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.   

Back to Live

We’ve waited almost a year for this.

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

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?

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WIB Live: Women On Top

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.

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WIB Live: Paul Thorn

Everything’s Gonna Be Alright

Paul Thorn live @ Pitcher

Düsseldorf, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

So much truth. Soooo much truth.

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.

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WIB Live: Rockin The Blues 2019

Big Boys Do Cry

Rockin The Blues 2019 live @ Carlswerk Victoria

Cologne, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

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.

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WIB Live: The Blues Giants

Land Of The Giants

The Blues Giants live @ Harmonie

Bonn, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

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.)

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WIB Live: Modern Earl / Vdelli

WIB Live Twin-Pack:

Modern Earl live @ Torburg, Cologne, Germany

Vdelli live @ Okiedokie, Neuss, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

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.

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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 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 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.