Posts

Lake Como to Luxembourg

(This is Part Three of the journal of this summer’s European tour. Here are Part One and Part Two.)

July 25 – Today was our only real day off this whole tour — no travel, no show. I spent most of the day exploring the eastern side of Lake Como. It’s a beautiful place, with mostly local residents there and not too many tourists. A commuter railroad connects the little towns and stretches on to Milan. In Bellano I visited a waterfall called L’Orrido, or The Horrid, and climbed a hillside high above the town. Here are a couple of my tourist photos:


Mark told me about an iPhone app called Health that measures how many steps you’ve taken, how many flights you’ve climbed and how far you’ve walked in a day. That night mine showed 70 flights. But Mark, who got up early to take an extra hike, logged nearly 100.

July 26 – The Blues River Festival was held in a pasture near the Adda River. In the best Italian tradition, the food was given as much importance as the music. There was a large tent set up with tables where everyone could have dinner and visit with each other. A big kitchen area off to one side, behind a counter, was the scene of lots of activity and laughter. Once it got dark everyone moved to the stage area and the band played. After our show we drove back to Lake Como. I slept all the way.

July 27 – I met more Americans in one evening in Bellagio than in the whole rest of the tour. Paolo had described Bellagio in Blues as “a busking festival”, and, sure enough, there were solo and duo acts performing here and there throughout the town, on the narrow streets full of gift shops, perfumeries and art galleries. We set up and played on the cobblestones near the ferry dock. There was some dancing in the street, but mostly the audience sat and listened. The ones who listened hardest, we learned after the show, turned out to be other musicians who had come down to hear us after their street-corner sets had ended.

July 28 – Our flight from Milan to Luxembourg was on time and without incident. Thank you, EasyJet. A Blues’N Jazz Rallye shuttle picked us up and brought us to our hotel, where we were to play an informal set in the courtyard to open the festival, starting, we had been told, at 8:00. When we arrived the stage crew was ready and waiting. Even though it was only 7:00 I got the feeling we were late. After dropping our bags in the rooms, we set up and played. Later I saw on a printed schedule that a solo act was billed to perform from 6:00 to 8:00. I’d met the guy and even rode down the elevator with him. But he must have been going for a walk in town, because he never turned up at the stage. Anyway, everything worked out fine. We ignored the clock and played until it felt like time to finish, and then we ended it.

At one point a woman walked down front and shouted, “Play some blues!” We obliged with a few Mississippi and Chicago songs — creditable versions, I thought — but when I looked over she and her friend were gone. I tried not to let it get to me that an expensively dressed European woman, sipping white wine in the courtyard of a five-star hotel in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, should play blues police to a band that in its time has played some of the rattiest holes known to man. But I shouldn’t judge. She may have visited those holes, too.

July 29 – Luxembourg City is over a thousand years old, built on the site of ancient Roman fortifications. The central city, where our hotel was, stands on the edge of a cliff. The old city, where the venue was — someone told us it was originally the workers quarter — is in a deep canyon below. To get from one to the other, you can drive the long way around or just walk a few blocks and ride a large public elevator. The elevator gives a better view.

That night we had a full venue and a good show. I wanted to see some of the band that came on after us — their singer had a silver-sparkle, triple-pickup Danelectro guitar and invited me to sit in — but at this point we were starving. Mark, Franher, Paolo and I made our way to the musician dining area near the foot of the lift and checked our instruments in the “left equipment” tent. A friend of ours, Meena Cryle from Austria, was performing on a stage nearby, and after dinner we were able to catch her last song. Then we rode the lift back to the hotel for a few short hours of sleep before our 4:30 AM lobby call to catch a ride to the airport and start the long journey home.

La Strada

(Part Two of our adventures in Europe this summer. You can read Part One here.)

July 18 – A cousin once told me, “I love being places, but I hate to travel.” Often, in the interest of getting places fast, the sense of being anywhere at all gets sucked out of traveling. But not always. Occasionally we see spectacular moments, as when last spring after taking off from Catania, Sicily, we flew almost directly over Mount Etna, an active volcano with a column of smoke trailing off into the distance. Most of the passengers paid no attention.

In Palencia, Spain, we arose early (for us) and drove a few hours to the Madrid airport, only to find our flight had been delayed. Through the day we watched the screens announce one departure time after another. At one point we had actually lined up to board when the PA announced that our gate had changed. Everyone walked together, maintaining the line, to the new gate.

Delta Moon had purchased seven seats, four for the musicians and three for the guitars. On European flights, where we can’t put guitars in the overhead, it’s cheaper and safer to buy extra seats than to check our instruments underneath.

After arriving in Milan, we drove to Paolo’s hometown on the east shore of Lake Como. Paolo called ahead to make sure the lady at the hotel would wait up for us and that a restaurant would stay open. The day ended with pasta and salad and red wine al fresco by the lakeside. After thirteen hours travel, who could complain?

July 19 – We drove around Lake Como to Tremezzina, on the west — or more touristy — side, for an outdoor gig on the water between a bar and a small art gallery. This was a beautiful spot, and we had a perfect night for it. My borrowed amplifier fell silent halfway through the set, but we plugged my guitar direct into the PA and carried on. The tone was pretty well dialed in before it hit the amp — important when using unfamiliar equipment on the road — and apparently nobody could tell much difference. Paolo’s brother Marco, who has played bass with Mark and me before, was there, along with several other friends and Xeres family members. It felt good to be back in Italy.

July 20 – Piazza Garibaldi in Sondrio is a huge open square in the center of town. When we arrived they had a festival-size stage and PA set up, with lines of red plastic chairs out front. During the show we had plenty of dancers — all under the age of eight. The adults sat in the chairs or stood off to the side. After the show one of the organizers told us, “This was an amazing response tonight, the best we’ve had.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “They didn’t leave. Usually people listen to one or two songs and wander off. This audience stayed in their seats.” You take your victories where you find them.

July 21 – We had a long drive into the Alps and through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, France, for the Festival Guitare en Scène. There were two adjacent stages, one with a covered area for the audience and one open, and shows alternated from one stage to the other. Ours was the open area, and during our sound check it started to rain. We rolled with a revised schedule and didn’t go on until nearly two hours after the advertised time.

When Amy MacDonald finished her set before a packed crowd in the covered arena, the audience started streaming out. The stage manager told me, “Make some noise with your guitar so people will know there’s something going on over here.” I started noodling, and, sure enough, the wet field started to fill with expectant faces. By the third song we had a good-sized crowd — and an enthusiastic one. Later, after we finished making photos and signing CDs, we walked into the beer tent and were greeted with a protracted standing ovation from the staff. Our crowning moment.

July 22 – Back to Italy and the town of Baveno, on Lake Maggiore, for our part of the Amenoblues Festival. The promoter, Roberto Neri, told us this was the fifth time he had presented Delta Moon. Later we wondered whether that meant he really liked us or if he’d reached his limit. We hope the former. The last time we played Baveno, a few years ago, it poured down rain. Tonight the same thing happened. Still much of the crowd stayed with us.

The other act on the bill was Alejandro Escovedo, whose set we greatly enjoyed. Mark had met him before. In fact, Alejandro once gave Mark a ride home from Eddie’s Attic on his tour bus. Alejandro and his Italian band, aside from being great musicians, are very likable people.

July 23 – Once again we traveled the same road, the third day in a row, this time back to Courmayeur on the Italian shoulder of Mont Blanc, to play on a bill with our friend from Aosta, Max Arrigo. (Max and his band are coming to America later this month.) The venue was small but had a good vibe, and toward the end the crowd got up and things got a little wild. A dog got excited and jumped on the stage with us. After the show Max pulled out a metal Dobro, and we passed it around for a singalong session at the bar. A good ending for this five-day stretch.

(To be continued.)

Delta Moon Sobre España

Every time Delta Moon comes to Europe I have ambitious plans to post regular blogs chronicling our experiences. But the reality of a band on tour — constant travel, rare and often useless wifi, food and  sleep caught in irregular snatches — makes the job tough. But today, riding through tall Italian cornfields, passing castles to the left and right, with the Alps rising implacably before us, I’ve decided to rise above excuses and have pulled out a notebook to try to catch up on what Delta Moon has been up to.

July 12 – Our flight out of Atlanta was delayed. Mark, Franher and I dashed at top speed through the Newark airport, lugging guitars and carry-on bags, hoping to catch our connecting flight to Madrid, which was leaving immediately. When we reached the end of the gate ramp, the airplane door was already closed, but they reopened it for us. We piled in, huffing and puffing and swearing yet again that from now on we would book only direct flights.

July 13 – We arrived in Madrid early the next morning and, miraculously, so did our checked bags. We were off to a good start after all. Delta Moon has played Madrid several times before and last year did a seven-night residency at Café Central, so we know our way around town a little. Everyone has a favorite tapas bar, and after Paolo Xeres, who is drumming with us this tour, arrived from Milan, we did our best to visit all of them. We spent the day wandering around town, never dining but grazing here and there, until darkness fell. Delta Moon’s method of avoiding jet lag is to stay awake all day — except for maybe a brief siesta — and to wear ourselves out completely, so that when we wake the next morning we’re in synch with the local time. Once again this method served us well.

July 14 – “Welcome to Hell!” someone shouted as we climbed out of the van at the Blues Cazorla Festival. The record-breaking temperature was well over 100 degrees F. By the time we took the stage at 11:15 PM, though, the air had cooled off. We hadn’t played a show in over a week, and I was a little concerned about being stiff at such a big festival, but from the first note the band felt loose and confident. Paolo, who has worked several tours with Delta Moon in the past, had done his homework and fit right in. It helped, of course, that the audience was with us all the way. Several other American bands were on the bill, some of them friends of ours. Nikki Hill and her husband Matt were in town a day early for their Saturday show. Ted Pecchio, who played bass on Delta Moon’s Clear Blue Flame album, was playing with Doyle Bramhall II . After meeting and talking a while with fans out front, we had a good hang backstage.

July 15 – 7:30 AM van call. A bleary-eyed Delta Moon stumbled down the hill from our rooms. Mark’s alarm was still beeping somewhere inside his luggage. After a few hours on the highway we changed vehicles at a roadside interchange and joined Zac Harmon‘s band on a small bus. “Tom!” “Mark!” Zac’s European agent and road manager was Massimo, a very funny guy who would fit perfectly on the Sopranos, whom we first met when he was touring Denmark with the late Michael Burks.

The Blues Béjar Festival was held in what they told us was the oldest plaza de toros in Spain (built in 1711). In our dressing room were little padded stands where generations of matadors have knelt and prayed before stepping into the ring. Walking out onto the hot sand in the afternoon, you could imagine the roar of the crowd and the sweat on the back of your neck as an angry mountain of meat, hooves and horns came racing at you. “Now,” as Franher said, “that’s show business.”

The audience at Béjar was ready to rock, and our show went over well. We were a long time signing CDs, shaking hands and making photos with fans. That night we went to bed happy, in love with Spanish audiences.

July 16 – Back in Madrid to play Sala Clamores, a prestigious nightclub. On a Sunday night in summer the room was less than full, but there were plenty enough people to play to. All through the show a woman at a table near the stage drew on a portrait of the band across two pages of a hardbound sketchbook. I watched the drawing progress, upside down, and later took a picture of it (above).

After the show Mark and I walked to a little tienda near the hotel. While shady looking late-night characters (of which we were two) milled around in the store, a five-year-old Asian girl stood on a box behind the cash register, calling out prices according to her own system. Everything cost one euro. A can of beer. Uno! A can of beer and a pack of cough drops. Dos!

July 17 – As we were leaving our hotel in the morning, a taxi pulled up and out stepped one of our all-time favorite guitarists — John Scofield — in town to play Sala Clamores, where we’d played the night before. I didn’t know him and wouldn’t have spoken. But Paolo, being Italian, stepped right up and gave him a big greeting. We were pleased to find that John Scofield turned out to be a nice guy. He said, “I figured you guys were a band.”

That night we played La Diputación in Palencia, a municipal gig in an outdoor courtyard inside the courthouse. Later we and the stage crew enjoyed an excellent meal in a private room at a nearby restaurant. I like Spanish food very much, although a lot of it is meat and cheese, neither of which I eat anymore. But I can usually find something, and what I find is invariably delicious.

The next day we got up early to fly to Italy.

(To be continued.)

 

“Refugee is a musically and textually perfect track….” – Wasser-Prawda (Germany)

Wasser-Prawda (Click here for original German text.)

Refugees, Violence and Poverty – Political Issues in Current Blues Songs

If you listen to new blues albums, more and more frequently you will find the most up-to-date political and social issues. Or old songs are re-interpreted, with the message still or always up-to-date. Here is small cross-section of current releases.

A deep groove from the Delta, a stoic riff of the guitars, a pearly piano and a story told by different voices. Suddenly one is in the middle in the flight over the Mediterranean. Delta Moon tell the story in “Refugee” from the point of view of the refugees, which you can see briefly in the news, but which hardly ever really reaches to our proximity. “Refugee” is a musically and textually perfect track, a song that you cannot play and hear often enough.

With his latest album “Migration Blues”, Eric Bibb draws the parallels between the escape from the Delta in search of a better life at the beginning of the 20th century and today’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Thus he portrays the simple life in the Delta as well, the consequences of long-standing drought at that time, or praying for a safe coast. Accompanied by the French harp virtuoso Jean-Jaques Milteau and guests like Big Daddy Wilson, an album is created in the sound of the classic Delta blues, which is hardly to be surpassed for realness.

Unless one accesses “Manic Revelations” by songwriter Pokey LaFarge. In the sound of the soul of the ’50s and ’60s, the musician sings about revolts in the USA in the face of increasing police violence, from the escape from the news to the seemingly apolitical country. This comes with a partly intersecting humor, which can make the hardness more bearable.

And here Lafarge is akin to John Nemeth, the Soulblueser, who has been living in Memphis for a number of years. With him, the everyday gun violence in the US comes along in a loose-footed party sound and a call not to let the brains fog, as in the funk of the 60s. “They Never Pay Me” by Gina Sicilia, on the other hand, is musically close to the blues singers of the 1920s, a lament about poverty and social injustice.

Blues was already in its beginnings more than music for the entertainment or the temporary escape from the everyday life with dance. Blues musicians have always told their songs of social issues, of the experience of injustice and violence, but also of the joy of developments for the good. This function of the blues musicians as political and social commentators led to the soul music of the ’50s and ’60s. And then the rappers more and more took over this position. But times such as today lead to the fact that the blues musicians are more aware of their social function. The artists listed here are probably only a part of the current scene, an encouragement to go out on their own to search for songs beyond the pub, dance and love-affair.

Italian Sign Language

People say Italians talk with their hands. Certainly in my experience Italians are the easiest Europeans to communicate with when neither party understands a word spoken by the other. On this trip we discovered a new dimension — Italian sign language.

I’m not talking about the basic traffic signals: the stink-eye, the finger or the full arm. This is a clever sort of visual slang we encountered in Calabria. It may exist throughout Italy. I don’t know. I’ll be looking for it next time. Here are some examples:

If you hold both hands in front of your chest with the fingers pointing down, that’s T-rex arms. It means, “This guy’s arms are too short to reach his pockets.” In other words, he’s a cheapskate.

When you hold up one hand with the fingers together pointing up, alternating palm out and palm in, that’s “2 late,” a pun between the Italian for “two sides” and the English “too late.” It means, “Time to go now.”

I think this is just scratching the surface. If you know of more examples, I’d love to hear from you.

Walls Come Tumbling Down

This journal entry was written a couple weeks ago while Delta Moon was touring heavily and there was neither time nor internet access to post it. Now that I’m home with plenty of both, it still seems worth sharing.

On this the last day of April, the weather in Germany is finally warming up. We had snow only two days ago. Now we’re traveling the A4 through Thuringia, past fields of green grass, yellow raps and brown, freshly turned earth. The sky is blue with white puffs of cloud blurring to a uniform pearl at the horizon, pierced here and there by steeples, power line towers and giant windmills. Most of the hardwoods are filling out with green buds, but some trees are still bare with balls of mistletoe in their upper branches.

I’m thinking about walls. Our President wants to build one. The people of Jericho built one, but it failed to solve their immigrant problem. Certainly the ancient gut fear of annihilation is part of what fuels people’s desire to build a wall.

Yesterday, through a mixup, we drove to the Hotel Husarenhof where we’d stayed twice before in Bautzen and found instead a burned-out shell. Only the charred walls remained. Later we learned there had been plans to turn the place into a refugee center. Online newspaper accounts say police found evidence of accelerants. Two young men were sentenced to prison and another to probation for drunkenly attacking firemen fighting the blaze. Germany was horrified when a local roofer posted a video of the burning building with the comment: “Comrades, sieg heil! Good work.”

There are no easy solutions. But I do know walls come down. We saw that in Berlin and again yesterday as we drove east into the former GDR. Silent on a ridge beside the autobahn, as traffic raced by in both directions, stood a concrete gun tower, abandoned and defaced with graffiti.

 

Remembering Col. Bruce Hampton

Col. Bruce Hampton, who died on stage at the Fox Theater in Atlanta last week, was a huge influence on Delta Moon, as he was for half a century on the entire Atlanta music community. Seeing the Aquarium Rescue Unit at the Little Five Points Pub was one of the main reasons Mark Johnson moved to Atlanta in the first place. He thought, “There’s something going on here.”

Franher Joseph, who played bass with the Colonel for the last year or more, talks of “Hamptonisms”, advice Hampton gave his musicians, such as, “Don’t take yourself too seriously. But take what you do very seriously.”

For Tom Gray, a fan since 1969 (Bruce could have told you the exact date and time), the biggest lesson came from a story Hampton told him about the time, as a teenager, he met Muddy Waters.

“Mr. Waters,” he said, “You’re my favorite singer.”

Muddy Waters didn’t respond.

“You’re also my favorite guitar player.”

Muddy Waters looked at him and said, “I’m not a singer. I’m not a guitar player. What I do is put the devil in the room.”

Bruce Hampton took that concept and made a life out of it.

Portfolio Items