Promoter Rupert Orton on how it all began in Norwich
PUBLISHED: 12:09 13 March 2018 | UPDATED: 17:30 14 March 2018
As he returns to his spiritual home, Rupert Orton reflects on a musical life from Norfolk to Mississippi
Promoter Rupert Orton is bringing “roots music with honesty and a punk rock attitude” back to the region where he grew up with a series of gigs at Norwich’s Arts Centre and festivals in Suffolk and Norfolk.
Once a guitarist in local heroes The Pits, Orton has taken a circuitous route back to his “spiritual home”, featuring a celebrated sister, a “lightning-bolt moment” on the London Underground and an appearance on US TV’s biggest chat show, playing in a band which “soared like a rocket” but ultimately left him “driven into the ground”.
It all began with a gig by The Ramones at Norwich’s LCR in 1979. “I was 14 and it blew my head off in that way that can only happen when you are a kid, but it also had an unexpectedly profound effect,” says Orton. “The day after I wrote about it in English and got pushed up to the top stream and ended up passing my exams.”
Further life-changing enlightenment followed via punk bluesers The Gun Club’s 1981 debut album, Fire Of Love. “It had covers of songs by people like Robert Johnson. I thought ‘where is this music coming from?’ My friend’s dad Roger Greenwood was a real blues aficionado - we used to call him ‘The Professor’ - and he made me tapes of the original artists.
“At the same time I was watching blues performers like Mississippi Slim at Norwich Arts Centre. I was transfixed. I’d been going to watch (anarcho-punks) Crass the week before. That duality has stayed with me.”
Orton took his love of punk and blues home with him - and says it had a life-changing effect on his sister Beth, six years his junior, too. “I was listening to a lot of punk rock in my room and playing my guitar loudly. I think Beth’s reaction was, ‘f*** this, I can’t rebel against this by going noisier. I’m going to rebel against it by listening to Van Morrison and Rickie Lee Jones.”
By the time Norfolk’s queen of folktronica made her mid-1990s breakthrough, her brother had moved to London and was focused on a “normal” job. That changed when he started a blues club night, booking surviving original blues artists David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards. “He was 90, he’d played with Robert Johnson and was, as legend has it, there on the night he was killed in 1938. With him that there was an electrical current which ran through him from the 1930s to the present day.”
Then there was T Model Ford. “His life story was like a cliché of a blues player but in his case it was actually true. This guy had killed someone, he’d done time, he couldn’t read or write. He had untold children.
“I convinced my girlfriend to go on a romantic road trip to visit him in Greenville, Mississippi, where the two remaining businesses are crack cocaine and prostitution. His girlfriend drove us in convoy to the housing estate where they lived because if we’d driven in alone, we wouldn’t have made it. We sat on his front lawn drinking Jack Daniels with him, watching this 80-year-old play guitar.”
Meetings like this resulted in a “road to Damascus-type conversion” shortly after the 7/7 attacks, when Orton was “sitting on the tube, everyone looking at each other nervously, and it hit me like a lightning bolt - ‘do music full-time because you could get killed tomorrow’.” The normal job was ditched, but there was a key flaw in his business plan: “The problem I had was all those old guys died.”
Into the void came The Jim Jones Revue, designed to be “a band which would get back to the raw essence of rock ‘n roll. The energy which came out of our first rehearsals was immediate and incredible. The whole thing just went bang immediately.”
With an exuberantly quiffed Orton on guitar - “it takes a lot less time getting dressed when you’re a promoter than it does when you’re in a band,” he says - the Revue went quickly from Radio One sessions to 30,000-seat festivals in Europe and a date on the David Letterman Show. “We had a steep trajectory, but I was managing us too and cracks started to appear. We crashed and burned, but we went out with a bang”. The end came in 2014, with sold-out shows at Norwich’s Open and London’s Forum.
Since then, Orton has built his reputation as a promoter, with shows in London and Norwich. “It feels right to be back doing things at the Arts Centre, where my mum worked and where Guy Myhill, who is now a film director, encouraged me and my friends to create things when we were teenagers.
“I take niche and unique acts that I think are brilliant and I try to bring them to a wider audience. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it is extremely satisfying.”
Rupert Orton promotes The Handsome Family (Norwich Waterfront, 20 March), Bob Log III (Norwich arts Centre, 23 March), The Red Rooster Festival (Euston Hall, Suffolk, 1-3 June) and The Gunton Arms Festival (Thorpe Market, Norfolk 4 August). More details at punkrockblues.co.uk
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