On Saturday night, I witnessed my first live show in a very long time. It had been nine months, give or take.
All along, throughout the COVID-induced shutdown, I’ve wondered what the first concert after the long drought would feel like. In my wildest fantasies, it was a grandiose, uninhibited affair, with hundreds of ecstatic men and women shouting and swaying and throwing their arms in the air. Like coming out of the darkness into the light. If there were any masks in the scene, they were tossed into the air in celebration, as graduating students toss their tasseled caps.
I’ve also wondered how I would react. Would I feel like my old self? Though I’ve managed to steer clear of COVID until now, being less active during the pandemic has taken a physiological toll. I feel older, more sluggish. In baseball terms, I’ve lost a few MPH on my fastball.
Could I get back in the swing of things? Or would I feel out of place in a setting that had been second nature pre-corona?
After so much time avoiding other humans, keeping one’s distance … how would it feel to be sharing a space with friends, acquaintances and strangers?
Forward-thinking European artists like Ana Popovic, Ghalia Volt & Erja Lyytinen are kicking the old school bluesman ethic to the curb.
Text: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Gernot Mangold, Marcella auf der Heide
Lately I’ve noticed something. At least a third of the live shows I attend are fronted by female artists. It got me to thinking: Have women ever had a stronger presence in the blues than they do today?
Roughly a century ago, when classic singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were among the first to record, women were a dominant force in the blues world. But no one reading this was around back then, right? During the past 50 years or so, for every Bonnie Raitt, Irma Thomas, Sue Foley or Marcia Ball, we’ve had to endure a dozen Stratocaster-playing dudes in sunglasses and hats. Most of them perpetually singing about some baby who done them wrong. (In that regard, women – those infamous evil women – have been there all along.)
We’re witnessing a changing of the guard right now. When we listen to the blues, it’s just as likely to be by a young lady from London, Kansas City or Zagreb as by some grizzled veteran from Chicago or Baton Rouge. And it’s not just origin, age or sex. The female performers who are leading the charge – people like Samantha Fish, Shemekia Copeland, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Georgia duo Larkin Poe, to name but a few – have a fresh take on the blues. No deep philosophical analysis here. Women are simply different from us beer-swilling, emotionally stunted, tragically unfashionable men.
If you leave a show with that phrase resonating in your head, you know something very good has just gone down.
Turnout for this club show on a drizzly Wednesday night in Germany was light – surely nothing any musician or concert promoter wants. Yet as far as vibe goes, the people attending the performance by Tupelo, Mississippi’s Paul Thorn were perfect, making the event more of a homey gathering of friends than some “us” versus “them” spectacle. Over the course of a glorious set that spanned roughly two decades of material, Thorn managed to make a personal connection with just about every one of the few dozen individuals in the room.
Since its inception in 1989, and especially over the past decade, the Netherlands-based Mascot Label Group has become home to many of today’s most popular rock-oriented blues acts. Its Provogue imprint currently boasts an artist roster that includes Beth Hart, Robert Cray, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Gales and Joe Bonamassa. Last year, the label decided to send three of its top guitar slingers on the road under the banner Rockin The Blues. That tour – with Gales, Gary Hoey and Quinn Sullivan – proved successful enough to merit a second go-round in 2019.
Eight dates in four European countries are on the agenda. Show #2 on the tour transpired inside the massive Carlswerk Victoria venue in Cologne and gave the local German audience a chance to witness a guitar-heavy blues extravaganza in Cinemascope. Combine any ten blues shows you’ve seen in the past year and you’ll get an idea of how big, broad and loud this spectacle was.
They call themselves the Blues Giants – a group of five musicians from different corners of the USA, all of whom have paid their dues and earned their keep in a variety of band situations. Two years ago, when they toured Europe, Mike Zito was one of the Giants. This time, a slight lineup change allowed us to enjoy the chops and vocals of Nick Schnebelen. The vibe didn’t change much, though. This is a high-spirited, guitar-heavy and thoroughly soulful troupe in search of a good time.
As this is Blues Music Awards week (I still think of it as Handys week) and the indvidual members of the Blues Giants are up for a total of five awards, I thought I’d share a visual impression of each of them as they appeared onstage in Bonn, Germany last Thursday night, along with a few random thoughts. (Disclaimer: I am a bad photographer with a cheap cell phone.)
Hi folks! I’m going to bang this one out while the good vibes of the past weekend are still resonating. Two live shows by two bands who, on the surface, have little in common. One’s a blues power trio, the other a rootsy southern rock’n’roll combo. But there is a distinct similarity: Both outfits are based in Germany without being – in the strict sense – German bands. Vdelli’s frontman is a native Australian and Modern Earl has its roots in Nashville.
Let’s start with them, since they were the ones who gave this fun-packed weekend a rip-roaring kickstart on Saturday night.
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.
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 executed 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.
Some days you go to a concert. Other days, you really need to hear the blues.
This particular mid-November tick on the calendar put me through the wringer. It began with an unwanted call from my auto mechanic (“Your car’s not ready”) and found me filing a formal complaint and request for reimbursement at the local train station eight harrowing hours later. It was a traveler’s worst nightmare, like something out of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and though I didn’t flip out like Steve Martin at the car rental counter, my insides were churning.
When evening arrived, I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I should have been 150 kilometers away in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, taking care of important business. Instead, I was moping around at home. It felt as though life had handed me a whole sack full of lemons. There really was nothing left to do but lug that sack out to one of my favorite haunts, the Yard Club, hoping to turn them into lemonade.