Awestruck by a Blues-Guitar Playing 21 Year-Old Horse-Whisperer – A Must See

 

Neil Grove
Neil Grove playing his Fender Stratocaster

Having worked at the heart of the music business for years, I tend not to be “blown away” very often by performers, especially those you hear at open mic nights in the local village pub, but “blown away” is the only description I can use to describe the aftermath of hearing Neil Grove playing his particular brand of old-school blues guitar.

Everything about Neil is different and surprising, as I found when I caught up with him at home recently.  Home, for Neil, is a lovely old house with a farm and stables attached situated on the edge of a small village in the heart of East Sussex.  It’s where he grew up with his family.  It’s also home to pigs, chickens, geese, six gorgeous cats and several horses.  It’s the horses that are the main focus.

Horse Whispering

Neil with horse and new foal
Neil with Mare & her new foal

The first thing I learn is that when Neil isn’t wowing an audience with his guitar skills, he’s “horse whispering.”  He could ride before he could walk and has an obvious affinity with these magnificent animals.  Horses come to the stables to undergo rehabilitation, for example, when people judge them difficult to handle or they bite, rear up or kick people.  The horse-handling aptitude comes from his Mum, who can also take much of the credit for his musical journey.

Talking with Neil, one has the impression of a soul much older than the 21 years he’s been on the planet.  He’s unassuming, quietly-spoken and humble, yet also uncompromising, laser-focused and rebellious.  This is a young guy studying and interpreting music that’s almost 100 years old.  He plays with an infectious enthusiasm and a dexterity that commands spontaneous bursts of applause during songs and generates goosebumps among the audience. He’s studied the blues music he loves down to its very roots, plunging into the black slums of Chicago and reverse migrating to those original cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta.

He talks about his interest in early Rockabilly music and then names you don’t expect to hear from a 21-year-old trip off his tongue as he lists some of his influences.  Earl Hooker inspired Neil’s slide guitar playing – and is the reason he plays in standard tuning.  Cliff Gallup (Gene Vincent & the Blue Notes) and Scotty Moore (guitarist on early Elvis releases) get a mention, both of whom he heard listening to his Nan’s records.

But enough of my yakking – with someone like Neil, the only way to truly understand where he’s coming from is direct from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.  I can’t think of a more appropriate phrase, so I’ll hand over to Neil…

“I’ve always liked music. We’ve always had music in the house. When Mum was younger she used to sing a lot. She likes folk. Traditional English and Irish and the old man likes his rock music – 60s/70s rock – so I grew up with a combination of that.

“The first thing that got me into guitar was a ‘Best of Seasick Steve’ CD that I think my Mum bought for my Christmas or birthday.  Seasick Steve makes his own instruments. I’ve still got that CD. I remember reading the sleeve notes and Steve was talking about songs he played on these homemade things so that prompted me to make my first instrument out of an empty Christmas biscuit tin and garden wire.

Neil playing biscuit tin
Neil playing his first instrument

“My favourite band at that time other than Seasick Steve was AC/DC – that’s my Dad’s influence. I was working out AC/DC riffs on this one string thing using a piece of glass. And discovered that a lot of the old blues players were doing something similar 100 years ago. I spent a lot of time researching. My generation’s really lucky because we have the internet.

“Then my Nan brought me a CD completely by accident, called The Roots of AC/DC thinking that it was an AC/DC album that I didn’t have. It has Chuck Berry and lots and lots of other 50s blues rock and roll.  I’ve still got that one as well.

“My Aunt & Uncle had a DVD that was from the 60s and featured all these blues players on a tour of England and Europe – people like Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker.  I’d go round to theirs and sit and watch this DVD over and over. I’d have been about fourteen.

“By the time I was 15 I’d built other ‘instruments’ with more strings on them. Seasick Steve had one that he’d made with two Morris Minor hubcaps and my Dad had a friend who had an old Morris Minor so he got me the hubcaps and I made an instrument out of them and an axe handle.

“My Mum’s always had a guitar as she used to play but I didn’t pick that up.  Thinking about it, it was a conscious decision to play my own creations.  I thought it was different and I didn’t know if I was clever enough for a proper guitar. There was also some rebellion in it, like I’m not going to play what they all play.

“Part of the story I missed out is that when I was 13 or 14, I took mandolin lessons for about a year until I started building my own instruments. So I’d sit and work out how to play AC/DC and Led Zeppelin songs on the mandolin. That helped me work out how to play them on these ridiculous creations. Then one day I just picked up the guitar and realised I could do the same things I could do on all these home-made things.  So one string had led to two strings, and then eventually to six.”

Neil on Mandolin
Neil playing mandolin

I asked Neil whether he thought that going along that route made him a better player because he’d started with something that was difficult to play?

“Well I had a little bit of mandolin technique where you use the plectrum but when I ditched the mandolin I stopped using picks because the blues guys I liked and watched on video didn’t use them. For example, Hubert Sumlin who played with Howlin’ Wolf got fired from the band because he played too loud using a pick. And then he stopped using them and was rehired into the band again.   So I decided to stop using one and just play with my fingers. I developed a slightly different right hand technique compared with most people.

“I only had my ears, I didn’t have any chord books and I never took lessons on guitar. I’d always just put CDs on and sat there and worked out riffs so when I picked up the guitar I did pretty much the same thing. I started playing different strings together and realised I could make chords, except I didn’t know what they were called or anything. I managed to work out how to play them by watching clips and stuff. And I used to watch – and I still do – lots of live performances on YouTube. There’s lots of really old footage that people put on there. There’ll be a full gig of Muddy Waters from the 60s which is reasonably good quality and I’d just sit there and watch for hours and try to play along. That way you develop an ear for picking things up reasonably quickly. Now I usually only have to hear something once before I can play it.

“I wasn’t good at school subjects. I was a bit of a loner.  Things might have been different if I’d lived in town but living here there was always something to do in the yard so I had responsibilities – there are things you just have to do otherwise you couldn’t live here. It’s a way of life.  I didn’t really have much of a social life.  My life was working with the horses and playing guitar so I spent a lot of time alone watching these old videos.

“I guess my first public performance was at the Six Bells, Chiddingly, Open Mic.  I performed with a guy called John Odie who was a friend of a friend who convinced me to go and play in public.  When I first arrived, I was frowned upon because I had an electric guitar.  I just didn’t own an acoustic. I’d saved up some money and bought this old Japanese guitar.  People like Hound Dog Taylor used these old catalogue Japanese models and I found one for £180 on Ebay.  So I took that and my little Fender amp that I’d bought from a music shop in Tunbridge Wells for £220 – it’s still the amp I use for gigs now so it’s made its money back.  Anyway, it went well and people said they were amazed by it.  Well, I was only 15.  There are still people who have recordings of that performance.

“I went to a few more Open Mics and did some music evenings at my school in Uckfield so those were probably my first public performances. Then I played my step-Nan’s birthday party down at the village hall.  They had a rock covers band and I played for an hour before them, so that was my first gig.  I’d just acquired my main guitar, which I still use, my Fender Stratocaster that my Dad bought me from the Friday-Ad.

“Mum had this friend, Kelvin Messenger from Eastbourne. He’s quite a local legend – a professional musician since the 70s – he and Mum used to play together in the 80s. So she contacted him we went down for a visit and I got to learn about better guitars like Fenders and that’s when I decided I needed a Stratocaster.  Kelvin has a massive Stratocaster collection.  We started a trio with Kelvin on guitar, me on second guitar and Mum singing.  We were playing stuff by the likes of Fairport Convention and I was playing a few blues numbers as well. We played around Eastbourne.  That was about 2018-19.  It’s also through Kelvin that I learnt about correct guitar chord terminology.  For example, I knew how to play a diminished chord but I didn’t know what it was called.

“I’ve never been confident singing. I was never out of tune or anything but I hated the way I sounded so I never tried to project my voice. But one night at the end of 2019, just before Covid lockdown, I went to an Open Mic at the May Garland in Horam. I was singing BB King’s ‘Rock Me Baby,’ which we play in the band’s set now. The PA speakers were out the front and there was no monitor.  I couldn’t hear myself so I started to sing really loudly. Someone filmed it and when I heard it back I thought I sounded a bit like Captain Beefheart.

“Then came Covid lockdown so I decided to work on my vocals.  I realised I could do things with my voice so spent time in lockdown working on how I wanted to sound.  I’d say my biggest inspirations for vocals have been Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. Then I’ve added different bits from other people like Little Richard.  I’m a massive Little Richard fan and he does these really cool little screeches.  I’m still working on the vocals now.”

Neil’s Trio:  Midnight Cannonball

Midnight Cannonball play live
Midnight Cannonball live

“I didn’t look for band members, they found me. I was going to the Hare & Hounds, Framfield, Open Mic nights and one evening Greg, the bass player, just happened to be there.  After I’d played, he approached me and said he really liked what I did. He said if I wanted someone to play bass to give him a call so we swapped numbers and then he came round here for a jam. We decided to get a reasonable set together and I’d get us a gig up at the local. It’s just nice to play there because there are a lot of people I know who come along.

“We were going to just do it as a duo but I put out some ads on Facebook saying this is what we do and we’re looking for a drummer. I’ve always wanted to have a trio. I never wanted to be any bigger than that because a lot of bands I like are trios and it just gives me freedom to do more without having to worry about other lead instruments.

“So Jez joined and it turned out he knows a lot of the people I know and various family members.  We didn’t know this when we first met, it was just after getting to know each other we discovered all these connections.

“I used to go out solo as “Peg-Leg Grove” as I was born with a deformed lower leg and had it amputated at the age of 11 so I have a prosthetic.  But then I thought it was a bit silly and sounded like a cliché so I dropped it.  When it came to the band, I didn’t want to be big-headed and put my name in front so I thought about how The Rolling Stones were named after the Muddy Waters’ song ‘Rolling Stone’ – which actually isn’t by Muddy Waters, it came out about 20 to 30 years before. So I spent a few evenings looking through lots of songs and came across this Big Joe Turner song from the late 40s.  I thought it sounded quite cool so I took it to the others to see if they thought it worked.

“We’ve been together as a band for about 8-9 months. I approached Graham Pope, a local gig promoter, and asked if he’d sort of manage us at least in terms of getting us gigs.  It’s thanks to Graham getting us reasonable gigs that we’ve managed to start building a following.”

Instruments

“For the trio I only play the Stratocaster with 11-48 gauge Rotosound strings. I use the pure nickel as they give a more balanced, vintage sound. I really like the feel of the Rotosounds and I like that they’re made in Kent.  I still do the occasional solo gig too and for those I play an acoustic with Elixir 11-52 strings.  That’s quite a light gauge for an acoustic but it makes sense because I tend to bend strings a lot.”

And what of the future?

“Well, I’d like to have more gigs and bigger gigs and I’d like to have my face on a proper record – vinyl.  That’d be cool.

Midnight Cannonball play Uckfield Festival al
Attracting a Crowd at Uckfield’s Weald On The Field Festival

“And musically, the kind of music I like’s evolving.  The kind of blues I like to play isn’t straightforward anymore. I have more of a jazz influence now. I’ve spent a long time studying the old music from the 1930s and analysing every bit of the playing. I don’t think people spend enough time doing that.  One of my current favourites is Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown from Texas and I really like Nick Curran – he’s a great guitar player.  There’s a great album I’ve listened to so many times over the last few months by Jimmie Vaughan – Stevie Ray’s Brother – it’s just called ‘Jimmie Vaughan Trio’ they’re an organ trio like the old Hammond organ stuff from the early 60s. It’s just really good.  I listen to Jazz and Jump-blues as it’s swing music in 12 bars. I like that sort of style.  Kenny Burrell is someone I’d never really looked into until Greg came along because Greg’s really a jazz player so these influences are shaping our playing. Saying that, these old blues players I’ve mentioned like T-Bone Walker, ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and Pee Wee Crayton were mixing jazz and blues in the late 40s on some of the first real electric guitars.”

The Stables & Horses

And before we head off for another trip to 1940s Chicago, I suggest a mosey around the farm and stables. It’s clear Neil can talk about the blues until the horses come home, but I’m keen to become acquainted with the four-legged part of his life.  And what a treat it is.

Neil with his stallion, Fireblade
Neil with his Stallion, Fireblade

The stables offer livery and breeds Andalusian horses.  I first meet Neil’s own stallion – a majestic creature named Fireblade.  There’s an affinity between man and horse that’s palpable and a joy to witness and I can see why people bring him their horses to be schooled.  We head to the fields to see a couple of mares with their beautiful foals.  Neil introduces me to some of those that are currently for sale:  two yearling mares, two 2-year-old colts and two 3-year-old colts.  They’re all quite stunning with unusual markings.  If you’re interested, you can find out more about the horses here:  https://www.grovewoodandalusians.com.

Horses for sale
Some of the Horses Currently for Sale

So there you have it.  A one-legged, 21 year old horse-whisperer playing traditional blues music dating back almost a Century and stirring up audiences wherever he and his superb accompanying musicians play.  I told you his was different, go see for yourself.  I promise you’ll be “blown away.”

Midnight Cannonball Website

Midnight Cannonball YouTube

Have you been lucky enough to catch a Midnight Cannonball performance, or a solo performance by Neil? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Author

  • Maria Bligh

    Maria Bligh is a journalist, published author, professional speaker, singer and artist now settled in Sussex, UK, having previously travelled extensively throughout the UK and overseas, including a period living in Geneva. Married to a successful musician and with a background that encompasses working in the music industry, finance, sales and presentations training, she maintains a diverse existence. Her interests encompass travel, nature, animals and the arts: music, theatre, painting, writing and philosophy. Maria now writes for online and print magazines. Having once maintained a regular full page in “A Place In The Sun” magazine, travel is an obvious interest, but her articles also cover a wide variety of subjects. She bills herself as “an observer of the human condition and all that sail in her.” Maria has frequently appeared on radio & TV as well as in print. Her humorous style has seen her travel the world addressing audiences throughout Europe, Asia and Australasia and as a cruise-ship speaker with P&O and Fred Olsen.

3 thoughts on “Awestruck by a Blues-Guitar Playing 21 Year-Old Horse-Whisperer – A Must See

  1. You have got the essence of Neil, so thrilled to read this, we think he is wonderful, in his work with his horses, and we have grown to love his music, we go to his gigs when we can, always so good. Shall continue to do so, to follow our Grandson and his music.

  2. Known and encouraged Neil to take his music as seriously as his talent makes it sound for a number of years. It was obvious early on that he was something that bit special.
    Though it’s not yet released he played a solo on what will become my own 2nd lp and I’m proud to have him on it.
    You have captured him well, humble but focussed and a one off individual rarely fallen across in life… but he comes from some fairly exotic stock.

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