WIB Listening Party #67: Electric Church for the Spiritually Misguided

featuring…

Dean Zucchero: Electric Church for the Spiritually Misguided

🍺 Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

OK, so what’s it’s been? Around four months? My previous Listening Party post was a farewell of sorts – my attempt to neatly wrap up the first 66 entries before going on hiatus indefinitely. Didn’t know when or if I’d be back at it. Even now I’m hesitant, as I can no longer knock these out at the steady pace I established in the Listening Party’s first year-plus of existence. 

But with summer now in the rear-view mirror and only some lingering warmth and sunlight keeping fall and winter at bay, it feels like the time has come. June to September often feels scattered and hectic, while the onset of autumn and gradually darkening days tends to guide me back to my desk and keyboard (where I write) and to my living room armchair or the rear balcony of my apartment (my preferred listening spots).

It’s a good time to contemplate an album and a beer.

We’ll leap back in with Electric Church for the Spiritually Misguided, a 2023 project spearheaded by New York native Dean Zucchero and featuring a cavalcade of guest artists.

To wash it down, we have an alluring 19.2-ounce tallboy of Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPA.

I’m feeling pretty good about this combination.

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Book review: Songs For Floyd

Book Review:

Songs For Floyd – Blues Poems and Other Things

by Joel Poluck

Text: Vincent Abbate / Photos courtesy of Amogla Records (except where otherwise noted)

Within the musical realm we call the blues, the formulaic offerings at the top of the sales charts often disappoint us. Frequently it’s the outside-the-box artists and releases hovering on the fringes of the genre that capture our imagination.

This was most certainly true of Floyd Lee, a well-travelled singer and guitar player from Lamar, Mississippi who gained a modicum of international notoriety during the first two decades of this century, at an age when most folks retire. Lee was already 68 years old when his debut record Mean Blues made some waves upon its release in 2001. He had been bringing his blues to the subways of New York City and working as a doorman on the Upper West Side in the decades prior. Only after Lee hooked up with young Canadian musician and New York transplant Joel Poluck did the eponymous Floyd Lee & His Mean Blues Band take shape; the quartet’s classic lineup often featured veteran bass player Brad Vickers and Mississippi drum legend Sam Carr. According to Poluck, he and Lee performed close to 1000 shows during their roughly fifteen years together.

Still, the music Floyd Lee recorded in the period prior to his passing in 2020 – most of it chilling, honest and imbibed with the spirit of the masters – surely remained hidden from the vast majority of blues audiences.

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WIB Live: 30th Schöppingen International Blues Festival

Peaceful Easy Feeling

30th Schöppingen International Blues Festival

Schöppingen, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Without question, the northwestern German town of Schöppingen’s annual blues festival has a special kind of flair. Held in an enclosed grassy area next to a public swimming pool, it’s just the right size for a relaxed communal experience – not so huge and overcrowded that the music becomes secondary to partying and distracted wandering, as at some bigger name events. Instead, Schöppingen feels intimate. As a guest, you can almost always find a spot close to the stage if that’s where you want to be. The food stands aren’t a mile away, so you can enjoy a pizza, a beer or a helping of fries and still see and hear the bands. A small tent adjacent to the stage is the meet-and-greet area; musicians gather here after their respective performances to sign autographs, sell merchandise or simply say hello to their (mostly) adoring fans.

All that – plus the consistent high quality of the music – is what keeps me coming back year after year.

This year’s two-day event was a study in contrasts. It started on a Saturday full of surprises. Continue reading

WIB Interview: Todd Sharpville (Pt. 2)

Bad Shit Is Good For You

An interview with Todd Sharpville (Pt. 2)

Words: Vincent Abbate  /  PHOTO: Jennifer Noble 

In the first part of my interview with Todd Sharpville, the veteran British bluesman spoke about the many artists who have inspired him and his unique strategy for staying busy when live gigs dried up during the COVID pandemic. Part two of our conversation is about his recent performance on Germany’s legendary Rockpalast program and how the personal challenges of the past have made him a more resilient and happier man today.  

Who Is Blues: For my money, your album Medication Time is one of the best blues albums of recent years. When did you record it and what led to the release on the French label DixieFrog?

Todd Sharpville: I recorded it in Rhode Island, where the producer Duke Robillard is based, and planned to release it prior to the lockdown. The Covid era changed everything. I touched base with Dixiefrog after the third lockdown and thankfully, they loved the tracks.

WIB: The release of Medication Time seems to have led to your invitation to perform on Rockpalast, Germany’s longest-running live music program. A career-changing event possibly?

Todd Sharpville: As I said earlier, so much of the grassroots landscape has been torn apart by the crisis, so I was hoping the album would somehow help me get things back on track. My lockdown project left me with a huge amount of personal debt, so I kept my fingers crossed when Medication Time was finally unveiled. The album received so many lovely reviews from around the world, which prompted the German TV company WDR to contact me. They kindly offered me the Rockpalast gig which was a personal honor to do. I’ve recently concluded a record deal for the recording which will be released as a live double album/DVD boxset this year. I’ve taken on a new booking agent because of it and will be touring heavily for most of next year. So yes, Rockpalast has helped to unlock a new door to my future as an artist.

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WIB Interview: Todd Sharpville (Pt. 1)

Bad Shit Is Good For You

An interview with Todd Sharpville (Pt.1)

Words: Vincent Abbate  /  PHOTOS: Chris Giff, Jennifer Noble 

Within the blues world, we talk until we’re blue in the face about axe-shredding guitarists and leather-lunged singers. We admire the proud keepers of the flame and purveyors of tradition. Recently it seems we’ve become enamored with glamour and coolness as embodied by some of the genre’s younger, more marketable stars. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But if you ask me (no one has!), what the blues needs most of all is personalities. In other words: artists willing to stand onstage and be real. Musicians who are not afraid to reveal themselves as flawed, fallible human beings.

Take veteran British bluesman Todd Sharpville. At his recent performance in Bonn, Germany – a 90-minute show captured on video – one of the first things he says as he greets his audience from behind a piano is: “This is a song for everyone who’s failed. We’re all fucking human. We all fail at some point or another.” He then proceeds to sing the opening number, “The Blue Standard,” in a voice laden with sorrow and hurt. Yet there’s an undeniable glimmer of hope in his delivery, too.

Just like his outstanding 2022 release Medication Time (an album inspired by his brief stint in a mental institution earlier this century), his recent date with German television revealed Sharpville as a master at conveying moods and emotions. Taking the stage at a mid-sized venue called Harmonie, he and the members of his six-piece band were not out to show the world how talented they are at string-bending and paradiddling. Rather, they had come to make a series of statements about the human condition. Gripping moments from that performance – soon to be released on CD & DVD – include the aforementioned “The Blue Standard,” the stirring “Love Knows No Bounds,” the tortured and harrowing “Medication Time” and the heartbreakingly personal “Won’t Say Goodbye” – cathartic explorations of imperfection, shared humanity, mental illness and grief.

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WIB Listening Party #66: Bones & the Spirit of 66

featuring…

The Delta Saints: Bones

🍺 Spirit of 66 Blonde Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

When you hit your late 50s, memories of the past lose much of their clarity. That’s true even for a lifelong journal keeper like me. The times and places, people and faces blur. And the names! Please forgive me if I’ve ever given you a “hey, how’s it going?” after you greeted me by name. I’ve always been terrible with names.

The blurriness prevents me from pinpointing my first visit to Spirit of 66 in Verviers, Belgium.

It may well have been for the Jon Amor Blues Group, an erstwhile favorite of mine that never played in Germany during their brief existence but often toured the Benelux countries. Jon’s voice was shot that evening, but the foursome was as tight and as edgy as expected.

Spirit of 66 was also the site of a nerve-racking encounter with the Mississippi Mudbloods around the same time. The band’s road manager told me beforehand that drummer Cody Dickinson didn’t like talking to journalists. Gee, thanks. However, when we sat down prior to the show, Cody wound up taking over the interview, talking lots and turning his brother Luther and bandmates Ian Siegal and Alvin Youngblood Hart into little more than spectators.

Both those occasions are roughly a decade ago, and I’ve seen plenty of shows there since.

Spirit of 66 is a staple tour stop on the European club scene. The Hall of Fame on the venue’s website includes hundreds upon hundreds of acts that have played there since the doors opened in 1995. If Spirit of 66 was nearer than 120 kilometers from my home, I’d be a poor man today. Rich in musical memories, but flat broke.

You could always get a decent glass of beer there, because, let’s face it, Belgian blondes rock. Val-Dieu, La Chouffe, Leffe, all good. But only recently did a bottle bearing the venue’s name and logo begin showing up in the fridges behind the bar. I tried it, enjoyed it, and have since made it my beverage of choice whenever I attend a show: Spirit of 66 blonde ale.   

The Delta Saints is a band I’ve enjoyed over the years and seen countless times, just not at Spirit of 66, though they’ve played there as recently as 2018. They temporarily disbanded thereafter to devote themselves to family and other projects but are returning to Europe this fall – reason enough to enjoy some tracks from their killer 2015 release Bones.

I’m aiming for some kind of closure with this expanded edition of the Listening Party (more on that a bit later) which I’m calling “Bones and the Spirit of 66.”

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WIB Live: Vanja Sky Band

What’s The Buzz?

Vanja Sky Band live @ Yard Club

Cologne, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

You’re seated in a cheap collapsible camping chair at 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, scarved and blanketed but still freezing your ass off, doing the math. If we get on the road at five and don’t take too long of a dinner break and manage the 150-mile drive back to Cologne in two hours or so … that’s what it’ll take for you to use the concert ticket currently burning a hole in your pocket. Vanja Sky at the Yard Club. Shows start and end early there. Even on a Saturday night. Under the circumstances, you’ll be lucky to catch the second set.

But then the head baseball coach at your son’s training camp comes through in the clutch. He decides six hours in miserable drizzly weather is long enough and shuts things down 90 minutes earlier than planned. Yippie! You pack up, jump in the car, turn up the heat and though the roadside stop at McDonald’s – a promise to the boys in the back seat – takes longer than it should, you’re home in plenty of time. A quick change of clothes and you’re out the door, onto the #7 tram, change at Rudolfplatz, the #15 to Wilhelm-Sollmann-Straße and the traditional bottle of Kölsch from the gas station for the ten-minute walk to the venue. That and a couple of tunes from JD McPherson loosens you up for the evening.

And boy do you need loosening. Life’s been heavy and intense lately. The ground beneath your feet feels more like quicksand. You look to the heavens for rescue. Rescue in the form of music maybe?

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WIB Listening Party #65: Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails

featuring…

The Baseball Project, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails

🍺 Brew Dog Curve Ball West Coast IPA / Cold Beer Pale Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

 

To paraphrase sixties rock’n’roll icons The Animals: It’s my blog and I’ll write what I want. It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want.

Today, on Opening Day, my favorite day of the year – better than Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July rolled into one – I am thinking and writing about baseball.

Depending on who you ask, baseball is either an excruciatingly slow and boring athletic competition that’s well past its sell-by date as America’s favorite pastime or the most beautiful, artistic, compelling and enjoyable sport on earth. I’m in the latter camp, so if you’re a hater, you may want to jump off here. 

I’m a sucker for anything baseball. Books, movies, ESPN docs about baseball heroes and history. Boxes of the baseball cards, programs, newspapers and other memorabilia I collected as a kid still reside at my mom’s home. And to this day, I can’t break the habit of following my favorite team, the Yankees (just lost a few more of you) on a day-in, day-out basis. I live in Germany. It often results in me staying up for games that start at 1:00 a.m. when I should be sleeping. I was born into a Yankee family in New York. It is simply in my blood.

So let’s throw a baseball-themed Listening Party, shall we?

Musically we’ve got tracks from Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails, originally released in 2008 on Yep Roc Records. It’s the first volume of songs by The Baseball Project, a sort of baseball nerd supergroup that has been chronicling the sport to music for a good 15 years now.

I’ve also got a couple of canned beers lined up for us courtesy of BrewDog: Curve Ball West Coast IPA and Cold Beer Pale Ale. In the spirit of Hall of Fame slugger Ernie Banks … let’s play two today!

Just don’t throw the empties on the field.

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WIB Listening Party #64: Stingray

featuring…

Kenny Brown, Stingray

🍺 Two Chefs Funky Falcon Pale Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

 

2003’s Stingray is a classic example of a really good album that slipped through the cracks.

Recorded at The Money Shot in Water Valley, Mississippi and released on Fat Possum, it’s the work of singer and guitarist Kenny Brown. Best known as the musical sidekick to R.L. Burnside until the latter’s demise in 2005, Brown grew up in the North Mississippi tradition, apprenticing with local legends like Joe Callicott and Johnny Woods before hooking up with Burnside for a partnership that lasted roughly three decades. More recently, his guitar featured on The Black Keys’ Delta Kream, Robert Finley’s Sharecropper’s Son and Hank Williams Jr.’s Rich White Honky Tonk Blues. So he’s out there, still doing his thing.

I scooped up my CD copy of Stingray for a measly $3.95 at a second-hand book outlet in Nashville, Tennessee, following a string of unforeseen circumstances. More on that in a bit.

What we got greasing the wheels this time around?

That would be Funky Falcon Pale Ale from Two Chefs Brewing. Founded in 2012 by a pair of now-former chefs (duh), Two Chefs calls itself “Amsterdam’s Finest Craft Beer Brewery” and adorns its beers with bold, brash colors and characters, like the Dia de los Muertos Mariachi gracing its Mexican-style lager or the gunslinging cowboy on its Green Bullet IPA. I admit I’m a sucker for creative names and designs – undoubtably they’re a part of what makes craft beer fun. But it’s what’s inside that counts, right?

We’ll see what the Funky Falcon has to offer and dive into the Kenny Brown album on the other side.

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WIB Listening Party #63: A Celebration Of New Orleans Music

featuring…

Various Artists, A Celebration Of New Orleans Music

🍺 Yankee & Kraut Maracujizzle Brombizzle

Words & photos (except where Indicated): Vincent Abbate

 

Something unusual happened this morning. My adopted hometown made CNN.

Cologne is a large German city of over a million. But it’s not London, Paris, Brussels or Berlin. So we don’t often see international camera teams wandering around town. But they were here yesterday, capturing the images that surprised me today at breakfast: thousands of locals in their clown suits, young and old, filling one of the main squares, smiling, singing, swaying, and having a ball.

The occasion was Cologne’s famous Carnival celebration. As in Rio and New Orleans, the people here like to blow off steam in a big way in the days prior to Ash Wednesday and the start of the Lenten season. They’ve been doing so for roughly 200 years. I’ve been here for the last 30 of those and confess I have never truly warmed up to the tradition. Sometimes I join in, often I don’t.

The Carnival societies with their meetings and weird Colonial officer-looking uniforms; the swarms of visitors from other towns and cities who come here to make merry, booze it up and piss all over the place; the local anthems, sung in a dialect I will never learn, endlessly singing the praises of the Stadt am Rhing. All of it leaves me feeling like an outsider and a killjoy.

Photo (c) Festkomittee Kölner Karneval

Now if the streets and pubs were full of the sounds heard on A Celebration Of New Orleans Music, well … it might be a different story.

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