Returning to a well that never runs dry

By Graham Reid

Veteran bluesman Midge Marsden has a new album of the old stuff to help kick off NZ Music Month.

Although Midge Marsden has often been described as a blues musician he notes he's never done a straight blues album.
Although Midge Marsden has often been described as a blues musician he notes he's never done a straight blues album.

Midge Marsden doesn't like to say it because he loves the blues, but a few years ago he attended the Sunflower Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi - the home of the Delta blues - and the music was ... He uses an unpublishable but colourful description.

"This is meant to be the showcase of the year, but the music was horrible. It was a big PA and all bass and drum heavy. Some bands were okay, but there was no mention of Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters ... no mention of the past. And there's a guy in a purple chicken suit selling CDs between the sets."

But something good came from the experience, the song Payback in the Pipeline on his new album Back to the Well. The song pays tribute to his formative blues influences - "Charley Patton, Son House and guys who were the real thing" - and while the festival was a disappointment the trip reminded him of how formative those early blues, rock'n'roll, garageband rhythm'n'blues influences had been.

On Back to the Well - which was part funded by crowd-sourcing - he also reflects on his teenage years in New Plymouth in the song Tiger Town which references 45s on the jukebox, the milkbar cowboys of the day, the merchant seamen from the ships and the early rock, blues and rhythm'n'blues he heard.

"Tiger Town was the port area and there was a great jukebox down at the milkbar. Merchant seamen were important catalysts in spreading music to the world. Like Hamburg and Liverpool, New Plymouth was like that.

"We'd go down there much against our parents' wishes. We'd go on the ships and they'd have 45s and the guy at the port milkbar would just feed them into the jukebox. That was my learning curve. As time goes on you start thinking about how important the seed from then has motivated my entire music career. I feel lucky like that."

Marsden - who admits to being "60-several" - first came to attention in Bari and the Breakaways back in the 60s and although he has often been described as a blues musician he notes he's never done a straight blues album.

The new album includes a song by the late Mark Sandman of Morphine, Presbyterian reggae from Jimmy Cliff, a South African influence on the title track, gospel on I'll Drown in My Own Tears and closes with a treatment of Time is On My Side which takes it back to its soul roots. It's a song most people would know from the Rolling Stones' early version.

"Yes, a great version. I studied it carefully for the harmonies which are very vague and loose but hard to repeat so I didn't want to go there. That's why we went to Irma Thomas' version and put the horns on it. That was [producer/bassist] Neil Hannan's idea. I'd always loved the song and probably did it live back in the 60s."

Two songs also come from Bill Lake, the founder of Wellington's Windy City Strugglers and the Pelicans, and a much overlooked songwriter: "Why no one outside a few of us know him is strange.

"I've always recorded Bill's songs. He gave me six or eight demos, just him and his guitar, which were fabulous but we just did the two and Growing Out of the Blues is just a great song. He's a deceptively good singer and I tried to interpret the songs not copy them. We ended up doing Growing Out of the Blues like a Dan Penn-Spooner Oldham thing."

Marsden tells of saving up his milk round money to buy a Fender Stratocaster guitar in 63 ("my parents were horrified") then getting to Wellington to find Fenders were out and Gibsons were in. "So I got rid of it, but it ended up with Bill and he's still got it. Perhaps those songs were written on my old Strat."

If so, it would be fitting. Midge Marsden has carved out a singular career, won awards, toured this country and the USA, counted among his friends Stevie Ray Vaughan, studied in Mississippi and has passed the torch through university tutoring and on bandstands.

On Back to the Well elements of his past - gospel, rock, blues, Southern soul and more - get channelled through his enthusiasm.

He's earned his 60-several years, but doesn't sound them.

- NZ Herald

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