The death of Sylvia Robinson this week brought to an end the era of Sugar Hill Records, the groundbreaking label that showcased some of the key rappers and one of the hottest rhythm sections of the last 30 years. Ohio-born guitarist and vocalist Skip McDonald was part of that unit and has since forged a formidable career playing with funk/dub pioneers Tackhead and developing his solo project Little Axe. Since the successful debut album The Wolf That House Built in 1994, McDonald’s blues/dub/soul sound has gone from strength to strength, most recently heard on the Bought For a Dollar, Bought For a Dime CD on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label.
McDonald plays the kind of blues you thought they didn’t make any more. He integrates some of the conventions of dub, R’n’B and Latin music to add spice to the mix, and his visionary guitar playing now sounds more than ever like the missing link between John Martyn and James Blood Ulmer. His songs are apocalyptic, almost Old-Testament visions of an America blindly waging war on its rivals, and, with the help of a loop and delay pedal and some of Keith Leblanc’s borrowed drum breaks, he’s becoming a formidable one-man band, transforming into his very own Adrian Sherwood or Carlos Santana in an instant.
McDonald appeared here in the tiny but cosy back room of The Star of Kings pub in King’s Cross, joking that ‘there are so few of you out there that I can call you all friends!’ But reunited with vocal pair Kev Gibbs and Saz Bell and top harmonica player Alan Glen, the sound was full and rich despite some hairy moments for the rookie soundman.
McDonald prefaced Son House’s ‘Grinning In Your Face’ with the sage advice: ‘Once you identify your enemies, you look after your friends…’ and in mid-song dedicated a spine-chilling ‘Enemy’ to George Dubya. He then led the audience in a rousing singalong on the powerful ‘If I Had My Way’ and let loose some filthy guitar frequencies on ‘Storm Is Rising’, adding almost flamenco-like trills on his trusty electro-acoustic.