Chris McMullan, left, and Andy McGibbon of the Bonnevilles.
By Geoffrey Cobb
An ocean and thousands of miles separate Ireland from the hill country of North Mississippi, but 30 years ago when Andy McGibbon, the front man for the Northern Irish blues band the Bonnevilles, first heard the music of Mississippi’s Robert Johnson it moved him like no other music he had heard before. McGibbon quickly became totally infatuated with the music’s rawness and seductive energy.
Although McGibbon had grown up listening to hip-hop and American country music, Johnson’s song seduced him so completely that he determined to undertake the challenge of mastering the blues guitar, far away from its Mississippi home.
McGibbon began to listen to various blues artists and had an epiphany when he heard the pulsating and hypnotic raw rhythms of North Mississippi hill country legend R.L Burnside as a teenager in McGibbon’s hometown of Lurgan, Co. Armagh.
Although he was raised around traditional Irish rhythms, McGibbon, found an escape in the blues from Northern Ireland’s Troubles, listening to Burnside’s pulsating beats. After years of practice and thousands of gigs, McGibbon and his bandmate and drummer Chris McMullan have truly mastered the edgy and gritty sound of Hill Country blues.
The Bonnevilles take pride in preserving the vital, raw and unadorned sound that is the essence of the blues. Like all great blues performers, their music is best heard live, and like the bluesmen of old, the Bonevilles tour relentlessly, rocking venues not only in Ireland and the U.K. but also all across Europe. Chris and Andy pride themselves on being working musicians who never tire of playing the music they love.
In 2015, McGibbon realized one of his fondest dreams when he was invited to play at the Deep Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Miss., the heartland of the blues. The band’s sweaty, raw elemental sound convinced skeptical locals that an Irish band could master their art form.
The Bonnevilles have recorded three studio albums on Alive Records as well as a live album in Belfast, but they are leery of studio recordings and have jealously protected their sound in there, fighting to keep the raw, groovy blues sound that is the band’s trademark. McGibbon related how a recording session in Dublin turned into a disaster, as the producer ruined their songs, making them overly complex, while robbing them of the driving beats and basic rhythms that are the band’s trademark. McGibbon said of the experience, “Recording can make a good song bad. “
The original juke joints where the blues were played were rough places where rowdiness and fistfights were the norm. The Bonnevilles would have felt at home in the rough world of the juke joints and many of their lyrics evoke similar rough and tumble images. Their songs “No Law in Lurgan” and “Good Suits and Fighting Boots” capture the gritty venues Johnson and other early bluesmen played and sang about.
The band hopes to tour New York and the United States soon. New Yorkers will be amazed that a Northern Irish band has so perfectly mastered such a quintessentially American sound. Many Bonneville listeners are struck by the similarity between the Northern Irish band and the Black Keys and the North Mississippi All Stars, yet their sound is still uniquely their own, an elemental infectious blues beat you will want to hear. For more information, go to www.thebonnevilles.co.uk.