Keef Hartley – Sinnin’ For You; The Albums ’69 -’73: Boxset Review

Astonishing game, set and match from Hartley, overlooked and underloved bandleader with a prescient knack for where blues, soul and jazz meet, his band(s) masters of all.

Release date:  22nd September 2022

Label: Esoteric Records (Cherry Red)

Format: 7CD Clamshell box

keef hartley

Going out on a limb here, but it has long been my consideration that Halfbreed, the 1969 debut by The Keef Hartley Band, along with Colosseum’s Valentyne Suite and the first eponymous album by If, is one of the three peaks of the British blues-rock scene, as it absorbed and involved jazzier hues than the blues alone could provide. And, yes, whilst it is true that became my dogmatic opinion as long ago as the early 1970’s, I took on this review based entirely on that fact. Despite having never knowingly heard any else of the redoubtable drummer and band leader’s other works, or having listened in depth to Halfbreed for possibly forty years. Gulp.

No gulp, it’s blooming’ wonderful. Cherry Red have done their usual proud in this clamshell pack, seven discs covering all the releases, bonus tracks aplenty, some live, some unreleased and all of merit. A lavish 46 page booklet come with it, benefitting from Hartley’s own comments around each of his studio releases, these stemming from interviews he gave in 2008, three years ahead of his death, and that give a fascinating insight into his mindset. So strap in, squeeze the clutch and give it some choke, off we go.

Halfbreed (1969) is everything I remembered and more. Sure, the two separate “humorous asides”, telephone calls with erstwhile boss, John Mayall, are as of as dubious value as they ever were, but, remember, it was quite something to be, and then not be a Blues Breaker in those days. Of course, the fact that Mayall had long been encouraging him to set up his own band is set aside for the jape of them each, in turn, “sacking” each other. So get past that first minute, and the jittery opening themes, once the organ kicks off into the title track, (The) Halfbreed, I know my teenage self was not wrong. An instrumental showcase for the guitar of “Spit James” (aka Ian Cruickshank) and Hammond of Peter Dines, it is impossible not to take note of the rest of the players, not least the high in the mix echoey clatter of Hartley himself. Clipped horns chip in from the brass section, and the bass of later Uriah Heep bassist, Gary Thain, proves a melodic and metronomic presence.

Quite how singer, and second guitarist, Miller Anderson never made it as a solo star gets that perpetual question asked again, for Born To Die, a slow blues that displays his haunted holler. Thain’s bass is perfect in its simplicity, as much detail given to the spaces as the notes played, the sign of a true musician. Tell me this isn’t the best blues you never heard, in the days when a 10-minute track was nothing odd or unnecessary. And Cruickshank the best guitarist never included in the best of lists. Sinning’ For You, the track, adds some swing to the proceedings, the horns of Harry Beckett and Henry Lowther and the saxes, and flute, of Chris Mercer and Lyn Dobson locking into the groove. Whilst Lowther is no slouch, appearing on innumerable records over the years, the go-to trumpet for any band seeking that extra flavour, Beckett is even more of a giant, starting his career jamming with Charles Mingus, before playing with and in all the greats of British Jazz, yet always remaining available to play with Jah Wobble, at least until his death in 2010. Leavin’ Trunk is more of a trad blues choogle, by Sleepy John Estes, and includes the immortal “I woke up this morning” line, and has the feel of a studio jam, ending with the three card flourish of a sudden tempo change into walking bass and black beret territory. (Nice!) Just To Cry again features prominent brass and a shimmery psychedelic guitar solo, for the heads to nod to, Anderson sounding positively Tim Buckley-esque. Too Much Thinking is in a more traditional vein, and has a superb blues violin solo, that being Lowther’s other instrument. Last track proper is B.B. King’s Think It Over, with a Willie the Pimp type wah wah riff to buoy it along. The second phone call shenanigans and that would be that, were it not for the questionable bonus of Leave It ‘Til The Morning, a more commercial piece of whimsy offered as a single.

The Battle For NW6 (1969) followed sharply, later the same year, the record company having offered a deal on the basis of Halfbreed. Split between the core six piece of Hartley, Anderson, Thain, “James”, Lowther and, now Jimmy Jewel on sax, with Dines having now left, Beckett, Mercer and Dobson being retained for outings as the Keef Hartley Big Band. (See later…) Other guest musicians for this album included Barbara Thompson, Mick Weaver and, on one track, Mick Taylor. Again the first track proper, The Dansette Kid/Hartley Jam For Bread, is a cobbled together mix of two jams, the sound little changed from before, apart from Weaver having a funkier feel on the organ. That funkier feel extends into Don’t Give Up with a soulful feel to the arrangement and lavish vocals. Me And My Woman is straight ahead blues, but retaining the higher profile of the brass section, and some tinkling piano from Weaver. Hickory shows off Barbara Thompson’s flute, Thain’s bass a bubbly presence between the mellow keyboards and discrete guitars. Don’t Be Afraid could be straight from the handbook of british blues rock, Anderson’s chameleonic voice now almost that of Rory Gallagher. More classy guitar from “James”, still the sort of music old codgers sit up and notice, even now, with Hartley taking the opportunity to maximise his coverage of a likely not insubstantial kit.

Not Foolish, Not Wise remains a bit generic, if not without some nice touches, depending on your love or need for drum solos. Fab Jimmy Jewel sax break, mind. One suspects the two minutes of Waiting’ Around may have started life as a potential single, a cross between the Temptations and Procol Harum, which then has you further sidestepped by the noodly intro of Tadpole. Given it then lurches into a sleazy slide-led dialogue between several of the instrumentalists in turn, it encapsulates some of the schizophrenic feel offered; it is a rum ‘un and some, lifted again by Jewel’s contribution. Poor Mabel (You’re just like Me) is a quirky pop-prog song that isn’t at all bad, if adding to the scattergun approach of the styles being hurled about the studio. Thankfully, the Taylor augmented, Hartley’s flatmate of the time, Believe In You just about scrabbles together a sense of congruity, a bluesy ballad, with horns and violin, if without much evidential presence of the then just newly enrolled Rolling Stone. Live versions of four tracks, two from this studio album follow, with one from the one before, nice and murky, Spanish Fly, the outlier, being the most lively.

The Time Is Near (1970) is a whole lot more together, Hartley citing Anderson was getting really confident as a songwriter, the brass now more part of the whole, rather than bolted on. This stems from Henry Lowther being eased out, in favour of Dave Caswell and Lyle Jenkins, both of the seldom recalled band, Gaillard. Lowther is still credited, as is Jewell, but it is these new players who give what is a pleasantly Blood, Sweat and Tears ambience. Anderson is now also exhibiting the guitar chops he had kept earlier in check, as “James” was no longer on board. Thain still provides his reliably steady anchor and there is additional percussion now, via a Dell Roll. No Weaver either, organ parts courtesy Stuart Wicks. Seven tracks, they hold cohesively better than on the predecessor, with Morning Rain and attractive first track, with equal helpings of blues, soul and jazz. Definitely one of their more attractive songs, with From The Window a rockier and more rhythmic offering, that moves from an almost Northern Soul to a very English prog with horns, and back again, with some tremendous unison playing.

The title track picks up that English mantle with pastoral flute from Jenkins, the third song of four in a row solely from Anderson. (The first two albums were composed largely of group efforts, Miller’s contributions masked by his wife’s name, Hewitson, for seemingly legal reasons.) This contains the first opportunity for him to let rip on guitar, an opportunity which he doesn’t waste, with a slow long build before it all goes delightfully samba crazy, ahead of returning to where it all began. You Can’t Take It With You has me, not for the first time, think about Kevin Rowland and the first iteration of Dexy’s. I guess old roadwarriors like Hartley aren’t as symbolic as Geno! Great sax solo in this one, followed by more less than obvious horn parts around a final vocal stanza. Caswell gets then the opportunity for a stonking instrumental, Premonition, his trumpet incandescent before Jenkins’ tenor takes over, the baton then passed on to Anderson’s guitar. Two more Anderson compositions close, the folky posturings of Another Time, Another Place an unexpected and welcome change, the horns, when they arrive, adding a flavour of Arthur Lee’s Love, before, finally, Change, which slots back more into expectation. A sturdy end to a solid album.

Reading Hartley’s words about Overdog (1971), I began to worry, he citing the deliberate move of just inviting friends into the studio, rather than, per se, having anyone stick religiously to the, presumably, skeletal existing structures. Jams, in any other word, fine on occasion, but a whole album? Weaver back in the fold, instead of Wicks, the band otherwise as for the body of the last, with Dines back too, on one track and old buddy Jon Hiseman duelling drums on another. Erstwhile Mayall alumnus Johnny Almond is another guest. And, wow, talk about how do you like our new direction, from the start it is an onslaught of brazen funk-rock, the rock as hard as the funk is tight, no moody meanderings here. Called You Can Choose, the prolonged wah-wah solo and polyrhythms tell us Hartley was paying due attention whilst Santana had played Woodstock alongside them. Plain Talking’ follows, another dance floor soul extravaganza, like nothing else this side of the atlantic, certainly then, Weaver’s organ a delight. The triad, Theme Song/En Route/Theme Song (Reprise), threatens to be different, until flute and electric piano accelerate away from the vocal introduction, the paired drummers pounding away in parallel, making for a disappointment as it all fades back to the vocals.

The title track starts as it means, with tribal drums that beckon in Thain’s down and dirty basslines and what sounds like clavinet. Vocals, solos, more vocals, why weren’t this band huge? Roundabout, apparently both a band and an audience favourite gets its first airing, it also appearing, in two parts, as the two sides of a rare KH single. With as many tempo changes as you can shake a stick at, it works, for me, less well than some of the other material, sounding more a throwback to the looser, jazzier inflections of earlier albums. Imitations From Home is getting back on track, however entering into an insistent groove, allowing the players to dip in and out, but lacks a little structure. The genius is then to add girly vocals to the closer, We Are All The Same, a song unlike any of the others presented thus far, a ballad that might be a little too saccharine without their addition, the full band slowly giving their instrumental wallop, and all getting to be very Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Joe Cocker could have got this song in the charts, I reckon. The extras here include a live version of You Can Choose, here entitled Colours, with the wacka wacka dialled up to eleven. A live Roundabout follows, as do both sides of the single version. Plus there are live renditions of a couple of songs from the earlier featured albums, Just A Cry and You Can’t Take It With You. Somehow the looser grasp Hartley was looking for actually led to greater focus and detail.

Still hanging on for the ride? It’s about to get distinctly bumpy, if in a largely good way, as ambition and aspiration swamp any sense of economy. Little Big Band (1971) came about courtesy an idea from BBC’s In Concert Series producer, Jeff Griffin, who had commented upon how thin the band’s brass had sounded on earlier live outings, something the bonus tracks on the first few discs here might somewhat dispute. Never mind, that was enough red rag to show Hartley, he putting together a veritable orchestra of brass, ten players alongside the existing core of himself, Anderson and Thain, keys this time courtesy Derek Austin and extra percussion from Pete York. Just cutting that In Concert programme wasn’t enough, the motley crew then hit the road for a brief European tour, ahead of recording this album, live at the Marquee. Culled from two separate performances, it is hard to tell if the full line-up graced each show. My ears cannot discern whether there are always the full five listed trumpets present, let alone two trombonists and three saxophonists. Who cares, it is a rout of brassy brilliance, marred only by somewhat muddy vocal tracks. No new material, it being rejigs and reworks of material from the earlier triad of albums, most of the players familiar with the material from their various times in the band. That is, bar the trombonists, an instrument new to the Hartley experience: Derek Wadsworth and Danny Almark, suddenly opening up the realisation that with ‘bone is better than without. Wadsworth’s solo in the huge Chicago-esque bluster of You Can’t Take It With You is on fire. Me And My Woman becomes explosive in this setting, Austin’s organ simmering whilst Anderson blazes through, on raw vocals and chewy guitar.

Elsewhere, a returning Harry Beckett blows some positively Miles-ian horn during Legoverture, the Just To Cry section. (Legoverture takes the full second side, as was, of the original vinyl.) Lyn Dobson also blows some varied flute, invoking both Tull-y breath tones and the more orthodox “yazz flute” style. In a slightly different order to the studio iteration, this extended version allows each member to offer a brief showcase. Anderson and Austin again shine. With some surprise, I find myself even enjoying the drum solos, duos really, as York keeps up enough of a tangent to offer a contrast to Hartley’s energetic thumping. (As a topical aside, there is also a brief bar or two of the national anthem, if for reasons not entirely clear.) It is undoubtedly indulgent, hell, it was supposed to be, but, as a document, it is well worth the hear.

After that extravaganza, the temptation might be to think that this was about as far as anything could go, in this particular direction. Even if not, circumstances dictated a change, with Andeson now jumping ship, in search of a solo career, which never quite materialised. And Seventy Second Brave (1972) was certainly a change, as bar Chris Mercer and the return of Mick Weaver, only Hartley and the ever loyal Gary Thain were still present. And there were no trumpets. two saxophones now the only wind presence, Mercer here joined by Nick Newell. Replacing Anderson needed two bodies, with Junior Kerr entering on guitar and vocals, along with the later 18 With A Bullet hitmaker, Pete Wingfield, on additional keyboards and vocals. Each singers with distinct personalities, capable of writing snappy commercial songs, this gave the band an upswing away from the increasingly specialised audience they had begun to encroach.

Freely admitting I had never heard this album before, it is quite the revelation and perhaps as good an example of blue-eyed soul as anyone was yet producing. Heartbreakin’ Woman, Kerr, and Hard Pill To Swallow, Wingfield, show off the two styles perfectly, sandwiching a Mercer composition, Marin County, all three a terrific opening salvo. Kerr errs more to the choppy guitar style of rock’n’soul, whereas Wingfield just has an ear for the construction of slower and bluesier formats, his vocals the purer of the two. Mercer is content to show he just has a handle on meat and potatoes, grits and groceries boogie. Wingfield’s electric piano seldom palls, either. Another immediate difference is the length of these songs, very few much over the five minute mark. With the right shove I can’t help but feel some of these could even have bothered the singles charts, Hard Pill being the prime contender, or Kerr’s Don’t You Be Long. Nicturns, geddit, is the only sore thumb, Newell’s opportunity for a some flute-based psychedelic whimsy, but it’s short. One of the odder songs is You Say You’re Together Now, both written and sung by Thain, something Hartley says he later regretted allowing take place. Whilst he has perhaps an unusual voice, personally, along perhaps with Thain’s mother, I find it a charming diversion. The rest is perhaps more generic, but, to be fair, the killer/filler ratio is possibly as high as anything thus far. The four studio alternate versions offered as bonus are fine, if broadly confirming quite why they were not the ones chosen. (Oddly, I also notice the order differs between the actual disc and the cover, and that Thain is excluded from the list of participants, if indubitably there?!)

You’d assume Hartley would consolidate the rekindled promise given by this particular line up, but, no, ever the contrarian, he then effectively jumped ship himself, diving off to join his old boss, John Mayall, for a European tour. Then he elected to help out Vinegar Joe, temporarily short of their drummer, joining them for a couple of albums. Had he forgotten he still owed Decca a final album? The suspicion is yes, but they hadn’t, necessitating a quick call around to see who might still be around and available. But, this time, even Thain had become impatient, taking up an offer to join the then buoyant Uriah Heep. Mick Weaver was still able to add a little signature organ, but, otherwise, only the recent incomer, Kerr, was free.

Thinking hard, Hartley poached Phil Chen from Rod Stewart and Jean Rouselle from Cat Stevens, with the brainwave of also enticing Jess Roden on board. Roden was beginning to make waves as a vocalist, but his own band, Bronco, seemed to be going nowhere, so he was up for it. No brass. I’ll repeat that, no brass, at least within the band membership, many of the brass parts applied by Rouselle’s synthesiser. It is true, there is brass, and strings, for that matter, but these are add ons, later applied. Aiding Roden, not that he needed much help, consummate backing vocals come from Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer, from Vinegar Joe, returning the favour Hartley had given their band. This gives a delightful Audience/Kokomo vibe to the tracks they feature on. The album overall, Lancashire Poacher (1973) is a tad schizophrenic, as it veers between the vocal extravaganzas and some longer form pieces, augmented by orchestration, which seem to pull in a different direction. Tellingly, it is attributed to Keef Hartley rather than any band. Circles is a great start, a slow burning “rawk” ballad, with the full chorale, a distant cousin, let’s say, of I’d Rather Go Blind. You and Me further celebrates the vocal presences, if with the synth brass sounding more dated than the progression it may have then seemed. Shovel In A Minor then changes tack entirely, a fairly orthodox blues swagger, with the full orchestra, not unpleasant, but anonymous of much character.

Australian Lady is perhaps the highlight, with a hymnal arrangement that gives it a gorgeous gospel mood. Derek Wadsworth came in especially for this, as did another ‘bone player, Don Lusher. Thereafter the record drifts into a couple more song by numbers, and then the two final embellished tracks, which begin to lift the mood again. The strings, arranged by Vinegar Joe guitarist, Pete Gage, on Jennie’s Mother are a delight, and this sounds much in the mold of the sort of bluesy rock-pop that Free could effortlessly get into the charts. Closer is a cover of Sly Stone’s Dance To The Music. If you like the original, you will love it, which is all I will say beyond expressing uncertainty quite why Hartley saw fit to include it. Perhaps the accountants? I will concede that, in a live setting, it would have been a belter.

And that was that. Seven albums in little over four years. Add in innumerable tours, including the Woodstock appearance, and it must have been punishing. Little wonder that little later came under his name. Indeed, that was pretty much the end of any output under the Keef Hartley brand. Yes, he did hook up with Miller Anderson once more, in 1975, as the band, jointly run this time, Dog Soldier, making one album, which seems odd in not being here included, but afterward, bar a ghost written autobiography, came nothing. Nonetheless, and as said at the start, Cherry Red have here done him proud. With reproduction sleeves of the original vinyl LPs, it is an attractive set, and the provision of Hartley’s own later-day thoughts and reminiscences make for an entertaining read. 
Here’s Australian Lady, the highlight of Lancashire Hustler:

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