A successful Hull-based skiffle band, I first met these four characters at a Hulloween event last year. Slide-guitarist JT was dressed as Hannibal Lector, there was a vampire and the only other memorable thing was just how inebriated they all were. And so it seemed apt that their album be entitled ‘Premium Brew’.
On Sunday, they appeared to be a rather rag-tag collection of people. My friend wasn’t really sure what to make of them: excited to see a washboard would be played but a little unnerved by the clown which was placed on a desk mere centimetres from our noses (more about that in a moment.) Their set so enthralled me that I had to get my hands on a copy of the album, and haven’t stopped talking about it/them since.
It’s easy to assume that this is a band who take nothing seriously, playing merely for the joy of it and not caring too much about the reception. But this is simply not the case. Their sets, like their album, involve both an intro and a reprise, demonstrating just how serious about music they really are. A professional unit who maintain their characters of King Rat, Archie, Specky and JT, as introduced in the intro played at the opening of their sets and their album.
All four members have their defining roles – King Rat on guitar, Archie on bass, Specky on the washboard and JT on the slide guitar – as well as sharing vocals. Depending on the role within the song, Specky and JT seem to take on the lead, with King Rat and Archie delivering harmonies and additional bites of sound.
The songs which stand out on the album are also the ones which were extremely memorable after their live set.
‘Rape in East Yorkshire’ is a hilarious track. You’re warned in the live set not to listen to it with a filthy mind – naturally, causing you to do just this. And so the double entendre transforms this sweet song about crops in our lovely county into something much more sordid. This song demonstrates just how clever their lyrics are, with quick and snappy puns as well as the extended use of figurative language.
‘Haunted House’ is the track which stood out most to me from the live set. Before they performed it, they told us a story. Allegedly, one year ago on the very chair in which I happened to be sat an old lady died during their performance. Intense feedback from JT’s guitar caused her pacemaker to explode. And now she haunts them. The mastered track starts with whispered voices, building with the introduction of each instrument, with JT’s vocals expressing anger at this woman’s ghostly presence. The other members perform the sounds of ghosts, and the song starts off quite jolly sounding. About two thirds of the way through the song, the sound reaches a climax and then drops quite suddenly – like the sudden chill of a haunted space – before JT’s voice quietly announced that as a child he watched the movie Poltergeist. He describes the moment with the clown on the chair, building the fear in his voice as the clown moves – lyrically – from the chair to under the bed and then around the throat. Live this was even more terrifying, as JT drags a wooden clown around the stage and into the audience.
Another track I enjoy is ‘The Island’ which appears to describe a dream location for any modern man. With no “sales targets” and “blue skies”, the island is a utopia in a capitalist environment. With references to Justin Timberlake, Michael Caine, the TV show Lost and a catchy chorus, this is one song I’ll comfortably be singing along to the next time I see Black Kes perform.
Title track ‘Premium Brew’ takes centre-stage on the album. It’s a three-minute instrumental, which can really get the party started. It’s perhaps a musical analogy for a really good, really drunken night out.
I urge you to check Black Kes out. Even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of skiffle (or even know what skiffle is), you’re bound to enjoy these guys. Live, they are true performers, with the ever-expressive JT and the jovial personality of Specky. Listening to the album, I am able to relive Sunday’s set, and it was the first of the day. That’s just how powerful their magic is.