Out To Lunch Festival
Black Box, Belfast
20th January 2018

There are many kinds of blues dating back many decades. There’s Memphis blues, Delta blues, hill country blues, and Hokum blues. And there’s Dave Arcari. He’s introduced to the Out To Lunch Festival stage as a “National Guitar Madman”, and with said guitar glinting in the spotlight, he’s off like a steam train.

Opening with ‘Cotton On My Back’, there’s a clear American theme to follow as the gravel-voiced Glaswegian guides us on a journey across continents from the Clyde to the muddy waters of the Mississippi.

A banjo sits to the side of the stage, prompting Arcari to apologise in advance saying that some people “take a fuck-off pill” when they spot the instrument. The banjo takes revenge, snapping a string only a few bars into its tune persuading Arcari to take things down a gear with ‘Travellin’ Man’.

There’s more to Dave Arcari’s back-catalogue than foot stompin’ American blues. A few years back, BBC Scotland asked him to work with the words of Rabbie Burns and the Scottish lilt of ‘Parcel Of Rogues’ is the resultant “anti-traitor” song.

It’s an afternoon show and while the yardarm isn’t even past three, there’s a raucous run through of ‘Whiskey In My Blood’ followed by equally impassioned ‘Trouble In Mind’ and ‘No Easy Way’.

I’m not precious. Don’t wait for me to finish a tune if you need to go get a drink. It’s important to drink.

Thus spake, the bearded Scotsman with an earnest charm before delving into a tale of Johnny Cash songs, digging through the Sun Records back-catalogue, lamentations at sounding “fuck all” like Johnny Cash and coming out of the studio with a version of ‘Blue Train’ that Sam Philips would have been thrilled to put out.

Texicalli Waltz’ similarly has an attached story. This one of a closed down venue, a fruitless journey thereto and memories of SXSW festivals gone by. Launching into ‘Good Friend Blues’ sees Arcari put everything he’s got into the performance, rocking all over the stage before taking a break for a beer and a spot of banjo repair.

Less than ten minutes later, Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Stagger Lee Blues’ gets an outing before Arcari takes us back in time with ‘Givers and Takers’, and ‘Homesick and Blue’. The latter is a beautiful example of Dave Arcari’s unique alternative take on the blues, modern life makes up the lyrics with references to spending too much time online and yet the riffs are those of a world-weary bluesman.

‘Still Friends’ is a more tender moment in the set, sounding more like something from Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ allowing us all to draw breath and take a sip of something sweet. Coincidentally, the next track is ‘Cherry Wine’. While it’s a liquor often mentioned by songwriters including Van Morrison, Arcari warns us that there’s nothing sweet about it, comparing it to Benilyn cough mixture and warning any fellow songwriters to stick to writing about what they know.

‘Devil’s Left Hand’ sees Arcari at his most manic. Voice sounding possessed, he races around the stage hollering across the River Styx itself. It’s the most energetic one-man blues show you’ll likely see this year. With the set drawing to a close, there’s time for some Arcari favourites such as ‘Got Me Electric’, ‘Hangman Blues’, ‘Hellbound Train’, and ‘Close To The Edge’.

Dave Arcari offers up thanks to all, to the festival organisers, to the bar staff, to the blues greats, to Buck White, RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and CeDell Davis. He exits the stage on ‘See Me Laughing’, leaving the mid-afternoon crown baying for more. There’s little room for dancing with the cabaret seating out in Belfast’s Black Box, much less any chance of a mosh pit so Arcari ventures into the crowd for an acapella sing song before rocking out with ‘Walkin’ Blues’.

Two hours of blues, sweat, and tears. No gizmos or gimmicks and while there are no new tricks, there’s plenty of life in this old dog yet.