Though the name Li’l Chuck may not ring many bells, perhaps David Thorpe aka Davey Backyard Music will. Having spent the last decade in Christchurch’s Black Velvet Band, as well as various other projects, for Thorpe, originally of UK origin, Li’l Chuck – The One Man Skiffle Machine is his chance to pay tribute to the musical glories of the past, as Sammy Jay Dawson discovers.
Inspired by the sounds of early jazz, western swing, ragtime, blues and folk, Li’l Chuck – The One Man Skiffle Machine is the culmination of a lifetime obsessing over music from the good old days for Christchurch musician David Thorpe.
“This isn’t my first ever project. I’ve been involved in a lot of things over the years, and they’ve all taught me little things, but this is the first where it’s 100% me. I’ve written everything, performed everything, been in charge of every aspect of release and promotion. It’s truly a labour of love, and feels like something I’ve been working up to all these years.”
Li’l Chuck’s left and right feet are busy stomping the kick drum and hi-hat respectively, and while his guitar and harmonica skills are immediately impressive, it’s his art as a story-teller that propel his songs to life.
“In Manchester in the late ’80s, while walking down the street I saw a bloke playing hi-hat, kick drum, resonator guitar, harmonica and singing. It was mind-blowing. I’d never seen a resonator guitar before, or for that fact anyone doing anything so raw without accompaniment. He was called The Little Big Band. I bought his cassette and loved it.
“At the time I was really into classic metal, AC/DC, Def Leppard etc., but because of my love for those bands I’d started to work backwards and discovered the blues. So to find this artist playing old blues songs, Dylan songs, it really started to expand my musical horizons. It was like a light bulb going off in my head. From there I delved into many styles of roots music.
“Through trial and error I started to teach myself harmonica, traveling and meeting others, picking up bits here and there. Joining bands, jamming with people, just started learning as much as I could. But as the years went on I still had that dream to do an album in that one man band style I’d seen.”
Moving to Christchurch in 2003 has perhaps been the biggest inspiration for Li’l Chuck, with the 2010-2011 earthquakes a period that coincided with the start of a young family of Thorpe’s own.
“I thought, ‘If there’s any time you start focusing on what you want to do it’s now.’ I had to start taking control of what I really wanted to do in life. So that’s when Li’l Chuck started.”
As a result, his debut release, ‘Blues In Full Swing’, recorded at Peel Production Studios by John Gardner, is as much a love letter to old time music as it is a celebration of his own family. The 13 tracks showcase not only his masterful co-ordination, but also his skills as a songwriter and their potential in a one-man format.
“I met John through kids’ playgroup, of all things. When we formulated the plan for recording I knew I wanted it to be live, in a relaxed situation. We set aside an extended period of time, took the clock off the wall, put the kids to bed. It was very laid back. I did a few live takes of each song and let John do his thing. He was very vocal about getting me to do a better take if he thought I could.
“There’s a limit to what one man can do simultaneously in a live setting. If you count the two drums separately I’m playing four instruments and singing. If you decided to add keyboard overdubs and things it would mess with the dynamic. Live I wanted it to sound like I was playing in your living room, so I felt no need to add unnecessary overdubs to the recording.”
Whether busking or performing in an array of venues, connecting with his audience is something of a specialty for Thorpe/Li’l Chuck. A quick flick through the album’s sleeve notes reveals that he is, in his own words, a “music geek,” inviting listeners to play harmonica along with the provided lyrics. There’s an obvious personal attachment to the album, but one can’t help feel that ‘Blues In Full Swing’ is just as much about having fun and expanding the possibilities of the one-man-band as it is paying tribute.
“His old time/skiffle niche is very natural and authentic for him,” says fellow Christchurch one-man-band artist Stompin’ Nick. “There’s a lot of warmth and optimism in Chuck’s music because that’s a reflection of his personality. It was great to see him go the one-man-band route. I’ve always been impressed by the way he wins people over at gigs, he has a lot of friends in Christchurch.”