WIB Listening Party #8: God Don’t Never Change

featuring…

God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson

🍺 Men’s Hell Extra Strong Lager

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Blind Willie Johnson.

I’m going to let that name sit there and resonate for a bit.

Those with only a vague notion of the blues are now wondering: Why are they all called Blind Willie? Or Blind something-or-other? Consider the career opportunities available to a southern black man with a handicap one hundred years ago.

If he was musically inclined and bold enough, he might choose to play popular songs on street corners, happy to hear the clatter of coins in the tin cup hanging around his neck. If he was good, word might spread to one of the label reps scouting around for talent. If he was exceptional, that label rep would put him on record. All the participants, including the street singer, were out to make money. They didn’t become artists and blues pioneers until later generations put those monikers on them. 

From all that I’ve read, though, Texas-born Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t your average busker. He was more of a wandering preacher. The 30 sides he left behind, recorded for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1930, bear that out. Johnson’s music – which he played and sang mostly close to home in Texas, but also as far away as New York City – is akin to the Living Bible. The gospel set to a fervent rhythm people can relate to. Moreover, he was genius at tying the teachings of the Bible to the major news events of his day, like the Titanic disaster (“God Moves On The Water”) or the Spanish flu epidemic (“Jesus Is Coming Soon.”)

As a singer and guitar player, he had a peculiar intensity. His voice was raspy and sharp as a buzzsaw, his syncopated bottleneck playing raw and rough – the exceeding beauty of the results is hard to explain. You know by listening that this man meant business, and even the agnostic ear can feel the power of the Lord in his songs.

Johnson’s God-fearing spirit will serve us well today, as we take on a diabolical brew that would curl Satan’s toes: Men’s Hell Extra Strong Lager. It’s one of five beers crafted by Kraftbierwerkstatt, a small German brewer based near Stuttgart. Musically, we’ll look at the recent star-studded tribute God Don’t Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson.

Two potent forces. One sonic, the other sensual. Let’s do this …

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WIB Listening Party #7: Jab


featuring…

A Contra Blues, Jab

🍺 Hop Fiction American Pale Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

How is it possible that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction came out more than 25 years ago? If you’re like me, you’ll never forget what it felt like to be whacked over the head by this theme park adventure ride of a movie. The opening one-two punch of the first diner scene and Dick Dale’s “Misirlou.” Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson absolutely killin’ it) talking hamburgers on the way to their first hit. Travolta and Uma Thurman twisting at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. The accidental blown-off head that forces Vincent and Jules to go see clean-up man Winston Wolfe. One classic scene after another, stitched together in a circular fashion that allowed Travolta’s character to die an inglorious death in the film’s middle act, then strut into the sunset alongside Jackson at its conclusion.

A few years later, when the first Kill Bill movie came out … I guess you could say I went all Bob Dole inside. Tarantino’s relentless depictions of violence had crossed a line I could no longer stomach. Pulp Fiction has its brutal moments, too, but the blood and guts don’t spoil the overriding spirit of fun.

The people at Madrid’s La Quince brewery – company motto: “Brew Wild” – have attempted to capture the essence of Tarantino’s cinematic tour de force in the American-style pale ale they call Hop Fiction. The Pulp Fiction-inspired label is a good start. It’s nearly as inviting as Uma Thurman’s iconic pose on the film poster and has me curious about what’s inside.

I’ve chosen Jab by Barcelona’s A Contra Blues to go along with it – an album just twangy and surfy enough to feel like a good fit. Let’s fire up the music and unleash the contents of this snazzy-looking bottle …

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WIB Listening Party #6: Ear To The Ground

featuring…

 The Matt Schofield Trio, Ear To The Ground

🍺 Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Stout. For me, that word carries very definite and vivid associations. It takes me back to every bar stool and every booth in every cozy, dimly lit British or Irish pub I’ve ever set foot in, giddily taking part in the unique cultural ritual of going for a pint.

The very first beer I ever had in Europe was not a stout, but a lonely (and delicious) pint of Smithwick’s Red Ale in the western Irish town of Limerick. I was practically just off the plane from New York, which had landed a few hours earlier at Shannon, and those first soothing fluid ounces – combined with a pub lunch – helped me feel slightly less like a fish out of water. I’ll never forget it.

By the following night I had overcome my jitters and hooked on with a group of fellow travellers. We wound up at a lively pub in Killarney, drinking pints of stout as locals sang folk songs and played on native instruments like the bodhrán (a big, flat, prehistoric-looking drum thing) and the tin whistle. It was just the way you imagine Ireland to be when you’ve never been there.

Stout also takes me back to the Bieldside Inn near Aberdeen, Scotland, where I spent a year as a volunteer some 30 years ago. Alcohol was officially forbidden in the somewhat reclusive community I was a part of, but a couple of nights a week I’d sneak off with some of the other international volunteers to partake in local culture. I mean, why live in Scotland and not meet any Scots? The Bieldside Inn was nothing extraordinary as far as pubs go, but on our secret missions, it became “the chapel” and the stout it served our “holy water.”

I also once enjoyed, umm … several pints of stout with the Matt Schofield Trio. We drank Guinness – the same widely available brand I’d enjoyed in Bieldside, Killarney and everywhere in between. I’ve nothing at all against a good pint of Guinness – preferably on tap – but alternatives are fun, too. Like Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. Let’s peel off the gold foil, uncap the bottle and give Schofield’s Ear To The Ground a listen …

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WIB Listening Party #5: Life is a Carnival

featuring…

The Wild Magnolias, Life is a Carnival

🍺 Superfreunde Till Death Old School Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Yeah, so this is the week where, traditionally, hundreds of thousands of locals and out-of-towners would be out drinking, dancing and parading in costume through the streets of Cologne. I don’t know what’s happening right now in Rio or New Orleans, but here in Germany’s fourth largest city, where for many Karneval is the high point of the year, the 2021 celebration is just one more victim of the pandemic. Public gatherings and private parties of any kind are a no-no and even the rules regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages – normally quite liberal – have been tightened to keep people from getting too frisky.

So it’s not surprising to find myself thinking back on a more carefree time – my first trip to the holy city of New Orleans.

That was in spring of the year Y2K. A good friend and I had hatched the plan after a concert in Brussels the previous December. Riding back to Cologne while another friend took care of the driving, we started dreaming out loud of a musical sojourn through the deep south. Four months later we touched down at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, did a quick run through Mississippi up to Memphis and back down again, arriving in New Orleans for the start of JazzFest. We stayed the whole ten days, with a short break on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in between the two big festival weekends.

Before I go any further, let’s crack open a bottle of Superfreunde Till Death Old School Ale and see where it takes us …

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WIB Listening Party #4: Happy Hour

featuring…

 Ted Hawkins, Happy Hour

🍺 Düxer Bock

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

What’s the connection between a Mississippi-born busker and a beer named for a local legend and unofficial neighborhood mascot in Cologne, Germany? Is there a connection at all? I pause … and do believe I’ve found something.

It’s the juxtaposition of darkness and light in Ted Hawkins’s songs. The mix of pathos and humor. Hawkins wrote from a checkered personal history that came out sounding cheerful. It’s sad music that makes you happy. Similarly … Germans aren’t the most happy-go-lucky tribe on the face of the earth. A checkered history? Whoo boy.

But Rhinelanders and particularly the people of Cologne are known throughout the land for their Frohnatur – their cheerful, optimistic nature. Any excuse for a party and they’ll throw one. I’ve always thought of my adopted home city as Germany’s answer to New Orleans, just with bad weather and crappier music.

Cologne is also the place where I discovered Hawkins, as with so many of my favorite musicians. I don’t recall who it was, but somebody – a guest at a weekly blues event I used to attend in the 90s – told me to check out Hawkins’s then-current album The Next Hundred Years. I did and was blown away. That album, released just months before Hawkins’s death on New Year’s Day 1995 and the one that broke him internationally, is on my list of 100 favorite albums of any genre. Maybe it’s in the top 50.

I’ve chosen Happy Hour, one of his earlier albums, instead. Why? Let’s crack open a Düxer Bock on the square bearing the same name and explore the work of this dark genius …

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WIB Listening Party #3: Elemental Journey

featuring…

Sonny Landreth, Elemental Journey

🍺 Einstök Icelandic Wee Heavy

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

My first ever Icelandic beer. One of my favorite guitar players. There are many ways I could go with this.

The beer. Einstök Icelandic Wee Heavy. It was just sitting there waiting to be discovered at a kiosk near my office in Cologne, Germany.

Now, Iceland surely isn’t the first place you think of when you think of beer. But the craft beer movement is most definitely a thing there. An online listing of the top Icelandic brewers ranks Einstök fifth out of nine and says there are hundreds of different brands in all, many of them made with home-grown Icelandic ingredients … and why wouldn’t there be? Besides being one of the wealthiest and most progressive countries in the world – suggesting you might wanna live there –  hardly anyone does live in Iceland. So there’s plenty of space for things to grow, especially just south of the Arctic Circle where the Einstök brewery brews its brews using water that flows from “prehistoric glaciers … through ancient lava fields, delivering the purest water on earth.” (Ooh!) 

Another interesting tidbit: Strong beer (anything above 2.25%) was prohibited in Iceland from 1915 until 1989. The prevailing thought in government circles was that indulging in beer led to anti-social behavior. All I can say to that is … I’ll do my best.

When I think of Iceland (never having been there) I picture vast, glacial landscapes, big open subarctic skies, the aurora borealis. Which leads me to Sonny Landreth’s Elemental Journey, an album that evokes those kinds of images.

Let’s pull this beauty out of the garage, fill her up with barley broth and head out on a “Wonderide” …

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WIB Listening Party #2: Foot Soldier

featuring…

Lightnin’ Malcolm, Foot Soldier

🍺 BrewDog Punk IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Foot Soldier is one of roughly a half dozen solo albums authored by contemporary Hill Country bluesman Lightnin’ Malcolm. It was released in 2016 on Mississippi-based indie label Shakedown Records and I’m not sure many people noticed. Which is a shame. It’s a raunchy, no-frills, mud-spattered one-man band record, a fun ride down a dirty back road. It’s got attitude and it grooves and will whoop you upside the head if you dare turn your back on it.

Let’s crack open a bottle of BrewDog Punk IPA and give this sucker a spin …

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WIB Listening Party #1: The Chess Story (Volume 1)

featuring…

The Chess Story Volume 1

🍺 Wolfscraft Frisch-Pils

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

The Chess Story Volume 1, a Chess Records anthology covering the period from 1948 to 1956, is one of the albums that did it for me. A big bang that sent the blues hurtling into my universe.

Growing up in the States, the blues was familiar to me, but no more so than it was to your average American rock’n’roll fan. That means my concept of what the blues is and where it came from or even what real blues sounded like was vague and limited. I knew of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. I’d seen B.B. King on Sanford and Son and Bo Diddley’s cameo in the George Thorogood video. I didn’t think of Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton as blues because they were all over FM radio.

Then I found this Chess sampler from 1993 in the bargain bin at a local bookstore. Those were ten Deutschmark well spent. (I’d been living in Germany for maybe two years at that point.) Some of the music I knew – Waters, Chuck Berry – but it was the guys I’d never heard before – Robert Nighthawk, Jimmy Rogers, Lowell Fulson – that made me realize just how many blues treasures were out there waiting to be discovered.

Let’s crack open a bottle of Wolfscraft Frisch-Pils and give this little record a spin…

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WIB interview: Walter Trout

The Interviews: Blues Encounters 2000 – 2020 is the second installment in the Who Is Blues book series and will become available later this year. It includes conversations held during the past two decades with B.B. King, Bobby Rush and more than a dozen other artists. The following is an excerpt from the chapter on singer, guitarist and songwriter Walter Trout.

* * *

WALTER TROUT

July, 2020

Interview by Vincent Abbate

Though practically all of our interaction has been via the phone, I feel like I’ve gotten to know Walter Trout a little bit during the latter part of his career. He may be a celebrated blues guitar hero, but he’s also someone who will treat a stranger like a friend.

Our first “phoner” coincided with the release of his Luther Allison tribute album Luther’s Blues in 2013 and introduced me to Walter as a plain talker whose New Jersey accent would always remind me of home. Our second conversation was as emotional as it gets, as he was still processing the near-death experience that inspired the writing of his unforgettable Battle Scars album. By the time we discussed his subsequent record We’re All In This Together, the worst of that storm had passed and he had emerged as someone the entire bluesrock scene could rally around. Mixed in was a quick hello and a handshake before a concert in Leverkusen, Germany – the only time we’ve ever spoken face-to-face.

His fans love and respect him. And yet, Trout routinely gets pounded by critics for his explosive, sometimes frenetic style of electric guitar. “You play too many notes and you’re too loud,” complained one of his detractors years ago. In an act of rebellion, Walter chopped that statement down to five words – “Too many notes, too loud!” – and began using the phrase as his official slogan on T-shirts and other merchandise.

Trout’s uneasy relationship with more traditionally-inclined listeners became a topic of our fourth and most recent interview, conducted once again by phone during the run-up to his latest studio album Ordinary Madness, released in August of 2020.

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