Sunday, September 22, 2013


Kim Simmonds' guitar prowess should be acknowledged, pronto...

Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown purchased a mail order guitar at age 13. He'd seen an ad in the back of a crossword puzzle magazine proclaiming that learning the instrument would help a boy make friends. The guitar was more appealing than his other option - the Charles Atlas muscle-building course on the next page - so he gathered his paper route money and, in that familiar coming of age ritual that has spanned time and time-zones, he "sent away" for the item that would change his life. When it arrived, a clunky acoustic thing he had to assemble himself with glue, he hunkered down in his room and practiced Chuck Berry licks with a monkish solemnity.

"Two years later, I'd not made a single friend," he says, "but I could play the guitar!"
Simmonds, 65, is rarely mentioned in the same breath as other Brit guitar legends, but as he showed last night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, he's not only the equal of Clapton and Beck, but clearly still loves the blues and still has the power to astonish.

The band opened with "A Hard Way To Go," a chestnut from the 1970 LP, Raw Sienna. Simmonds sounded road weary as he delivered the old lyrics by former Savoy member Chris Youldon:

"Ain't got time for doubts or fears
Ain't got time for shallow tears
Ain't got time to bare my soul
Because I still got a hard way to go..."

Hampered somewhat by a neighborhood ordinance regarding volume - the Shalin Liu, a venue built for classical music, is plunked in the middle of a sleepy residential area - Simmonds played the first part of the show with a large, hollow-bodied guitar most often associated with jazz, yet, he was able to wring staccato blues sounds from it, a feat akin to playing major league baseball with a softball bat and hitting home runs. During the second half of the show he switched to a full blown electric sound and boosted the volume, unleashing on Rockport a kind of multi-colored blues hell.

Songs from the Savoy Brown catalog were given full treatments - 'Needle and Spoon,' 'Tell Mama,' 'Savoy Brown Boogie,' - along with newer material, but with Savoy Brown it's not the songs that matter so much as the feel. Playing with twice the range and vocabulary of the average blues guitarist, Simmonds was a wonder, treating listeners to long, fluid solos, occasionally squeezing out a propulsive flurry of notes, coaxing hypnotic melodies out of pulsating grooves, and then bringing it all gently back to Earth.

Peering over his glasses like a fun-loving Welsh headmaster, Simmonds paused the show a few times to chat with the audience and tell stories, but admitted that self-revelation is not his cup of tea. His preferred mode of expression remains the guitar, and in Rockport he offered everything from grinding boogie, to jazzy flourishes, to mind shattering slide work. Even the tone of his instrument seemed to change from one song to the next, ranging from the clean sound of B.B. King to the dirtier tones of John Lee Hooker. At times Simmonds created so much ringing sustain that simple guitar notes sounded like barbed wire being dragged through his amplifier.

Perhaps the evening's most memorable moment came late in the show during bassist Pat DeSalvo's epic solo spot. As DeSalvo piled one harmonic riff upon another, carefully layering what turned out to be a show highlight, Simmonds stood quietly off to the side. Rather than sneak away for a moment to drink water or towel down his sweating face, he remained on the stage, closing his eyes and enjoying the sounds, rising up rhythmically on the balls of his feet. When drummer Garnet Grimm took his turn, Simmonds and DeSalvo watched and listened appreciatively. Then the trio came together, joining each other in mid-flight. Savoy Brown has been through over 30 incarnations since its inception in 1965, but it's hard to imagine that any previous lineup was any more powerful or beautiful than the trio in Rockport on Sept. 21.

A reassessment of Simmonds' place in the guitar hero pantheon is in order. Blues music can be turgid in the wrong hands, and the clichés become too easy to lean on. For too many Americans, the blues is nothing more than John Goodman singing 'Sweet Home Chicago' on an episode of Roseanne. Simmonds, meanwhile, is still injecting the blues with a new feel every time he plays. He can crush your skull with a riff, or play with the stealth of a snake charmer. To call him a 'master' isn't adequate, because that implies someone old and stodgy, someone stuck in their ways. He's more of an explorer, still searching for that elusive beauty that can only be found in blues.

And if he's still searching for friends, he had a roomful last night.


The Savoy Brown tour goes on through Dec. 14.

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