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.   

WIB Listening Party #53: Blue Guitars

featuring…

Chris Rea, Blue Guitars

🍺 Morebeer Brewing Dutch Eagle

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

If you’re a blues fan (I certainly hope so) you’ll be familiar with T-Bone Walker’s oft-covered classic “Call It Stormy Monday” and an expression it helped make famous: “The eagle flies on Friday.”

Well at today’s Listening Party, the Dutch Eagle flies. Morebeer Brewing’s Dutch Eagle Pale Ale to be exact.

And while we soar high on eagles wings, we’ll also be skimming the deep waters of Chris Rea’s 137-song, 11-CD opus Blue Guitars – an underappreciated 2005 project which can take years to listen to in its entirety.

Last time out I documented a family vacation in Berlin and my uphill battle to get a taste of that city’s beer scene. Two weeks later we arrived in Amsterdam and it was more of the same. A pair of my favorite craft brewers, Oedipus and Lowlander, are based there. I heard their clarion call. But as I surveyed our plans for the week, I didn’t see any way I could easily sneak in a visit to one of their locations without totally blowing off my wife and kids.

Fortunately, being flexible and creative can lead to unexpected discoveries. So it was that as one half of the four-headed beast I call my nuclear family headed off to “look for shoes” – what, there are no shoes where we live? – I convinced my fourteen-year-old daughter to indulge my taste for good beer. She’s old enough to understand you must throw daddy a bone every once in a while. We don’t want him going off the rails now, do we? 

A quick Google search led us to a central but well-hidden pub called Mikkeller at Morebeer. And that is where I discovered Dutch Eagle, one of the best beers I’ve tasted in a while.

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WIB Listening Party #52: Hot Tin Roof

featuring…

Los Reyes del K.O., Hot Tin Roof

🍺 Lemke 030 Berlin Pale Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Berlin! More than Germany’s pre- and post-Cold War capital, this multi-faceted city of over three and a half million is also a craft beer hub. At least a dozen distinguished small and mid-sized brewers operate within the city limits and there’s an abundance of pubs and beer gardens serving local and international craft beer. As a vegetarian, I couldn’t help but notice all the street food and how far ahead of the curve Berlin is in offering meatless options. Vegan places have sprouted up everywhere. Similarly, as a beer lover, all I can say is that there, too, Berlin puts my home city and its decidedly more provincial tastes to shame.

But since my visit this summer was a family holiday, I had to make certain concessions. Much as I would have loved to hit every place on this helpful list of the 11 Best Craft Breweries in Berlin, I couldn’t, in good conscience, blow off my wife and kids and go on a six-day bender.

“Daddy, you’re a drunk!!” Nah, I didn’t fancy hearing that.

The situation, like much in life – family life in particular – called for compromise.

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WIB Listening Party #51: Sampling the Backlog

featuring…

Four songs & 🍺 Four beers

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

“I’m not gonna waste good beer.”  — Felix Unger

If you’re an Odd Couple fan – the syndicated sitcom Odd Couple, not the stage play, movie or any of its myriad other incarnations – then the line above, spoken by actor Tony Randall in the classic role reversal episode, will ring a bell. Felix (played by Randall, seen on the left in the photo below), imitating his ill-mannered roommate Oscar, puts out his cigar in a glass of wine. “I’m not gonna waste good beer” is his deadpan explanation.

I’ve adopted it as my motto for this edition of the Listening Party.

You see, while various factors (basically, a heavy workload followed by family vacations) have limited me to just a handful of blog entries in the past few months, several bottles and cans in my stash have been marching toward their expiration dates without any regard for my life situation. That beer – much of it kindly supplied to me by my craft beer partner Bierlager – is not something I want to let spoil.

The simple solution to this backlog was to divert from my usual “one album, no scotch, one beer” format. This time around, I’ll briefly present four different beers and let each one take me where it wants to take me. A song that comes to mind during each tasting will add to the fun.   

Remember: A beer is a terrible thing to waste!

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WIB Listening Party #50: If The River Was Whiskey

featuring…

Spin Doctors, If The River Was Whiskey

🍺 Welde Bourbon Barrel Bock

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

This particular Listening Party – number 50! – is going to be a music-heavy quickie. I do this whenever time gets tight. I’ve been stuck at 49 for a few weeks, burdened by my other work (yes, I do more than sit around and drink beer) and thus unable to reach that magical half-century mark. Now school is out, my kids are home and time is even tighter. It’s officially summer, some trips are planned, so the Listening Party will be on hiatus anyway.

But first – number 50.

We’ll toast this milestone with a really good and likely overlooked blues album, If The River Was Whiskey. Overlooked because Spin Doctors.

The record did peak at number five on the Billboard blues chart upon its release in 2013. Still for many, “Spin Doctors = blues” simply doesn’t equate. Doubters may think of the band as a one-hit wonder for their smash 1990s hit “Two Princes.” But years before that tune was blaring out of millions of car radios, the Doctors were indeed honing their chops at downtown Manhattan blues clubs.

While I have failed to dig up a whiskey-infused beer for the occasion (they most certainly exist), I have managed to get my hands on a bottle of Welde’s Bourbon Barrel Bock, which we’ll indulge in a bit later on. Let’s get to it …

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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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