The Matt Schofield Trio, Lichfield Guildhall, March 6 2015
Matt Schofield is one of the best kept secrets in British music. A guitar player with a jaw-dropping technique coupled with superb taste and tone, his jazz-infused take on the blues and undisguised love of New Orleans funk combine to produce dynamite live gigs. While he is in demand for festivals and larger gigs in continental Europe, in the UK he favours smaller spaces and you can still pick up a ticket for roughly the price of a round of drinks. Bargain.
One such bargain was to be had on 6 March at Lichfield Guildhall, the 600 year old council house and arts venue in the Staffordshire market town. It’s a wonderfully intimate room for a gig, with seating for about 150 and standing room at the back. On reflection, this might well be a position of advantage, since it places you near to the small bar, which always has a well-kept real ale on draught. On previous visits I’ve sampled the delights of St Austell Tribute and Wye Valley HPA, and tonight it was a very respectable Titanic Steerage, a more-ish golden bitter.
I arrived early and, pint in hand, chose an aisle seat about six rows back. Schofield and his redoubtable road manager, guitar tech and wing-man Simon Law are both fastidious about tone and as a consequence they vary his fire-power according to the size of the room. You know, therefore, that everything is going to be crystal clear. I’ve recently been to gigs where bands have adopted the “everything on 11” approach and the resultant soup of howling, hissing racket, in which it’s impossible to distinguish between any of the instruments or discern whether or not there’s a vocalist in the mix, is enough to make your eyeballs go bang. No such problems here, and a quick survey of the backline revealed that Matt had eschewed his usual signature Two Rock heads and cabs in favour of none-more-oldschool vintage Fender amps and a modest pedalboard. Having said that, he doesn’t need a couple of dozen stompboxes – it’s all in the fingers.
There being no support, the band took to the stage at 8 o’clock for the first of two sets. This evening was a real treat for fans in that it was the second of only three gigs reuniting the original Matt Schofield Trio of Matt, Jonny Henderson on Hammond organ and Evan Jenkins on drums. Although Jonny has been pretty much a constant since the trio’s inception, providing bass lines and cool solos, we’ve seen a fair few drummers and a couple of bass players pass through the band in the last six years.
Two things were apparent from the first bars of the opening instrumental “Oakville Shuffle”. Firstly, all three members were on absolute top form and, secondly, there was an almost telepathic link between them, so complementary were their individual contributions. I saw Matt at Huntingdon Hall in Worcester last December with Jamie Little on drums and Carl Stanbridge on bass. For the first time Jonny wasn’t playing as his wife had just given birth and he had taken some time to be with her. There is no such thing as a bad Matt Schofield gig, but at Worcester there was definitely a sense that he was having to work harder to fill out the sound because of the absence of keyboards. Tonight, however, there was a relaxed groove that made you feel youwere watching a band of equals, not a star guitarist and a couple of sidemen.
The set was an eclectic mix from the nine CDs-worth of Matt’s back catalogue. Evan’s presence meant that the early stuff was well-represented, with gems such as the pure funk of “Cissy Strut” and “Siftin’ Thru Ashes”, the latter including, for the first time in my experience, the use of a wah pedal. Highlights, as ever, were the slow blues songs, on this occasion “The Day You Left” in the first set and “Where Do I Have to Stand?” in the second. These numbers allow the guitarist to stretch out and really inhabit the music. The result is the kind of sinuous lead-playing where the notes seem to hang almost palpably in the air, making you hold your breath with the sheer joy of being in the same room and never wanting it to end.
These three dates were billed as “The Return of the Trio” (the others were at The Jazz Cafe in London and the Bristol Jazz Festival) and it was a privilege to be there. Although it would be well-deserved for the Matt Schofield Band, with any constituent members, to find a wider audience in this country and I wish them nothing but greater success, a part of me will miss the buzz of being up close and personal in beautiful rooms like this.