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 CD Roundup – April 2019

Time to catch up on some reviews. This CD Roundup is a “European Special” devoted to recent releases by Italy’s Dany Franchi, Belgium’s Shakedown Tim & The Rhythm Revue and a pair of Finnish acts: Dr. Helander & Third Ward and Jarkka Rissanen Tonal Box. American blues vets Charlie Musselwhite, Anson Funderburgh, James Harman and Gene Taylor make important contributions to these albums. Cheers to transatlantic friendships!

DR. HELANDER & THIRD WARD

Meat Grindin’ Business

Bluelight Records

Is a Finnish blues “supergroup” even possible? If so, Dr. Helander & Third Ward fits the bill. Members Ilkka Helander, Esa Kuloniemi und Leevi Leppänen comprise a trio of blues vets who have appeared on dozens of albums and played thousands of concerts over the past several decades. Helander’s the front man here, handling guitar and the bulk of the vocals, with Kuloniemi (bass/guitar/vocals) and Leppänen (drums) making strong contributions to an album that boasts added star power in the form of harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. They all come together on a raucous electric affair built on deep grooves, twin guitar fireworks and a big, booming, floor-rattling bass. Opening cut “Hawaiian Boogie” is an Elmore James number that sees them playing in a raw, chunky style reminiscent of Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers. Musselwhite spices up the similarly hard-driving “Third Ward Boogie,” then gives way to the skills of his Finnish harp counterpart Little Willie Mehto on “Money Makin’ Machine.” Helander does a solid job vocally on Lightnin’ Hopkins “Death Bells,” which also features some fine playing by Musselwhite, though it might have been nice to also hear Charlie singing on this one. The back half of the album is highlighted by the swampy CCR-style “It’s Not For Me But For My Friend” and the John Lee Hooker-esque “Woman’s Trust.” The greasy shuffle “Don’t Be Messin’ With My Bread” closes out Meat Grindin’ Business – a lean, tasty, thoroughly satisfying album with very little fat. – VA

SONG PICK: “Third Ward Boogie”

UNDER THE RADAR RECOMMENDATION –

JARKKA RISSANEN TONAL BOX

Trimmed And Burning

Blue North Records

To get an idea of where Finnish roots veteran Jarkka Rissanen is going on the bold and distinctive Trimmed And Burning, start with the dedication. With gratitude to Son House and Blind Willie Johnson. With a cosmopolitan approach not unlike that of Ry Cooder, multi-instrumentalist Rissanen, drummer/percussionist Jussi Kettunen and tuba player/bassist Jorma Välimäki mine the deep well of American blues and folk music traditions. That includes songs associated with House (“Grinnin’ In Your Face”), Johnson (“Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning”) or both (“John The Revelator”). Pair that with “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You?” (famously recorded by Muddy Waters) and the Sister Rosetta Tharpe gem “Up Above My Head” and it’s plain to see there’s something spiritual going on here. Props must go to the Finnish trio for freely adapting these traditionals to suit their own eclectic style. That can include the heavy, almost psychedelic thump we hear on the album opener “Keep Your Hand On The Plow,” the pleasingly laid-back New Orleans-style interpretation of “Up Above My Head” or the octavized guitars that echo the two voices – one male, one female – heard on the original recording of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning.” Meanwhile, their version of “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You?” chugs along with the clackety-clack of a freight train cutting through Louisiana farmland. Refreshingly unconventional. – VA

SONG PICK: “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying”