WIB Listening Party #16: Back Door Man

featuring…

Howlin’ Wolf, Back Door Man

🍺 Superfreunde Hang Loose Pale Ale

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

I’ve got a birthday coming up in … just a coupla hours. Yippie? I don’t know. At my age, I don’t get too excited about another tick on the calendar. Especially this year. The past twelve months feel very much like lost time I’ll never get back. No concerts, for one – aside for a couple of small, seated, socially distanced things. Live music sure, but not the same. A concert where you can’t hug your friends and can’t scream and fall down and go nuts can’t be anything better than OK.

I thought about cutting myself some birthday slack and not doing a Listening Party this week. Then again, one doesn’t get far in life by taking the day off. So here we are, sharing the time until midnight, when the “5” in my age becomes a “6”. Shooting the shit, as we do every week, about music, beer and life in general.

Today’s beer is called Hang Loose and I intend to crack it open shortly before the clock strikes twelve. If you’re expecting puns and wordplay related to surfing, I’ll have to disappoint you – I’ve never been near a surfboard let alone ridden one. (Does one even ride a surfboard?)

But hanging loose has other connotations and we’ll be doing just that with the great Howlin’ Wolf and his incomparable session bands from the 1950s and 60s.

Ready for a dose of some of the bitchinest blues ever recorded? I sure am …

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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 #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 #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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