WIB Listening Party #15: Forgiven

featuring…

Los Lonely Boys, Forgiven

🍺 Mashsee Beverly Pils

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

Do you have a funeral playlist? You know, a batch of songs you’d want to have played when people gather at your memorial service and talk about what an incredible person you were? I do, though I haven’t yet bothered to write it down.

Certain songs express an attitude about life, mortality, God and a hypothetical hereafter. An attitude that speaks to you. Sometimes, I imagine the folks sitting there when I’m gone, hearing the songs on my personal playlist and gradually recognizing who I was and what I believed in. 

I’ll get to one of those songs shortly. First, let’s talk about Los Lonely Boys. A terrific band that’s overlooked by many blues fans.

One reason might be the name. Los Lonely Boys doesn’t scream blues like, say, Too Slim & The Taildraggers. Or it might be the curse of their smash debut single “Heaven” – a melodic rock number that put the band on the map in 2004. It’s the only thing a lot of people know by Los Lonely Boys. The trio has tried to replicate that success with radio-friendly tracks on subsequent albums but has never come close. So for some, they’re a one-hit wonder.

But Henry (guitar), Jojo (bass) and Ringo Garza (drums), sons of Conjunto musician Enrique Garza Sr., have been making good to great albums all along, mixing blues, classic rock, pop and Tejano into what they like to call Texican Rock’n’Roll. My favorite of theirs is 2011’s Rockpango, where the brothers blend those ingredients into a cocktail spicier than a Bloody Maria. The follow-up Revelation, their final album to date, is also very good.

Today I’ll go a bit further back to their third studio album Forgiven, mostly because the title track is one of those on my funeral playlist. At this writing the band is on some kind of hiatus or may in fact have packed it in completely. I hope not, so I’ll talk of them in the present tense.

And because the motto of the Who Is Blues Listening Party is “One album, No scotch, One beer,” I’ll be diving into Beverly Pils a bit later on – a superb Pilsener created by Germany’s Mashsee brewery.

Now, let’s head south to San Angelo, Texas, a little bit west of Dallas, a little bit north of San Antone.

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WIB Listening Party #14: The Early Years

featuring…

Blind Willie McTell, 1927 – 1933 The Early Years

🍺 Bevog Totem Sour IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I’ve heard rumblings that audio cassettes are making a comeback. This following the spectacular revival of vinyl over the past decade or so.

Now, vinyl I can understand. LPs and 45s offer you something on a tactile level. They’re nice to look at and hold in your hand. Many believe vinyl sounds better and “warmer” than CDs and streams – a disputed topic that is open to debate.

But cassettes? They’re sort of ugly, feel cheap, are prone to getting tangled up in your tape deck and reside pretty near the bottom of the audiophile food chain.  

Not that I’ve thrown mine out, mind you. Disposing of cherished mixtapes from the 1980s or a cassette that a certain girlfriend gave you is like dumping your personal history into the rubbish tip. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer to hold onto such things.

Beer in cans has a similarly bad reputation. Until the advent of plastic beer bottles (ugh), the cheapest beer at the supermarket was always canned beer. Bottled beer looks more elegant and is usually more expensive, so we’ve convinced ourselves that it tastes better.

But craft brewers are helping to rehabilitate the can’s reputation. Cans are easier to transport and more recyclable than bottles. They’re better at protecting beer from exposure to light. That prevents oxidation, keeping a beer fresher for longer and preserving the flavor.

All that as a lead-in to this edition of the Who Is Blues Listening Party, which, as you’ll see below, has a different look.

My musical selection, the Blind Willie McTell compilation1927-1933 The Early Years, is on a cassette I picked up from a vendor in Union Square in New York City.

Bevog’s Totem Sour IPA is the first but certainly not the last canned beer recommended to me by my good friends at Bierlager.

Old school? New school? Let’s have fun with this.

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WIB Listening Party #13: Born Under A Bad Sign

featuring…

Albert King, Born Under A Bad Sign

🍺 Guinness Hop House 13 Lager

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I bought Born Under A Bad Sign when I first started writing about the blues in the late 90s. It’s one of those quintessential albums you had to be familiar with if you were going to publish anything on the subject. Required listening, so to speak. Read any three guitar player interviews and one of them is bound to mention Albert King as an influence. Hendrix, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan … if those guys idolized the big man from Mississippi and tried to copy his peculiar left-handed upside-down string-bending style, then there must be something there, right?

I like what self-proclaimed guitar nerd Joe Bonamassa had to say about King’s legacy on an episode of his Live From Nerdville video series: “[Albert] has been imitated many times – including by yours truly – but never quite duplicated, because his attack, his presence and the way he felt the music was completely new.”

The appeal of Born Under A Bad Sign begins with cover art that is among the coolest in the blues’ long history. The color scheme, the placement of the ace of spades, snake eyes and other bad luck symbolism, even the iconic Stax Records logo tucked into the lower left corner – all very striking. It reminds me of some psychedelic 1960s wallpaper … one you wouldn’t want hanging in your room if you were on a bad trip.

The album collects 11 tracks recorded in 1966 and 1967, many of them running less than three minutes (!!) … starting with the title song, dating to May of ’67 and played countless times by well-intentioned blues bands the world over in the half-century since. Frankly, it’s a challenge to listen to an LP with fresh ears when so many of its tunes have been covered to death – though it speaks volumes about the quality of the material.

Perhaps a bit of barley broth will help get us there! Guinness Hop House 13 Lager was an obvious choice for Listening Party #13, what with the bold red number 13 on the label echoing the calendar page on the cover of Bad Sign.

That’s a lot of 13 gathered in one place. Bad juju?

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WIB Listening Party #12: Peace Machine

featuring…

Philip Sayce, Peace Machine

🍺 Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

My past two Listening Party posts went off on a bit of a folky/world music tangent. The adventure was both musically satisfying and educational. But now, as I steer the proceedings back toward the grit and grime of the blues, I find myself wanting first and foremost to have my face melted. Who better to turn to in this case than Welsh-born, Canada-raised, next-level electric guitar monster Philip Sayce.

For me, any consideration of this abundantly gifted blues-rocker begins with the night he rolled into Leverkusen, Germany on the first night of a European tour and blew the walls off of a tiny club called topos. When I first caught wind of that gig, my first thought was, “What? He’s playing there?!!” Sayce’s growing reputation at the time suggested he would pack the place, and so it was: When the evening arrived, curious bodies occupied every available inch of space, from the gunky restrooms tucked away behind the stage all the way past the bar and out the front door. You basically couldn’t move. 

Sayce’s power trio was so damn good it didn’t matter.

The knockout energy of Philip Sayce and his revelatory album Peace Machine, which we’ll be sampling today, calls for a beverage that packs a similarly potent punch, so I’m going with a personal favorite: the Torpedo Extra IPA crafted by Chico, California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. 

The bottle is chilled. Three choice album tracks have been hand-picked for your pleasure. All I need now is a pair of heavy duty bolt cutters. This is Listening Party unchained.

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WIB Listening Party #11: My Africa

featuring…

Elemotho, My Africa

🍺 Windhoek Lager

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

This entry in the Listening Party series is about discovery. Specifically, one that sent me on a rather wide detour from what we generally call the blues. It’s that rare instance in which a particular brand of beer led me to some truly wonderful music I hadn’t known of before. Perhaps I should explain how it came about.

My partner in this blues-and-brews endeavor is Bierlager, a craft beer retailer in Cologne, Germany, the city where I took up residence some 28 years ago. Bierlager’s bottle store sits around the corner from my office, and once a month or so I stop in to pick up a fresh supply of beer to write about. Last time, I walked away with a small carton full of interesting sounding ales and lagers from Canada, the U.S. and Europe. The folks who run the shop also included a bottle of Windhoek Lager, a Namibian beer that was fast approaching its sell by date. 

Fine. Something out of the ordinary.

I thought it best to pair Windhoek Lager with a band or artist from Namibia. Makes sense, right? Fairly confident I’d find something bluesy, I tried a half dozen or so recordings on for size, but nothing inspired me. Most sounded like an imitation of American blues, some fell into the generic pop category and I really wanted something that sounded African. After all, it’s the source.

Eventually, my persistence paid off as I stumbled upon Elemotho, a native artist with roots in the Kalahari Desert. His song “The System Is A Joke,” a plain and melodic protest song, sounded promising enough for me to order My Africa, a compilation CD on ARC Records that culls songs from Elemotho’s first three albums. It’s been in heavy rotation since it arrived at my doorstep. 

Full disclosure before I go any further: I’ve never been to Namibia and won’t pretend to know much about its people, history or geography. What follows is simply a response to what I hear on My Africa and what flows out of the green 330ml bottle of Windhoek Lager standing before me.

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WIB Listening Party #10: Live In Tokyo

featuring…

David Lindley & Hani Naser, Live In Tokyo

🍺 Strüssje Kurt

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

The Who Is Blues Listening Party has reached its first, modest milestone. Number ten. Thanks for joining in.

This time around, I’ve chosen a couple of relative oddities – bound by their flair for color and cult status.

The “official bootleg” Live In Tokyo from stringed-instrument wizard David Lindley and gifted percussionist Hani Naser, who sadly passed away last November, is an out-of-print rarity. It originally appeared on CD on Lindley’s own indie label Pleemhead in 1994. Twenty-seven years later it’s listed as out of stock on his website and sells for upwards of $50 on Amazon.

Adding to the weirdness of this album is that nobody seems to know exactly what the title is. It’s usually referred to as David Lindley & Hani Naser Official Bootleg Live In Tokyo Playing Real Good or some combination thereof. There’s a lot of information on Lindley’s hand-penned black-on-blue cover.

The beer named Kurt – hi, Kurt – is one of just two offerings from Cologne, Germany’s Strüssje brand. It’s unconventional in as far as it is not Kölsch. If you joined me for Listening Party #4 or simply know your beer, it’ll come as no secret that drinkers in my adopted home city generally choose the locally brewed ale called Kölsch. It’s everywhere. Recently, a handful of small local brewers have set out to remind people that, though Kölsch is King today, it wasn’t always that way. They’re reviving forgotten recipes as an alternative to the city’s monoculture.

Strüssje Kurt and David Lindley both come colorfully packaged. Lindley’s penchant for bluntly patterned shirts and leisure suits have earned him the nickname “Prince of Polyester.” The loud pinks and blues on the Strüssje Kurt label would surely make him smile.

Ready? Let’s bring these two garish beauties together and see what happens …

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WIB Listening Party #9: Ocean Of Tears

featuring…

The Paul deLay Band, Ocean Of Tears

🍺 Lowlander I.P.A.

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

A cool, rainy week in the middle of March and one of my go-to blues albums. Ocean Of Tears. Seriously, this 1995 recording by The Paul deLay Band contains some of the most hopelessly heartbreaking tunes I know of. In a genre like the blues, that’s saying a lot.

Is Paul deLay’s story a tragic one? I suppose it is in many ways. On the strength of his extraordinarily creative harp playing and exceptional skill as a songwriter, the big man from Portland had built an equally heavyweight reputation as one of the brightest blues lights in the Pacific Northwest. That is until a drug bust interrupted his career in the early 1990s. Stories of addiction are so commonplace in musical circles as to be ho hum, but deLay used his 41 months of incarceration wisely, getting clean and sober while simultaneously penning and refining the wealth of material that would fill the albums that followed his release, including Ocean Of Tears.

“It’s odd to look at it this way now,” deLay tells interviewer Mark Spangler in the disc’s liner notes, “but (…) it was a luxury to have that kind of time to devote to it, to make sure there were no weak spots.” 

Then physical problems took over. When I interviewed deLay in 2002 – unfortunately I never met him or saw him perform live – he spoke in detail about the health issues he’d been battling the previous several years. But he was feeling better now, he said, thanks to the wise advice of his endocrinologist. He had just put out a killer album, Heavy Rotation, and was looking forward to getting back to regular touring, maybe even returning to Europe. But none of that ever materialized. In 2007, deLay succumbed to Leukemia, just 55 years of age.

Is it a tragic story? I honestly have a hard time calling it that. DeLay left so much good blues behind. And as any fan knows, a good blues song is a thing of joy.

So let’s salute Paul deLay today, raising a glass of Lowlander I.P.A. as we listen to a few timeless gems off Ocean Of Tears, my personal favorite from his catalogue.

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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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