Lauded by stars like Gary Moore and Jeff Beck, Ben Poole has been called one of the UK’s most promising and impressive blues rock artists He talked to Fergus Byrne about where he is today.
Long described as one the most exciting young rock, blues and soul artists to come out of the UK for a long time, Ben Poole is remembered locally for playing a storming concert at the David Hall in South Petherton the last time he visited in March 2020. However, Ben has another reason for remembering that last visit. It was one of his last gigs before a lockdown that spelt misery for both musicians and music lovers for the best part of two years. ‘I remember people talking about it and thinking “nah it’ll be fine”’ he says, recalling the publicity about Covid coming to the UK. But of course it wasn’t fine, and within a few days his whole lifestyle and living disappeared.
Like many other musicians he realised how much his life depended on being on the road and how much he missed it. ‘When you’ve lost everything that you’ve built up over the years, when you’ve lost a hundred, hundred and fifty gigs a year or whatever you’re doing, you realise how much you miss it.’
It’s probably fair to say that many aspiring musicians as well as seasoned semi-professionals fell by the wayside without work during those two years. Some focused on different career paths while others sat tight, but watched their moment and perhaps their motivation slip away. It was carnage for an industry that thrives on human contact. But for those that survived and remained committed to their work, the excitement of getting back in front of a crowd is slowly returning.
Ben is delighted that he can now get back on the road and is looking forward to touring in the UK, Canada, USA, Romania, Lithuania, and all over Europe this year. ‘It’s going to be fun to get back out there—doing the festivals again especially’ he says. However, one place his hard work had built up a huge fan base will have to wait. He was scheduled to play a five city tour in Russia in March but for obvious reasons that was cancelled. A consummate touring musician with a natural warmth and interest in his fans, Ben has made friends all over the world and even has a WhatsApp group of musicians from big stadium bands in Russia that he keeps in touch with. ‘It’s just really sad for everyone involved’ he says. ‘All my friends are obviously embarrassed, and angry as well. I’m hopeful that things can get resolved soon because I’d love to go out there again.’ He says he is very aware that many ordinary people in Russia don’t want what is going on.
That world seems a long way from when he first learned how to play Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile. That changed his life. It was about twenty years ago, and although he had owned a guitar since he was nine years old, he credits a really good guitar teacher with getting him to play it. ‘I got a guitar teacher that was really cool and kind of inspiring’ he says. ‘That made all the difference.’ His father was a professional musician and Ben remembers that although there was a piano and a ukulele and guitars around the house he only ever gravitated towards the guitar. ‘So I can’t play the piano to save my life, unfortunately’ he laughs. ‘I wish I’d been less OCD when it came to that. I was so OCD, it was like guitar, guitar, guitar. I’m going to concentrate on that rather than try my hand at a few different things.’ He remembers that particular teacher showing him things that were ‘exciting and cool’. At the time it was Metallica, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix or Guns and Roses that he found exciting. ‘That made me want to sit down and play’ he recalls.
He played his first live gig at about 15. With perhaps a tinge of embarrassment he explains that he was in a metal band then. ‘I guess when you’re in school at that age you kind of fall into liking what all your friends are into. It takes a while to work out what you really like.’
However he knew that his guitar was his future, so when the drummer in his first three-piece band elected to go to the British and Irish Modern Music (BIMM) Institute in Brighton, Ben decided to ditch his thoughts of doing a History degree and focus on his music. ‘At that point I was watching Stevie Ray Vaughan Live at the Mocambo and making a career out of it seemed like a long shot, but I thought I might as well try’ he says. BIMM may not have rocketed him to fame but it certainly helped cement his love for his genre as well as give him a new home. He stayed in Brighton and from there began working on the old school way of building a fan base—solid gigging, touring and a lot of hard work.
His talent was spotted by great players such as Jeff Beck who he played with and the late Gary Moore who gave him one of his favourite pieces of advice. He told him to allow a song or solo to breathe, to think of what happens between the notes and that the space in a song or guitar solo is as important as the notes played. Playing on stage with Jeff Beck at age 21, Beck initiated a round of applause after Ben played a solo. Ben recalls it as one of the coolest moments of his life.
Looking at his career since then it’s fascinating to watch Ben’s rendition of Hey Joe at the Bluesmoose Fest in Groesbeek, Netherlands in April 2012. Now the most viewed video from the Bluesmoose Festival it shows a spikey haired young boy in a grey singlet and pink sunglasses pulling off one of the great covers of a Hendrix classic. He plays it on a telecaster that looks like it could end up one day looking as used as Rory Gallagher’s famous Fender Stratocaster—a guitar once described as ‘like a diary of the journey his music had taken him on’. Ben’s guitar could probably tell a few stories too.
Ten years on, and although it hasn’t lost any of that raw energy, Ben describes how his music has developed. ‘Since then maybe I’ve got a bit more confidence, coolness and a bit less nervous energy.’ He is definitely more soulful and agrees he is a more mature guitar player as well as singer. ‘These days there’s a lot more influences’ he says citing people like Paolo Nutini and James Morrison. ‘Sometimes a bit more funky and a bit more soulful in the songs. Just covering a bit more of a broad spectrum. These days I’m a little bit more complex than that.’
The same can be said for his songwriting. He says you have to swallow your pride when writing songs. ‘You’ve just got to be honest and wear your heart on your sleeve a little bit and drop the ego’ he says. ‘As musicians we try to put on a little bit, especially on stage and in social media and stuff. You just have to be a bit more vulnerable when it comes to songwriting. Be honest. People can see through it when it’s bullshit.’
Listening to Ben’s music, from his first album Live at the Albert Hall to his most recent acoustic work with Guy Smeets, it’s easy to be tempted to wonder whether he might one day cross over to a more commercial sound. There is little doubt that he has the talent and ability to reach a wider audience, perhaps in the same way that Eric Clapton refined his sound without ever leaving his roots. Would he try to be more commercial? ‘Not intentionally’ he says. ‘Whenever you try and force yourself into a certain scene, try to write more poppy songs—I’ve found that doesn’t work for me. I just have to be honest with myself and write what I want to write. Most of the good solid fan base that I’ve got sticks with me. Trying to sit down and write something that is not being honest, not being me—I’ve always found doesn’t come across as very authentic.’
Ben Poole is at The David Hall on May 7. www.thedavidhall.com