The Curst Sons
From the Delta to Brighton via the Appalachians?!
Isn't musical taste a strange thing? How is it acquired? Much of it is down to radio, parents or peers record/tape/c.d collections, magazines or any number of other media outlets, the main one nowadays probably being the internet, although fairly obviously this only applies to the last 10 years or so. Way out on, or even beyond, the edge of the popular music world are those of us that had their curiosity pricked by a song, an album, or even a feeling that was generated by something we heard at a certain time & led us to delve into the influences of the artist on that song, album, etc. Maybe we listen to that artists influences & then work back eventually to the early days of recorded music to see how that genre came into being & trace it
through to the modern day. This is what happened to me & eventually led to me lecturing on the history of the Blues & Americana music. This is also, in a nutshell, how the Curst Sons came into being. I've listened to thousands of recordings of early blues & country (Hillbilly as it was known then) music & have heard many artists playing these, as well as other music forms in the last 40 years. Some have copied the originals faithfully but have not been able to copy the feeling. A very few have taken the music, given it their own individual interpretation & made the music sound authentic simply because they have caught the feeling & immersed themselves in it. Even fewer can achieve this, plus have the ability to write their own songs & intersperse them with some from the early days of recording without anyone but the initiated being aware. This is a very rare feat, in fact the only band I have ever come across that do manage this successfully are the Curst Sons.
They are 3 Brighton based men who have been playing as the Sons for
about 10 years now, although all had played in numerous bands prior to this formation & enjoyed varying degrees of success. Although I have just spent a paragraph trying to describe their music it is probably best left to Willi (Kerr, most of the lead vocals & percussion) to define it, “People are always asking us what we call our music and as a quick shorthand we came up with the term Hillbilly Blues. A better, though more pretentious sounding description might be Deconstructed Rock n’ Roll - we take the various disparate elements (Blues, Gospel, Hillbilly, Old Time,Folk) that went to make Rock & Roll music and play them all separately!”
They are usually a three piece band, although have been known on
special occasions to employ the services of a drummer & bass player. I can even remember one occasion when they had someone playing a tuba! Again, over to Willi 'The three piece, drummer and bass free line-up was conceived partly to keep the raw authentic sound of the music which inspired us but also to allow us, (physically and financially) to play smaller venues. We were originally called The Three Curst Sons but landlords didn’t like it – under the old rules you could have up to two musicians playing in a Pub without a music licence, this was regularly flouted but the band name rather gave the game away!”
Amongst other things, what really helps to push the authenticity is their
great musical talents, their arrangement ability & the instrumentation. Willi takes most of the lead vocals & is responsible for virually all of the percussion as well. The mainstay of this is his 'Mighty rhythm pole'. This is basically a broom handle with a rubber ferrule on one end, strung with wires that are threaded through numerous beer bottle tops. This is used to strike a board or wooden floor to give a booming thud which added to the sound of the tops clashing, makes a huge sound. It is also at times beaten or scraped with a ridged striker. It is Willi's own design, being a more sophisticated (he claims!) version of the 'Lagerphone' which is used by Australian bush bands & is adapted from an Aboriginal instrument! When he is in full cry with his stick & his roaring vocals, bass & drums would be totally unnecessary anyway! The power generated really has to be seen & heard to be believed. The other two permanent members are Dave Simner, who plays electric guitars, banjo & supports on vocals. As Willi says “Musically Dave is the rock, patiently working something out and sticking to it through thick and thin, holding the live shows together.” Last but not least is Tim Dunkerley on electric & acoustic guitars plus mandolin, all played at times with the aid of a slide! (Yes, even the mandolin!) He also takes some lead vocals as well as harmonies & has been known to play the spoons! Again his description is best left to Willi, “Tim is the great improviser, hard to keep focused but suddenly exploding with flashes of genius!”.
A smaller band also makes organising gigs & rehearsals easier & means
less chance of personality clashes. After ten years together in this band & nearly thirty in other lineups they know each other pretty well! They work incredibly well together with Willi writing the lyrics & coming up with a 'feel' for the song & then handing over to Tim & Dave to “make sense of my wooly concepts”.
I'll leave it to Willi again to explain their songwriting & define their varied motivations, “While some of our original material is traditional style story songs and murder ballads others tackle subjects closer to home. For instance, The Cold Wind deals with my initial diagnosis with cancer when I was given just a few days to live and Ain’t Dead Yet was written to mark 10 years since then, (and also to please Linda [his wife] who thought my songs were getting a bit dark). Secrets of the Boudoir comments on tabloid Kiss and Tell culture and the horrors of confessional TV. Little Note Book is a song about a celebrity stalker while Hell Awaits You is dedicated to George Bush and Tony Blair! Rock Covers Band shows our disdain for the human jukebox, a basic lack of imagination in musicians and audience. It’s the difference between an artist and a forger, both need good skills but one is just parasitizing the other! Funnily enough someone once asked us if we knew any Brian Ferry songs! We don’t like to be too precious but it’s kind of insulting. When they Made You (and its reincarnation as WTMY Blues) refers to a bad relationship while When I Give You my Love is about a good one, and Help the Poor Struggler (Lyrics by Tim) was inspired by Albert Pierpoint, Britain’s last hangman who also owned a pub of that name”. Add to this brew the fact that they are also likely to play old songs by blues greats, Son House, Blind Willie's McTell & Johnson, then move on to Clarence Ashley & even Creedence! They have so far made three excellent self released albums, A DAY LATE & A DOLLAR SHORT, HEY MOON, followed by HELL AWAITS YOU & are currently working hard on a fourth, which has been much delayed by several family tragedies. Whilst never studio-slick, they do try to give the songs on their CDs a bit more depth (with over dubs and guest musicians) than the raw visceral power of the live versions, thus ultimately giving them more staying power/ listening hours? The albums are a mix of their own originals mixed up with old hillbilly & blues songs. There should also be mention made of the “Similar Sisters”. These three young ladies are two daughters of Dave, plus a friend of theirs. Their beautifully harmonised vocals have enhanced several of the Sons recordings (& occasionally gigs), but never more so than on the beautiful Young Bride from the HELL AWAITS YOU album on which Kate Simner duets beautifully with Willi.
Live, they are prepared to play virtually anywhere on planet earth! Highlights of the last couple of years have been several festivals, one of which was last years Applefest near Lewes in East Sussex. They played in the Marquee at the festival on the Saturday afternoon & they drove much of the packed venue into such a frenzy that by the end many of the audience were on stage dancing with the band! What made this even better was the fact that there was no sign of any aggresion, except for the way the band attacked their brilliant music! If ever there was a band that evoked a response from a crowd & then fed on it themselves it must be the Sons & of course when the response comes, as it always does, they seem to up it another notch & so it goes!
They played the Borderline in London as support for Billy Joe Shaver who was hugely impressed by them. He couldn't get his head round the fact that they are three Brits & not from high up in the Appalachians or down in the Delta! They play pubs & clubs all over southern England, as well as a festival in Cumbria. It surely won't be long before they spread their wings even further with trips to northern England & perhaps even the continent. The trouble is their local fans don't get so many opportunities to see them anymore, but such is the power of success!
The first time I ever saw them was back in their early days when they were support to Brooklyn hillbilly punk band the Boggs at a Brighton venue that didn't have a reputation for suffering blandness or a lack of effort! In fact, someone described it as needing a considerable sum spent on it for the venue to be upgraded to 'dive' status. For all that, it is a decent venue whose patrons enjoy themselves & help performers to create an atmosphere. The Sons played first & were absolutely incredible! I suppose because it was a punk venue they seemed to take on a threatening persona & with their amazing musicianship & Willi's roaring vocals they completely won over the crowd that had gone to see the headliners. The Boggs followed with a completely lacklustre performance & were heard afterwards, by several people, to say that they didn't try to put on a performance because they simply couldn't compete with the Sons! It would be nice to believe this because it backs up what the crowd leaving at the end were thinking. This was basically a punk crowd but the Sons can just as easily adapt to the usual cross section of people that you get in pubs & clubs or even, as with Applefest, to a family audience.
Perhaps the final word on their attitude should again go to Willi, “Some
musicians insist on concert hall silence, we reckon that if we can’t hold peoples attention then we are failing at our job. The Curst Sons don’t like audiences sitting around with their mouths open like they’re watching the telly, interact with us and you’ll get a much better show…and never ask for Duelling Banjos”!!!
Mike Morrison talked to Willi Kerr. (His mighty rhythm pole was not harmed in any way)