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.

Joel Poluck’s self-published Songs For Floyd – Blues Poems and Other Things is valuable for precisely that reason. The guitarist, producer and songwriter’s fond remembrance of his long-time musical partner is the perfect introduction to Floyd Lee for those who may have missed him. And for those already familiar with Lee’s music, the 100-page book and ten-song companion CD form a lovingly created gateway to a deeper understanding.

Don’t expect a lot of frills here. Like the paperback’s plain two-tone cover and the sound of the Floyd Lee Band itself, the book’s content is pleasingly bare bones. Poluck keeps his preface brief and to the point: Where he might have expounded on how he and Floyd Lee met or shared stories from the road, the author limits himself to just a handful of essential facts. Nonetheless, his gratitude toward Lee and the sense of loss he feels now that his friend is no longer around come through loud and clear.

What follows is not a book of poetry per se, but by and large a collection of the song lyrics Poluck wrote for his Mississippi-born mentor. At the beginning of their partnership, he had heard comments claiming he was too young (or too white) to write songs for an older black man. Poluck was undeterred; despite his age, he had his own share of bad luck and trouble to digest and transform into songs.

Often his words express feelings of desolation and yearning or ponder upon his susceptibility to temptation. They are classic blues themes, done well. In singing them, Lee did more than make those lyrics his own; he added the full weight of his own experience.

Tucked in between the lyrics there are a handful of personal photos as well as beautiful reproductions of the artwork used to advertise Floyd Lee’s appearances in places like Milwaukee, Chicago, New York and at the 2004 Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, where his was – perhaps surprisingly – the biggest name on the bill.

The ten-song CD included with the book presents a cross-section of recorded work from between 2001 and 2013, the year Lee quit performing due to health issues. So investing a sawbuck (Songs For Floyd sells for around ten dollars online) gets you what you might otherwise find inside a pricey boxset: a CD, high-quality artwork and a comprehensive collection of song lyrics. Well worth the price.

In the book’s longest piece of poetry, and one of its more poignant, Poluck pointedly wonders “Who Cares About An Old Bluesman?” Many may not, but some of us certainly do. With Songs For Floyd – Blues Poems and Other Things, the author has found a noble way of preserving one bluesman’s legacy and of making sure he isn’t soon forgotten.

(c) JoJo Voigt

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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Dump That Trump: 10 Blues Songs for Election Day

Dump That Trump: 10 Blues Songs for Election Day

Thank you, Donald, for making the blues political again.

Text: Vincent Abbate

You’ve come here for the music, right? Not to hear me rant about #45. So let’s get to it.

In the past five years, the man in the White House has pissed off a lot of people. Including a small army of blues musicians. They’ve felt compelled to speak up, literally in an effort to defend their country. Don’t believe me? Go enter “trump blues” on YouTube. You’ll find dozens of musicians, well-known and unknown, whose only outlet for the frustration and disgust they feel has been to write and sing about it.

The ten songs and videos I’ve chosen for this countdown to Election Day 2020 are some of the more eloquent and funniest blues protest songs of the Trump era. My fellow Americans, blues lovers everywhere … let’s do this!

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The Mini Moon Story

The Mini-Moon Story

Words: Vincent Abbate

Sometimes it’s the little things that count the most.

When Doug MacLeod came to Cologne in October to perform at our book launch event, he stayed over at the apartment I share with my wife and two kids. For one night, we cleared away the Hot Wheels and Lego and turned my son’s room back into the guest room it used to be. And while it wasn’t the Ritz Carlton, Doug appeared happy enough with the accommodations. Maybe it was the four-foot-high Spiderman poster towering over his bed.

Now, Doug is also a serious baseball fan. Specifically, a St. Louis Cardinals fan. My two children happen to play little league baseball for a club called the Cologne Cardinals. So I thought it would be nice to surprise him with a piece of Cologne Cardinals merchandise during his visit. My kids were in on the secret.

Doug was flying out to Zurich the morning after our book launch, but hung around long enough to sit down to breakfast with me and the kids. My five-year-old son, Ben, was antsy, tugging at my sleeve the whole time. When are we going to give him his present, daddy? When are we gonna give it to him?

When Doug had finished off his corn flakes and coffee, I popped into the next room with Ben and my ten-year-old daughter Mia. We came back out with our gift for Doug: a Cologne Cardinals t-shirt in bright red. Cardinal red. Our guest was touched.

“The Cologne Cardinals,” he read aloud. “Is that your baseball team?” He was looking at my son.

“Mine, too!” declared Mia, quick to point out that she also plays baseball.

“Well,” smiled Doug in his gentle way. “I am going to go put this in my suitcase. And when I get back home, I’m going to show it to my wife and to my son.”

Doug disappeared for a moment, while we remained in the kitchen, happy that the t-shirt had been a hit. When he returned, he was holding a flat, slender box. It was maybe a foot long and two inches high. He turned to my children.

“I only brought along one of these on this trip. And I didn’t know where it was gonna end up. But now I know. I want the two of you to have this.”

By now, I knew what it was. My kids had no idea. So Doug carefully opened the box for them and took out the autographed miniature replica of his National M-1 guitar. The one he calls Moon. (The real Moon was sitting in the room across the hallway, stowed safely inside its hardshell case.) He set up the little guitar stand that comes with it and made sure Mini Moon was secured inside the bottom yoke and neck cradle.

“That’s Doug’s guitar,” I explained. I must have been smiling ear to ear. “Oh, and it’s not a toy!”

“It’s a collectors’ item, right?”

That was my daughter. She’s old enough to understand the difference. When I later informed her that Doug had been selling the limited edition replica guitars through his online store, and that they’re sold out, she was even more impressed.

But my son, too, understood that Doug’s gift of Mini Moon was something extraordinary. It was both a spontaneous expression of gratitude and something that would help us forever remember the time he came to stay.

A few days later, before our next book launch event, Ben got to play the real thing.

WIB Extra: The Finnish Blues Awards

The Finnish Blues Awards

January 13th, 2018 @ Nosturi, Helsinki

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

You never know where the blues is gonna take you.

Last December, when a guitarist friend invited me to the 2018 Finnish Blues Awards, I thought: Why the heck not? Helsinki is just a two-and-a-half-hour flight from my home base in Germany. Any chance to see a new city and meet a new culture first-hand – even for 24 hours – is a chance I grab.

And I knew this much: There’s no shortage of capable bands in Finland. Like the Wentus Blues Band, who I first stumbled upon 15 years ago in Dresden. Or the combo led by young singer Ina Forsman, part of the Ruf Records Blues Caravan 2016. Leading the pack is slide guitar goddess Erja Lyytinen, who has a particularly strong following in England and is a bona fide celebrity at home. There’s also Erja’s long-time (now former) right-hand man Davide Floreno – my host – a rock solid guitar player in his own right.

But beyond that, as I sat inside the black Mercedes sedan carrying me from Helsinki’s Vantaa Airport to the city center, I really had no idea what to expect. The first impressions were of a flat, barren, snow-covered landscape deep in a wintertime slumber. And boy does it get dark early. By four p.m., while I settled into my hotel room overlooking the loading cranes in the Port of Helsinki, evening had already taken hold.

The Finnish Blues Awards bills itself as a “society, event and a marketing effort helping to spread the glorious message of arctic Finnish blues music.” That’s a wordy but accurate description, because the fourth annual awards presentation – held for the first time at the Nosturi live music club – was more a showcase and gathering place for Finland’s blues community than anything else. These blues awards felt nothing like a gala – not like the BMAs in Memphis. There were no five-course dinners, no evening gowns, no purple double-breasted suits. And, in fact, only a precious few trophies handed out.

But there was live music. A whole bunch of it. Eleven bands on two stages, one upstairs, one downstairs, with nary a break between 7:30 p.m. and 1: 30 a.m. The constant stair climbing during this tightly scheduled, well-organized event would help to offset the calories accumulated at the downstairs bar, which served beer on tap and a good selection of the tasty and potent herbal liqueurs Finland is famous for. Nothing like a bit of exercise to go with your drinking.

Kicking things off downstairs at 7:30 was Jay Kay & Blues Gang, fronted by singer/guitarist Jouni “Jay Kay” Kallenautio. He got things rolling with an appealing set of earthy roots music a la JJ Cale and guitar stylings reminiscent of Peter Green. Upstairs at 8:00: Ilkaa Rantamäki & The Bluesbrokers. The highlight of this classic rock-leaning venture was a compelling instrumental take on The Beatles “A Day In The Life.” Back downstairs at 8:30: Helsinki’s own Mudville 56. The trio’s real gone swinging upright bass blues and rock’n’roll kept the party moving. Back upstairs 30 minutes later: Maisteri T. & Lihan Tie. A harp-fronted quartet that delivered much of its set in Finnish. For a band with any kind of international pretensions, that’s a limiting choice. But, as I would discover as the evening wore on, the Finns sing the blues in their native tongue more than other European players do.

The Toreadors.

Somewhere around 9:30 p.m., I tried my first shot of Salmiakki, a popular mixture of vodka and licorice extract. Some say it tastes like cough syrup. Now a cynic would tell you it was the beer I’d already drank, together with the Salmiakki, that had me warming up more and more to the live sounds on offer. I’d say it was the increasingly high quality of the music. Either way, the next four acts made a lasting impression.

The Toreadors picked up where fellow Helsinki-ites Mudville 56 had left off, celebrating the occasion in a swinging five-piece set-up and adding an invigorating touch of ska to the rock’n’roll, R&B and jump blues mix. Back upstairs, a trio that won me over instantly: Jarkka Rissanen Tonal Box. Guitarist Rissanen – an institution in Finland, apparently – was the first player on awards night to truly evoke the spirit of the Delta. His gritty, authentic, down-in-Mississippi playing was complemented skillfully by tuba and percussion.

Jarkka Rissanen Tonal Box.

The next name is quite a mouthful: Faarao Pirttikangas. Wiki tells me he’s been a part of bands called Cosmo Jones Beat Machine and Astro Can Caravan. What he’s doing now – or rather what he played during his solo set in the downstairs room – was a kind of off-the-wall stomp box blues not unlike that of jumpsuit-wearing, distortion heavy cult hero Bob Log III. Pirttikangas does it well enough to have earned Artist of the Year honors at this year’s awards.

Dave Forrestfield, too, was a pleasant if less challenging listen. Like so many of the acts in Helsinki, this year’s award winner for Best Song steered clear of cumbersome rock influences and overblown solos. The blues he and his quartet delivered was lean, solid and danceable, with touches of R&B, boogie and rock’n’roll.

Dave Forrestfield.

My apologies go out to Palkintojenjako (yes, I had to look that up) and Turn On, acts nine and ten on this evening, respectively. After eight bands in four hours without a break, my ears needed one. So after the awards were handed out around midnight, like most of the assembled, I retreated to the backstage area to help finish off the remaining cases of Koff, Fizz and Lapin Kulta. A not insignificant portion of the Finnish blues community had squeezed into the modest dressing room to talk shop over a beer.

It was there I exchanged handshakes and addresses with Lena Lindroos and Matti Kettunen, who play the blues together as one half of 2017 award-winners Lena & The Slide Brothers. I traded likes and dislikes with Finland’s unofficial “Blues Minister” Esa Kuloniemi – a respected author, musician and radio host. There were promoters, festival organizers, dozens of musicians. The common thread: The relative lack of opportunity at home. Finland is a sparsely populated country that stretches to the Arctic Circle and has only so many venues and so many gigs to go around. With the chances of an international breakthrough unlikely to say the least, the Finns can only view the blues as a labor of love.

In the slightly subdued but warm-hearted atmosphere backstage, I began to think of them as the True Believers.

The aftermath.

The night’s closing act, Million Dollar Tones, epitomized that. It was now after one a.m. The upstairs concert area was just about empty of spectators. The few remaining hangers-on left were tired and unresponsive. Did it faze the last band standing at the 2018 Finnish Blues Awards?

Maybe. But if it did, they didn’t let the circumstances dampen their spirits or affect their performance. The six-piece combo delivered rousing rock & roll and rhythm & blues propelled by a pair of chugging saxophones and the dynamic singing of frontman Antti Pajula. Just one more really strong set on a night on which Finland’s True Believers put their best foot forward.