Hits, deep cuts and a few pleasant surprises. Ystrad Mynach’s favourite son, Andy Fairweather Low, brings joy to Bury St. Edmunds.
Andy Fairweather Low is a National Treasure. The boy, the former teen-idol, from Ystrad Mynach, just up the Rhymney Valley from Caerphilly has been bringing us joy for over 55 years and, thankfully, there are no signs that he’s planning to slow down any time soon. On Thursday 31st March, Andy strode onto the stage of The Apex, Bury St. Edmunds’ impressive new theatre, and held his audience captivated for a couple of hours with a set that included a good number of familiar hits, a few deep dives into his extensive back catalogue, several exciting covers that allowed him to relive his days on the road with an amazing range of megastar mates and quite a few pleasant surprises. He was helped along by the latest incarnation of his backing band, The Low Riders – Nick Pentelow on saxes and clarinet, Paul Beavis on drums, Ian Jennings on double bass and new arrival Amy Newhouse-Smith on backing vocals and they made a sound that rocked, soothed and satisfied – all in one go.
Andy first came to prominence, of course, as a founder member of Amen Corner, the band that surged into our collective consciousness back in 1966 with their debut single, Gin House Blues and went on to score a run of big hit singles with titles including Bend Me Shape Me, High In The Sky and their 1969 Number One, (If Paradise is) Half As Nice. It may be hard for any younger members of Thursday’s audience to believe, but the incredible musician with the look and mannerisms of someone’s grandad, who held us all captivated for two hours on Thursday night, was once a potent sex-symbol whose image, probably extracted from the centre pages of Jackie or Fabulous 208, adorned the bedroom walls of teenage girls right across the country! But, as well as being popular, Amen Corner’s songs were durable, high-quality pop. Andy is clearly very proud of them, and his audience still loves to hear them.
Amen Corner split in 1970 and Andy, along with ex-Amen members Blue Weaver, Clive Taylor, Neil Jones and Dennis Byron re-defined themselves as Fair Weather and set out to steer their image away from that of pop hitmakers. They were reasonably successful at first; Fair Weather’s debut single, Natural Sinner, made the singles chart in the summer of 1970, but the band’s two albums, Beginning From An End (1971) and Let Your Mind Roll On (1972) both failed to set the world on fire and Andy set out on the solo journey that he pursues to this day. To some, myself possibly included, the Andy Fairweather Low wonder years were 1974-1976, when he released that triumvirate of great albums – Spider Jiving, La Booga Rooga and Be Bop ‘N’ Holla – each one a solid classic. He nearly made a well-deserved breakthrough into the stratospheric big-time with his single, Wide Eyed And Legless, but it didn’t quite happen, and Andy Fairweather Low faded slowly from the public consciousness.
Or did he? In fact, no – he didn’t. Whether it’s by touring with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, playing sessions with the likes of Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Dave Edmunds – even Kate Bush and George Harrison – or by ploughing on, either alone or with his Low Riders, Andy Fairweather Low never went away. He carried on making great music.
Which brings us back to The Apex, Bury St. Edmunds, on the evening of 31st March 2022, and another great performance from Andy Fairweather Low and the Low Riders.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I walk into a venue and see a double bass, either on a stand or lying on its side, I get a warm feeling; a feeling of assurance that tonight’s show is going to be a good one. I’d seen Andy and The Low Riders a few times before, so I kind of knew that anyway, but the sight was still a welcome one! Without ceremony, Andy strode onto the stage alone with his Martin acoustic guitar and we were off. His valleys accent undiminished, he established the wonderful rapport that was to last all evening as he assured us that “I’ve been doing this since 1964 and I still love what I do – it’s all part of Care in the Community” before kicking into his usual opener, an acoustic version of Reggae Tune. Champagne Melody, the second single from the La Booga Rooga album followed. The band was still waiting in the wings, so Andy improvised the trumpet solo himself – “Not the best trumpet, but the best I can do,” he joked, before the band hit the stage for Natural Sinner.
Even at this early stage of the proceedings, I was thoroughly impressed by Andy’s guitar prowess. Even without the safety net of the band, his sound was full, without any gaps, and the two well-known songs, both normally notable for their rich production, already had feet tapping and bodies swaying, despite the stripped-back delivery.
Spider Jiving was next, and the band were really starting to cook. Andy’s pride was palpable as he announced that Joe Cocker had thought highly enough of Hymn 4 My Soul to cover it, and Thursday’s version did the song full justice as Nick scaled the first of many peaks with a sax solo that set the scalp a-tingling. Then, before we could catch breath, Andy’s reverence of The Beatles was given a run-out with, first, a laid-back jazzy version of From Me To You, that dripped with smooth sax from Nick and lush vocal harmonies from Amy, followed by a take on One After 909, with Andy delivering a brilliantly understated guitar solo which, I’m sure, would have earned the fullest approval from George himself.
So far, we’d had folk, jazz and rhythm and blues. Now it was time for a spot of soulful rock as the 2006 Sweet Soulful Music album was raided for the second time of the evening for a sublime take on I Don’t Need, with a clarinet solo from Nick Pentelow that was as breathtaking as it was mellow. Indeed, so divine was that clarinet that we just had to hear some more and the band duly obliged with Dancing In The Dark (no, not that one…) from the Spider Jiving album (a song that was, incidentally, also covered by another clarinetist of some repute – none other than Acker Bilk!) And, after a sleazy slide into partyland with Andy’s new lockdown-composed Party Going On, there was still time for a bit more clarinet before we all paused for a short break. The band’s version of the 1930’s classic Dream A Little Dream was exquisite. If you closed your eyes – something I noticed that many audience members were, indeed, doing – it would be easy to imagine yourself drifting down a river on a summer’s afternoon in an open boat whilst the clarinet played. Such was the effect, that Andy saw fit to walk around the stage to shake the hand of each band member in turn after such a wonderful rendition – and there was still another surprise to come before the interval…!
With the clarinet playing such a role in the first half’s proceedings it was, perhaps, appropriate that the band took us up to the interval with a jazzy, reggae-fied version of Acker’s greatest triumph, Stranger On The Shore , that was simply stunning. “You’ll wake up tomorrow and ask yourself ‘Did he really play that?’ ” said Andy. Absolutely brilliant!
Pictures: John Bulloch
For the first half of the show, the band had been deliberately subdued – maybe “intimate” would be a better word. Andy played acoustic guitar throughout the set and Paul played a small kit and used brushes rather than sticks. All this would change for the second half – it was time, now, to rock!
It’s pretty clear that for his second-half set, Andy had chosen to revisit the club days of his formative years. The acoustic guitars were back in their cases as we kicked off at a blistering pace – with Route 66 (“…the first guitar solo I ever learned,” according to Andy) and a searing take on If I Ever Get Lucky. Anyone present who didn’t realise that Andy Fairweather Low is a great Rock & Roll guitarist surely does now! When they’re firing like this, The Low Riders are the band you’d want to have playing at your wedding – after the old folks have left.
Things were slowed a little as Andy showed his talent for taking a song right back to its roots – a lalent that was never more evident than with the evening’s version of Arthur Crudup’s My Baby Left Me. Jazzy, and laced with weeping tenor sax, it leaves attempts at the song by the likes of Elvis and Creedence right by the wayside. Next came a serving of gospel, and a medley of the standards Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Lay My Burden Down. Andy’s a convincing gospel singer and Nick’s clarinet gave the tunes a beautiful Dixieland feel.
Got Love if You Want It was cosy and intimate – at least – it was until Nick’s sax blew in, at which point, Andy rose to the challenge and delivered an awesome solo of his own on his battered Martin. “You’re looking at a pensioner here!” he breathlessly informed us, and judging from the predominant hair colour amongst the assembled throng, so was he! Andy strapped his electric guitar back on for La Booga Rooga, and it simmered, before Nick took us for another drift down the Thames with Nobody Knows You, another helping of that gorgeous clarinet.
It was time to really start cranking things up; Andy’s voice is tailor-made for the gritty, dirty TV Mama and he did the song full justice before donning his blond Gibson ES-5 for his tribute to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lightnin’s Boogie, in which Andy’s singular guitar style was complemented perfectly by some great bass and drums.
We hadn’t had the hits yet, but now it was time… The audience knew all the words to Bend Me Shape Me and didn’t hold back in singing along. Wide Eyed And Legless is, of course, one of the great all time songs. I loved it then, I love it now and it’s the song that originally got me off my backside to go and check what Andy Fairweather Low was all about. A song of regret over the indulgence in alcoholic excess, Andy sang it with great conviction. Didn’t we all…
And the hits kept coming. Andy played a white Strat on Gin House Blues – proudly announced as “The first record that Amen Corner ever recorded.” A favourite of John Bulloch – the photographer I met in The Nutshell (Britain’s smallest pub, trivia fans…) before the gig and whose excellent work I’ve been privileged to use to illustrate this review – tonight’s version was both subtle and passionate, with the band jumping to attention at all the right points. After yet another stunning sax solo from Nick, Andy was moved to exclaim: “Every night! Every night I have that pleasure!” before tearing off an emotional solo of his own.
With a sax player like Nick Pentelow on board, I guess the band just had to play their Tequila/ Peter Gunn/ Hide’way medley – and they rocked like Dr. Feelgood with bus passes. There was time for one more. “When Andy leaves the stage, he doesn’t come back,” we were warned, as the band burst into Half As Nice, the BIG hit and Andy’s traditional set closer. The version that the band plays nowadays is folksier, jazzier and less brash that the hit single version and features some lovely vocal harmonies from Amy. We sang along one last time and then it was all over. “Right – I’m for me bed!” said Andy, as he and the band took their final bows. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to get a short You Are My Sunshine before lights out, but not tonight. Never mind – maybe next time.
If you haven’t yet managed to catch Andy Fairweather Low and The Low Riders this time around – don’t worry – all is not yet lost. There are still a few dates left to go on the current tour and, if you live in the vicinity of Southend, Hailsham, Cardiff, Runcorn, Ravenshead, Shrewsbury, Putney or Derby, I strongly advise that you check out Andy’s website, get yourself a ticket and go along. At an Andy Fairweather Low show, a Splendid Time is Guaranteed For All!
Watch Andy Fairweather Low and The Low Riders perform Wide Eyed and Legless here: