WIB Listening Party #61: Wild Again

featuring…

♫ The Proven Ones, Wild Again

🍺 Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

First beer of a new year.

I’ve been at this for a while now. I’ve learned a thing or two about beer and quite a bit about myself. With any luck, the first 60 entries in the series will have reached a few eyes – the click counter on my website has registered more than 20,000 – and in the process, led beer and blues enthusiasts to albums they may have missed or beers they’d never heard of.

My original intention was to use the Listening Party to celebrate those two great passions.

But last year … I dunno … there was a lot of Weltschmerz mixed in with the beer and music. I wound up writing about war and politics and my disenchantment with social media. I’ve promised myself – and promise you, dear reader – to limit the amount of social commentary moving forward. Because, personally, I hate parties where the topic of conversation is how the world is on a downward spiral and we’re all doomed.

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WIB Listening Party #60: I Got Love

featuring…

♫ Albert Castiglia, I Got Love

🍺 Baladin POP American Pale Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Pop goes 2022.

In this, the year’s final Listening Party, I’ll reflect on a challenging twelve months and the respite and release I experienced at a summertime blues festival. Together, we’ll open a gaudy can of POP – an American Pale Ale from Italy –, listen to some choice cuts from Albert Castiglia’s April release I Got Love and generally celebrate being alive.

I hope, when all is said and done, it will make some kind of sense.

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WIB Listening Party #59: Hey Joe

featuring…

♫ Various Artists, Hey Joe (One-Song-Edition)

🍺 Meantime Brewing London IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Today’s the birthday of the great James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix. Had he not joined the so-called 27 Club in 1970, but rather lived on for another 52 years, Hendrix would have turned 80 today. (Shows you just how short a life of 27 years is.) In other words, he’d be as old as Sir Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson or blues vets Taj Mahal and Elvin Bishop. It’s given me occasion to raise a glass and write about a song I’ve grown to hate. “Hey Joe.”

Don’t get me wrong. It’s undeniably a good song if not one of Hendrix’s absolute best. What’s ruined “Hey Joe” for me is its fate as a go-to crowdpleaser for thousands of bluesrock bands who have nothing else to offer. If I’m at a show and I hear the opening guitar riff – this happens way too often – that’s my signal to head to the bar or take a bathroom break. No offence to listeners who haven’t tired of it, but for me, this tune is well past its sell-by date. It has become the ultimate yawn elicitor.       

I’m tempted to write that Hendrix already exhausted the song’s possibilities with the landmark version he recorded with the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1966. In fact, several other worthwhile interpretations have emerged on record, mostly in the years immediately before and after. (Note: Hendrix was by no means first to record it: The song had been circulating for many years with various parties claiming authorship. Notable pre-Hendrix versions include those by the Leaves, the Standells and the Byrds.)

Today’s featured album Hey Joe (One-Song-Edition) compiles 20 different versions of varying quality. (Nineteen if you subtract the “Karaoke Playback” track at the end.) We’ll listen to some of the best as we crack open a bottle of Meantime Brewing’s London IPA in honor of the beloved guitar trailblazer.

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WIB Listening Party #58: It Serves You Right To Suffer

featuring…

♫ John Lee Hooker, It Serves You Right To Suffer

🍺 Aleworks Tavern Brown Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Rotten times call for urgent measures. Let’s drink. Just like that. Bango. No messin’ around.

That’s right. I’m upending the traditional structure of this beer-and-blues soiree, the usual slow build-up before we get to the beer tasting. That’s because after eight days without a drink, I am truly craving one.

Alewerks Tavern Brown Ale, with which I will momentarily break my fast, is one of five year-rounders made by the Alewerks Brewing Company of Williamsburg, Virginia. Here’s what it looks like smiling at me:

Cheers.

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WIB Listening Party #57: At Last

featuring…

♫ Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, At Last

🍺 Misfit Pumpkins Imperial Pumpkin Stout

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Halloween is stupid.

I mean, can we at least agree that it is becoming increasingly stupid?

For kids, I get it. In fact, later today I’ll be chaperoning my son and a few of his friends as they do the traditional trick-or-treat thing.

When I was a boy on Long Island, trick-or-treating was an annual thrill. I’d go with my siblings or closest friends and come home with bag after bag full of Tootsie Rolls, Milk Duds, Mary Janes, Jawbreakers. It was excessive and I loved it. After some swapping with my sisters, we’d each pour our respective haul into a big cardboard box and then devour the contents over the course of many weeks. Nobody thought much about the consequences for our teeth back then.

If that sort of thing exists in suburban America today, when everyone is far more afraid that the reclusive guy who lives four houses down could be a cannibal axe murderer, well kids – more power to you.

But when I go on social media and see how much effort normally level-headed forty- and fifty-year-old acquaintances of mine put into dressing up as zombies and horror clowns, I can only shake my head. If only folks would put one-tenth of the same energy into more important things, like, say … feeding the poor?

This past weekend’s tragedy in Seoul, South Korea – where the desire to celebrate this bizarre ritual cost more than 150 young people their lives – made me hate Halloween even more.      

So why do a Halloween edition of the Listening Party?

Here’s a hint.

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WIB Listening Party #56: Set It On Blast!!

featuring…

♫ Stevie Salas, Set It On Blast!!

🍺 Unverhopft Galactic Splash Milkshake IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Sometimes you’ve got to roll out the big guns. The heavy artillery.

Remember how last time around I was feeling down and how a few timeless blues songs seemed to lift me out of the hole I was in? I didn’t quite make it.

Maybe it’s the change of seasons, a case of the fall blahs as each day grows a few minutes darker than the one before it. Maybe it’s the exhaustion brought on by the rigors of parenting – presiding over a vicious fifteen-round fight between a pair of rival siblings can take a lot out of you. Maybe it’s just how fucking sick and stupid and depressing the world is sometimes. All of it is adding to a sense of heaviness and loss that hangs stubbornly in the air, weighing me down.

So I’ve been looking for a stronger and more muscular musical drug to keep me moving forward. One that kicks me squarely in the keister and says – snap out of it, man, get out there and get busy living. The record I’ve gone to most often these past few weeks is Stevie Salas’s Set It On Blast!!, a brash explosion of funk and guitars and conquer-the-world attitude. In name and in spirit, it pairs beautifully with Galactic Splash, a Milkshake New England IPA from Berlin’s Unverhopft brewery.

If this high-octane dream team doesn’t get it done, I may be a hopeless case.

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WIB Listening Party #55: Bittersweet

featuring…

♫ Various artists

🍺 Let’s Bee Homies Hazy IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

 

The blues is a lowdown shakin’ chill

You ain’t never had ’em, I hope you never will.

— Robert Johnson, “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)”

I’ve had writer’s block since the last Listening Party. A tangle of thoughts and emotions has been messing with my head so badly that I didn’t know where to go with this. There was no Listening Party last week and I was figuring on skipping out this week as well due to a lack of focus.

This morning I woke up and a new thought took shape. Why should I let writer’s block deny me the pleasure of a good beer? In fact, might not a few drops of “heaven water” (thanks, Angelique) help me get past it?

So, in a few minutes, after a cup of coffee and two slices of cinnamon toast, I’ll go down to the cellar where I keep my stock and bring up that 16 oz. can (or is it cans?) of Let’s Bee Homies Hazy IPA. Been waiting down there patiently for this boy to get himself straightened out.    

I’ll crack it open a little later in the day and then we’ll see where life takes us, OK?

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WIB Listening Party #54: The Genius Sings The Blues

featuring…

♫ Ray Charles, The Genius Sings The Blues

🍺 Cascade Brewing Blueberry

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

How much are you willing to pay for a can of beer?

That’s today’s musical question.

Getting deeper into craft beer these past few years has undoubtedly changed my attitude about beer. It has shifted dramatically toward quality over quantity. Big drinking parties like Oktoberfest, which is all about guzzling it down by the liter, are a total turn-off. I’ve even gone off the local brew Kölsch somewhat, an easy drinking beer eminently suitable for consumption in large quantities. Instead, I now appreciate craftsmanship and premium ingredients and savor each glass of beer or even each sip as a small-scale celebration.

That means I’m also willing to pay a little more. At the local supermarket, you can still buy a six-pack of Kölsch or Pils for around five euros. A craft beer from a specialty shop, on the other hand, can start at about two euros and cost as much as six, seven or eight euros (around eight dollars) for a single can or bottle. That’s where I start to ask myself: Can beer be that good? Is craft beer really five, ten or twenty times as enjoyable as the cheap stuff?

Recently I decided to find out. I crossed a self-imposed line and invested seven euros in a single can of beer. An exotic variety I had never seen let alone tasted before. Allow me to introduce you to Blueberry, a barrel-aged blend of sour triple and blonde ales and locally grown blueberries from Oregon’s Cascade Brewing. Cozying up to the stylish 250 ml can is today’s musical selection, The Genius Sings The Blues, a timeless Ray Charles classic.

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WIB Live: Blues Caravan 2022

Common Ground

Blues Caravan 2022 @ Spirit of 66

Verviers, Belgium

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

From its inception in 2005 until, say, two and a half years ago, the Blues Caravan went off pretty much without a hitch. For roughly 15 years, you could count on the annual tour of Ruf Records artists for good vibes and solid entertainment. Along the way, it gave us a first glimpse of numerous artists on the rise who’ve since become staples of the international blues scene.

Then COVID happened.

The 2020 edition of the Caravan (Ryan Perry, Whitney Shay & Jeremiah Johnson) had got off to a spectacular start before having the rug roughly pulled out from under it. A new tour was planned for 2021 but never materialized due to the uncertainty of international travel and the ever-present threat of lockdown. Even the line-up that debuted early in 2022, with Ghalia Volt, Katie Henry and Will Jacobs, just barely came together; again, travel issues forced label head Thomas Ruf to reconfigure the tour several times.

Volt, Henry and Jacobs were good together. Disparate musicians to be sure – but unlike certain prior Caravan line-ups hampered by their stylistic differences, this troupe of young artists, hungry to hit the stage after the long corona layoff, put on one heck of a show. So much so that I decided to go back for more on the fall leg of the tour.

But problems arose once again. Will Jacobs, a Chicago native who’s made a second home in Berlin, was a late scratch due to an undisclosed personal issue. Thomas Ruf had to scramble for a last-minute replacement – finding it in the person of Eliana Cargnelutti, a veteran of the 2015 Caravan. Cargnelutti raced north from her native Italy to make the first tour stop in Belgium and a single rehearsal before taking the stage alongside Volt, Henry, drummer Denis Palatin and bassist Tomek Germann.

A decent-sized crowd filled Vervier’s venerable Spirit of 66 for this tour kickoff concert and those in attendance were pumped up and ready to party. Despite a few musical bumps and snags due to rust and unfamiliarity, the performance would prove to be a triumph – of youth and enthusiasm over cool perfectionism, of joy and desire over nightmare logistics.

After the full band opened with this year’s unofficial tour anthem, the catchy “Hop On A Ride,” Katie Henry took over with an engaging set highlighting songs from her recent album On My Way. The New Jersey-based singer and songwriter is fairly new to the international scene and makes up for in down-to-earth charm what she may lack in experience. Mixing bluesy, soulful sounds and a vibrato that indeed at times recalls Janis Joplin, Henry switches off between keyboards and guitar. Her temperamental Gibson SG wasn’t doing her any favors in Verviers, demanding to be retuned mid-song on more than one occasion, but she shone on electric piano, calling the great Billy Preston to mind. Henry mines the rich musical soil of the 60s and 70s without it ever feeling heavy-handed or intentional.

Champing at the bit on rhythm guitar throughout that first set was Eliana Cargnelutti, a flashy electric guitarist who should have been given more opportunity to solo. When Henry ceded the spotlight to her, it was off to the races. Cargnelutti showed off her slick, effortless rock-oriented chops and was ably assisted by a talented rhythm section that transitioned from Henry’s more restrained approach like it was nothing. Demonstrating the poise gained from years of touring with various band projects, Cargnelutti shook off the wear and tear of her drive to the gig and delivered as a skilled player and likable entertainer.

The ensuing break allowed patrons to grab a smoke or buy more drink jetons and head to the bar. Very good beer selection there, including a tasty “Spirit of 66” blonde ale specially brewed for the club by Brasserie Grain d’Orge in nearby Hombourg. (Sure to be featured in a future edition of the Who Is Blues Listening Party. 🍺)

The last time we saw Ghalia Volt prior to this year’s Blues Caravan, she was climbing the tables at topos in Leverkusen, Germany in an attempt to animate a sullen crowd. (Read the full review of that February 2020 performance here.) Some saw my review as a knock on Volt and the musicians she was touring with at the time. If that’s how it came across, then mea culpa – because actually I love what this highly sought-after Belgian export brings to the table. In short, she’s got the Mississippi thing down. And that is a rarity nowadays. We’re so accustomed to hearing rock blues and Chicago blues and west coast blues that when someone like her comes along, a singer and guitar player who’s got the Delta in her veins …

You might feel differently, but frankly, when I hear Volt play those grooves, it makes my heart smile. A glance at her packed tour schedule tells me I’m not the only one. Her star is clearly on the rise and she deserves it.  

She’d just been over to the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival in Colorado before joining the Caravan tour in Belgium and her featured performance in Verviers had every bit the feel of a homecoming. For one, she could converse with the audience in her native French. She had them eating out of her hand in no time. I don’t parlez vous much, so for me, it was all about those beloved Mississippi Delta and Hill Country sounds. The kind Volt featured heavily on last year’s One Woman Band record. She added a new wrinkle this time by having Denis Palatin handle the drum parts, freeing her to focus on guitar and vocals.

It worked. Oh yeah, it worked. Showing he could switch gears yet again and play authentic Mississippi-style blues was the icing on the cake for the veteran Palatin. And Volt was simply in control from start to finish, shining especially when she dove deep into gritty Elmore James/Hound Dog Taylor-style back-alley blues as on “Reap What You Sow.”

The finale with all five band members back onstage exuded the good vibes we’ve come to expect from this yearly showcase. Yes, co-headliners Katie Henry, Eliana Cargnelutti and Ghalia Volt are very different musicians. Still, there is always common musical ground to be found and they proved that with a rousing version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” that sent everyone home happy.  

WIB Live: Tommy Castro & The Painkillers

A Bluesman Came To Town

Tommy Castro & The Painkillers live @ Yard Club

Cologne, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

A bluesman came to town.

I’m surely not the first concert reviewer to use that title since the album of the same name – which Tommy Castro likens to a rock opera, only it’s blues – swept away the competition at this year’s Blues Music Awards ceremony in Memphis. Local fans had waited over three years for this particular visit by Castro and his band The Painkillers. And there was more than enough cause for celebration on both sides, as this Wednesday evening club show coincided with even more accolades from the US: Readers of Blues Blast Magazine had just dubbed The Painkillers Band of the Year.

The chance to see this band on a small stage in a half-full club is something I don’t take for granted. Castro isn’t the star in Germany that he is back home. This is his third appearance at the Yard Club in the past five years. And the audience hasn’t grown. In fact, we’re still living through some kind of weird post-pandemic trauma that is depressing ticket sales most everywhere you turn.

But as they say in the local dialect: Es et wie es et. It is as it is. So my attitude as Castro and his crew launched into “You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down” at around 8 p.m. was to simply enjoy the show. To soak it all in. Wasn’t too long ago we couldn’t do this kind of thing. How quickly we forget.

Stage left stood Randy McDonald, a stalwart on bass who has delivered the goods as Castro’s sideman for 30 years. Sporting a new furry chapeau, McDonald was as spot on as ever, also taking a turn on vocals with an enthusiastic version of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.”

Huddled in the opposite corner was keyboarder Mike Emerson. In his traditional baseball cap, he cuts a low-key figure, instead making his statement on the keys. With solid organ fills and rollicking piano figures, Emerson always serves the song.

Bowen Brown, holding things down on drums, is a joy to watch. Powerful though he is, he doesn’t sit there whacking the drums like a jockey on the home stretch. With Brown, it all starts with wrist control. His work on the snare is exceptional.

Of course, the main man is Castro, the slicked-back Californian, who performs with the confidence of a dude who has been there and done that. No question, he is slowing down as he strides toward 70. A seven-week tour of Europe, Castro admitted from the stage, is hard work. If some of his movements during this 90-minute concert appeared a bit strained, well, I’m prepared to cut him some serious slack.

Ultimately, if a band gets you moving and screaming and punching the air, that’s what counts. In Cologne, Castro & The Painkillers delivered the exciting mix of blues, soul, funk and rock’n’roll they are known for. It’s funny: Right after one of the straight-up funk numbers, probably “She Wanted To Give It To Me,” a good friend turned and asked me in all sincerity what style it was. Moments later, when Castro asked the crowd if there were any true blues lovers in the house before counting off a classic slow blues, I heard the same friend utter, “Thank God.”

Apparently, some listeners would like to see Tommy Castro & The Painkillers stick to traditional blues.

To me, the band’s ability to shift from blues to funk to rock’n’roll and even a bayou groove like “Got A Lot” – and to do it all convincingly – is one of the best things about them. I talked to drummer Brown after the gig about this and he confessed that if all he was asked to do was play blues all night, he’d get bored. Much as I love it when Castro lays into a blues like “Serve Me Right To Suffer” – undoubtedly one of the evening’s highlights – I’m happy for the rocking moments as well, and the funk and everything else they do. Happy for every single moment. Happy that there are live shows to go to again! Happy that I could stand a few feet from the stage without bunking into anyone and bask in what the Bluesband of the Year were laying down.

Truly, it doesn’t get much better than that.