The tourbus. The stage door. Soundcheck. Showtime. This is life on the road: a late-night world of roving spotlights, humming valve amps and cheering strangers that is Kim Simmonds’ first love and natural habitat. When Savoy Brown pull into town in the modern era, their pockets bursting with killer songs, there’s the same magic in the air as when they burst thrillingly to the front of the British blues pack during the Sixties boom. “It’s still as exciting today as it was when the band started,” agrees the band’s iconic founder, leader and guitar master. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m back in 1967 when I’m doing shows… and that’s a good feeling.”
Released in April 2013 on Ruf Records, Songs From The Road is a two-disc CD/DVD set that captures that feeling. It’s also the release you’ve been waiting for. Back in 2011, Simmonds found himself on top of the world, as critics and fans alike poured praise on Savoy Brown’s latest release, Voodoo Moon. With stinging material like Meet The Blues Head On and She’s Got The Heat, this was the kind of studio album you were desperate to hear live, and label boss Thomas Ruf agreed, enlisting Savoy Brown as the latest in Ruf’s famous Songs From The Road series that has showcased artists from Jeff Healey to Luther Allison. And so, on May 5, 2012, a fleet of cameras and soundmen – along with a vocal crowd of lucky über-fans – descended on the Musiktheater Piano in Dortmund, Germany, for a one-night stand they’d never forget.
It’s fair to say, the band nailed it. Like all the great live albums – from Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! to Kick Out The Jams – Songs From The Road is a snapshot that puts you on the front row when you hit ‘Play’ in your front room. From the moment that Simmonds and his world-class lineup tear into the brassy groove of 24/7, with the molten guitar riffs rolling off those famous fingers, the Dortmund crowd are up, dancing and lost in the music. Fourteen songs later, a stinging finale of Louisiana Blues leaves them howling for more. This is one of blues-rock’s great stage bands, caught at the top of their game.
Of course, the impact of Songs From The Road is partly down to the performance and dynamics, with the jackhammer drums of Garnet Grimm, the rocksteady bass of Pat DeSalvo and Joe Whiting’s soaring sax and vocals all dovetailing with Simmonds, who soothes and scolds his instrument with eyes closed tight, connected to the very heart of each song. “It’s a great-sounding band,” agrees the guitarist, “so it starts there.”
But Songs From The Road is about more than great execution. It’s about a setlist that leaps seamlessly around Simmonds’ stellar six-decade songbook, mixing up old favourites like 1971’s Street Corner Talking with modern classics like Voodoo Moon’s Natural Man, and only interrupts the all-original material for a closing romp through Willie Dixon’s Wang Dang Doodle and Little Red Rooster, and Muddy Waters’ aforementioned Louisiana Blues. As Simmonds points out, to play the same ten songs every night would be boring. “I like to change, keep things different, keep things exciting,” he says. “One thing I try to do is keep that change and excitement going, for myself and the audience.”
The material showcased on Songs From The Road also reminds us just how deep and enduring Savoy Brown’s contribution to blues-rock has been. As he reveals in the exclusive DVD bonus interview, the teenage Simmonds didn’t anticipate any of this: the record deals, the adoration, the awards. Born in Newbridge, Wales, he started off as a fan, poring over his older brother’s record collection, which took in everything from rock ‘n’ roll to gospel and doo-wop. “But when I came to 13 years old,” the guitarist explains, “I started to realise I particularly liked the blues. That’s when I started to understand my own tastes. So I started playing guitar at 13, and by the time I was 16, I was a pretty good guitar player. I put that down to having all those records, and my brother feeding me the music. It was like I already knew what to do.”
Relocating to London to forge his career, Simmonds became a mover-and-shaker on perhaps the most exciting scene in history, establishing Savoy Brown in the first wave of British blues-boomers, signing to Decca, opening for Cream’s first London show and being namedropped in the same breath as contemporaries like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix (with whom he jammed). Even then, the guitarist was emerging as the band’s driving force. “I had a vision,” he says. “And the exciting thing now is, that vision is still alive.”
Soon enough, Savoy Brown had achieved what most British bands never did – success in America – and became a major Stateside draw thanks to their high-energy material and tireless work ethic. “There’s way too much said about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” Simmonds told Classic Rock in 2008. “It’s such a cliché. We were all extremely hard-working guys. When we came over to America, we were like a little army. You tell us to get up at eight in the morning, everybody’s up. You tell us to be onstage at nine, we’re onstage at nine. I look at that time as being filled with incredible talent.”
Times changed, of course, and by 1979, Simmonds had moved from a London he no longer recognised – “The punks were everywhere!” – to settle permanently in New York. The Savoy Brown bandmembers came and went, and the music scene shifted around him, but the guitarist stuck thrillingly to his guns and reaped the rewards, performing in iconic venues like Carnegie Hall and the Fillmore East and West, releasing 33 legendary albums, and later enjoying a well-deserved induction into Hollywood’s Rock Walk Of Fame.
It’s one hell of a CV – but when you experience Songs From The Road, you’ll appreciate that this legendary performer is still looking forward, not back. This latest release is all about the here-and-now, fuelled by the flashes of inspiration that still strike him while his peers live off past glories. “Keep growing,” says Simmonds of his musical philosophy. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m proud of the past, but if you dwell too much on the past, it’ll drag you back and you’ll live in the past. So what I try to do is just think about the moment. And the best place to think about the moment is on the stage…” Henry Yates
CD & DVD:
2. Looking In
3. Natural Man
4. Street Corner Talking
5. She's Got The Heat
6. Time Does Tell
7. Voodoo Moon
8. Meet The Blues Head On
9. Hellbound Train
11. Tell Mama
12. Wang Dang Doodle
Bonus tracks on DVD:
13. Little Red Rooster
14. Louisiana Blues