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.”

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

WIB interview: Watermelon Slim (Pt. 1)

Still Fierce and Free

An Interview with Watermelon Slim

Words by Vincent Abbate / Photos by Mike Latschislaw

In an age of dime-a-dozen blues guitarists whose chief calling card is their technical proficiency, Watermelon Slim is a cherished exception. A bold, blatant personality who actually has something to say.

His success – modest as it is – owes less to effects pedals and vintage axes than to his ability to communicate universal truths. Listening to Slim, one is constantly confronted with the human struggle. For a brief, heady period roughly a decade ago, it looked as though the blues community had found – in this late-blooming Vietnam vet turned truck driver turned country bluesman – a working class hero for the long haul.

Continue reading

Listening Party #27: Missing Pieces

featuring…

Henrik Freischlader, Missing Pieces

🍺Mühlen Kölsch

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

So I’ve been thinking.

This is Listening Party #27. Alongside the variety of blues records I’ve featured until now, there have been lots of IPAs and lagers and porters and what not. That’s thanks to my friends at Bierlager, who have kept up a steady supply of tasty, exotic suds.

But how can I ignore the one beer I’ve drunk far more than any other during the past 25 years?

The one I’ve enjoyed at probably 80 or 90 percent of the blues shows I’ve attended during that time. And before the shows. And after.

I’m talking about Kölsch, of course.

Those of you who have visited my adopted home city, Cologne, will know Kölsch as a bright, smooth top-fermented ale served in tidy, cylindrical 200ml glasses known locally as Stangen. It’s a beer that’s often frowned upon in other regions of Germany – by the snooty Pils drinkers up north or the provincial Bavarians, who turn up their nose at any mug smaller than their one-liter Mass.

Those who have never traveled here may know it instead as a fancy schmancy “Kölsch-style ale,” a beer that appears to have caught on in international craft beer circles in recent years. The current ranking on RateBeer places exactly one brand of Kölsch actually brewed in Cologne in the top 50. One! The rest are from elsewhere. So, craft beer buffs … if you do come visit and go to a local Brauhaus, you might well hate it.

I’m not here to defend its merits, but merely to down a few glasses and listen to the blues.

Continue reading

Listening Party #26: Blues & Ballads

featuring…

Lonnie Johnson (with Elmer Snowden), Blues & Ballads

🍺 Kona Gold Cliff IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I’m back. Vacation was fun (see Listening Party #24 and #25) and my newest book is just out. Hooray for that! It took roughly a year and half to complete it, so that’s definitely cause for celebration.

If I’m honest – and I try to be – finishing the book and sending it out into the world has left me a bit spent. So I’m going to wade back in slowly with this first post-publication Listening Party. I’ve got what promises to be a tasty brew, Kona’s Gold Cliff IPA, chilling in the fridge. I’m kind of anxious to drink it, truth be told.

As for this week’s album, I’m going with an undisputed classic that’s quieter and more intimate than most: Blues & Ballads, recorded in 1960 by guitar maestro Lonnie Johnson with an able assist from Elmer Snowden. It’s music suited less for an all-out bash than for a small gathering of friends. Are you with me?

I have a lot of memories and stories tied up with this record so let’s jump right on over to the other side …

Continue reading

The Interviews: Blues encounters 2000-2020 (Who Is Blues Vol. 2)

“Most of what [people] hear ain’t for real. They’re used to some phony shit. This ain’t no phony thing.”  – Bobby Rush

Fifteen interviews. Two decades of blues.

The Interviews: Blues Encounters 2000-2020 is a collection of candid uncut conversations with blues musicians past and present. Some, like B.B. King, are household names. Others – including blues harp master Paul deLay and Clarksdale, Mississippi’s “dark genius” Watermelon Slim – have been widely overlooked. The 265-page paperback gives readers the inside story in the artists’ own words, helping to enrich and deepen our understanding of the blues.

Continue reading

Doug MacLeod: The authorized compact biography (Who Is Blues Vol. 1)

“I like to think my songs send a message about how to get through this life.”

Doug MacLeod: The authorized compact biography is an inspirational story of friendship, forgiveness, family and the great and mystical healing power of the blues.

The book traces the highs and lows of MacLeod’s six decades in music and reveals how he overcame an abusive childhood to become a celebrated singer, songwriter and master of the blues guitar.

Continue reading

WIB Listening Party #25: Still On The Road

featuring…

Nathan James & Ben Hernandez, Hollerin’

🍺 Oedipus Gaia West Coast IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

My three-week summer holiday in the Netherlands is winding down. If you missed the first Listening Party from the road, here it is. It’s been a cheery, beery time by and large – tinged with feelings of guilt. While I was here at the coast swimming and drinking and getting the deepest tan I’ve had in years, deadly flooding, the worst in decades, hit parts of Belgium, Holland and Germany. Hundreds of families close to where I live in Cologne, Germany, lost everything.

Beer-wise, the past three weeks have found me in an almost constant state of temptation. In every well-stocked supermarket in the region, there are dozens of fascinating beers on the shelves. You needn’t visit a specialty store to find craft beer. It’s everywhere. My oh my …

Today I’ll tell you about a few of the ones I’ve tried, including what may have been my absolute favorite: Gaia West Coast IPA from Amsterdam’s Oedipus Brewing.

At last week’s party, buzzed on a thunderous glass of Dubbel Wit, I found myself looking for music that would pick up where the old-timey Tarbox Ramblers left off. Hollerin’, a 2007 release from San Diego-based duo Nathan James & Ben Hernandez, came to mind. I let ‘er rip and – as so often over the past six months writing this blog feature – rediscovered a great album that has been sitting neglected on my CD shelf.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you our very colorful tag team for Listening Party #25.

Continue reading

WIB Listening Party #24: On The Road

featuring…

Tarbox Ramblers, Tarbox Ramblers

🍺🍺🍺 Helderse Jongens Dubbel Wit, Tripel & Watertoren

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

It’s summer vacation and I’ve crossed the border from Germany into another great beer drinking and brewing nation: the Netherlands. The bottled beer section at the local DEEN supermarket, the one my wife and I shop at whenever we visit this part of the country, reveals the Dutch passion for suds: Alongside mass market brands like Heineken and Grolsch, there are dozens of intriguing alternatives ranging from traditional Belgian Trappist ales to hip new craft beers.

As we’re headquartering in Den Helder at the northwestern tip of Holland and this city has a worthy brewery of its own, the Stadsbrouwerij Helderse Jongens, I’ll be sampling several of its beers in this special “on the road” edition of the Listening Party.

Let’s make it a game of double-triple-quadruple: We’ll start with Helderse Jongens’ Dubbel Wit, followed by their Tripel and then onto Watertoren, a quadruple that clocks in at a robust 12% ABV.

After trying all three, I’ll pick a favorite.

And while beer is the focus this week, what’s a vacation without a little music? I’ll be rolling out some choice cuts from a Rounder Records gem: the self-titled Tarbox Ramblers, a standout release from Y2K.

Get ready for some foamy goodness …

Continue reading

WIB Listening Party #23: Fit To Serve

featuring…

A.J. Croce, Fit To Serve

🍺 Bevog Nitro Coconut Porter

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Before Listening Party breaks for summer (I may post some entries from the road depending on how travel shapes up) I’ve got an admittedly odd pairing for you. Stay with me here.

My musical pick this week is Fit To Serve, a 1998 release by A.J. Croce. Not only is this a great album – I listened again, the magic is still there – it also allows me to share one of my favorite stories about how a musician can pick you up off the floor when you’re feeling like crap.

For the beer tasting, I’ve got a can of Bevog’s Nitro Coconut Porter chilled and ready to go. Color me curious.  

The story begins on a Friday night in 1998. I’m at the Moulin Blues festival in Holland with my best blues buddy at the time – the same guy I wrote about in Listening Party #5. This is my first big European festival and I am totally naïve about the challenges I’m about to be confronted with.

But I’m also very excited, because B.B. King is topping the bill that evening.

My friend parks his station wagon in the camping area, we lay out our respective sleeping bags in the back – there’s juuust enough room for both of us back there – and head toward the main tent with a supply of drink coupons in hand. Norwegian guitarist Vidar Busk opens the festival with a short, fiery set and we are feeling good.

Continue reading

WIB Listening Party #22: Sweet Tea

featuring…

Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea

🍺 Riedenburger Dolden Hell

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Yeah, so it’s heating up quite a bit ‘round these parts now. No longer any need to summon summer. It’s here. And with it, a slower pace. Even in the city.

That’s one thing I really like about the American south. People take their time in almost everything they do. I’m tempted to say it’s so because of the heat, but I’m a New Yorker and New York also gets excruciatingly hot in the summer months. But we haven’t got that take it easy thing down. Not really. Not like southern folk.

The climate around JazzFest in New Orleans is just about perfect. Really, it’s my weather ideal. The festival traditionally kicks off the last weekend of April, running into early May. Temps are in the 80s. Warm enough to knock off the rust of winter but never oppressive. Some of my favorite memories are of lounging in front of the Congo Square stage at the festival grounds, listening to funk and Caribbean sounds, soaking in the sunlight, enjoying an adult beverage.

But Mississippi in July? Yes, I have made that mistake. I’ve even camped out in the unbearable mid-summer humidity, inescapable even at night. I went to movies just to bask in the air conditioning.

Oh, right, music. It’s got to be a steamy hot record this week, a Mississippi in July kind of record. So I’m going with Sweet Tea, a #1 Billboard Blues album for Buddy Guy following its release in 2001.

The perfect beverage would be the one mentioned in the title, but since this is about blues and beer, we’ll pour a glass of Riedenburger Dolden Hell, a tasty and refreshing helles from Bavaria.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

WIB Listening Party #21: Not The Same Old Blues Crap

featuring…

Various Artists, Not The Same Old Blues Crap Vol. 1

🍺 La Quince CRYOBOT IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

That time from the mid-1990s on into the current millennium when Fat Possum Records was shaking up the blues world was actually pretty significant. Who among us had heard of R.L. Burnside before then? Junior Kimbrough? T-Model Ford? How many of us even knew there was such as thing as the North Mississippi Hill Country blues and that it was different from anything we’d heard before? Not many, I’d venture to guess.

And then suddenly, there it was. A weird, edgy, hypnotic, punky, groove-oriented sound, propagated by a tiny indie label operating from Oxford, Mississippi – a college town. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the music appealed to a twenty-something alternative audience who didn’t really know or care what the blues was. It didn’t matter that most of the musicians on the Fat Possum label were two or three times as old as The White Stripes. All that mattered – as the name of the label’s sampler series provocatively stated – was that it was Not The Same Old Blues Crap.

Today we’re going to give the first entry in that series a listen – an eleven-track album with cuts by Kimbrough, Ford, Burnside and several others.

To wash it down, we’ve got La Quince’s CRYOBOT IPA, a seasonal brew named for the Cryo Hops used in production and the futuristic bot on the label. As the late great Mr. Kimbrough once sang: I gotta try you girl.

So come on in … meet me in the city … ehh, enough of that …

Continue reading