Mediterranean Working Vacation – Part 4

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We’re gonna have a crazy time
Playing crazy music for you.
— Buddy Guy

I woke up Friday in Zaragoza, Spain, so hoarse I could hardly speak. How did that happen? The stage monitors the night before had been crystal clear, and by now I’ve learned to sing without blowing out my voice even when I can’t hear it at all. Then I remembered the jam session.

“When you were singing on the same mic with the screaming guy last night, it was crazy,” Mark told me in the van. “It just sounded crazy.”

After Thursday night’s show at La Ley Seca, which was great fun, we piled into two cabs and headed for an after-hours jam session. Delta Moon’s entourage included the owner of the nightclub, our agent Pepe Ferrandez, and a young woman with a beautiful smile who kept insisting in perfect English that she spoke no English, and who from time to time would exclaim out of nowhere, “I love this moment!”

“The rule of this jam session,” Pepe said, “is that you cannot bring any instruments. You must play whatever is there.”

What was there was a room full of writhing bodies and a band blasting so loud that the singer’s first scream went through my skull like an electric shock. A minute later another group took the stage, fronted by a young woman in heels and a white minidress. At first she had a problem with the microphone and looked very serious, but the instant it came on she started jumping around and shouting — no words, just “Eyaah! Eyaahh!” Here’s a few seconds of what that was like:

Then it was our turn. Some African guys in front started clapping and singing “Hey Bo Diddley” along with me. Then the band dropped out and the whole room was clapping and singing. Later we got back up and played “Rolling and Tumbling.” I turned to my right and suddenly we had a horn section, then turned around again and a guy in dreadlocks was playing a solo on an African drum. The screamer from the first band appeared beside me, echoing every line I sang on the same mic. If he was singing in any particular language, I didn’t recognize it.

Later at the bar he told me, “My father was South African. My mother was from Eastern Europe. I’m not from anywhere. I’m just a guy.”

So it continued until after 4:30 in the morning, when our band, minus entourage, rode a taxi through the still not quite deserted streets back to the hotel.

“You told us this was a serious jam session,” Marco, our Italian bass player, said to Pepe. “Instead it was delirium.”

Mediterranean Working Vacation – Part 3

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But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the security lamp. That sneak Romeo has set off the motion detector.

This is the house of Juliet in Verona, Italy. Whether or not she was a real person I don’t claim to know and doesn’t matter to the lovers who papered the wall at right with messages. It’s a bed and breakfast now.

A German fan who came to our show last night told us, “Delta Moon has a talent for playing in beautiful places.” Verona certainly qualifies. We played a marvelous venue in a 14th Century cellar with arches supported by marble stones filched from the Roman arena across the way.

Last night I dedicated a song to the lovers of Verona. The choice of Muddy Waters’ “The Same Thing” may have been a little earthy, but I think Shakespeare would have approved:

Why do the men go crazy
When a woman wears her dress so tight?
Must be that same old thing
Makes a tomcat fight all night.

Mediterranean Working Vacation – Part 2

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Mark and I have been in Italy only a week, and already we’ve found steady work.

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Okay, not really. Delta Moon is not afraid of work, but we have to go with our strengths. I think we are better at eating pizza than we would be at delivering it.

After several shows in Calabria and some good times with friends there, we flew north and were reunited with our luggage. My suitcase turned out to be a treasure chest of forgotten luxuries: an electric beard trimmer, a can of boot polish, a harmonica. And of course clean clothing. It felt like Christmas.

Today we have off. We’ve been wandering around town in the rain. Tomorrow we go back to work and perhaps will even eat a pizza. Ciao, everybody.

Mediterranean Working Vacation – Part 1

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Greetings from Italy.

I love going places. But the experience of air travel I rate one notch above going to the hospital. This trip our luggage missed a connection in New York Saturday and didn’t show up in Milan until Wednesday. By that time we were far south in Calabria, down on the toe of the Italian boot. We look forward to seeing our bags again. But Mark and I have our guitars, and with the help of friends and street vendors we are getting by just fine. In fact we’re having a wonderful time.

We are joined on this trip by the Xeres brothers, Paolo on drums and Marco on bass. This Italian-American joint venture is turning out to be a rocking little unit. Our first show last night in Cinquefrondi was great fun. In Calabria we are staying with our good friend Enzo Tropepe and traveling in his Ford truck, pictured above.

Here is Paolo Xeres:

Here is Marco Xeres:

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Tonight we play in Villa San Giovanni, by the Strait of Messina, and tomorrow at the Tropea Blues Festival, in one of the most beautiful places I know. The people are friendly and the food is fantastic. Life’s too short to worry about luggage.

Northeast Tour – Part 2

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Tuesday in Boston, Wednesday in Buffalo (we loved playing the Sportsmen’s Tavern, a great place to see a band, a great place to be a band). Thursday’s crossing into Canada stretched into Friday, as we had to leave Franher behind at a motel in Buffalo because of some confusion with his passport. But the Kitchener Blues Festival people came through in a big way and got a Member of Parliament (the Canadian federal government, not the band) to straighten out the situation. They even sent a limousine. Franher pulled into Kitchener Friday one hour before showtime.

Delta Moon played three shows at the Kitchener festival: one in Victoria Park and two more at indoor venues. In addition, on Sunday I played a trance blues workshop with Otis Taylor (I showed up with just my guitar; he brought his whole band) and a special show Saturday on the downtown tent stage, with Otis Taylor’s bass player and drummer side-by-side with Darren and Franher, and Otis Taylor and me fronting this one-time-only band for half an hour each. There was no rehearsal. Our only rule was no chord changes. A woman backstage said, “This could tank so easily.”

But the two drummers and two bass players meshed like a big machine. Here’s some of what it sounded like:

Thanks to Milton Young for the photo at top, and to Jesse Bl for the video.

Northeast Tour – Part 1

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Excerpts from Tom Gray’s road journal

August 1, 2014, I-95, somewhere in Virginia

We got a late start out of Atlanta yesterday. We were to meet at my house at 1:00, but at the last minute Darren texted he would be half an hour late. He arrived exactly at 1:30, but the others, having read his text, didn’t show up until after 2:00.

There’s an ant nest somewhere on the underside of the van. So far they have survived a car wash and 600 miles of highway. This morning Darren found ants in his bag of trail mix. One is wandering across the dashboard now, like a cowboy on the desert, scouting for more chocolate. Nobody wants to spray poison when we’re riding in here every day ourselves. Perhaps if we keep the van clean we can starve them out, and the colony will move in the night to a new home underneath some motel shrubbery.

August 2, 2014, I-95, New York City

Washington DC last night, Stamford, Connecticut, tonight. Lots of delays on the New Jersey Turnpike. As we waited in traffic at the George Washington Bridge, Mark said, “Basically we’re truck drivers who play music at night.”

August 4, 2014, somewhere near Hartford, Connecticut

After the show last night we wound up in a tavern across the street from the hotel. An off-duty waitress sat at the end of the bar, smiling and humming to herself. Later we were sitting at a picnic table outside when the waitress got in her car, turned on the dome light and vomited in two quick bursts. She calmly produced a roll of paper towels and cleaned up, then counted her tips, tucked the bills away and drove off.

On the Road Again

We are home safely after five weeks in Europe. It was a great tour. I know I always say that, but it always is.

May Day is Labor Day in Germany. Since our gig, an outdoor fest by a maypole somewhere, had been cancelled, we holed up for an extra day in the small town of Zwoenitz, in what had once been the DDR — East Germany. The couple who ran the Ratskeller restaurant had planned to close that evening, but they took pity on the starving Americans and stayed open to cook us dinner. Bernd, the owner, spoke no English, but when he learned we were musicians, he went upstairs and came back with a nylon-string guitar and a book of popular songs. Then he phoned his guitar instructor, who showed up a little later with several friends and another guitar. We sang some songs in English. They sang some in German. Then we delved into the song book.

This video from that evening pretty much sums up the way I feel about the whole trip:

(Photo at top by Wolfpack Rosesbrook)

Sound Check Journal

In his excellent book How Music Works David Byrne discusses how styles of music are suited to the architecture of the halls where they are performed. Here in Europe many of the venues we play were built before the invention of electric instruments, so each room presents a different challenge. The PA systems and technicians are of consistently high quality, but it’s up to the band to get the basic sound right. If we haven’t done that, there’s nothing the PA can do to save us.

Our show at Charivari in Ulm, Germany, was early in the tour, before we started making radical adjustments, but that’s where we learned our first lesson. The building was a stone fort built by the citizens of Ulm to protect the city from the army of Napoleon, only he got there before they could finish it. Today the fort houses a children’s art school and several times a year serves as a concert venue. Low stone arches reflect the sound straight back down, and it gets loud very quickly. We did the best we could, and nobody complained. But that’s a low bar. Lesson learned.

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Rossini Saal in Bad Kissingen was built in the 1860s. The room projects sound in a way that probably worked for acoustic chamber music but is flirting with disaster for an electric band. Our band members went out into the room and listened as others played their instruments on stage, and then adjusted accordingly. I ended up with an amp setting I would never have dreamed of under usual circumstances. The concert went fine.

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At the Rathaus in Neuoetting we were happy at sound check, but once the room filled with people everything changed. Their relatively soft bodies and clothing soaked up the sound. By the third or fourth song we got everything dialed in and went on to have a great show.

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Zur Linde in Affalter is like an old-school rock club. It reminded me of the Agoras, a chain of venues we used to play from Ohio to Florida. This kind of room I know how to play.

Tomorrow will bring a new challenge. But tonight we have off, and I’m writing this in a spiral notebook at a table in biergarten as the sun is setting and birds are singing. All in all, it’s a pretty good life.

A Month of Saturdays

A standing joke on this European tour has been, whenever anyone asks what day it is, to say Saturday. We played eight shows in eight days, and then on our so-called day off drove three hours to perform live on the radio. Now we have two more shows before a real day off. Maybe we’ll call that Sunday. Until then it’s all Saturday.

At first we’d say things like, “This is the best meal of the trip,” or, “This hotel has the best shower of the trip,” or, “That was the best ‘so‘ of the trip.” (We are amazed at how much meaning German speakers can pack into the inflection of a single syllable.) But now there is only this meal, this shower, this “so“, and your heels inside your boots on the stage and the music flowing to the audience in front of you, moving to the grooving on a Saturday night.

Delta Moon over Europe 2014

We had a terrific time at the Terri’ Thouars Blues Festival in Thouars, France. Our French hosts were wonderful, the food and wine was delicious, and there was plenty of good music. Besides our show in a theater (drummer’s eye view above) we hung around there a few days and even played an impromptu set on borrowed equipment in a small cafe.

There were plenty of other musicians hanging around, both French and American. I was glad to meet and spend some time with Toby Walker, a fingerstyle guitarist from New Jersey whose name we’ve heard for years.

The quote of the week came from Aaron Burton, a great acoustic blues guitarist and singer from Dallas, Texas. On our final night in Thouars, as he took the stage for a late night jam, Aaron turned to Darren and Franher and said, “Let’s get hillbilly on their ass.”