Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Oh what a musical week! (Part 3)

pic courtesy of

Prince, Cameo and Patti Labelle are just some of the superstars that John Blackwell has toured with and played for.

There was I, last Wednesday, sitting in a church hall in Reading, waiting for the great man to come onstage and do a drum clinic. It was the final part of my mega musical week and the part that I had most looked forward to.

I discovered John Blackwell's playing about 2 years ago and he has rapidly become one of my all time favourite players because:

  • He is incredibly funky, the man just has a groove more powerful that I have seen or heard in most.
  • His technical knowledge is high too, he can pull tricks out of the bag with ease, yet is still happy to play something simple when it fits.
  • He is also a showman, he has a whole repertoire of stick twirling tricks and "drumnastics" that add to his visual appeal.
  • He has developed his right foot to a level way beyond that of most other drummers. The speed and power of his bass drum foot are incredible. I like to have a strong right foot in my playing so this is of particular interest to me.
  • He seems to have a lot of humility, he comes across as a genuinely nice guy.

So I was sitting in the church hall with, I guess, about 400 other people, most of whom were drummers, some of whom were very well known. There was Craig Blundell, a well known player and clinician, there was Steve Barney, who plays for Annie Lennox and the Sugarbabes. I am sure there were many more that I didn't recognise, but I didn't recognise them, so I won't name them.

The clinic started with the usual sponsorship stuff. Most of the drum clinics I have seen have been sponsored by companies with a commercial interest and this one was no exception. It was sponsored by Sabian, the cymbal company, Tama, the drum company, Rhythm, the UK drum magazine and Drumwright, a drum dealer.

So we had to sit through Sabian's latest video for about 20 minutes. It was a bit corny and I don't think many people paid much attention to it. It was full of top drummers telling the camera how great the company's cymbals are and what wonderful people work for them.

Then the man himself came onstage. He had a kit set up side on so that we could all get a better view of his playing. For the first few minutes of talking he appeared quite nervous but he relaxed quite quickly. One of the first things he said was that the idea of the clinic was to educate people and, if anyone wanted to come and sit up on stage or anywhere closer to get a better view, just feel free. For about 15 seconds no one in the audience moved a muscle, showing typical British reserve. Then a kid of about 8 got up and walked up on the stage and sat about 3 feet in front of JB's bass drum. That opened the floodgates and loads of others followed the kid's lead. So John Blackwell was sat at his kit surrounded by kids and gangly youths, all of whom would be left gobsmacked by his playing. The way he invited people to come closer to watch was the biggest example of how he appears to be a person with genuine humility.

After a few introductions he started a solo. I can't remember the exact format or details but it was outstanding. He began slowly and softly and built up to extremes of volume and speed and showed off his amazing right foot speed. I think the 8 year old kid may, at this point, have had second thoughts about sitting so close to his bass drum!

I think it's fair to say that most musicians don't like to see a player showing off all their "tricks" just for the sake of it. Probably one of the hardest concepts for a young player of any instrument to grasp is the fact that, in a musical context, playing for the song is the only thing that matters. In a drum clinic the mindset is a different one. This is the time for the star to show off! JB didn't disappoint. There were sticks spinning and all kinds of drumnastics and he still sounded like the steam train of groove.

After the solo he started a question and answer session. He took time to answer every question in great detail, from how to do a one handed roll to an amusing story about how his Father (also a drummer) took him to buy a double pedal but changed his mind on seeing the price. I was struck by his apparent warmth and genuineness. He happily demonstrated things on the kit and made the people who asked the technical questions come up onstage and stand near him so they could see in detail what he was explaining.

After the Q + A he played some more, solo and to a backing track. Then the clinic finished. He had been up on stage for the best part of 2 hours. He stayed around after the show to sign autographs. My 2 kids queued up and were chuffed at the nice way he spoke to them and will definitely remember meeting him for a long time. I picked up some great stuff to work on from him too.

The best thing I got from the evening was a reminder of why I think it pays to be nice. Here was a drummer at the pinnacle of his career, a hero to thousands, who made time for everyone. He came across as the kind of geezer i'd like to have a beer and a chat with. Mr John Blackwell Jr, if by any chance you are reading this i'd like to sincerely thank you for a brilliant evening.

That was the final part of my musical week. I hope I have many more but that one will take some beating!

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