Nothing But the Blues

So in eager anticipation of Malcolm Earl-Smith’s project, Nothing But The Blues, I am going to share 4 reasons why I love the blues and how it has informed so much of my music making over the last 40 years

  1. Lightnin’ Hopkins – Rocky Mountain Blues

My Granny came back from holiday in Spain with a classical guitar, I picked out E from a chord book and then I put on my Dad’s recording of Rocky Mountain by Lightnin’ Hopkins and got to work out what he was doing. This was my first encounter with the blues and was a giant step from the only other thing that I played on guitar to that point: Froggie Went a Courting in D.

Listening to Lightnin’s voice singing about, “Rocky Mountain, J.C. that’s the place I want to be” reminded me of that pre teenage desolation that I used to feel staring out of a suburban bedroom in Beckenham, South east London. The gentle but insistent groove providing a bed for Sonny Terry’s harp playing which nothing short of musical perfection, placing hollers and soulful responses to the mournful words sung as clear as a bell.

The song builds beautifully and Lightnin’ turns up the gas subtly as we are challenged to “Stop by Arizona Town” He then sings about how it was impossible for Indians to get a drink, thereby highlighting prejudice against non-blacks in America.

  1. Howlin’ Wolf – Smokestack Lighnin’

The Mick Jagger effect is the term I use to describe for happens at a party when somebody everyone idolises walks in the door. The music gets turned up to 11 and everyone starts dancing around like they are also the wildest party animals you can imagine and they groove like this all the time. I have had the honour of witnessing this on three occasions with the great man himself.

Jagger however, is the most consistent lover of the blues that I have ever encountered. Once, I was playing at a private party with my trio at his Chateau on the Loire that had been built for Marie Antoinette, he came over and asked me firstly, do I like the fireworks? Yes they were great, especially as they flashed over the new lake that he’d just had put in and the second question, “what do I think of this record?” it was a rare edition of the London Sessions, well what can you say? His knowledge of the blues runs both wide and deep.

  1. Bessie Smith – Backwater Blues

As a teenager brought up by a single parent father, I used to spend hours playing the guitar and looking out of the bedroom window dreaming of escape and a different life. Bessie Smith says it all here in the classic Backwater Blues. “It rained five days and the sky turned black as night”.

Bessie Smith is the Queen of the Blues.

  1. Rev Gary Davis – Death Don’t have no Mercy

I learnt to play some of his guitar instrumentals as a teenager. He had a raw approach to fingerpicking ragtime guitar that I suited my homespun style.

“Death comes into the room and he don’t stay long” He knew what loss was all about being the only one of eight brothers and sisters to make it to adulthood. He later became a preacher and some of his sermons are really worth listening to.

The Colab Blues project will be performing on the night of the final CoLab Party. 20 Feb 19.00h at Blackheath Halls.

CoLab – An International Festival of creative learning

CoLab 2015 is only a month away.

Trinity Laban is truly an international institution with many students and staff coming from the four corners of the world. This year sees an amazing line-up of projects to look forward to and the two weeks is rapidly developing into an international arts festival. With its focus on process and learning this makes it the only one of its type in the world alongside Banff in Canada and Cal Arts.

In Colab 2015 we will be welcoming artists from overseas to add to the talent at Trinity Laban.

CoLab Horizons – South Korea

We are proud to welcome ten students from Ewha Womans University in South Korea to explore traditional music and contemporary composition in a collaboration with students and faculty.

Ewah Womens University

Letizia Michielon – Italy

Pianist and international expert in Ligeti’s music will be mentoring and performing at Beyond The Keys on Mon 16 Feb in the Laban Theatre.

Letizia Michielon

Hiroaki Takenouchi – Japan

He will introduce Boucourechliev’s Archipel series offers a unique experience in creating perfectly unrepeatable performances. Hiroaki will be performing as part of Beyond The Keys on Mon 16 Feb in the Laban Theatre.


Park Stickney – USA

The world’s leading jazz harp player returns to CoLab to explore the music of Charlie Harpker!


Michael Kliën – Austria

Kliën is a leading voice in contemporary choreography. His artistic practice encompasses interdisciplinary thinking, critical writing, curatorial projects, and centrally, choreographic works.


Megumi Masaki – Canada

Great artists are great storytellers. The starting point of her project will be Stockhausen’s Tierkreis (Zodiac), that represents the signs of the Zodiac. Megumi will also be performing in Beyond The Keys on Mon 16 Feb in the Laban Theatre.

Megumi Masaki

Gábor Tarkövi – Hungary

The principal trumpet from the Berlin Philharmonic will be mentoring ‘too many trumpets’ and ‘brass power’.

Gábor Tarkövi

Baudime Jam – France

The leader of the Prima Vista String Quartet will work with students developing the music for silent movies.

Baudime Jam Prima Vista

Rivka Golani – World Premieres

Rivka Golani is mentoring a contemporary strings project in which there will be no less than 5 world premieres of pieces form composers from Georgia, the USA, Canada and the United Kingdom.


For further details on CoLab projects and performances as they unfold, visit:

Collaboration Tracks – Kashmir

Oh, pilot of the storm who leaves no trace, like thoughts inside a dream

Heed the path that led me to that place, yellow desert stream

My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon, I will return again

Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when movin’ through Kashmir.

black and white photo of Joe Townsend's GranOver the summer break I met up with my Granny in Cornwall and she reminded me of when she went walking in Kashmir in Northern India on her honeymoon with her newly-wed husband, Andrew. The year was 1937 and they relished the solitude, the grand vistas and the peace, a country conjured in the colonial imagination and away from the government offices and dust of Delhi. They walked, and as it turns out she rode a pony quite a lot of the way, while Andrew walked. Their solitude also meant travelling with a small entourage of people to put up tents and cook accompanied by a small handful of armed guides. Such was solitude for some in the fading British Empire.

The very sound of the word Kashmir conjures up mystery and was the title of the song that Robert Plant penned when travelling through southern Morocco. Showing equal measure of devotion and irreverence to musical authenticity they created a masterpiece and quite possibly one of the greatest tracks in the history of rock music.

Monastery on Hilltop by Koshy Koshy used under Creative Commons by Trinity Laban/ Desaturated from original
Monastery on Hilltop by Koshy Koshy used under CC by Trinity Laban/ desaturated from original

The version that I have chosen is not the original but the reworking on the 1996 release No Quarter. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page bring together a range of amazing musicians that included a stellar string orchestra of the finest players on the London session scene including David Juritz who is leading the Trinity Laban Side by Side orchestra on Friday 3 October, and stars from other parts of the world. Musicians featured UK based percussion maestro Hossain Ramsey and friends on percussion with violin virtuoso Waeil Abu Bakr, who lights up the middle section with a beautiful Egyptian style fiddle solo. This version happened in the middle of the 1990s world music boom. They didn’t pander to recreating authenticity but allowed people to do their own thing over a rock classic.

Kashmir is one of Led Zeppelin’s greatest compositions which they played live at almost every gig after releasing the original version on the album Physical Graffiti. Musically it features a solid drum groove in square time with the melodic elements superimposed in “three”. The result is highly syncopated. Add a Hijaz mode of the harmonic minor here and there and you have a highly pleasing and exciting result that has rocked audiences over four decades. Robert Plant is one of the great storytellers and really knows how to shape a song, he wails like an imam and roars like the great rocks star that he is.

It is a story of escape and an exotic journey through strange lands, and encounters people who spoke in tongues of lilting grace, a recurring theme in Led Zeppelin’s work. The words relate to the fact that always on the road, and the one they were on in Morocco at the time went on and on.

Heylandt - Go to Heaven! Kashmir
Heylandt – Go to Heaven! Kashmir by Udo Herzog used under CC by Trinity Laban/ desaturated from original


All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground

And my eyes fill with sand, I scan this wasted land

Trying to find, trying to find where I’ve been.

As I sat with my Grandmother aged 97 last Thursday we think of our own Shangri Las beneath the summer moon. Oh, I been flying… (Grand)mama, there ain’t no denyin’

Written by Joe Townsend – CoLab creative producer