GROUNDHOGS / STRAY
A Double-Header of Titanic Proportions
Glasgow 2.13.10, Wolverhampton 2.14.10
by Todd K Smith

It’s cold in Great Britain. There’s snow on the hillside and ice in the pond. Winter is in deep REM, slow and sluggish. Yet, in the damp, dark heart of the season, a defiant fire burns. In a fight against nature, two bands shrug off their frosted woolies, don their denim and leather, and fuel their engines. Their profile as living legends rallies the dedicated masses and brings them to the rejuvenating fountain where electric blues boils over onto 70’s hard rock.

The Groundhogs and Stray have become true purveyors of the genre. Their roots are crusted over with names like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and the three Kings (BB, Albert and Freddie). The Groundhogs even backed John Lee Hooker on his 1964 UK tour, recording the immortal Hooker & the Hogs. Led by guitarist/vocalist Tony McPhee, the Hogs released Thank Christ for the Bomb (’70), Split (’71) and Who Will Save The World? The Mighty Groundhogs (’72). All reached the top 10 in the UK. Stray blossomed from a psychedelic prog outfit in 1969 to a hook-laden rock band by 1971. McPhee sealed his approval of the group with a fitting tribute on the back of Stray’s ’73 classic Mudanzas.

Over the past forty years the two bands have often toured together, even more so in the last decade. Though hailed as national icons, nether group broke into the international market on a large scale. And, at this point in their career, they have melded into rhythmically tight, profoundly entertaining and visually exciting bunch. Last spring (‘09) 65-year old McPhee suffered a debilitating stroke that affected his speech but not his playing. In fact, he seems more focused as a guitarist able to deliver a brilliantly executed set of metallic blues.

On both night’s the Groundhogs opened the evening with Tony’s wife Joanna filling in on vocals. McPhee looked healthy, agile and surprisingly spry onstage. His guitar moaned and groaned under his fingers as he squeezed out distinguished gems like John Lee Hooker’s “No More Dogging”, the Bomb’s “Eccentric Man”, and sharp-edged “Garden.” Dave Anderson’s bass provided a muscular groove while Carl Stokes bashed about on his drum kit. Deputized Joanna sang with remarkable strength allowing the music to carry her away in spirited dance.

A moment of reverence hushed the crowd when it was announced Tony would sing Muddy Waters’ “Still a Fool”. The guitar went up a notch as McPhee wailed through one of the band’s greatest lives standards. A miracle to behold! “Split 1, 2 and 4” followed in order with Blues Obituary highlights “Mistreated” and “Natchez Burning” running to the end of the set. Split’s “Cherry Red” put the final jewel in the crown and the crowd erupted with delight.

After a short break, Stray lit up the stage with original guitarist Del Bromham in a flurry of energy and high-steppin’ boogie. Dressed in faded jeans, leather vest and top hat Bromham exudes stage presence becoming one with the guitar and sending shards of notes into the audience like ninja shuriken stars. Stripped down to a power trio, the guitarist replaces original vocalist Steve Gadd and proves his soulful voice can still deliver the classics. Stray’s heyday was ’71-74 and burst again in the late seventies, however tonight the set sounded current and surprisingly fresh.

It’s amazing how a three-piece can sound so enormous on stage. Credit falls to bassist Stuart Uren and drummer Karl Randall for keeping the backend tight and grounded allowing Bromham the flexibility needed to maneuver through “Houdini”, Saturday Morning Pictures “After the Storm”, and Suicide’s monster, “Jericho.” The guitarist introduces three new tracks “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”, the sensational “Free At Last” and nostalgic “Harry Farr” from their current Valhalla opus.

The old tunes stood toe-to-toe with the new as the band ripped through a storming “I Believe It” from Mudanzas and Hearts of Fire’s “Buying Time”. No Stray set would be complete with out the band’s standards “All in Your Mind”, “Time Machine” and encore “Hallelujah”. On the second night, the band took a request from the crowd and did a roaring version of “Suicide”. Bromham, in full distortion, used his guitar to grind out the song’s final notes against a stack of Marshall amps. He then hung the guitar from the rafters and whipped it with its own power chord. The chaos was a frothy end to a magnificent set proving once again how legends never die – they only get better.

Website: Groundhogs, Stray

Photo of Stray courtesy of Linny Meakins