BLOG Ryan Davies

NWR Issue 113

Hollow Log: The Coolest Man Who Ever Walked the Earth

On 5 May 2017, Aberystwyth Arts Centre presented Hollow Log, a blues band consisting of John Barnie playing a beautiful resonator guitar, Richard Marggraf Turley playing the acoustic slide guitar and Dilwyn Roberts-Young on the harmonica.

The circular space within the performance studio was perfect for the down-home acoustic blues which amplified and resonated across the room. The blue curtain and low lights helped recreate the juke joints of the ’20s and ’30s – drinking was encouraged! There was also an old-fashioned gramophone standing by, an historical artefact which once belonged to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s grandmother, who would listen to the heartbreak blues through it. After the trio introduced themselves and tuned up, they jumped straight into their signature song, ‘Hollow Log Blues’, as heard on Adam Walton’s BBC Wales late-night music show.

The set continued with top-notch performances of foot-stomping, string-sliding blues covers with John and Richard taking turns on vocals, singing ‘Matchbox Blues’ by Blind Lemon Jefferson and ‘A Woman Called Mary’ by Lightnin’ Hopkins – praised as the coolest man who ever walked the earth. During the second half, Richard sat down to perform a solo cover of ‘Poor Black Mattie’ by R L Burnside, demonstrating the intricate claw hammer style of playing. John contributed by telling us a story about his meeting with Burnside (after he had gone electric) in Memphis where he watched his family band play in a shack which had no toilet but was stacked with amplifiers. In true blues spirit, Hollow Log covered nothing later than 1953 (until their encore).

A Hollow Log original, ‘Key to the Highway’, was sung in the traditional flowing verse of the Deep South blues, with John explaining that each blues song would be recorded multiple times and each one would differ because the artists had endless verses of lyrics to sing. John hoped aloud that he wouldn’t forget his own words! Another original, ‘The Longest Train I’ve Ever Seen’, had a walking guitar line and a strumming pattern which chugged the song along like its titular train. The rhythm was accompanied by skilful harmonica playing which tunefully imitated the train’s hoots and whistles. John explained that the song was written about an actual train he saw travelling from Memphis to New Orleans, on which refugees hung onto the carriage sides and rooftops. The trio even touched upon the genre of prison blues, singing out against the injustices of the system, linking it to current issues.

John and Richard shuttled back and forth between music and their own original and unique blend of poetry, just as blues legend Robert Johnson would have done. John’s ranged from the reminiscent ‘When We Were Young’ to poems on sailors, quarrymen, jellyfish and even an ode to ‘Black Russian Tomatoes’. Richard read some from his published collection, The Fossil-box, including a range on the first ever photograph from 1826, nostalgia through Instagram, and his own ‘intervention’ into the bird trope, titled ‘Bird Aber’ and inspired by Keats. He also shared some of his more experimental poetry, reading aloud a series of nonsensical words and phrases which flowed freely as if he were speaking another language. Dilwyn also took the opportunity to tell us about his instrument, giving examples of alternative names for the harmonica such as ‘tin sandwich’ and ‘Mississippi sax’, informing us that it was still considered a toy until 1947.

Hollow Log ended their set with one of Richard’s compositions named ‘Lucy’, after which the audience demanded more to the surprise of the band. They consented and played ‘I’m Tore Down’ by Eric Clapton, much to the dismay of hard-core blues man John, who said that Richard had a habit of sneaking in Keith Richards rock tendencies [and also that Clapton ‘stole’ the song]. Though it was the end of the night, you could still feel the heels of the audience thumping away to the song, showing no signs of stopping! The band then finished, appropriately on a Robert Johnson number, with Richard contemplating selling his guitar to the devil for a bit of money!

Ryan Davies is a student in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

John Barnie’s latest poetry collection is Wind Playing with a Man’s Hat, published by Cinnamon. Richard Marggraf Turley’s debut novel, The Cunning Man is published by Aerial Media Company. Dilwyn Roberts-Young is a fan of blues, books and football.



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