WoW #15: The Jellyman’s Daughter – “Cry, Cry Darling”

The Jellyman’s Daughter – “Cry, Cry Darling”

Words: Vincent Abbate

Looking back in pop music history, you’ll find certain voices that were made for one another. Think about it: What would “Cathy’s Clown” have sounded like if it had only been Phil and not Phil and Don Everly on vocals? Would “The Sound of Silence” have been as powerful if Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel had sung it alone?

Like the aforementioned musical giants, songbird Emily Kelly has a voice that is lovely in its own right. Fellow Scot Graham Coe can more than carry a tune. Put them together and magic happens. In fact, Coe and Kelly possess an extremely rare ability to make their two voices move as one. That dynamic, more than anything else, is what makes Edinburgh-based acoustic duo The Jellyman’s Daughter such a captivating listen.

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WIB Interview: Sue Foley

The No Bullshit Factor

An interview with Sue Foley

Words: Vincent Abbate

Sue Foley is in a good place.

Even though I’ve had a few and she hasn’t – “I’d really love a beer, but don’t want to start drinking yet” – she’s the one who’s in high spirits during our pre-show interview, laughing about life and being back on the road in Europe after a long hiatus. Hot on the heels of The Ice Queen, her first solo album since 2006’s New Used Car, the Ottawa native is a renewed presence on the international blues scene. She refuses to think of it as a comeback.

“That sounds so depressing. It’s not like I went anywhere!”

Let’s consider that for a moment.

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WIB Live: Jane Lee Hooker

High Spirits

Jane Lee Hooker live @ Spirit of 66

Verviers, Belgium

Words: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Dirk Schumacher

Is there a more thrilling experience in the blues right now than Jane Lee Hooker?

Honestly, I’d be hard-pressed to think of one.

Jane Lee Hooker is like a ride on the world’s fastest rollercoaster. Five gals from New York City who run on pure adrenaline. They take decades-old classics like “Shake For Me” and “Mean Town Blues” and “Mannish Boy” and make you feel like you’ve never heard them before.

And they don’t care about sticking to any one thing. They are blues and they are punk and they are southern and they are straight-up rock and roll. Just two albums into their recording career – last year’s Spiritus following on the heels of the 2016 debut No B! – these five troublemakers from NYC have already established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.

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WIB Interview: Erja Lyytinen

Strong Stories

An interview with Erja Lyytinen

Words: Vincent Abbate

It’s a half-hour before showtime and Erja Lyytinen is about to take care of the last, most vital bit of business before taking the stage.

Loosening up the left hand? Overrated.

Doing vocal exercises? You’re joking.

It’s her make-up that demands attention. It’s time to get made up. She looks fine just as she is – more than that, really – but nowadays, fine and $2.75 will get you a ride on the New York subway. For better or worse, styling is part of Lyytinen’s job description; she wouldn’t dream of standing unmasked under the bright lights any more than Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley would. The vocal warm-ups can wait.

“When I walk downstairs later, I’ll hum a little bit.”

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Sideman Special: Doug Corcoran (Pt. 2)

Under The Spell Of JD McPherson

An interview with Doug Corcoran (Pt. 2)

Words: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Amanda Devitt

Having traveled in blues circles for over 20 years now, I’ve seen the different ways musicians react to the purist attitude held by many long-time blues enthusiasts: They either conform, stick to their creative guns, move on to another genre or pack it in completely. While conversing with multi-instrumentalist Doug Corcoran for the better part of an hour, I learned something. Rockabilly fans can be every bit as conservative.

There’s a difference, though: On the style-conscious rockabilly scene, purism has as much to do with having the right image as with the music itself.

“The really hardcore rockabillies don’t care how good the music is. It’s more about if the band wears the right things. Are they playing vintage instruments? Do they have an upright bass? It’s more about what it looks like, does it fit their lifestyle.”

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Sideman Special: Doug Corcoran (Pt. 1)

Under The Spell Of JD McPherson

An interview with Doug Corcoran

Words: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Jimmy Sutton, Amanda Devitt

Some musicians crave the spotlight. They’re born to raise hell, jump security barriers and take twenty-foot leaps into the crowd. Others just show up and do their jobs without any fanfare. Saxophonist Richard Oppenheim, who has blown his horn alongside Otis Rush, Johnny Winter, Marvin Gaye and dozens of others, put it this way: “There’s a certain comfort in being a sideman. (…) Basically I shut up and play.”

Chicago product Doug Corcoran would likely echo that sentiment. Though his steady hand on guitar and occasional saxophone flourishes are integral to the ever-evolving, neo-rockabilly sound of JD McPherson’s five-piece band, Corcoran is a stoic figure onstage who shuns extraneous motion. In conversation, he’s deliberate and self-effacing. “JD’s a lot harder to get an interview with. I think there’s about six hoops you have to jump through.” It’s almost as if he’s apologizing for being the one doing the talking – without actually saying “So you’re stuck with me.”

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WoW #15: The Walter Davis Project

The Walter Davis Project

A few days ago I was preparing  to interview Christian Rannenberg, one of the world’s finest blues piano players, for the Talkin’ Blues show in Cologne. Chris lives in Berlin and I hadn’t seen him for a number of years. So I did some digging to find out what he’d been up to. My most pleasant discovery was The Walter Davis Project.

Chris had told me about his intention to do a Walter Davis tribute album as far back as 2006. He’s been an admirer of Davis – the Mississippi-born pianist who recorded roughly 150 sides for the Victor and Bluebird labels in the 30s, 40s and 50s – ever since first sitting down to play the blues on a piano keyboard. As the initiator and driving force behind the project, he wound up investing a good deal of his own money on sessions with Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite and several others. But the recordings lay around gathering dust until Rannenberg and harmonica player Bob Corritore crossed paths at a memorial celebration for mutual friend Louisiana Red in 2012.

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WIB Live Slideshow: Blues Caravan 2018

Blues Caravan 2018

w/ Mike Zito, Bernard Allison & Vanja Sky

@ Harmonie, Bonn, Germany

Photos: Marcella auf der Heide

The 13th edition of Ruf Records’ annual Blues Caravan packs serious firepower. The pair of blues vets who are the tour’s main draw, Mike Zito and Bernard Allison, brought the pain at their January performance in Bonn, Germany – Zito displaying an uncanny ability to create tension and beauty through his deftly exceuted guitar licks, the ever-dependable Allison delivering the punch on familiar tunes including “Life Is A Bitch” and “Rocket 88.” Yet newcomer Vanja Sky was no slouch herself. The young lady from Zagreb displayed an easy, natural and appealing stage presence during her evening-opening set, showing off surprisingly rugged pipes and confident vocal phrasing. With drummer Mario Dawson and bassist Roger Inniss holding down the rhythm throughout, honestly, what could go wrong?

Our two-minute slideshow features photos from the show in Bonn and a cut from Vanja Sky’s debut album Bad Penny featuring Zito and Allison on vocals and guitar.

WIB Extra: The Finnish Blues Awards

The Finnish Blues Awards

January 13th, 2018 @ Nosturi, Helsinki

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

You never know where the blues is gonna take you.

Last December, when a guitarist friend invited me to the 2018 Finnish Blues Awards, I thought: Why the heck not? Helsinki is just a two-and-a-half-hour flight from my home base in Germany. Any chance to see a new city and meet a new culture first-hand – even for 24 hours – is a chance I grab.

And I knew this much: There’s no shortage of capable bands in Finland. Like the Wentus Blues Band, who I first stumbled upon 15 years ago in Dresden. Or the combo led by young singer Ina Forsman, part of the Ruf Records Blues Caravan 2016. Leading the pack is slide guitar goddess Erja Lyytinen, who has a particularly strong following in England and is a bona fide celebrity at home. There’s also Erja’s long-time (now former) right-hand man Davide Floreno – my host – a rock solid guitar player in his own right.

But beyond that, as I sat inside the black Mercedes sedan carrying me from Helsinki’s Vantaa Airport to the city center, I really had no idea what to expect. The first impressions were of a flat, barren, snow-covered landscape deep in a wintertime slumber. And boy does it get dark early. By four p.m., while I settled into my hotel room overlooking the loading cranes in the Port of Helsinki, evening had already taken hold.

The Finnish Blues Awards bills itself as a “society, event and a marketing effort helping to spread the glorious message of arctic Finnish blues music.” That’s a wordy but accurate description, because the fourth annual awards presentation – held for the first time at the Nosturi live music club – was more a showcase and gathering place for Finland’s blues community than anything else. These blues awards felt nothing like a gala – not like the BMAs in Memphis. There were no five-course dinners, no evening gowns, no purple double-breasted suits. And, in fact, only a precious few trophies handed out.

But there was live music. A whole bunch of it. Eleven bands on two stages, one upstairs, one downstairs, with nary a break between 7:30 p.m. and 1: 30 a.m. The constant stair climbing during this tightly scheduled, well-organized event would help to offset the calories accumulated at the downstairs bar, which served beer on tap and a good selection of the tasty and potent herbal liqueurs Finland is famous for. Nothing like a bit of exercise to go with your drinking.

Kicking things off downstairs at 7:30 was Jay Kay & Blues Gang, fronted by singer/guitarist Jouni “Jay Kay” Kallenautio. He got things rolling with an appealing set of earthy roots music a la JJ Cale and guitar stylings reminiscent of Peter Green. Upstairs at 8:00: Ilkaa Rantamäki & The Bluesbrokers. The highlight of this classic rock-leaning venture was a compelling instrumental take on The Beatles “A Day In The Life.” Back downstairs at 8:30: Helsinki’s own Mudville 56. The trio’s real gone swinging upright bass blues and rock’n’roll kept the party moving. Back upstairs 30 minutes later: Maisteri T. & Lihan Tie. A harp-fronted quartet that delivered much of its set in Finnish. For a band with any kind of international pretensions, that’s a limiting choice. But, as I would discover as the evening wore on, the Finns sing the blues in their native tongue more than other European players do.

The Toreadors.

Somewhere around 9:30 p.m., I tried my first shot of Salmiakki, a popular mixture of vodka and licorice extract. Some say it tastes like cough syrup. Now a cynic would tell you it was the beer I’d already drank, together with the Salmiakki, that had me warming up more and more to the live sounds on offer. I’d say it was the increasingly high quality of the music. Either way, the next four acts made a lasting impression.

The Toreadors picked up where fellow Helsinki-ites Mudville 56 had left off, celebrating the occasion in a swinging five-piece set-up and adding an invigorating touch of ska to the rock’n’roll, R&B and jump blues mix. Back upstairs, a trio that won me over instantly: Jarkka Rissanen Tonal Box. Guitarist Rissanen – an institution in Finland, apparently – was the first player on awards night to truly evoke the spirit of the Delta. His gritty, authentic, down-in-Mississippi playing was complemented skillfully by tuba and percussion.

Jarkka Rissanen Tonal Box.

The next name is quite a mouthful: Faarao Pirttikangas. Wiki tells me he’s been a part of bands called Cosmo Jones Beat Machine and Astro Can Caravan. What he’s doing now – or rather what he played during his solo set in the downstairs room – was a kind of off-the-wall stomp box blues not unlike that of jumpsuit-wearing, distortion heavy cult hero Bob Log III. Pirttikangas does it well enough to have earned Artist of the Year honors at this year’s awards.

Dave Forrestfield, too, was a pleasant if less challenging listen. Like so many of the acts in Helsinki, this year’s award winner for Best Song steered clear of cumbersome rock influences and overblown solos. The blues he and his quartet delivered was lean, solid and danceable, with touches of R&B, boogie and rock’n’roll.

Dave Forrestfield.

My apologies go out to Palkintojenjako (yes, I had to look that up) and Turn On, acts nine and ten on this evening, respectively. After eight bands in four hours without a break, my ears needed one. So after the awards were handed out around midnight, like most of the assembled, I retreated to the backstage area to help finish off the remaining cases of Koff, Fizz and Lapin Kulta. A not insignificant portion of the Finnish blues community had squeezed into the modest dressing room to talk shop over a beer.

It was there I exchanged handshakes and addresses with Lena Lindroos and Matti Kettunen, who play the blues together as one half of 2017 award-winners Lena & The Slide Brothers. I traded likes and dislikes with Finland’s unofficial “Blues Minister” Esa Kuloniemi – a respected author, musician and radio host. There were promoters, festival organizers, dozens of musicians. The common thread: The relative lack of opportunity at home. Finland is a sparsely populated country that stretches to the Arctic Circle and has only so many venues and so many gigs to go around. With the chances of an international breakthrough unlikely to say the least, the Finns can only view the blues as a labor of love.

In the slightly subdued but warm-hearted atmosphere backstage, I began to think of them as the True Believers.

The aftermath.

The night’s closing act, Million Dollar Tones, epitomized that. It was now after one a.m. The upstairs concert area was just about empty of spectators. The few remaining hangers-on left were tired and unresponsive. Did it faze the last band standing at the 2018 Finnish Blues Awards?

Maybe. But if it did, they didn’t let the circumstances dampen their spirits or affect their performance. The six-piece combo delivered rousing rock & roll and rhythm & blues propelled by a pair of chugging saxophones and the dynamic singing of frontman Antti Pajula. Just one more really strong set on a night on which Finland’s True Believers put their best foot forward.

(Coming soon to Who Is Blues: A round-up of recent album releases by some of Finland’s finest.)