Newport-based TIM CRAHART BLUES BAND have just released their third album 'Blues Like A Prayer'. Lins Honeyman spoke to the group.
Last month saw the Tim Crahart Blues Band release their third album 'Blues Like A Prayer' following months of writing and recording at Red Rock Studios. Whilst the studio's location in the former mining village of Pengam in the heart of Wales' Rhymney Valley may seem a million miles away from the Deep South, Crahart and bandmates Andy Long and Harvey Philpott are dedicated to keeping the music of gospel blues giants like Blind Willie Johnson and the Reverend Gary Davis alive by offering up re-imagined versions of old classics whilst a raft of Crahart-penned originals have succeeded in breathing new life into the world of sanctified blues.
Hailing from Newport, each member of the three piece - Crahart on vocals and lead guitar, Long on bass and Philpott on drums - has a musical pedigree that extends beyond the formation of what now is one of the UK's premier gospel blues bands. For instance, Crahart himself - having first picked up a guitar at the age of 14 - has appeared in several bands including Tin Pan Alley and alternative Christian rockers Fixa before forming a punk-tinged worship group called Evaburn which sported the future TCBB member Harvey Philpott on drums. In 2010, Crahart and Philpott starting jamming with 3rd Day Rising bassist and one-time Cross Rhythms journalist Andy Long and it became clear that playing in a gospel blues band was going to be much more than a short lived side project for the three experienced musicians.
Deciding to only play songs that reflected their shared Christian faith through writing new material and delving into the wealth of old spirituals and gospel blues numbers from yesteryear, Crahart and crew set about recording their debut album 'No Drinkin' No Cheatin' No Shootin'' in 2011 which not only summed up the moral ethos of the group but also paved the way for its 2012 follow up 'Isaiah 61 Revisited'. Adding new aspects to well-known faith-related blues material such as "You Got To Move", "John The Revelator" and "Jesus On The Mainline", the Tim Crahart Blues Band's loud and proud sound references progressive electric blues pioneers like Cream, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and early Fleetwood Mac just as much as it does the gospel blues forefathers of the '20s and '30s. In fact, the band's latest release sees the chameleon-like Crahart pay obvious homage to the likes of guitar greats BB King, Jimi Hendrix, Gary Moore and Peter Green whilst maintaining a style of playing that is all his own.
I catch up with Tim shortly after the release of 'Blues Like A Prayer' to ask him about what has been a slightly longer than expected project. "The new album took a bit longer than perhaps we'd hoped but we're really happy with it," explains Tim. "We were waiting for the right songs to come along. We had some good songs but we didn't have the real clinchers until early this year which is when numbers like the title track and 'Lady Gets The Blues' came along. It was only at that point that the album started to take shape."
As the eponymous frontman of the group, I ask Tim if the process for choosing songs for an album happens by democracy or dictatorship. "I think there's an unspoken understanding that I write the bulk of the songs but, at the same time, the guys will bring ideas," he assures. "On the new album, for example, Andy had the idea for 'Good Woman Blues' which he took from the book of Proverbs. On the previous album, he suggested the WH Auden poem which formed the basis of 'Refugee Blues'. Also, our drummer Harvey wrote part of 'These Bones' on the last album. On the whole though, it'll be me going away and writing songs. Generally, I think the guys like them and enjoy playing them which is good! The songs we decide on are ones that we are all happy playing and they can come from various sources."
As Tim goes on to explain, one such source is the wealth of gospel blues material from the first half of the 20th century. "Sometimes it's about writing your own songs but other times it's going over those old gospel blues numbers that we know and love so well. For example, Blind Willie Johnson's 'Motherless Children' was a song that Andy wanted to do because it resonated with him and it was also a song that I was looking at. With those old blues songs, it's trying to find an arrangement which is new and fresh but also respects the original. Sometimes, we'll do a blues rock version like we've just done with 'Soul Of A Man' which is somewhere between Blind Willie and 'Crossroads' by Cream."
As we talk, it becomes increasingly clear that the gospel blues songs of old have a special place in Tim's heart and I ask him what attracts him to what is essentially a niche form of the blues. "For me, the obvious appeal of gospel blues is that spiritual dimension," he advises. "The thing with blues is the passion and honesty with which people sing about their circumstances and that's true of all blues. However, when you add in that spiritual element, it just takes it to another place - whether it's the original artists like Blind Willie Johnson or Gary Davis singing it with such direct passion or more recent guys like Glenn Kaiser and Darrell Mansfield bringing new life to those old songs. The thing about gospel blues is that, because it's about who you are and what you believe, then the integrity of it rings through. Gospel blues is a way for me to play the blues and feel genuine about it rather than trying to be something else without ever having lived the experiences of the original blues guys."
It seems that the decision to only play songs that are true to their faith was something of a joint decision very early on in the life of the band. "When we first got together, we started to think about what songs we wanted to play and put our names to. That's where the integrity of the band in relation to our beliefs began to take shape. Even when I played in bands that weren't necessarily Christian, there were some songs that grated against what I believed in. I ended up picking songs that had integrity about them but also allowed you to put a bit of passion and some of yourself into them. You see so many blues bands playing songs like 'Hoochie Coochie Man' and 'I Got My Mojo Working' and I just think you can never live up to being like Muddy Waters. When he sang those songs, he was singing about an aspect of himself and it would seem to be a little dishonest for us to sing those kinds of songs when it's contrary to who we are as people and what we believe."
The title track of the band's new album certainly rings true with who Tim is as a person and what he believes. "'Blues Like A Prayer' is a really interesting song," he explains. "I was going through a particularly difficult time last year and, as I was driving one day, the phrase 'blues like a prayer' just came out of nowhere. At that moment in time, writing that song was a real cry to God and it dawned on me that I could pray to him whether I'm using words, singing or playing guitar and, if I can't express it properly through words, I can express it through my music. There was a realisation for me that playing the guitar and playing the blues - which is a very emotional kind of music anyway - can also have a spiritual edge to it. That song means a lot to me and, as soon as I had written it, I knew it was going to be the title track of the new album."
In fact, Tim and the band decided to push the boat out on that particular track and bring in a gospel choir. "We'd developed a link with God's House International Church in Bristol and we'd done a couple of gigs where we and the church's gospel choir had both performed as separate acts," Tim clarifies. "We asked some of the guys from the choir to come over to the studio. As we were recording, the hairs on my arms stood up - it was a real blessing to hear it all come to life on a song I'd written!"
I ask Tim how a boy from the valleys got caught up in the world of the blues. "I grew up in the '80s when it was the heyday of classic British rock so I was already familiar with the likes of Gary Moore," he advises. "When Gary Moore did his 'Still Got The Blues' album in 1990, it was a real transition for a lot of us. I remember watching Eric Clapton being interviewed on the South Bank Show and he was jamming with Buddy Guy and it was around that time that I was discovering the blues through those folks and also the likes of Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And then, hearing that they were influenced by blues musicians who'd gone before, I started to go back to people like Robert Johnson and Son House and even further back. Also, I am a great fan of early Fleetwood Mac with the sparseness and passion Peter Green put into his guitar playing. It's nice to hear that people can see references to my guitar heroes in what I do because I want to pay tribute to all those people with the hope that my own playing comes through. It's funny - when we were recording 'Good Woman Blues', the engineer said my guitar playing sounded a lot like BB King but over the last few weeks I've been listening to some of his stuff and I realise I've got a long way to go to be anything like BB!"
Interestingly, Tim stumbled upon gospel blues via some of his favourite secular artists. "Those kind of songs were just dotted through my record collection," he admits. "I could have quite easily missed them if it weren't for guys like Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin doing the odd cover version of a Blind Willie Johnson song or something by Mississippi Fred McDowell."
Continues Tim, "I think it's really important that gospel blues as an art form isn't forgotten or lost. Those songs point back to a very specific era when black American singers were still being persecuted but some found their salvation in Christ and were able to communicate their faith through their music. People like Blind Willie Johnson were steadfast in only playing gospel songs and would also preach on street corners or shop fronts and what guys like him were singing about was very much part of who they were. It's important to keep gospel blues alive for musical reasons but also to respect the early guys and all they went through."
Keen to achieve that goal, Tim, Andy and Harvey are willing to ply their trade in a variety of venues, as Tim confirms. "We play in pubs, blues clubs and churches and we've even played in an old people's home - we'll generally play anywhere we're asked to play. The important thing for us is that, when we're booked, the organisers know exactly where we're coming from. The amazing thing is that, after five years of being together as a band, we've never had any negative feedback about what we're doing. Even in pubs and clubs, we play songs with a gospel message and people seem to accept it because gospel and blues are so intrinsically linked. As long as we can play what we want to play and be honest about who we are then we'll play anywhere."
Tim continues, "I remember the first time I ever played 'Somebody On Your Bond' - a blues song that doesn't pull any punches in terms of the gospel message. I played it on my own in a rough looking pub in the Welsh valleys and I was feeling so nervous about singing it because the lyrics are so direct. However, no one batted an eyelid and one guy even came up to me at the end and said how much he enjoyed it and here was me expecting to be strung up! That was a huge message to me in that it taught me that you can play these songs in any kind of setting if you want to."
I ask what the immediate future holds for the Tim Crahart Blues Band. "Well, we're already working on album number four," enthuses Tim. "Recording is a huge part of what we're about because we know that our CDs have gone all over the world. We often find that people will buy an album for themselves and then another two to give away to people who aren't Christians and, for me, that's so wonderful because it means that the music and the message can get out to so many more people than by us just playing live."
Three albums in, it seems that the Tim Crahart Blues Band have only just scratched the surface in their quest to help keep the gospel blues genre alive. Tim adds in closing: "As long as we can keep things fresh, new and vital then we'll keeping doing it."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.