It’s kind of weird when an artist that is massive on one side of the Atlantic is relatively unknown on the other. Show a North American a Blur, Stereophonics or Kasabian CD and you’ll likely get confused shrugs. Conversely, an (ironically English) band such as The Struts are currently a big deal in the US but relatively unknown in the UK. Southern rock/country/blues band The Sheepdogs can also be added to the list of artists which are ‘huge there but not here’. The five-piece from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan are as much a part of the Canadian way of life as maple syrup, Bryan Adams and sensible gun control legislation.
I first became aware of The Sheepdogs a couple of years ago when they played an excellent support slot to The Temperance Movement during their 2016 White Bear tour. Word quickly spread amongst the Temperance Movement fanbase that the support was something special and accordingly the venues were all packed from early doors. Now they are back to headline their own short tour and they’re big enough to sell out The Borderline in London’s Soho. That’s great for UK audiences; big enough for there to be real atmosphere in the room, small enough to fully retain an intimate atmosphere.
The support on the UK leg of the tour comes from Birmingham’s The Good Water, a band hitherto unknown to me, and they’re a good one. Their take on psychedelic blues was slightly at odds with the southern rock twin-guitar sound employed an hour later but it did come as a very pleasant surprise. The band, a three-piece consisting of guitar, keys and drums certainly has a distinctive sound and look.
Keyboard player Stuart Webb (who looked disarmingly like a reincarnation of Stevie Ray Vaughan) played behind exaggerated arm movements whilst guitarist Rob Clements would have struggled to get more out of his phaser if he’d used a pair of mole grips on it. Between songs, evocative spoken word samples were played to the crowd. This sort of stunt could be acutely embarrassing if the band didn’t have the style and confidence to pull it off. The Good Water have the style and confidence to pull it off.
After a comprehensive stage makeover, The Sheepdogs emerged to great applause. The band are promoting their February released sixth studio album Changing Colours and it came as no surprise that a significant proportion of the set came from it – though little interaction with the Borderline audience between songs meant the ‘promotion’ was decidedly low key. There wasn’t much time for chatting to be honest. A twenty-one song setlist, when much of the music involved extended instrumental jams gave the crowd a lot of bang for their buck.
The most notable thing about The Sheepdogs is the delicious harmony twin guitars of front man Ewan Currie and his right-hand man, Jimmy Bowskill. Both are fine players, but Bowskill takes it to another level.
A protégé discovered by the late Jeff Healey, Bowskill was performing in Healey’s Toronto music club at the age of eleven and he is a sensational guitarist.
Whether he is playing glassy pedal steel on Let It Roll, classy slide on Up In Canada or traditional solos on pretty much everything else, Bowskill does it with style, grace, touch and feel, recognising that what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. Joe Bonamassa should spend less time trying on expensive sunglasses and more time listening to Jimmy Bowskill.
But it is in the harmony guitar parts between Currie and Bowskill where the band really shine and you don’t have to wait very long to hear it, for the unmistakable twang of an Allman Brothers style soundtrack is never very far away. And whilst the vibe of the band is definitely set in the Americana soaked territory of the Allman’s and Creedence Clearwater Revival, there are other clear transatlantic influences around if you care to listen for them. Kiss The Brass Ring, an instrumental cut from Changing Colours that was played tonight is two minutes of pure Wishbone Ash. Meanwhile, Feeling Good from the eponymous Sheepdogs album drips with the essence of T Rex. Noel Gallagher couldn’t have ripped it off any better.
The Sheepdogs are at least as good as the sum of their parts and it’s not just the guitar players that contribute.
Sam Corbett and Ryan Gullen on drums and bass respectively form a formidable rhythm section and special mention needs to be made of Ewan Currie’s brother, Shamus, who appears slightly anonymous behind a keyboard stage right playing some organ stabs and tambourine – that is until he really comes into his own.
The younger Currie plays trombone, which is put to great effect mid-way through the set on I Ain’t Cool and Help Us All. It’s not every southern rock Americana band that can drop trombone solos into their work.
Following over ninety minutes of fabulous music, The Sheepdogs retired briefly to the dressing room whilst the crowd made their appreciation known. When they returned, it seemed fitting that the encore should be a fine version of Ramblin’ Man. When you wear your heart that closely on your sleeve, you might as well show it off for all to see. Tonight, was November 5th. No doubt London’s skies were alive but I was more than happy to be inside the Borderline basement in the company of The Sheepdogs. They delivered more than enough fireworks for all of us.
The Sheepdogs will be back in the UK in January/February 2019 supporting the European leg of Rival Sons’ tour, with dates as follows:
31 January Northumbria Institute Newcastle Upon Tyne
1 February The Barrowlands Glasgow
2 February Manchester Academy Manchester
4 February O2 Academy Leeds
5 February O2 Academy Birmingham
6 February The Roundhouse London
The Sheepdogs and The Good Water, live at the Borderline, London. Review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at: https://www.musicalpictures.co.uk/