Q&A with UK harp player Liam Ward - bring you award-winning Chicago R&B guaranteed to banish your blues

"I don't fear especially for blues, but the music scene as a whole is having a tough time - both recorded and live music are not valued as they once were. Let's write a blues song about it!"

Liam Ward: British Uprising of The Blues

The Liam Ward Band bring you award-winning Chicago R&B guaranteed to banish your blues! Dance the night away to classics from blues harp great like Little Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, Kim Wilson, Jason Ricci and Carlos del Junco. Get your mojo working with the epic harp-driving sounds of Chess Records and the blues masters of the 1950s and 1960s! With one foot firmly in the past, the South Wales-based four-piece aren’t afraid to step into the future too. The Liam Ward Band are known for originals that push blues boundaries, bringing you some of the freshest British blues on offer.

One of the UK’s most revered harmonica players, vocalist and harp player Liam Ward is a winner of the National Harmonica League - Player of the Year and a respected musician and songwriter. The rest of the band comprises stalwarts of the Welsh blues scene. On guitar, respected jazzman Matt Jones (The Square Pegs, Django Chutney), Pembrokeshire favourite Martin Hill on bass (Empty Pockets, Final Demand), and in-demand drum ace Gareth Davies (Only Us, The Distributors). The Liam Ward Band will turn your venue into a juke joint and are bound to banish your blues! Debut album 'Uprising' (2018) comprises ten original compositions and is emotionally charged and lyrically rich throughout. The album has garnered acclaim with both the public and critics and is already being hailed as a new direction for the genre. 'Uprising' exhibits the band's dedication to keeping the blues alive and well in the twenty-first century.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

Blues music captured my imagination from the first moment I heard it. There's a visceral yearning that comes with the blues that I don't think is bettered by any other genre of music. I didn't grow up in a shack in Mississippi so I don't sing about the same things as the guys who did live that kind of life, but I try to channel my own feelings into creating something close to the emotions that they can create.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? What touched (emotionally) you and what are the secrets of harmonica?

I write about what I know; that's the secret to all good songwriting. I write about contemporary issues affecting me, my country, humanity, but I try to fit them into a traditional (or semi-traditional) context. The harmonica is my first instrument (I only sing because it helps me get a job!) and what I love about harmonica is that it is such an emotionally charged instrument. I have always loved music for its ability to spark deep feelings in the listener, and the harmonica does this very well. The secret to the harmonica? It's really hard to play! Or at least, it's harder than people expect it to be. Patience, patience and more patience.

"I would love it if we could forget musical boundaries and stop saying "that music isn't X, it's Y, so it doesn't fit our festival/venue/my musical tastes". It has happened with jazz and folk and blues clubs, and it's such a shame because music is a living, breathing substance that needs to change to develop."

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

When I started playing harp as a teenage my stepfather told me to take every opportunity to play, so I did for several years - sometimes it meant I was way out of my depth or playing with the wrong kind of band but it was such great experience. I've been very lucky to learn from many harmonica players (formally and informally) - Mat Walklate, Lyndon Anderson, Carlos del Junco, Howard Levy and others - and each of them has taught me lots in their own unique way. Mat introduced me to blues so he changed my life forever; I'm massively grateful for that. One of the best teachers I ever had was Gypsy Dave Smith, an Australian blues musician who has lived here in England for many years. He didn't even play harmonica, he just taught me so much about how to play to a crowd, how to let a song breathe, how to build tension and then release it. He also once said to me "Pigeonholes are for pigeons", meaning don't trap yourself in a corner by being too narrow in your musical interests. Finally, Adam Gussow once said, "Steal everyone's shit", which I think is great advice to aspiring blues players. As long as you end up creating your own music one day too!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I have lots, but here's just a couple:

Gypsy Dave Smith and I used to play a Thursday night at the Jazz Cafe in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. We would play late into the night and, as mentioned above, it was a great education for me. I lived some 15 miles away in Durham, where I was an undergraduate student. I couldn't drive and my only choice at 2am was to get a bus halfway home and walk the final 8 miles home. It gets pretty cold up there in the middle of the night and you have to be careful who you meet down a dark alley. I'm not just talking about the men - I even got attacked by a big butch Geordie woman once! It was well worth it though, and those gigs are some of my fondest musical memories. I'll write a song about it all one day. I never did get to many of my Friday morning lectures...

More recently, when recording Uprising with my band I spent an evening sitting with Martin, the bass player, in his garden. He lives on a hill and his garden climbs up to a little terrace, where we sat chatting and drinking. He was doing most of the drinking. We had an early start in the studio the next day so decided to call it a night around 12. There were no lights in the garden so when Martin carried a couple of empty wine bottles back down to the house, the inevitable happened. He actually made it to the lowest step but tripped just before he reached the house, and his whole hand was split open, sending blood everywhere. We were still in the hospital at 5am having his hand stitched up. It was pretty hard work in the studio that following day. You wouldn't know it from his bass playing on the album though.

"I think blues these days has become a bit limp, and has lost the edge that it once had - I am talking about its radical nature." (photo: Liam Ward and his harp)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Creatively, I am really excited to be playing music now. I feel lucky to be doing what I love for a living and to have access to so much great music that has been made over the last 100 years. I don't fear especially for blues, but the music scene as a whole is having a tough time - both recorded and live music are not valued as they once were. Let's write a blues song about it!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would love it if we could forget musical boundaries and stop saying "that music isn't X, it's Y, so it doesn't fit our festival/venue/my musical tastes". It has happened with jazz and folk and blues clubs, and it's such a shame because music is a living, breathing substance that needs to change to develop.

How has the British Blues of the 1960s influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I grew up in Macclesfield, where John Mayall was born, so right from the start I was connected to British blues without my knowledge! The '60s British scene did a lot of good for blues music, but to honest I don't listen to that stuff much. It's the same with someone like Bob Dylan - I really respect that he is responsible for introducing millions of people to the harmonica, but I don't want to play like him! Everything has its place and the British blues of the '60s has high energy and passion but it has never massively gripped me. I still think that the blues scene over here looks to the US for inspiration, and perhaps rightly so because that's where the music we love was first developed.

Make an account of the case of the blues in the UK. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Live music is struggling everywhere, and the UK is no different. I read recently that something like 35% of live music venues in the UK have closed in the last ten years, which means every day it's getting harder to be a musician, but that's just the way it is. In terms of blues, I don't listen to may British bands - in fact, I don't sit and listen to a lot of blues full-stop. I like to take inspiration from all kinds of genres because there are so much amazing musicians out there telling great stories in such creative ways that I think it's crime to ignore it just because it's not blues. The best places to hear interesting musicians are small venues and open mic nights, not stadium gigs. The passion is still out there, and it's real, you just have to find it.

"Blues music captured my imagination from the first moment I heard it. There's a visceral yearning that comes with the blues that I don't think is bettered by any other genre of music. I didn't grow up in a shack in Mississippi so I don't sing about the same things as the guys who did live that kind of life, but I try to channel my own feelings into creating something close to the emotions that they can create."

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications? 

I think blues these days has become a bit limp, and has lost the edge that it once had - I am talking about its radical nature. I recently heard a bit of Mavis Staples' new album 'We Get By' and I thought, "Yes, that's what we need". She is singing about change, about her experiences and about the political landscape. I don't know if I'll ever do it as well as someone like her but it's important to me that I write about social and political issues. I've done that on my new album and I'm pretty proud of the songs and what they represent.

As a white British man living 100 years after the blues were born, I have always been wary of culturally appropriating the blues. It's a very difficult question but it's something I do think about and I always try to make sure I'm singing about my own life rather than trying to be someone else. Music in my life has always been a great connector of people, ignoring age, sex and race. I believe in the power of music to connect people and make them forget their differences.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I actually wouldn't go back especially far. Sure, I love all the masters from the '50s (and even before), but my favourite harmonica player of all time in Paul deLay (I wrote a song about him for my new album 'Uprising', called No Delay) who only died in 2007. He had a difficult life of addiction, prison sentences and ill-health, and he died young. He was dead before I had even heard of him so I never got to see him play, so I would love to go back to his home town of Portland, Oregon, in the early 2000s and meet him. He was such a character: a great singer and songwriter, and very funny. I think in this life sometimes you have to laugh or you'll cry, and he could make you do both in an instant, That's a really special gift.

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