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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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 …

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WIB Listening Party #20: Lost and Found

featuring…

Jimmy Scott, Lost and Found

🍺 Chimay Bleue Trappist Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I like to jump around musically at the Listening Party, both within and without the blues genre. Now that we’ve reached another round number on the beer and blues hit parade, I intend to do some more jumping.

You see, I’ve never quite understood why blues fans – or diehard fans of any one style of music – are so intent upon listening only to that genre, or why they choose to define it so narrowly. It’s like loving basketball but hating all other sports, like reading police procedurals but no other kind of book. Doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

I’m devoting today’s Listening Party to Jimmy Scott and his album Lost and Found. It’s a reach, I guess, outside the blues into the realm of jazz. Scott – to my mind the greatest balladeer ever – is generally considered a jazz singer. But honestly, I can’t think of anyone bluesier.

Beer is also matter of taste. There are purists who stick to one type of beer or even a single brand throughout their lives. Others try different styles and flavors from all over the world, discovering loves, likes and dislikes along the way.

That’s what I’m doing here at Listening Party. Exploring the world of beer while presenting my favorite music. Today, while getting lost in the wonder and heartbreak of Jimmy Scott, we’ll partake of Chimay Bleue, a strong Trappist ale from Belgium. I honestly don’t know what to expect.

Let’s do it. Beer and blues, round 20.

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WIB Listening Party #19: Live at the Corner

featuring…

Ash Grunwald, Live at the Corner

🍺 Kona Longboard Island Lager

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

OK, I’ve had enough.

Obviously, I didn’t move to Germany for the weather. The Rhineland is not Bora Bora or the Côte d’Azur.

But generally, by mid-May, you can expect decent weather. Not this year. February, March and April were sprinkled with beautiful, sunny days. Right now, we’re in an interminably long stretch of gray, the temps are cool to tepid and summer is looking like it may never happen.

So my mission this week, for selfish reasons, is to paint the drabness around me in the reassuringly bright colors of summer. It gives me the chance to knock back a bottle of Kona Longboard Island Lager and write few lines about Australia’s Ash Grunwald.

Grunwald came instantly to mind because Kona brews on Hawaii’s Big Island and he’s an avid surfer. He even wrote a song about how a pod of guardian angel dolphins once saved him from a shark attack when he and a friend were out on their boards.

I honestly can’t think of a single blues artist from Hawaii. I’m sure there are some. I’ve just read that there are eight different climate zones on Hawaii and quite a bit of rain – but something tells me the landscape and vibe of the place might not be very conducive to the “blues feeling.”

So I’m going with Grunwald, the laid-back surfer dude who sometimes takes the stage in flip flops. That doesn’t scream “blues feeling” either, but he has it in spades. His early albums – including today’s pick Live at the Corner – contain excellent covers of Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf alongside his own knockout-punch originals. He’s since moved on to become one of the genre’s more progressive and experimental performers, but the raw intensity of the blues has always been there, particularly in his live shows.

I’m switching into shorts and a Hawaiian-style print shirt for this, even if I freeze my balls off.

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WIB Listening Party #18: All I Want

featuring…

John Mooney, All I Want

🍺 Welde / Himburgs Braukunstkeller Pepper Pils

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

All I want is …

Nah. Let’s not go there. The list is long and kind of depressing. Let’s talk about John Mooney instead.

John Mooney is a guy who projects both power and sensitivity, both darkness and light. In his playing and singing, you can hear how he went to school on one of the all-time greats, Son House, the former Baptist preacher and blues pioneer who was forever torn between the sacred and the secular. Mooney played alongside House as a teenager in upstate New York after Joe Beard introduced them in 1971. He possesses an uncanny feel for the sort of Delta blues House performed during his lifetime and has come up with a signature guitar tone that soars like a bird on the wing.

But he carried it a step further. He moved to New Orleans as a young man, hooked up with influential musicians like Professor Longhair and Snooks Eaglin and made that city’s famed second line rhythm his own. Mooney makes magic with those two basic ingredients, the Delta and the second line.

I love just about everything’s he done but have a special place in my heart for All I Want. The album’s energy is electric and Mooney’s playing is off the charts.

All I Want was his most current disc when I interviewed John before a club show in Bavaria in 2003. I think I was drinking Pyraser Landbier in half-liter mugs that night. Mmm. Today’s Listening Party pick has little in common with that Bavarian Helles, but it is German: Pepper Pils, which I chose for the simplest of reasons. I’m intrigued by what adding pepper does to beer.

Let’s crack open the bottle and let the music play.

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WIB Listening Party #17: Time Bomb

featuring…

Sue Foley, Deborah Coleman & Roxanne Potvin, Time Bomb

🍺 Steamworks Pale Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Can we agree there’s too much product out there?

It’s how I feel and have felt for quite some time now. Everybody and his brother puts out a CD or DVD or digital-only release on a regular basis. For the consumer, trying to keep up with each new wave of recordings is a Sisyphean task that hinders the enjoyment of music. Long gone are the days when we would sit for weeks with a favorite LP, poring over the lyrics and attempting to decipher the secret meanings hidden in the whacked out cover art. Today, we listen quickly and superficially before it’s wham, bam, on to the next one.

What’s worse, the never-ending torrent of new product keeps us so busy that we rarely dive into the collection we’ve assembled, which is full of gems we probably didn’t spend enough time with in the first place. Like Time Bomb.

The album was recorded and released to coincide with the third edition of the Ruf Records Blues Caravan Tour, which featured Sue Foley and Roxanne Potvin alongside the late American guitarist and singer Deborah Coleman.

I want to go music-heavy as I explore this excellent record from 2007, keeping the blah blah to a minimum and giving each of the three talented ladies who contributed to the project their chance to shine. 

And of course we’ll do a little beer tasting along the way, indulging in our first Canadian brew in honor of Foley and Potvin, each of whom hails from the Great White North.

Let’s stop – take a deep breath – pour a cold glass of Steamworks Pale Ale and enjoy Time Bomb.

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WIB Listening Party #16: Back Door Man

featuring…

Howlin’ Wolf, Back Door Man

🍺 Superfreunde Hang Loose Pale Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I’ve got a birthday coming up in … just a coupla hours. Yippie? I don’t know. At my age, I don’t get too excited about another tick on the calendar. Especially this year. The past twelve months feel very much like lost time I’ll never get back. No concerts, for one – aside for a couple of small, seated, socially distanced things. Live music sure, but not the same. A concert where you can’t hug your friends and can’t scream and fall down and go nuts can’t be anything better than OK.

I thought about cutting myself some birthday slack and not doing a Listening Party this week. Then again, one doesn’t get far in life by taking the day off. So here we are, sharing the time until midnight, when the “5” in my age becomes a “6”. Shooting the shit, as we do every week, about music, beer and life in general.

Today’s beer is called Hang Loose and I intend to crack it open shortly before the clock strikes twelve. If you’re expecting puns and wordplay related to surfing, I’ll have to disappoint you – I’ve never been near a surfboard let alone ridden one. (Does one even ride a surfboard?)

But hanging loose has other connotations and we’ll be doing just that with the great Howlin’ Wolf and his incomparable session bands from the 1950s and 60s.

Ready for a dose of some of the bitchinest blues ever recorded? I sure am …

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WIB Listening Party #15: Forgiven

featuring…

Los Lonely Boys, Forgiven

🍺 Mashsee Beverly Pils

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Do you have a funeral playlist? You know, a batch of songs you’d want to have played when people gather at your memorial service and talk about what an incredible person you were? I do, though I haven’t yet bothered to write it down.

Certain songs express an attitude about life, mortality, God and a hypothetical hereafter. An attitude that speaks to you. Sometimes, I imagine the folks sitting there when I’m gone, hearing the songs on my personal playlist and gradually recognizing who I was and what I believed in. 

I’ll get to one of those songs shortly. First, let’s talk about Los Lonely Boys. A terrific band that’s overlooked by many blues fans.

One reason might be the name. Los Lonely Boys doesn’t scream blues like, say, Too Slim & The Taildraggers. Or it might be the curse of their smash debut single “Heaven” – a melodic rock number that put the band on the map in 2004. It’s the only thing a lot of people know by Los Lonely Boys. The trio has tried to replicate that success with radio-friendly tracks on subsequent albums but has never come close. So for some, they’re a one-hit wonder.

But Henry (guitar), Jojo (bass) and Ringo Garza (drums), sons of Conjunto musician Enrique Garza Sr., have been making good to great albums all along, mixing blues, classic rock, pop and Tejano into what they like to call Texican Rock’n’Roll. My favorite of theirs is 2011’s Rockpango, where the brothers blend those ingredients into a cocktail spicier than a Bloody Maria. The follow-up Revelation, their final album to date, is also very good.

Today I’ll go a bit further back to their third studio album Forgiven, mostly because the title track is one of those on my funeral playlist. At this writing the band is on some kind of hiatus or may in fact have packed it in completely. I hope not, so I’ll talk of them in the present tense.

And because the motto of the Who Is Blues Listening Party is “One album, No scotch, One beer,” I’ll be diving into Beverly Pils a bit later on – a superb Pilsener created by Germany’s Mashsee brewery.

Now, let’s head south to San Angelo, Texas, a little bit west of Dallas, a little bit north of San Antone.

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WIB Listening Party #14: The Early Years

featuring…

Blind Willie McTell, 1927 – 1933 The Early Years

🍺 Bevog Totem Sour IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I’ve heard rumblings that audio cassettes are making a comeback. This following the spectacular revival of vinyl over the past decade or so.

Now, vinyl I can understand. LPs and 45s offer you something on a tactile level. They’re nice to look at and hold in your hand. Many believe vinyl sounds better and “warmer” than CDs and streams – a disputed topic that is open to debate.

But cassettes? They’re sort of ugly, feel cheap, are prone to getting tangled up in your tape deck and reside pretty near the bottom of the audiophile food chain.  

Not that I’ve thrown mine out, mind you. Disposing of cherished mixtapes from the 1980s or a cassette that a certain girlfriend gave you is like dumping your personal history into the rubbish tip. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer to hold onto such things.

Beer in cans has a similarly bad reputation. Until the advent of plastic beer bottles (ugh), the cheapest beer at the supermarket was always canned beer. Bottled beer looks more elegant and is usually more expensive, so we’ve convinced ourselves that it tastes better.

But craft brewers are helping to rehabilitate the can’s reputation. Cans are easier to transport and more recyclable than bottles. They’re better at protecting beer from exposure to light. That prevents oxidation, keeping a beer fresher for longer and preserving the flavor.

All that as a lead-in to this edition of the Who Is Blues Listening Party, which, as you’ll see below, has a different look.

My musical selection, the Blind Willie McTell compilation1927-1933 The Early Years, is on a cassette I picked up from a vendor in Union Square in New York City.

Bevog’s Totem Sour IPA is the first but certainly not the last canned beer recommended to me by my good friends at Bierlager.

Old school? New school? Let’s have fun with this.

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