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'First time we played Belfast we caused a riot!'

They performed with Chuck Berry and Bruce Willis, but their first gig here will always be memorable, say Nine Below Zero, as they return to the city.

By Andrew Johnston

It has been an eventful 37 years for rhythm 'n' blues veterans Nine Below Zero. Formed in 1977 in south-east London, the hard-working combo have experienced the highs of being signed to major label A&M, touring with everyone from Chuck Berry to The Who and appearing on the very first episode of cult BBC comedy The Young Ones.

These days, the band - still led by guitarist and vocalist Dennis Greaves - are more of a cult act, but they continue to tour and release new music, including 2011's The Co-Operative album, a collaboration with Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze. Tomorrow, Nine Below Zero return to Belfast to play the Out to Lunch Festival, and the gig at the Black Box is already sold out, unsurprising as the band have built up a solid fan base here.

"We've been over many times, and it's always been special," says Dennis. The frontman still recalls Nine Below Zero's first visit to these shores. Indeed, it would be hard to forget. "It was at Queen's Uni in 1981," he explains. "At the time, not many bands were travelling to Belfast, and there was a riot at our gig with so many people trying to get in."

The Belfast connection runs deep, with Nine Below Zero's line-up featuring several Northern Ireland-born musicians over the years. As well as current drummer Brendan O'Neill - formerly of Rory Gallagher's rhythm section - and recently departed long-term bassist Gerry McAvoy - another Gallagher alumnus - the group boasted Belfast blues scene stalwart Billy Boy Miskimmin on harmonica for a spell in the late 1990s.

But for the current tour - which sees the band performing tracks from their re-released first two studio albums, 1981's Don't Point Your Finger and 1982's Third Degree - Dennis has re-recruited the members who played on them. "We're coming over with our original line-up from the 1980s," he reveals. "So, it's Mickey Burkey on drums, Brian Bethell on bass, with me and Mark Feltham (on harmonica)."

Feltham has been by Greaves' side on and off for much of the past four decades. As well as his work with Nine Below Zero, the virtuoso has played with a string of big names, including Annie Lennox, Oasis and Robbie Williams.

Nine Below Zero themselves have gigged with many iconic figures, too, though it hasn't been as fraught with egos as you might imagine. "We always find the class acts we have played with are never a problem," Dennis chuckles. "It's the wannabes who are a nightmare.

"When we toured with The Who, it was (drummer) Kenney Jones's first tour, and I used to stand by the side of the stage and watch the band. It was great for a 20-year-old boy to watch his idols, and also to learn stagecraft from them.

"Then one night, when we were playing, I looked over to the monitor desk and Pete Townshend was watching us. He said to us afterwards, 'God, you remind me of us, when we first started'."

Other highlights include Dennis' jam with some of rock's greatest guitarists when Nine Below Zero were guests of Eric Clapton. "I had Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top on one side and Clapton on the other side. Clapton nodded me to do a solo, so I did every Freddie King lick I knew. I was more concerned about impressing Eric Clapton, when I should have been facing the audience. Wonderful memories."

But of all the legends they have shared a stage with, one name looms above the rest. "Chuck Berry was special," Dennis says. "For the soundcheck, there was just us and him in the 100 Club (in London) - a special moment. I knew I was in the presence of someone very special."

Nine Below Zero have even acted as back-up for Hollywood royalty, when movie superstar Bruce Willis came to London for the premiere of Twelve Monkeys and was looking for a band to jam with. "We got the call, and it was lovely," Dennis beams. "Bruce was just one of the lads. He used to play in a blues band before he became a famous actor, and I think that has kept him on an even keel. I know it sounds corny, but he was a lovely guy - very down to earth."

Regards his playing, Dennis insists Willis - who of course scored a huge UK hit single with a cover of the Staple Singers' Respect Yourself in 1987 - was no slouch. "He was very good," he says. "He has studied it. He knows his Muddy Waters stuff; he knows who plays when, why and where. He's a man's man."

Brushes with the stars aside, the bread and butter of Nine Below Zero's schedule is relentless pub and club gigs up and down the country, often in tandem with fellow long-running rhythm 'n' blues merchants Dr Feelgood. Dennis is close mates with the enduring Canvey Island mob, even if he does prefer their classic line-up featuring guitarist Wilko Johnson.

"When you see The Old Grey Whistle Test with Dr Feelgood on, I think around 1977, there is no comparison to the band now," he shrugs. "I love the guys who are in it now, and they do a great job, but …"

As for Johnson, Dennis is proud to call him a friend and has remained in contact throughout the former's cancer ordeal. "I was with Wilko a few months ago," Dennis says. "He is a legend. I have always championed Wilko. He's one of the great rhythm 'n' blues songwriters. Long may it continue, and hopefully we can see him again and again and again."

Another memorable gig was the aforementioned appearance in The Young Ones, when they knocked out the punk-infused 11 plus 11 while the show's characters attempted to demolish their house. Did the band have any idea at the time that the series was destined to change the face of comedy? "We had never seen or been as close to something so fresh and ground-breaking as that," Dennis says.

"Rik (Mayall) and all the boys were wonderful to us - and don't forget, they chose the bands. Rik saw us on the college circuit, which Nine Below Zero was always on at that time. He invited us on the show and when we got there, there was a bloke warming up the audience and it turned out to be Ben Elton. They were all excellent people, and they knew where they were going and they got there."

Once, they may have been chart regulars and headlined the likes of the Hammersmith Odeon, but today, Dennis is content just to get out and gig. "I'm really happy to still be playing after all these years and making a living with something I love," he smiles.

"With our type of music, as you see with our blues heroes, you get better the longer you play and age is not important.

"Part of the longevity is the attitude, aggression and the energy we play with. I think if we were just 'plinky-plonky' and going through the motions, we would get sussed out. But we are a very honest band. That's why we're still around."

Nine Below Zero play the Black Box in Belfast tomorrow as part of the Out to Lunch Festival. For more details, visit www.cqaf.com

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