intimacy that Thomas generates in his own version. Even Tom Jones, who was singing this one as far back as 2007, puts as much cheekiness as sex appeal into his performance, whereas Will's delivery seems to be entirely serious, and puts this humble scribe in mind of that lost and unlamented 70's genre known as “Cock Rock.”

Maybe I'm just feeling jealous of the way my partner's gazing at this beautiful young blond with bulging biceps, but I'm a bit happier when he kicks the band into “Mean Mistreating Mama,” a standard slow Blues based on Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell's “Mean Mistreater” as covered by artistes from Muddy Waters down to Johnny Winter. Will plays some truly astonishing harp, but he's pushing his voice hard, the guitar solo's a bit like “shredding,” and I still find myself longing for a little respite.

Victoria Smith

It soon comes, in the form of “What Makes People,” written by Jimmy D Lane, son of veteran Bluesman Jimmie Rogers, and originally cut as an SRV- styled guitar-fest with Vaughan's band Double Trouble on the “It's Time” album in 2004. With a rhythm that has to swing rather than pound, it gets the band into a less testosterone-fuelled groove, and immediately recalls Junior Wells' version of “Help Me,” his tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson, from Volume 1 of Vanguard's “Chicago/The Blues/Today” triple LP set, recorded in 1966.

In fact Wilde's huge, fat harp sound is so reminiscent of Wells's that I'm surprised I never see the man mentioned in a list of Will's influences. Midway through, the band drops right down and Will blows his harp direct into the vocal mic, before building up the volume again, bringing the number to a finale that's straight out of Junior's book, and now I have to admit that I'm starting to be converted.

Next on the list is “38,” Will's song about his love for an older woman, a fast and funky 12-bar which gives full rein to his rich, deep harp sound and Stuart's scorching fretwork. I suspect “Your Days Are Numbered” may be about the the same relationship, as Will announces “I wrote this one for my girlfriend's ex-husband” and threatens to put him “six feet in the ground.” With those muscles he could probably do it too, and this tensely smouldering slab of minor funk features excellent interlocking work from the guitar, bass and drums, as well as suitably menacing, overdriven harp full of trills and vibrato.

“ Paranoia” is a slowish Blues with a triplet backbeat, heavily accented on the 11 th beat of every 12-beat bar, creating a insistent yet weirdly unsettling, off-kilter rhythm behind this tale of a friend's drug abuse. Will's harp solo is passionate and powerful – imagine Junior Wells on speed and steroids – and the overall effect is both moody and morose. Then, to our surprise, Will swaps his beloved harp for a guitar, announcing “this should be on the next record,” and starts into “The Girl I Love,” which is at very much the same tempo as the last number, only with the accents in the right place.

Richie Newman

His playing is tight and tidy, with more than a hint of Albert King about it, and I'm thinking he could teach many axemen a thing or two about economy. Sticking with the guitar, he follows up with “Jealous Woman,” a hard-driving 12-bar with a “Cocaine” style riff, though when the band kicks into full bore, his vocals take on a rather declamatory tone which makes his words hard to discern. Behind him, two women have crept up to the balcony above the stage are are dancing to the beat, even though it's not exactly disco.

Then Will returns to the harmonica, and the band starts another song. I don't recognise it, and I can't pick out a title, so perhaps it's another one scheduled for the next album? It's based on a repeated, descending chord pattern, like a minor version of “Sweet Home Alabama,” with a “yeah, yeah, yeah” chorus which Will tries to get the crowd to join in with, though without great success. A middle 8 arrives somewhere to break up the pace, but generally the tune seems unremarkable in comparison to most of the set so far. (And now that I've said that, it will probably be number one by Christmas!)

Will Wilde

Next, it's another from the “Unleashed” album, originally recorded with his sister Dani, “Blues Is My First Love.” “You come second, babe,” goes the lyric, the words I'm sure every woman wants to hear. It's another funky one, with frantic wah-wah guitar, and Will sets aside the harp for a while to try his hand at rapping. The playing is top notch, all of it, but I'm beginning to yearn for a bit more variety in the composition. And then, at the end, Will does something strange and remarkable.

With the whole band quiet, he stands at the front mic and blows a long, continuous note on the harp, which fluctuates as if it's being put through a tremolo pedal. I can't tell if it's electronically enhanced or if he's achieving the effect through breath control alone, but it certainly gets your attention! It leads into another un-named, riff-based number in a minor key, but after the striking intro, things are kept very much under control and when it comes to the guitar solo, Stuart Dixon plays like I've been wanting him to play all night.

Stuart Dixon

Beginning with gentle, fluid runs and staccato, reverb-drenched phrases, Dixon builds up his solo very slowly over about five choruses, until he's playing with such ferocious intensity that Will doesn't even need to ask the crowd for their appreciation, the place has already begun to erupt into spontaneous applause and whoops of delight. Will gives us 12 more bars of acoustic harp, then he's back doing that strange tremolo thing again, until it all tails down to a polite and restrained “thank you very much.”

Next, there's another song from “Unleashed,” this one's “Angel Came Down.” I don't know if that's a deliberately Hendrixian reference, but I do know the chord sequence is straight out of “All Along The Watchtower,” though this time the accent's on the harp, not the guitar, and maybe that's the message. In an interview for a Greek Blues website, Will complains that contemporary British Blues is “very much a Blues/Rock scene, and seems to be dominated by power trio guitar acts.” If Rock IS the new Blues, then perhaps Will Wilde is the Hendrix of the harmonica, though I don't anticipate him setting fire to one onstage.

To close, Will name-checks Stuart, Richie and Victoria, his personal power trio, and as an encore gives us some very traditional Blues. Elmore James's “Talk To Me Baby” (aka “Can't Hold Out”) is performed at the original tempo, and Will throws in a bit of Howlin' Wolf's “Riding In The Moonlight” and the inescapable “Sweet Home Chicago” beloved of Blues Brothers fans everywhere. The Balcony Babes above us gyrate rhythmically, now they're finally on familiar territory, and I'm quite happy to hear some cheerful Blues before I go home.

As a Blues harp player, Will Wilde is nothing short of spectacular, and he deserves all the accolades heaped upon him, while his band are all fine, accomplished musicians who make a great team. With the predominance of minor keys, the powerful amplified harp, the super-speed guitar, and the tight, stripped down sound, Will's current “Raw Blues” album has a lot in common with Junior Wells' seminal “Hoodoo Man Blues” LP of 1966, and even if the similarities are accidental, the comparison's still intended as a compliment. Multi-talented Will (he also plays bass and drums) is plainly very serious about his music- I'd venture a little too much so, sometimes- but he's still a force to be reckoned with, and I wait with interest to see where his talents will take him in the future. Catch him now, if you can, even if you have to wear earplugs!

Stevie King 2014