Twenty-five years. Politically, socially, culturally, it’s a lifetime. Ample time for a million bands to ignite and burn out, for a thousand fashions to blossom and wither. There aren’t many constants since 1991, but Ian Siegal’s mission statement has barely changed in that period. Songs that are real. Shows that resonate. Vocals served raw. Such are the old-fashioned values behind an award-winning career that, even now, feels like it’s just getting started.
As an artist in constant motion, Siegal has never been a man for backslaps and laps of honour. But in 2016, the British bluesman will toast that milestone anniversary with a trademark burst of hyperactivity. In Autumn, the 2WENTY5IVE Tour will take him to 11 venues across the UK and 13 dates in mainland Europe. There’ll also be a 38-song retrospective release and a 72-page lyric book curating some of his finest moments to date – before a new studio album in 2017 forges headlong into the future.
There may also be a moment of reflection. If you had told the 20-year-old Siegal, on the night of his first professional band gig in 1991, of the acclaim to come, he’d have dryly laughed it off. Likewise, with the blues genre then in desperate straits, it was unthinkable that he would one day take this music overground in 45 countries, or preside over a trophy haul that includes nine British Blues Awards, three European Blues Awards, two Mojo Blues Albums Of The Year (not to mention three US Blues Music Awards nominations – an unprecedented nod for a non-American).
From roots near Portsmouth, Siegal pinballed through his early life. A child of the ’70s and an art-college drop-out in the ’80s, he learnt his craft as a busker in Berlin before the motherland lured him back. Even then, as a nascent performer, he already had his calling-cards, shaking up the influences of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers like Little Richard, blues titans like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and leftfield artists like Tom Waits – then adding his inimitable rasped vocal and questing songcraft.
Through the ’90s, Siegal – then based in Nottingham – was the best-kept secret on the Midlands circuit. Back-to-back tours in 2003 and 2004 as support to Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings proved a shop window, and the exposure soon saw him command headline shows in Holland, Belgium, Austria, Hungary (and more), while casting his net beyond the blues genre to draw a pan-generation crowd of both sexes.
In the studio, Siegal opened his account on the Cadiz/Universal distributed Nugene label with 2005’s Meat & Potatoes, before 2007’s Swagger saw Mojo dub him “one of the most innovative, gifted and engaging blues performers on the planet today”. The Dust and Broadside were similarly acclaimed, the UK rock press noting the newcomer’s scholarly appreciation for – but irreverent twisting of – the blues template.
But Siegal’s quarter-century rise is more than a European success story. He’d made America’s acquaintance as early as 2006, visiting major clubs and lighting up the Waterfront Festival. By 2010, this life-long fan of Mississippi hill country blues was drinking deep from the source, striking up a working friendship with Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, and taking up semi-residence at their Zebra Ranch studio in Coldwater, MS.
The two resulting albums (2011’s The Skinny and 2012’s Candy Store Kid), were Siegal’s most vital yet, sparking successive BMA nominations for Best Contemporary Blues Album, induction into the British Blues Hall Of Fame, and the memorable Classic Rock soundbite “Mississippi has a new adopted son and Britain a national treasure.”
His visits to the US and in particular to the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic also resulted in 2014’s impromptu, campfire-style and critically applauded collaboration The Picnic Sessions, teaming Siegal with friends on the local music scene.
Since then, demand has seen Siegal pulled across the planet, with the performer shedding his skin as he plays countless shows in shifting formats – many of them preserved as live albums. In 2014, the BBC-recorded Man & Guitar bottled a solo acoustic performance from the Royal Albert Hall (no doubt a factor in his third BMA nomination for Best Acoustic Artist). The following year’s One Night In Amsterdam found him amped and dangerous with a full-throttle electric band; while in 2016, Wayward Sons showcased his fizzing joint tour with Squirrel Nut Zippers man Jimbo Mathus, a partnership so compelling that the pair teamed up again for 37 more shows this Spring.
Twenty-five years. A thousand highlights. And yet, for all the dizzying achievements in the rear-view mirror, the most important part of any Siegal chronology is always the blank canvas that lies ahead. In a music industry built on nostalgia, past glories and diminishing returns, this is one artist with his eye on the future and a hunger for new horizons. A quarter-century later, Ian Siegal is only just getting started.
Tony Russell on Ian Siegal
The 72-page book of lyrics contains a foreword by respected blues writer, MOJO contributor and editor of the Penguin Book of Blues Recordings, Tony Russell. This is an extract from the foreword:
When I first heard Ian Siegal, about 10 years ago, on the album Meat & Potatoes, I was . . . “astonished” doesn’t say the half of it. British blues has produced several first-class musicians and a fair number of okay ones, but generally they command respect as instrumentalists rather than vocalists. Yet here was a singer who impressed me so much that I was reaching for reference points deep in the blues. “Imagine,” I wrote in a review, “a liaison between Howlin’ Wolf and Big Mama Thornton. Imagine a son. What sort of singer might he be?” And I suggested: “One very like Ian Siegal.”
And as I listen to him now, 25 years into his career, it’s still as if my fingers are feeling the un-planed edges, the rough grain of the original blues. Siegal possesses that priceless gift, a true blues voice – in the tradition of Wolf, and Muddy Waters, and before them Son House and Charley Patton.
But that’s only half the story. If Siegal was merely a gifted blues interpreter, tuning in to the echoes of past voices to produce a credible vocal style of his own, and then applying that to the Great American Blues Songbook, he’d be an ornament of the British music scene, but not much more. The extra six-pack he brings to the party is his songwriting.
UK SHOWS IN THE “2WENTY5IVE” TOUR
08/11 Southampton, Talking Heads
09/11 Stockton on Tees, ARC
10/11 Southport, The Atkinson
11/11 Stroud, The Convent (with simulcast)
12/11 Bury, The Met
13/11 Tenby Blues Festival
15/11 London, Under The Bridge
16/11 Nottingham, Rescue Rooms
17/11 Newcastle, The Cluny
18/11 Edinburgh, La Belle Angele
19/11 Lichfield, The Guildhall
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