Pompey Punk'n'Roll all-dayer on South Parade Pier headlined by Jim Jones All Stars | Interview
It’s one of the great abiding legends in popular music – a young bluesman called Robert Johnson making a deal with the devil at a crossroads.
Johnson recorded just 29 different songs, but those tracks have become The Rosetta Stone for not just the blues, but R&B, soul and rock’n’roll.
That Johnson died in 1938 aged just 27 – possibly poisoned by a jealous husband, the facts are murky – only adds to the story’s mythic status.
Jim Jones has spent his career tapping into the primal energy in the roots of rock’n’roll. Through his various bands, including Thee Hypnotics, Black Moses, The Jim Jones Revue and latterly The Righteous Mind, the London-based frontman has maintained a passion for that raw power, welding garage-rock to something almost spiritual.
So when his latest project – The Jim Jones All Stars – went to Memphis, Tennessee, to record their debut album, obviously the first thing the band did was to all pile into a van and drive the 70 miles to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to pay homage at the crossroads where Johnson struck his deal.
‘So we went and did a midnight prayer at the crossroads, lit some candles and left some offerings,’ says Jim, ‘some rum and cigars.
‘Weirdly enough, while we were there, just before the stroke of midnight, this old black dude came walking out of the darkness and spoke with us and hung out with us.
‘He took one of the cigars and then just after midnight just kind of disappeared into the darkness again, saying something about: “Don't go across those tracks...”
‘As far as we were concerned – a stranger met us with at the crossroads at midnight, we'd made an offering and a prayer to the gods of greasy music that we could get as much soul into our music as possible, and then this guy appeared and disappeared – that's it, job done.
‘It was just some old dude, who happened to be wondering around, it was a Sunday night so it was pretty deserted apart from that – there was no one else around.
‘He took the cigar and walked off and we never saw him again.
‘We drove back to Memphis kind of dizzy with jetlag and the heavy southern weather.’
Pre-pandemic things had been going well for Jim Jones and The Righteous Mind – their second album CollectiV had been released to great acclaim in 2019. But for a band which thrived on playing live, the lockdown was anathema.
‘For a long time no one was allowed to play live,’ says Jim, ‘but then little pockets of light started to come back – shining through – just pulling everyone together again.’
However, it was just ‘an odd Saturday here and there.’
‘A lot of the guys from The Righteous Mind, like everyone else, had had to find something else to do in the meantime, so it was hard to drag them away from that for a one-off show.’
The distinctly un-rock’noll realities of logistics and band members with family who have health issues impacted by Covid made it impossible.
Jones admits to getting ‘a bit depressed’ about the situation, but it was the persistence of his friend Gus Robertson that proved to be the catalyst for the creation of the All Stars in summer 2021.
‘He plays with The Rotten Hill Gang but he's a promoter as well as a musician, and he books one of the stages at Wilderness Festival, just near Oxford.
‘He called me up and said can you do the main slot on my stage?
‘I told him: “Look dude, I can't get my guys together, it's just not going to happen. It's best to go with someone else”.
‘But he came back to me a couple of times: “Are you sure?”
‘In the end he said: “Jim, why don't you throw a few people together, put together a rocking band and get an hour's worth of stuff and come and play.”
‘I was, like, alright, look, I'll email a bunch of people, and I thought to myself, as soon as someone says, “Ah, no”, or, “I'll do it, but I have to be picked up from here, and need to do this, and do that...” As soon as it looks like being a pain, that's it: Nah! And I won’t bother.
‘But weirdly enough, everyone I got in touch with came back and said they wanted to do it and I ended up with 11 people – three saxophones, piano, backing vocals, percussion and it sort of turned into this big thing…
‘It came together pretty well, so we did the show. People liked it and started getting in touch: “What about that new outfit of yours?” “Do you want to come and play here?”’
It has now settled into a nine-piece line-up, including the Revue’s original keys player, Elliott Mortimer, long-standing bassist Gavin Jay, plus ‘people I've known since back before Thee Hypnotics days’, guitarist Carlton Mounsher, singer Ali Jones, drummer Chris Ellul of The Heavy and three-part sax section Stuart Dace, Chuchi Malapersona of Oh! Gunquit and Tom Hodges from The Hare and Hoofe.
As the offers came in, Jim maintained: ‘As soon as someone is like: “I can't do it”, I'll just write it off.
‘But this project, it's just one of those things where it feels like the planets keep aligning around it. Normally with running a band, it's like Sisyphus – that Sisyphean task where you keep pushing that rock up the hill and then someone pushes it back down and you have to start again.
‘But with this project, things just keep falling into place. My outlook has remained: if it's easy and everyone's up for it, we'll do it.
‘As soon as someone starts complaining, life's too short, it’s done, but it keeps lining up.’
From there another old friend, this time in America, got in touch ‘wanting to start a label and suggesting it would be good for my new project to record.
‘Seeing as the majority of the music had a real soul feeling to it – because I've got the horn section there now – he suggested we should record in the south.’
Next thing, Jim’s stateside, checking out studios in Nashville and Memphis – including legendary places like Muscle Shoals: ‘We looked at all these studios where that music we love was originally recorded.’
Fortune smiled on them once more when it became apparent that the band could stay and rehearse in an old mansion while they were out there.
‘In the south, you know about the blues and the soul, and the Chitlin’ Circuit,’ the name given to the venues run by and for Black people in the early 20th century, ‘but there's also that southern aristocracy, and not all of them were slave owners, there were the Mark Twains and the civil rights supporters of this world, there's that heritage there too.
‘I thought it was great to see both sides – see the greasy studio side of it, and also some of that other side.
‘The planets just kept aligning around it – and if everyone's free to go... and they all went: “Yeah, I can be free that week!”’
While out there, they squeezed in a show with Greg Cartwright and Jack Oblivian at Bar DKDC (‘Don’t know, don’t care’).
‘We met a load of locals, and while we were playing this girl came in who looked great. She was this Black girl with a cool Afro, and was wearing a Germs [the early American punk band] T-shirt. She knew some of the words to some of the stuff. I spoke to her afterwards, and she's called Nikki Hill – she's got her own band and this great gospel-type voice.
‘I told her we were trying to figure out some backing vocals somehow, and she goes: “I'll come to the studio!” Again, the planets were lining up.
‘She came down to the studio and did everything in one take – just opened her mouth and this great gospel/soul voice came out. As effortless as drinking a glass of water – she was great.’
The record will mostly be new material with a couple of covers thrown in. And as to when we can hear it?
‘There's no deadline on it – we're just going to work on it until we're happy and then put it out. If it goes like everything else, it should be ready just at the right time for it – whenever that is! We'll just trust in fate and keep going with the flow.’
Live, the band is playing songs from throughout Jim’s career – the first time he’s done this, typically he’ll only play songs from his current band.
‘We've played a good few shows now, so the band's really gelling. We're doing some new songs, some Hypnotics stuff, some Jim Jones Revue stuff, some Righteous Mind stuff, some other covers.
‘I've never done that before – it just seems like the right time to do it, and people seem to really dig it – whenever we've played so far the response has been fantastic. Everyone has a great time.’
And it sounds like the band has lifted Jones from his lockdown doldrums.
‘Since coronavirus and everything we've been through, I'm just so grateful to be able to play live and raise that kind of energy again. It makes everything... really special.
‘You have this feeling that everything might just shut down again at any minute, so it's a real joy – and not to take anything for granted.
‘Maybe we'll get back into heavy touring and I'll get worn down and jaded by it again, but at the moment, it's given a fresh joy to everything, and I feel that really comes through in the gigs.’
And as to The Righteous Mind?
‘It's not over – it's just taking a backseat until it's viable.
‘I’m just going to keep rolling with this one while it’s rolling...’
The first of three outdoor summer Pompey Punk’n’Roll on The Pier shows, Jim Jones All Stars headlines at South Parade Pier on Sunday, July 3.
Also playing from midday to 7pm are Das Clamps, Black Bombers, The Mudd Club, The Glorias, Thee Lonely Hearts, and Professor Baba and his Invisible Band, plus the Surf City DJs.
Tickets £20, from book.events/pompeypunknroll.