LIVE: Savoy Brown Emphasizes Rock in Their Blues Rock Skyloft Show 12/20/2019
A Savoy Brown concert is as predictable as the cycles of a high-end dishwasher. Like the dishwasher that gets the highest rating in Consumer Reports, the band is very reliable. They deliver mid-60s British blues rock with style – a power trio fronted by Kim Simmonds, a consummate balls to the walls boogie master who seasons his delivery of “straightened up” (his words) Hubert Sumlin guitar licks on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Ain’t Superstitious” along with chestnuts from Savoy Brown’s salad days at the tag end of the British Invasion in the late ’60s highlighted by their signature song “Hell Bound Train.” Add a sprinkle of fresh originals, and the formula is complete.
Savoy Brown was a late entry in the British Invasion blues rock surge that changed rock ‘n’ roll from fundamentally being built around a singer with a support band in the ’50s like Elvis and Roy Orbison to being billed as an entire band like the Rolling Stones and the Animals. Liked the Stones, Savoy Brown realized the necessity of supplementing their American blues covers with originals but, like The Animals, the band was a disparate collection of individuals who could not keep the original team together for decades leaving Kim Simmonds, like Eric Burdon of the Animals, as the glue that kept an ever changing cadre of support artists together for more than half a century. And, like Burden, Simmonds eventually became a solo artist in reality if not in name, supported by his backup band of the moment. And, like Burden, he moved to the United States – in his case New York’s Southern Tier – where his strongest market is.
Originally, Simmonds played lead guitar and had several consecutive singers. Today, he handles all the singing himself in a stripped-down power trio of local musicians Pat DeSalvo on bass and Garnet Grimm on drums. Upstate New York is their core market although the group still tours internationally. Friday night, they played to an almost entirely middle-aged audience of avid supporters who’ve obviously been staunch fans for most, if not all, their career.
Like Tinsley Ellis who recently wowed a very small crowd at Cohoes Music Hall, Kim Simmonds is a seasoned guitarist. But, unlike Ellis, Simmonds does not always live the songs he plays. His hour and a half set is his day job as much as it’s his passion. As amazing a guitarist as he is, his show Friday night was another gig, not the focal point of his life, not an obsession. It wasn’t until the last song of the set and the encore that he really let his hair down calling out the names of both Brits and American inspirations: Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Rory Gallagher, Long John Baldry, and Willie Dixon. “I gotta boogie for myself,” he cried. “We try to keep this going as long as we can.”
For most of his set, he flipped back and forth between classic Savoy Brown songs like “Train to Nowhere” and “Savoy Brown Boogie” on his Flying V guitar and newer material like “Conjure Rhythm” and “Walking on Hot Stones” from the group’s energetic new LP City Night played on a Gibson solid body guitar. He told an audience of about 100 that he bought his Flying V with loaned money in 1968, one of the few to play the instrument that Ray Davies of The Kinks introduced in England. I couldn’t help thinking that the instrument was already familiar to American fans by the work of Lonnie Mack on his Wham of The Memphis Man album a decade earlier when he played on the seventh Flying V first manufactured by Gibson in 1958 and today worth into the thousands.
The real nuggets of Simmonds’ genius on the frets are in the solos he plays between the choruses of his songs.
Like Duke Robillard, he’s been playing these songs for so long that his playing comes across as totally effortless and pristine in its simplicity. Both have played with the masters. Simmonds once backed John Lee Hooker at age 19 and told his rapt audience that Hooker shocked him by refusing to rehearse. If Savoy Brown was going to back the Detroit boogie monster, they were going to have to go in cold.
But unlike Robillard, his songwriting is inspired more by the rock half of his inspiration than the blues, and hard driving songs like his signature “Hellhound Train” are rousing banner waving bows to an era when the Brits reminded us Americans that the Bobby Rydells and Fabians of Dick Clark’s South Philadelphia sound of the early ’60s weren’t getting our rocks off like Lonnie Mack, Link Wray and The Ventures had done just a few years earlier. At 72, Simmonds still looks like a young to middle-aged rock star, and at least one fan charged up by the show shouted through Crossgates Mall as he left Skyloft, “Old folks rock!!”