Birmingham-based Rebecca and her band are a ‘must see’ live act that often leaves newcomers simply blown away by the power of the performance. With her co-writer Steve Birkett alongside her, a very tight band behind, and Rebecca’s powerful voice to the fore, the 5-piece outfit performs original Blues/Rock tracks from the EP Real Life, the highly-acclaimed debut album Back To The Start and the superb second album Believe, punctuated by a few classic covers in an exciting, passionate performance.
Rebecca was born and grew up in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands of the United Kingdom. She first started performing live music when aged 13 and as a teenager wrote and performed her own material. Some original recordings still exist – a little rough round the edges at times, but the passion and energy comes through, along with the power of her voice. Whilst her career path took her to Staffordshire University to study Fine Art and Art History and then into full-time work, she continued to perform a broad range of live music. By 2009 she was keen to return to writing and recording, but needed encouragement to pick up the notebook and guitar once again.
This she duly got from several sources and in particular from Mark Viner Stuart of Mat Hat Studios whose judgement that she had exceptional talent was based on the hundreds of performers with whom he has worked. There were some false starts and cul-de-sacs in the course of 2010 but in 2011 she linked up with Steve Birkett. Steve, a long-time performer and writer of his own material, had been liberated from full-time employment and had both the talent and time to create more original music. It was a partnership that ‘clicked’, to the intense excitement of those around the pair. Their core genre was the Blues, but right from the start they have stretched their music in several different directions. Their EP Real Life appeared in 2012 and both the recording and live performances of the tracks received an enthusiastic reception. 2012 was also the year that Rebecca left her full-time job for part-time work as a vocal tutor so that she had more time to work with Steve. With more input from Mark and a galaxy of musicians, mostly from the area around Rebecca’s new Birmingham base, the album Back to the Start was crafted, hitting the shelves in late 2013, once again to acclaim from critics and fans alike.
The music business is tough and in the next 18 months progress was slow, despite consistently positive reaction to performances and the album. It was also a period of changing personalities as Rebecca and Steve worked to find the right ‘fit’ with others both within and around the band and to establish relationships with leading lights in the music scene. The hard work paid off, though, and 2015 was a breakthrough year. Rick Benton joined the band on keys, bringing his own interpretation to the set and lifting tracks like Back to the Start to a new level. Lloyd Daker had established himself on drums bringing an infectious, youthful energy along with a permanently sunny disposition. Dan Clark, a long-time musical colleague, made the bass role his own with his funky and ‘in-the-pocket’ delivery. With a settled core to the band, and significant support from outside of it, they started to get noticed and grow their following. The year started at the Skegness Rock and Blues Festival with a performance on the Introducing Stage, voted by the audience as the best of the day, leading to an appointment on the main stage at the 2016 festival. Interest in the band and its work grew via notable performances at Blues clubs and festivals, culminating in the ten-gig support slot with the excellent King King that exposed the band to new audiences across the UK.
In their live performances, Rebecca and her band elevate the album tracks to a new level. The set is interspersed with benchmark cover tracks such as Another Piece Of My Heart but it’s mainly about the original songs with leading tracks from the album Back to the Start such as Basement Of My Heart, Messed Up and Laughter From Her Room at the heart of it. There is circularity here – the original tracks define the performance, the performance then re-defines the original tracks. And, audiences calling for an encore will usually see With A Little Help From My Friends, delivered with a raucous confidence that would make the late Joe Cocker beam.
Which brings us to Believe, the second album, again produced by Mark Viner Stuart and released in February 2016 at the iconic 100 Club in London. Of the 12 tracks on the album, at least half of them had been honed through live performances on the road in 2015, so current fans would have been familiar with Never Gonna Learn, Night Train, Sweetness, 1000 years, It’s That Easy and the thoroughly Bluesy Long Long Time. Sailing On A Pool Of Tears, Momma’s Got A Gun and Salt Winds each break new ground, whereas Could Not Say No and Come With Me Baby, having been mainstays of Steve and Rebecca’s acoustic set, now got the full band treatment. With Believe receiving rave reviews and popular acclaim there was one more adjustment to the band when Rebecca took up rhythm guitar for key numbers of the set. Off stage, Colin Speller, who had been involved in the background for some time, brought his business experience to bear on matters of management and administration. With a strong settled line-up on and off the stage, the band set out to grow its reputation and increase its audience.
Rather than gig whenever and wherever possible they chose to pursue a more strategic approach through a carefully-chosen programme of festival and club gigs interspersed with support slots with the likes of King King, Dr Feelgood and Paul Carrack. The outcome was a growing fan base that showed its support by voting Rebecca as Female Vocalist of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year in the British Blues Awards 2016. The title track of the album, Believe, was voted runner up to King King’s Rush Hour in the Blues Song of the Year. January 2017 saw the release of BeLive, the stunning live album that captures the essence of the band’s gig performance. Rebecca and Steve are now working with the band and support team to review over 20 candidate tracks for the next studio album, which should be released in the first half of 2018. The prolific nature of the Downes/Birkett partnership promises much more to follow after that.
To quote Rebecca: “The studio album title (Believe) represents the belief that I have needed to get this far and the belief we now have in the quality of our music and our live performances. 2015 and 2016 have allowed us to measure ourselves against some of the best around and we believe we have made our own mark. The mood of the album reflects the progress we have made – musically and personally – since the first album. I am both more comfortable in my own life and skin and our own music; the mood of the album reflects that, showcasing different aspects of the journey and vocally how hungry I am to get that live feel onto the tracks.”
All of that sentiment is captured in the album’s title track. This is the real Rebecca, backed by a great band and a superb backroom team, going places and hungry to get there. Join us on the journey, catch and enjoy a live performance, come and say hello, be part of something exciting, spread the word and, above all…
“One of the things that interests me about Rebecca Downes us that she has a whole range of what she can do with her voice. She tends to come across maybe live as mostly a big belter – yes she’s got that – but she’s got lots of subtlety as well. That particular track (Night Train) was an interesting example of her ranging between the two. I’ll be returning the new album definitely” - Paul Jones BBC Radio 2
Here’s what one reviewer thought of a recent gig: “Hey; you know that trick you can do with a fresh bottle of Cola and you drop a mint in and it explodes in a frothy fountain…. Well, take a really hot, tight R’n’B band forged from incredibly talented musicians and front it with Rebecca Downes and the effect is much the same – an explosion of Soul tinged Blues from the days when R’n’B rocked the world. In a genre that’s almost over run with pyrotechnic guitar slingers and rocking Blues shouters, Rebecca is doing things her way; taking the music back to its raw basics; touching the same vibe that Ike & Tina had when it was more about the music than the relationship. In perfect synchronicity with writing partner & band leader Steve Birkett, Rebecca’s take on the Blues is not to merely tell about what brings her down, but to almost celebrate that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. There’s humour in there, and warmth, but don’t try and kick this girl when she’s down, she’ll bite through to the bone.” – Mike Craggs