Words: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Jimmy Sutton, Amanda Devitt
Some musicians crave the spotlight. They’re born to raise hell, jump security barriers and take twenty-foot leaps into the crowd. Others just show up and do their jobs without any fanfare. Saxophonist Richard Oppenheim, who has blown his horn alongside Otis Rush, Johnny Winter, Marvin Gaye and dozens of others, put it this way: “There’s a certain comfort in being a sideman. (…) Basically I shut up and play.”
Chicago product Doug Corcoran would likely echo that sentiment. Though his steady hand on guitar and occasional saxophone flourishes are integral to the ever-evolving, neo-rockabilly sound of JD McPherson’s five-piece band, Corcoran is a stoic figure onstage who shuns extraneous motion. In conversation, he’s deliberate and self-effacing. “JD’s a lot harder to get an interview with. I think there’s about six hoops you have to jump through.” It’s almost as if he’s apologizing for being the one doing the talking – without actually saying “So you’re stuck with me.”
A few days ago I was preparing to interview Christian Rannenberg, one of the world’s finest blues piano players, for the Talkin’ Blues show in Cologne. Chris lives in Berlin and I hadn’t seen him for a number of years. So I did some digging to find out what he’d been up to. My most pleasant discovery was The Walter Davis Project.
Chris had told me about his intention to do a Walter Davis tribute album as far back as 2006. He’s been an admirer of Davis – the Mississippi-born pianist who recorded roughly 150 sides for the Victor and Bluebird labels in the 30s, 40s and 50s – ever since first sitting down to play the blues on a piano keyboard. As the initiator and driving force behind the project, he wound up investing a good deal of his own money on sessions with Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite and several others. But the recordings lay around gathering dust until Rannenberg and harmonica player Bob Corritore crossed paths at a memorial celebration for mutual friend Louisiana Red in 2012.
Words by Vincent Abbate / Photos by Mike Latschislaw
In an age of dime-a-dozen blues guitarists whose chief calling card is their technical proficiency, Watermelon Slim is a cherished exception. A bold, blatant personality who actually has something to say.
His success – modest as it is – owes less to effects pedals and vintage axes than to his ability to communicate universal truths. Listening to Slim, one is constantly confronted with the human struggle. For a brief, heady period roughly a decade ago, it looked as though the blues community had found – in this late-blooming Vietnam vet turned truck driver turned country bluesman – a working class hero for the long haul.
I’ve been doing what I do – this blues writer thing – for roughly a quarter of a century now. The striking, verdant cover of Corey Harris’s Greens From The Garden carries me back to a time when I was still a novice. The album came out in 1999, so I had a few interviews under my belt at that point, but mostly I was flying by the seat of my pants. I met with Corey and the other dreadlocked members of his so-called “5 x 5” at a now defunct blues venue in Frankfurt and recall having a generally relaxed conversation about this groundbreaking record.
He’d completed most of it in a Charlottesville, Virginia studio (Harris has academic ties to the University of Virginia) and added a few live tracks recorded at the famous Funky Butt Club in New Orleans. The singer and guitarist had resided in that city for a time, busking and soaking in its rich musical tradition.
Far from the American South, nipping at the Arctic Circle, lies Akureyri, an Icelandic fishing port that is home to the Einstök brewery and its Arctic Berry Ale. It’s brewed seasonally, for the summer months. So you could say I’m cheating – or perhaps just pining for warmer weather.
If I had to give this Listening Party a motto, it would be “north meets south.”
Last Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the Who Is Blues Listening Party. (Thanks for the reminder, Facebook.) Sitting here today on a cold, dull gray afternoon, I recognize that coming up with the idea for this regular celebration of beer-and-blues in the middle of January was no accident. I hate January.
Once the familiar warmth and boozy partying of the holidays passes, January turns dreary in a hurry. Armed with good intentions, you tell yourself the new year is a chance to reinvent yourself. To make a new start. But where I’m from, things can’t get rolling until the kids are back in school and businesses get up and running again. By then, it’s mid-January and your forward momentum has ground to a halt. Even in normal times, there is a dearth of concerts in winter. Life seems to have been put on hold. Yet the clock is ticking away the whole time, silently, unceasingly, a stealthy adversary.
Then – WHAP! – in the seeming blink of an eye, January is over and you realize one-twelfth of the year has already vanished down the drain.
As if that weren’t enough reason to get a bad case of the blues, there’s this.
Unlike the protagonist of Seasick Steve’s song, I don’t like the dark and it is not my friend. I wonder how people up around the Arctic Circle survive winter. I wouldn’t. My mood is seasonally affected even at the 51st parallel. I need and crave light.
But there’s always beer and music, right?
Man From Another Time is a 2009 masterpiece from the aforementioned Seasick Steve. I’ll be exploring it with the help of Hopfenstopfer Incredible Pale Ale from Germany’s Häffner Bräu.
Just saying “Hopfenstopfer” puts a smile on my face. Drinking it promises to be even better.
Dear reader, welcome to 2022. If you’re new to the Listening Party, this regular blog post is where I celebrate two of my biggest enthusiasms, a pair of wonderful inventions that were seemingly made for one another: beer and blues. I do that by spotlighting one standout album from my record collection while cracking open a single vessel of exceptional beer. The majority are sourced from a local craft beer retailer, my Listening Party partner Bierlager.
This dive into the big, sudsy world of barley broth is essentially a by-product of the ongoing pandemic: I’ve had a thing for beer ever since my dad let me sip from his bottle of Schmidt’s when I was a little boy (see Listening Party #11), but only recently did I begin taking the hobby a little more seriously. I now enjoy and appreciate it more than ever before – one of the millions swept up in the craft beer revolution.
A quote on the subject (it fills an entire page in Garrett & Evans’ Beer School) gives us a good jumping off point: “Some may take beer too seriously, but few who do are guilty of taking life too seriously.”
In that spirit, I’ll kick-start the new year with a 1990 album that crackles with positive vibes: Let’s Buzz! by San Diego roots stalwarts The Paladins. Liquid refreshment comes in the form of Queens Kellerbier, one Spanish brewer’s take on a traditional German recipe. We’ll indulge a bit later on.
If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that you gotta make your own fun. Are you with me?
Deep from within a swirling pool of childhood memories, I hear it bubbling up into consciousness: A small intermingling of children’s voices, singing Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer …
For most of us, the run-up to the holiday doesn’t feel much like A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s a hectic dash to finish off projects and order a few more Christmas presents, fearing our loved ones may have got us more than we got them.
With that in mind, I’ll not take up much of your time with this final Listening Party of 2021. The plan’s simple: I’ll spin a few of my favorite holiday-themed blues 45s on the official Who Is Blues cheapo phonograph, which you’ll see in the clips to follow. Quick hits on some great tunes you never hear on the radio.
And I’ll crack open a cheerfully designed bottle of seasonal Festbier from the Bavarian town of Riedenburg.
We’ve all heard holiday classics by Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole a million times. Let’s give these bluesmen their due.
I must say I’m bummed about the way 2021 is shutting down. Fourth wave, fifth wave, whatever the experts want to call it – where I live in Germany, stricter social distancing measures are back in place, requiring vaccinated individuals to present a negative COVID test to do fun things like attend concerts or enter restaurants. So people are staying home, shows are being cancelled, businesses of all kinds are suffering. Necessary? Probably. But I can’t help feeling we’re all the poorer for it.
So please allow me – in this, the penultimate Listening Party post of the year – to vent a little and return to a much happier time and place. I need only think back a couple of weeks.
I flew to New York for Thanksgiving and there it felt almost like business as usual.
Travelling upstate, I met a beer called Saranac Adirondack Lager.
And I caught up with an old friend: Wizards From The Southside, a Chess Records compilation featuring mid-50s recordings by the likes of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Little Walter.
It’s Thanksgiving week and I’m using that as an occasion to veer from the usual Listening Party format. At the risk of getting overly sentimental, I’ll use this space to give thanks for three things that have not only helped me survive the past year-plus of the corona pandemic, but several decades of life in general.
Those three “things” are friends, family and music.
Along the way, I’ll share a story of what was probably my most memorable Thanksgiving. It’s a while back and foggy in my memory, but I’ll do my best. The music in that story was supplied by Los Angeles, California’s Fishbone, so that’s the music you’ll hear this time around, taken from their 1986 album In Your Face.
If you’re unfamiliar with Fishbone or turning up your nose because it’s not blues – imagine the great band leader Louis Jordan had been a young man in the 1980s. I’d venture to say his music might have sounded like this.
And since no Listening Party is ever complete without a delicious beverage, we will be cracking open a Sierra Nevada Fantastic Haze Imperial IPA.
Entry #33 in the Listening Party series. That number – inevitably calling to mind the rotational speed of a long-playing record – sent me back to the shelves that hold my modest collection of vinyl LPs. (At least the ones I’ve acquired in Germany; the 500+ albums of my youth reside in a walk-in closet in upstate New York.) There, I settled upon The Specialty Story Vol. 1 – a flea market find from the mid-1990s. I recall putting a few standout cuts from this record on a mixtape back when spending hours punching buttons on a tape deck was something I took pleasure in. Also, I had the time for it. Where have those days gone?
Some 25 years later my favorite songs off the album haven’t changed and I’ll be featuring them here today.
Over on the beer side of things, we’ve got something deep, dark and Austrian to dive into – Rudeen Black IPA from Bevog, the inventive brewer we first came across in Listening Party #14.
I’m not feeling especially deep or philosophical today, so this one will be a straightforward mix of historical facts and upbeat tunes infused with the rock’n’roll spirit.
Riffing on the environment, drinking the environmentally-friendly Cool Earth Lager, revisiting Doug MacLeod’s 2018 gem Break The Chain. Welcome to Listening Party #32.
This morning I was watching CNN’s ongoing coverage of COP26. If you’re reading this in the year 2050, it means this particular summit meeting – “The United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties” is the official title – wasn’t all for naught and that Planet Earth is still inhabitable. Hooray for that!
But I’m doubtful. Even as they put on a good show and say all the right things, I question our leaders’ willingness to put the long-term good of the natural environment ahead of economics and their own addiction to power and personal gain.
Today’s news included promises to reduce methane emissions and a deal by 100 heads of state to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. Well, OK.
Then CNN brought in a representative of an anti-poverty organisation who put a damper on things. He pointed out how Britain was actually doubling down on fossil fuels while doing the climate change dance at the COP26 conference. Greta Thunberg also chimed in, calling out politicians for their hypocrisy and shouting about how we cannot entrust the fate of the planet to corporations and governments. In true revolutionary spirit, she said climate change would have to come from “the people.”
Next came an almost too-painful-to-watch report from Afghanistan showing impoverished parents in the act of selling their daughters in order to survive. Selling their daughters.
My main takeaway: humanity sucks. The systems we’ve created are unjust. Given that situations like this exist – circumstances so desperate that mothers and fathers would make the soul-killing decision to sell their children – is there really any hope that we can pull together as a race and reverse the seemingly irreversible downward climatic spiral?
I spent quite a while skimming through my CD collection, trying on various records, before I settled upon the right music for this week’s beer-and-blues jamboree. In the process, I came to a realization: I have a lot of CDs. A lot. Somewhere between 1000 and 2000, I’d estimate.
Mind you, many of them were sent to me as promos – a fringe benefit that makes up for the miserable pay that comes with being a music writer. Even if labels and magazines have long since stopped sending out physical promos and I’ve sold off some of the excess in my collection, I’ve still got shelves, storage boxes and countless nooks and crannies filled with all the silver discs I’ve bought or been given, housed in jewel cases, digipaks, paper sleeves or nothing at all.
And let’s face it. They’re more or less obsolete. Most people listen on streaming services these days. It’s practical. Hoity toity audiophiles and collectors, on the other hand, tend to go for vinyl. CDs are still hanging around, but except in rare cases – like if they’ve been autographed – no one feels particularly sentimental about them. Do you?
But CDs are good for skimming. And today’s somewhat dusty skimming activities eventually led me to an excellent album released on Telarc in 2003: Tab Benoit’s The Sea Saint Sessions. Three choice cuts will give you an idea of the record’s stripped-down, bluesy southern energy and the prodigious talent of an artist who’s been criminally underrated.
As I mentioned last week though, my focus is more on beer this time around. I’ll be sampling not one but two different hazy IPAs from BrewDog: the Double Hazy New England IPA and Silk Road Hazy IPA flavored with lychee and mango.
Loyal readers … for Listening Party #30, I’ve chosen to return to the flourishing Scottish-founded brewer I introduced in Listening Party #2: BrewDog. This entry will serve merely as a preamble to a kind of “BrewDog special” I have in mind for next week on the heels of a satisfying interaction with the company’s customer service department. I’ll expound on that when the time comes.
As for now, we’ll be sampling one of BrewDog’s most hip sounding offerings, a grapefruit-infused IPA they call Elvis Juice. Frankly I’d have thought an Elvis Presley-inspired beer would be flavored with peanut butter and banana. Whatevs. If you google “Elvis Juice,” as I just did, you’ll find that legal battles have been waged between BrewDog and Elvis Presley Enterprises over BrewDog’s attempts to trademark the beer. At this writing, though, Elvis Juice is the name on the can.
Our accompanying musical selection is Reconsider Baby, which has Presley singing the blues in a variety of settings – from a previously unreleased master of the Lonnie Johnson hit “Tomorrow Night” from 1954 (or 1955) to a recording of “Merry Christmas Baby,” a song made famous by Charles Brown, from May of 1971. The compilation originally appeared in the mid-1980s as part of the Elvis 50th Anniversary series – including the blue vinyl edition I was lucky to get my hands on through a roommate who worked for RCA at the time.