Blue-chip artist who keeps alive the spirit of the blues

Ian Siegal
Ian Siegal

IT’S been 100 years since the first sheet of blues music was published – Hart Wand’s Dallas Blues. But the genre is still going strong, at least for award-winning blues musician Ian Siegal who plays in Sheffield this week as part of a jam-packed UK tour.

Now on the 100th anniversary Siegal talks about the genre and how it has remained a part of our popular culture ever since it began in America’s Deep South in the late 19th century.

“There have been changes and nuances within the blues song structure over the years but basically, much of it’s good time party music.”

And the structure of blues, he says, is key to this. “I’ve read lots of theories on the blues structure and why it is like it is and comes down to the blues jam.

“The structure of the blues song is such that you can have sessions in which people can easily join in and improvise – you don’t have to know the song because there is a basic known structure.”

Siegal is a torchbearer of the genre. His latest album, The Skinny, has been nominated for the Best Contemporary Blues Album in the Blues Music Award – the blues’ equivalent of the Grammys, making him the first British artist to be nominated in this category.

He also won MOJO’s Blues Album of the Year and one of only two British artists to be given the highest rating in the Penguin Book of Blues Recordings.

Siegal is entrenched in the legacy of the blues, although he’s modest about it: “I don’t consciously think about it but in a small way I am trying to keep the spirit of the blues alive.”

And while most of Siegal’s contemporaries – including the arena-filling Joe Bonamassa – entered the blues via the influence of British blues explosion of the 1960s, Siegal went straight to the early blues.

“The blues I always liked pre-dated that, I didn’t grow up listening to stuff but, that said, it was thanks to the people like the Rolling Stones I was directed to the earlier blues stuff.”

His latest album is truer to the early blues sound than his last album, Broadside. “There’s a thread with The Skinny and the latest album but The Skinny is much closer to the blues source. It was recorded in Mississippi in a place called Cold Water and in a studio that belonged to producer Jim Dickinson, who worked with many great blues artists.

Now it’s run by his sons, Luka and Cody Dickinson, and for this album they pulled in the sons of some of the great blues players. “There’s a real legacy of the blues on that album – the history of the blues is rooted in its recording,” he said.

And naturally, as a blues artist, Siegal felt quite at home in Memphis. “I feel totally at ease there – music does that. When we were in the studio we all just got our heads down and hit it off straight away, I felt very comfortable.”

But he didn’t sell his soul while he was there. “The crossroads thing and selling your soul to the Devil is all part of the blues folklore.

“It’s a tradition of good and evil battling it out and it makes for interesting poetry.”

On paper, Siegal’s background hardly makes for blues poetry. Born and raised in Nottingham as Ian Berry, Siegal became ‘Siegal’ out of convenience. “One of the bands I used to play in was called Siegal, so people just called me ‘Ian Siegal’ and it was just easier to stick with it.”

Siegal busked his way around Europe, came back to the UK and moved to London, where he has lived for 16 years.

Since then Siegal has paved his way as one of the world’s foremost contemporary blues players, 100 years on from Wand’s Dallas Blues.

Siegal plays at Plug on Thursday, March 15.