Book review: Murder At The Crossroads

Book Review: Murder At The Crossroads

A blues mystery by Debra B. Schiff & Doug MacLeod

Text: Vincent Abbate

(Full disclosure: The reviewer is the author of Who Is Blues Vol. 1: Doug MacLeod – The Authorized Compact Biography.)

Let’s start with this: You needn’t be a devotee of blues musician Doug MacLeod or a blues fan at all to appreciate Murder At The Crossroads, a new novel MacLeod wrote in collaboration with author Debra B. Schiff. The book – billed on its cover as “a blues mystery” – stands on its own merits as a plainly told tale of a middle-aged man struggling with the guilt he has felt ever since witnessing a racially motivated killing as a young man in Mississippi. It’s also an unflinching portrayal of racism as it has existed at two different points in American history.

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WIB Listening Party #49: Rollin’

featuring…

Jane Lee Hooker, Rollin’

🍺 BrewLab Steel Princess

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

“Keep On Rollin’” says the official tour t-shirt.

That’s what I intend to do today. Keep things rolling with another new album and another Belgian beer. Or three.

I live just an hour east of Germany’s border with Belgium. So a quick shot and I’m in another country, where the language is different, the people are different and the beer is just as good, maybe even better. My excuse for making the jaunt this time is an appearance by Jane Lee Hooker – a steaming cauldron of blues, soul, gospel and rock’n’roll from New York City. I reviewed the band’s show at the same venue in Verviers some four years ago – you can find it here – so this time we turn to JLH’s latest and arguably best release, the aptly named Rollin’.

My first stop in the city of Verviers after arriving in the afternoon is the St Raph, a corner pub a few houses down from the concert venue Spirit of 66. Both of them are situated on the Place du Martyr, a once lively square that’s been decimated by the one-two punch of the pandemic and last summer’s catastrophic flooding. Half the stores and restaurants on and around the square are now boarded up. It’s a depressing sight.

A Val-Dieu blonde, potent and spicy, helps to lighten my spirits and reacquaints me with the local drinking customs. The chalice of foamy goodness arrives with a small bowl of roasted peanuts, and after I’ve paid and tipped the barkeeper (the bill comes with the beer), he offers me some peppered cheese cubes as well.

Actually “lighten my spirits” is an understatement. A couple of sips and I feel frickin’ great! This is the magic of beer. There, I said it. You’re in a foreign country, somewhere you don’t speak the language, it can feel intimidating. Some decent hop juice is a surefire way to put an end to that.

A short while Iater I make my way to L’Orchestre à Pots, a specialty food shop that carries a small stock of bottles from the local craft brewer, BrewLab. I walk away with a bottle each of Brass Baron and its more exotic sibling Steel Princess – the beer I’ve chosen to feature in today’s Listening Party.        

So we’re all set. The bottle is chilled. Jane Lee Hooker is in the starting gates. Let ‘er rip.

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WIB Listening Party #48: Long River

featuring…

Angelique Francis, Long River

🍺 Curtius Blonde Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

In the first 47 installments of the Who Is Blues Listening Party, it’s been about my favorite records of the past. We’ve gone as far back as the 1920s and Blind Willie McTell. We’ve revisited post-war legends like Howlin’ Wolf and Albert King. We’ve sampled more recent standouts that have found their way into my collection during the past few decades. One thing I have not featured until now is a current release. And there’s a reason for that.

If your listening habits are like mine, you go through different phases. At times, you’ll be open to discovering new artists and also hungrily devour the familiar. At others, you’ll feel jaded – like there is nothing new under the sun so why even bother and if I hear another twelve-bar blues I’m gonna go nuts.

That’s kind of where I’ve been the past couple of years. I’ve tired of trying to keep up with the flood of new blues releases. I’ve all but stopped reviewing CDs for magazines. Though I’m sure I’ve missed some great records (plus lots of mediocre ones) by voluntarily cutting myself off, I simply haven’t had the mental space. I’ve needed a break. It happens.

Then some weeks ago, quite by accident, Angelique Francis – an extraordinary young singer from Ottawa – jolted me out of my ennui. Two songs into her newest record Long River, I knew I was onto something: A singular talent with a sound not quite like anyone else’s.

An exceptional talent deserves an equally distinctive beer, so as we listen to Ms. Francis, we’ll be sampling Curtius, a blonde ale from the Belgian city of Liége. It’s the flagship beverage of the curiously named microbrewery Brasserie C and comes packaged in a sleek 375 ml corked bottle.

Here’s to becoming excited about music again …

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WIB Listening Party #47: Don’t Give Up On Me

featuring…

Solomon Burke, Don’t Give Up On Me

🍺 Crew Republic In Your Face West Coast IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Today’s my 57th birthday. I feel moderately OK, calm, at peace. But my mood is not celebratory. Current world events, a black cloud as of late, are not the primary reason. It’s that number. 57. I have a problem with it.

My graying hair, my daily aches and pains, the slight gut that now sags from my scrawny frame – they all tell me that the number fits. It’s gotta be true. But I don’t want to be 57. I’m possessive of my time on this earth. I love life and don’t want to surrender it. I don’t want to count the days.

Turning back the clock is not an idea that appeals to me. My youth wasn’t all that wonderful. I like where these 57 years have taken me. I’m so much stronger in so many ways. If only I could have had the life skills I have now – the confidence bordering on fearlessness – when I was young and bursting with physical energy. I still have the passion and desire, but now it’s packed inside this aging, slowing, declining body.

I know what the solution is, what the goal must be today: To find my way from wishing things could be different to accepting what is. Being in the moment and arriving at a place of gratitude is always the answer.

Or maybe it’s music and beer.

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WIB Listening Party #46: Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down

featuring…

Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down

🍺 Maisel & Friends Hopfenreiter #6

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I walked past a brewery today. Not just any brewery, but the one I lived across the street from in the mid-to-late 1990s. Yeah, I’ve been in Cologne a long time. That brewery made Gilden Kölsch, one of the numerous local Kölsch brands, and was a mid-sized operation – not massive enough to be deemed industrial, but big enough that on brewdays, a sweet bready aroma hung in the air throughout the neighborhood.

Not everyone who lived nearby was in love with that smell, but I was. It’s one of my main associations when I think back to my five years at that address and may well have planted the seed for my subsequent fascination with all things beer.

After being swallowed up by a big fish many moons ago, then by an even bigger fish in the bottled beverage industry years later, my old neighborhood brewery shut down last year. Soon it will be flattened and give way to a newfangled office and apartment complex due to be completed in 2030. Lots of that going on in that section of town, which still manages to retain its red brick, 19th century industrial character despite all the new buildings going up.

As I carried on walking along streets I hadn’t visited in years, I felt a little sad and nostalgic. Not about Gilden Kölsch – it was never a favorite – but simply about the passage of time. Saw a poster for an upcoming concert by Joe Jackson. His was the first band I ever saw live in concert as a kid. There’s no other way of saying it – the picture on the poster made Joe look like an old man. I guess he is by now. Which means I’m getting up there, too.

Today, I’ll reflect a little about days gone by as we enjoy a beer and some good music together.   

As Jim Lange used to say: And here they are …

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WIB Listening Party #45: Mississippi Blues

featuring…

Big Bill Broonzy, Volume One – Mississippi Blues

🍺 Ratsherrn Dry-Hopped Pilsener

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I usually post these things on Friday afternoon. Perhaps my favorite feel-good time of the week. I generally go pretty hard from Monday to Friday, working and looking after my family. So when Friday afternoon rolls around and I close up shop, a satisfying weekend feeling of freedom sets in. I have pushed through and gotten things done and the Listening Party is one way I reward myself for not being a total goof-off in life.

This time, though, it’s a lazy Sunday. I’m recovering from a friend’s Saturday night birthday party. It involved live music and a healthy variety of adult beverages. As it’s Sunday, I’ve decided to turn this Listening Party into a kind of casual backyard barbecue. We’ll have beer of course, and good, down-home southern-style cooking … aww, who’m I kidding? I’m a New York boy. The barbecues I knew growing up were burgers and hot dogs, roasted peppers, Italian sausage and corn on the cob. We’d eat out on the patio with maybe a ballgame on the radio or my dad’s favorite music playing.

I can definitely imagine the great Big Bill Broonzy having played a barbecue or two during his time on this earth. In fact, I believe there are stories of him playing the fiddle at such gatherings before he switched over to guitar. We’re going to listen to a few classic Broonzy tunes from Volume One – Mississippi Blues, a vinyl EP released in 1955 on the British Nixa label that somehow found its way into my collection. Broonzy mastered rural and urban blues styles during his career and the four-song disc touches on each.

Our beer, Ratsherrn Dry-Hopped Pilsener, comes from the city of Hamburg.

Let’s take it slow and easy this time, shall we?

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WIB Listening Party #44: Peace Meal

featuring…

Carolyn Wonderland, Peace Meal

🍺 Try The Faith Solidarity Pale Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Not until very recently, only in the past couple of weeks actually, did I realize that there is an international beer community. You often feel a communal spirit in musical circles, as I’ve touched on recently. That there are dedicated beer drinkers all over the world goes without saying. But that brewers will pull together like a family in times of crisis – this is news to me.

If you’ve not stumbled across it on social media: There is a movement going on called #BrewForUkraine. It arose swiftly in the days after Russian forces invaded their neighbors to the west, spearheaded by the Pravda Brewery, an award-winning craft brewer in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. The company first made news when it converted its beer-making operations to the production of Molotov cocktails for local residents. The primitive weapons, they hoped, would help “kick the cockroaches out of our land.”

As Lviv has seen countless thousands pass through on their way out of the country, the brewery’s concern quickly turned to relief efforts. Pravda put out an open call to brewers worldwide to create special Brew For Ukraine beers and donate proceeds to appropriate aid organizations. Dozens have responded in Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zeeland and North and South America. 

The small grei.beer brewery in southwestern Germany has joined those ranks and is now brewing its Try The Faith Solidarity Pale Ale for the cause. It’s a keeper.

Several weeks ago, before this whole mess started, I had planned to mark International Womens Day by spotlighting one of Austin’s finest, Carolyn Wonderland and her 2011 release Peace Meal. Better late than never.

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WIB Listening Party #43: Golden Boy

featuring…

Watermelon Slim, Golden Boy

🍺 Greene King Double Hop Monster IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Two weeks later, I’m still hemming and hawing about the Listening Party, i.e. wondering if there’s any point in doing this. Roughly three weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine (the media hasn’t come up with a name for this war yet) and with thousands dead and millions having left their homes and possessions behind, craft beer seems very much like a luxury. But you know what?

I’ve learned once again during this time how vital music is. I’ve been to three live shows! Three! Met old friends and made new ones. Most significantly, I’ve felt in a most profound way the everlasting bond between musicians, promoters, fans and other members of the music community. I think it’s a result of the deprivation of two years of living with the pandemic, the hunger for live music, brought into sharper focus by our mutual opposition to Putin’s war. (That’s my name for this ongoing atrocity.)

So why not? Let’s have a Listening Party. This has always been a celebration of music first and foremost. The beer is a pleasant accessory.

Watermelon Slim’s Golden Boy is easily one of my favorite albums of the past five years. It’s exceptional for any number of reasons, not least of which is Slim himself. We’ll get into it after the jump.

And when I went to the outdoor cupboard in which I keep my beer chilled during the colder months of the year, it was the Double Hop Monster IPA from Greene King that suggested itself. Look, it said. The word “monster” appears in my name. Doesn’t that remind you of someone? That guy with his finger on the button …

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WIB Listening Party #42: Migration Blues

featuring…

Eric Bibb, Migration Blues

🍺 Tyskie Gronie

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I’m finding it hard to carry on with business as usual. Life goes on, as it must. As it should. Yet when war, destruction, mass flight and the murder of innocents are happening just a single time zone away – the Ukrainian border is roughly 800 miles from where I sit – most everything else seems trivial. I didn’t post a Listening Party last week because it didn’t feel right.

This week I’ve decided to feature an album released some five years ago in response to Europe’s last great refugee crisis. Though let’s face it: The “crisis” has never actually taken a day off. Between the mass exodus of families from war-torn Syria and the ongoing evacuation of women and children from Ukraine, countless desperate thousands have risked their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean from northern Africa to southern Europe.

That is exactly the point of the 15-song Migration Blues. Eric Bibb, like me a native New Yorker who has settled on the European continent, went from thinking about the humanitarian crisis of 2015 (when some 1.3 million sought asylum in Europe) to considering the Great Migration that saw millions of African Americans flee oppressive conditions in the rural South for the promise of greater freedom in northern American cities. Ultimately, Bibb concluded that, “We all come from people who, at some time or another, had to move.”

We’ll focus on his music with little commentary from me.

Because the traditional format of this feature also includes beer, we’ll raise a glass of Polish piwo in salute to a country that has already welcomed almost half a million refugees in the past week.

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WIB Listening Party #41: Doctors, Devils & Drugs

featuring…

Floyd Lee Band, Doctors, Devils & Drugs

🍺 Kehrwieder Prototyp

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I was just looking at a Forbes article outlining the development of the American craft beer movement in the ten years between 2008 and 2018. The most striking figure: Whereas in 2008, there were roughly 1,500 brewpubs, micro and regional breweries operating, by 2018 that number had ballooned to over 7000. That same year, craft beer sales accounted for roughly a quarter of the overall beer market in the US.

Contrast that to where the country was thirty years ago, when I first settled in Europe. Back home, Budweiser, Pabst, Miller and Coors ruled the day and people here – perhaps rightly so – looked down their collective noses at the mere mention of American beer. The craft beer revolution had in fact already begun, but quietly. It didn’t make sense, at least not yet, to point out that there were beers being made on American soil and with American ingredients whose quality was at least as good as the Old World classics.

Today, that’s hardly a secret. You often hear about young, upstart European brewers educating themselves in the art of craft beer by spending time in the United States. Case in point: Oliver Wesseloh, co-founder and master brewer at Hamburg’s Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei. Before going out on his own in 2011, he spent eight years learning his craft abroad, part of that in Florida. Today he runs a thriving brewery in his hometown in northern Germany.

Prototyp – today’s Listening Party beverage of choice – was the very first beer he produced under the Kehrwieder flag.

Our featured record is Doctors, Devils & Drugs by the Floyd Lee Band, which surprised some people, including me, in 2008. We’ll dive into it after the jump.

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