Finding a place to interview Benjamin Darvill, who goes by the stage name Son of Dave, doesn’t prove easy. His dressing room consists of little more than a sink, a toilet and a shelf, and is just too small. Even though he is tonight’s main act, he has conceded the main dressing room to his support, an ostentatious six-piece with a heavy reliance on glitter.
There is football on in the bar, so we decide to retreat to the smoking area. It is raining. We find the only shelter we can, a covered summer bar. But – as it’s raining – the shelter is being used as storage instead. We stand either side of the bar, amongst empty beer kegs and full bin bags. Darvill does his best to shield his cigarette from the leaky roof.
I catch up with the bluesman at The Bodega in Nottingham, where he’s coming towards the end of his latest tour, for his new covers album ‘Explosive Hits’. We are talking pre-Brexit about the benefits of living in the EU. The Canadian moved to London 20 years ago because it was part of Europe. He hails the multiculturalism of his homeland but Darvill feels that Canada is “culturally landlocked”, isolated even from the US. He swapped the prairies of Winnipeg for our capital because of “the London markets, and the chaos, and that it is part of Europe, and so it’s a real melting pot.”
He also wanted a fresh start as a musician. He had found success as a multi-instrumentalist in the nineties folk-rock band Crash Test Dummies, but afterwards wanted to go back to his blues roots. He discovered his signature sound, old-time blues fused with modern technology, on the streets of London at the turn of the century.
“The whole record business was crashing and burning… going into A&R offices at record labels was just a horrific experience. So I gave up and just to make it real I took my harmonicas and a little battery-operated amplifier and microphone, and went busking. I quickly figured out that doing some beatboxing mixed in with the harmonica playing was the way forward. Then I remembered that in my gear buying days in the 90s I’d bought a loop station. That gave me the ability to sing and do a little more.”
Doing “a little more” now consists of Darvill laying down beats using his mouth, stomping his feet and shaking a rattle before creating a groove on the harmonica. Over this, he can solo on the harp or sing. For a one-man show, he covers a lot of the stage, manically jigging and jerking around it. He spends more time standing on his chair than sitting on it. His box of harmonicas is nearby, each in a different key. He has to constantly change them between and even during songs, which means he has to be strict in keeping to his set list. So he has to know how to work his audience.
He appears on stage wearing what looks like a cross between a prison uniform and a pair of pyjamas, accessorised with a bootlace tie, fedora and sunglasses. After the first song he declares that he “can’t see a fucking thing.” He removes his glasses – only to reveal another smaller pair underneath. This draws his first laugh from the audience. Later in the gig, he will invite a middle-aged couple to sit on stage, serve them white wine and have them become his percussion section for two songs. He starts a conga line for his cover of The Champs’ ‘Tequila’. The crowd came out to dance on a Saturday night, and the bluesman has delivered.
It had not always been so easy. Darvill recalls a night back in 1987 at the Blue Note Café in Winnipeg. The venue had hosted the likes of David Bowie and Axl Rose and Slash. One night word got out that Neil Young was back in his hometown for a school reunion. Darvill, who had played the venue the night before, made sure to leave some gear on stage in case Young dropped by. Sure enough, he did.
“He was looking at the harmonicas and the neck brace and the guitars, and I did the unthinkable thing: I sort of reached out and tugged on his coat a little bit… and he turns around and looks at me – he’s a scary man actually – and I say ‘Mr Young, sir, I put that guitar there and those harmonicas there, and that neck brace, thinking that you might drop by, and you can use them if you want, on the condition that you get me up to play a tune on the harp.’”
It only took one song before he was called up on stage by Neil Young to jam. “He makes me take a solo, and then he makes me take another one, and another one. Three. Three times through the 12 bars. So I’m sweating. I’m doing a good job, and then he stops. Into another song.” For two more songs, this continued. “He’s really giving me a hard time, and he makes me play. Fourth song, he says ‘you sing one.’” Despite Darvill’s protestations, he was forced to sing, “which was humiliating.”
By then, word had got out. “People were just running out into the street and screaming ‘Neil Young’s having a jam in here,’and the place was rammed.” Local musicians were each taking their turn in the jam, with Darvill being forced to take more solos. “The bastard, he left me, at song 5 or 6, he left the stage, snuck off while the whole thing’s still rocking, and he went out back, leaned up against my car, and got high with some people, while I was left with this sinking ship of a blues jam.”
Darvill can’t be too disheartened by the experience though; a few months later, Neil Young released an album of R&B-influenced songs. He named his backing band The Bluenotes, and said that the inspiration for the record came from that very night.
Son of Dave’s latest album, Explosive Hits, draws from a much wider range of genres. He has stamped his unique take on a number of covers over the years, and decided to make them into a record. Although some of the tracks are blues standards (including Lead Belly and Robert Johnson songs), there are a number of surprises. AC/DC’s ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ and Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’ work very well, but even more unexpected are his takes on Daft Punk and Paloma Faith hits.
“I know Paloma from years back when we were covering the smaller clubs,” he says, so he knew she wouldn’t mind him covering ‘Just Can’t Rely On You’. He asked her to share the accompanying video on social media. Her response? “She said, ‘well to be honest, it’s a bit depressing. You’re getting really drunk in there and spinning on your head knocking over a table of drinks and acting like a lunatic, and most of my fans are about 15 years old, and so it’s not really something I can share,’” recounts Darvill in his best Dick Van Dyke impression. “And she’s absolutely right. I made a very adult video.”
Darvill’s own audience is more diverse. “There are always 20 people with grey hair at a show, but then half of the people are young as well.” Approaching fifty years old himself, though, takes its toll. However this was put into perspective last year when he supported Iggy and the Stooges in France. Iggy, twenty years his senior, still “puts on a wicked full on show and he covers that stage back and forth a hundred times in his set.” Will we see Son of Dave doing the same for years to come? “I go for it, and then I collapse afterwards. At this age… the legs start to hurt.”