INTERVIEW: Monkey Junk
The Monkey Junk band – and their namesake weekly night at The Butterfly Cabinet in Heaton – take me back to the travelling I did in America last year. To the sweat soaked, sawdust floored, graffiti covered, hip shakin’, beer drinkin’, foot tappin’ Juke Joints of Mississippi and Louisiana – but in a rather nice suburban cafe in Heaton. It’s a juxtaposition that shouldn’t work, but does, and you can see there’s something special happening here.
Monkey Junk is comprised of John Nellist and Andy Turnbull. Both North East music stalwarts that have been in several projects throughout their careers. Blues has always informed John Nellist’s style in one way or another, his voice can be gruff and rasping, and is perfectly accompanied by Andy Turnbull’s superb guitar skills. Their love of the blues has led them to create a haven for ‘bluesicians’ right here in the North East.
“We wanted to make a Juke Joint – get people together for a free night and have a good time,” they say of their inspiration for the night, and they’re still looking for musicians to play. “There’s a lot of blues musicians out there, but they seem to be scattered across the region and because of this, unfortunately, the blues scene is overlooked. We’re hoping to keep the Junk club going to give a home to the blues and create a scene.”
Current favourites at the club include Billy Sharp (“he’s got a great repertoire and a hell of a voice!” says Andy), and Rob Heron & The Tea Pad Orchestra (“they’re welcome to play whenever they want!”). Duo Michael Littlefield and Scott Taylor have caught my eye in particular through the Monkey Junk YouTube video channel – and listening to them you find yourself shocked to discover they’re neither in their mid-50s or black – displaying an astounding vocal range, guitar lines that flutter around your ears, lulling you into a foot-tapping trance. “They really know how to play the blues,” John praises, “every time they play they get the crowd going, including myself, their style is authentic and you can tell they give it their all every time.”
We generally steer far away from covers in this magazine, but the blues kinda necessitates cover versions. Like folk, the best blues songs are standards, their authors unknown. “The ratio leans heavily towards the covers side,” says Andy, “but I don’t think there are any blues covers really. It’s a style, everybody uses everybody else’s lines and no one knows who originally wrote any of them. It’s been that way since day one, we just recognise certain ones more easily; it depends on your record collection.”
Some people do play original tunes though, and the boys have been impressed by bands that don’t usually write blues music coming up with brand new tracks just for the night. “Most notably for me Holy Moly And The Crackers, who are a folk band, did a crackin’ set of originals and oldies but they managed to keep their particular sound in there,” Andy enthuses.
Atmosphere contributes so much to a night like this – the Butterfly Cabinet’s plush red curtains are drawn against the night outside, from the gilded ceiling and retro glam chandelier to the patterned wallpaper and paintings of BB King, Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker adorning the walls, it’s a homely and comfortable atmosphere that everyone seems to enjoy. “The Butterfly Cabinet is our home for sure, but we are wanting to hit the road and take it out of Newcastle and play other venues.” The band recently supported Bob Log III at The Cluny, and their performance at Brew Dog had the crowd on their feet dancing all night. “I think we’re on to a good thing!” Says John.
On the night I attended, folk maestro and entertainer extraordinaire George Welch played, and, when looking past his often humorous ditties, his folky tales are laden with meaning. The blues here has the same principles – tales redolent with history and hardship – perhaps the Tyne and the Delta’s not so far apart after all.
The Monkey Junk Blues Club takes place every Thursday at The Butterfly Cabinet in Newcastle.
- Preview: Joanna Chapman-Smith @ The Butterfly Cabinet