The New Sheiks tour with Geoff Bull and The Finer Cuts

Frank Zappa has inspired bassist and New Sheiks band leader Leigh Barker since he was sixteen. ‘Apart from all the incredible musical things he did,’ says Barker, ‘he was innovative at the time because he broke free of the mainstream recording industry,’ – something more and more musicians do as a matter of course now. There’s something of the steely independent in Barker, and he’s intent on making music that he enjoys – regardless of how difficult it is to categorise. What’s most important for him that he has to love what he’s doing. He believes that if you’re not doing it because you love it, then why do it at all.

This month Leigh Barker and the New Sheiks are touring Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Cootamundra, Wodonga and Melbourne. They’ll be touring with Sydney band, Geoff Bull and the Finer Cuts, a feisty young band led by trumpeter Geoff Bull. You’ll recognise members of the band from the Cope Street Parade. There will be a little ‘battle of the bands’ action and some numbers where they’re playing together.

The New Sheiks
The New Sheiks | photo supplied

At a New Sheiks concert you might hear some delta blues, like Robert Johnson or some Leadbelly – but played by a six piece jazz band. Then a 21st century take with some originals by band members, and then you might hear a standard or two. On this tour, both bands are playing swing and blues. Both bands write their own songs. Barker sees the New Sheiks as sitting in ‘a bit of a niche’, somewhere in the middle of a spectrum of jazz and blues that extends from nostalgic old style jazz tributes to the most modern styles. Asked where he would place their music on a shelf he says ‘Harry Connick Junior springs to mind because he does write his own music. Even though he’s known for a nostalgic thing – those Christmas albums! – he’s actually written a huge amount of original music that not many people are aware of.’

Wherever the New Sheiks and The Finer Cuts play, you’re also likely to find Swing dancers. At 505 the gig is being billed as a ‘Swing Dance Night’ and in Melbourne, the bands will be joined by world champion swing dancer Ramona Staffeld, tap king Grant Swift and famous swing dancers ‘The Uptown Strutters’. Although this kind of dancing is firmly rooted in a nostalgia for the – long gone – swing era the dancers also love the new originals that sound like the music from that time. ‘I used to get worried when they’d book us for a dance,’ says Barker ‘Turns out, there’s enough common ground, and they love it.’ According to Barker, from the perspective of the musicians, the nostalgia dance movement has changed in the last few years. ‘When it became very popular a few years ago, there was a proliferation of dance schools and teachers. Lots of people were still learning and they were drawn primarily to the old records – the Count Basie and the Frank Sinatra. That’s changed in recent years, though and horizons have expanded. There have been a few surprises for the musicians as well. ‘There’s a Leadbelly cover on The Sales Tax; it’s in 5/4 time and you’d think that’s a last thing a dancer would want, but I got an email from a swing DJ telling me that the track is fantastic for slow blues dancing. Great!’

The New Sheiks CD won the Bell award for best traditional recording in 2011, and although he’s chuffed, Barker displays some ambivalence about the win. ‘It’s raised awareness of who we are, for sure,’ he says. ‘and don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we won, but you know how sometimes you come across a recording that you really like – more than like – something you just love. Well, I felt that way about Stephen Grant recording Jazz Hands that was also shortlisted for the 2011 award in the same category. That made receiving it seem strange.’

Sales Tax coverBarker is excited that the wildly talented multi-instrumentalist Grant is joining the New Sheiks on this tour on piano. ‘He’s the right sort of player. He can do that left hand thing, he knows this music, it’s a great fit.’

Sales to trad jazz fans have boomed since winning the award. Barker says, ‘I want to tell them, “There’s no ‘Hello, Dolly” on it,’ he laughs. ‘But I think you’ll find something on it that you like.’


The New Sheiks:

The Finer Cuts:

Read Roger Mitchell’s interview with members of both bands over on the blog >


The New Sheiks

Heather Stewart (vocals and violin)
Eamon McNelis (trumpet)
Don Stewart (trombone)
Steve Grant (piano)
Leigh Barker (double bass)
Sam Young (drums).

Geoff Bull and the Finer Cuts

Geoff Bull (trumpet and vocals)
Justin Fermino (reeds and vocals)
Grant Arthur (trombone and vocals)
Harry Sutherland (piano)
Ben Panucci (guitar, tenor banjo and vocals)
Sam Dobson (double bass and vocals)

Tour details

See more details on the tour page over at the New Sheiks website >

Thu, 6 Dec 2012 Sydney, NSW  8:30 pm | Venue 505

Fri, 7 Dec 2012 Cootamundra, NSW 7:00pm | Cootamundra Arts Centre

Fri, 14 Dec 2012 Wodonga, VIC 8:00pm | Jazz Basement

Sun, 16 Dec 2012 Elsternwick, VIC 3:00pm | The Flying Saucer Club

Video – at 505 in November 2011