In 2009, at a weekly blues jam at Morrison’s bar in Belfast, Lonesome Chris Todd (guitars/vocal) from Ballyclare, County Antrim, met Richard J. Hodgen (drums/washboard) and Dave Thompson (bass/ukulele bass) from Bangor, County Down. Before long, the trio became The HardChargers and an exciting new chapter in Northern Ireland’s long history as a cauldron of energy and innovation at the furthest edge of the British Isles’ blues experience began.
From Ottilie Patterson, the pioneering blues-wailing Comber, County Down, sensation in Chris Barber’s band in the 1950s through Van Morrison’s Them at the forefront of the Belfast’s Maritime club scene in the 60s, Rory Gallagher’s Taste based in Bangor at the end of that decade and into the embattled 70s with home-grown icons like pianist Jim Daly, vocalist Kenny McDowell and guitarist Ronnie Greer keeping the blues flag flying at Belfast’s legendary Pound club, and on into the 80s, 90s and beyond with the likes of harp wizard Billy Boy Miskimmin, guitar/vocalist Graínne Duffy, and powerhouse duo the Bonnevilles, the growth of blues festivals in the North and a bar scene awash with 60s survivors and rock-blues cover bands, Northern Ireland has long had the blues – from its head down to its shoes.

The HardChargers have always been ‘out-of-towners’, both a part of that scene and single-mindedly outside it so they simply got on with forging their own path. That path has led to an annual itinerary of 80–90 gigs a year the length and breadth of Ireland since 2012, with routine repeat bookings and four self-released singles and EPs prior to the nationally released debut album Scarecrow in October 2017. They have been repeat guests at numerous Irish festivals including Monaghan’s Harvest Time Blues Festival, Wicklow’s Knockanstockan Festival, and the Hilden Brewery Festival, Lisburn, opening for ‘popular’ artists such as the Waterboys and Alabama 3 at shows in some of Northern Ireland’s biggest venues along the way.

Eschewing the standard covers, the HardChargers are an electric power trio steeped in inspiration from the greats of the pre-electric blues – Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, Bukka White and Willie Brown, et al. to the progenitors of electric blues such as Lightnin Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and Frankie Lee Simms. Their live set is an electrifying reimagining of all of the above, combined with the lyricism of Chris Todd’s real-world blues and a musical language exquisitely refined from all of Blues/Roots and Rock history since.

Lonesome Chris Todd: ‘There’s a kind of blues orthodoxy in Belfast that comes from that “golden age” in the 60s – and partly, we’ve reacted against that, insofar as we believed that the Blues was a living breathing art form for decades before and the decades since the British and Irish R&B boom of the 1960s. I think we felt that many people were becoming so misty-eyed over this one “golden age” that they were in danger of ignoring the brilliance found at the roots of the music in several other “golden ages” whilst also discouraging originality. We thought there was still room for more re-invention of the wheel and I’m glad we’ve stayed true to that.

‘I was born in 1980, so whilst I’ve had the privilege of seeing and learning first-hand from the likes of Jim Armstrong and Billy Harrison [both ex-Them], and hearing the same Rory Gallagher records that everyone in Ireland is rightly proud of, I also spent my teenage years listening to as many of the American Blues artists as I could find from the recordings of the 1920s right up through every decade to artists who sprung from the 1980s Blues and Roots/Rock revival spearheaded by bands like The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Blasters and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Through the history of this music there have been outsiders and underdogs in their own time and, funnily enough, The HardChargers have kind of had that experience within the blues world in our time! We have found the space beneath the underdog – it can be frustrating, but it makes you stronger!’

That strength was needed during 2017. Having recorded their debut album Scarecrow in late December 2016, the band members took a planned sabbatical, aiming to regroup for gigs and an album launch in the second half of the year. The vicissitudes of life intervened and for different reasons both Dave and Richard decided, in October, to move on.

Lonesome Chris Todd: ‘2017 was a tough year for all of us, for all sorts of reasons. The band played a handful of gigs in May, another handful in August and a couple after that, but that band was largely on hold – we were all having to deal with various things in our personal lives, and sometimes life throws stuff at you that makes you have to reconsider your priorities. It was right for Dave and Hodge to move on and I don’t hold any grudges whatsoever about that – in fact, I want to pay tribute to both of them for giving so much for so long to the band. We lasted eight years as a team – almost as long as the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, but at the opposite end of the food chain! That takes some staying power, but we had good times as well as hard slog.’

Going forward, the HardChargers will be a more flexible entity, with Lonesome Chris Todd joined on any given occasion by a bassist and drummer drawn from a pool of six players – including the highly-regarded Ali MacKenzie (bass) and Davy Kennedy (drums), formerly of the Mighty Mojos, and Jan Uhrin (bass) and Peter Uhrin (drums), formerly of the Kaz Hawkins Band.

Lonesome Chris Todd: ‘The sound of the HardChargers going into 2018 and beyond will be very similar to the sound before. New players bring their own thing, but the songs, song structures and guitar and voice are the same as before. I’m looking at it as an exciting adventure, a fresh start – the same, but different. Scarecrow is a fantastic encapsulation of the original band, in my view, and 2018 will most certainly see the HardChargers building on that – with new songs, gigs in new venues and new territories, but the same energy as always!’

While festival stages provide the band with opportunities to play all-original sets, catching one of the band’s two-hour plus barroom gigs will typically feature two-thirds original material and one third covers. As if to underline their commitment to a huge breadth of Roots music styles, many of the covers are twangy uptempo instrumentals by the likes of Lonnie Mack, Dick Dale and Roy Buchanan, allowing the band to take audiences on a journey from Mississippi Juke Joints to Chicago Taverns to Texas Roadhouses and more within the space of a performance.

With Scarecrow’s national UK release, Lonesome Chris Todd is now focused on getting the word out about the HardChargers beyond Ireland and taking their hugely distinctive, exhilarating brand of the blues on the road in Britain and Europe.