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Delta Moon Uber Germany – 9

Sunday we got up early. It was going to be a long day – just how long we didn’t suspect. We had to drive east to west across Germany and return the amps and drums to one town, the van to another, and ourselves to the Dusseldorf airport in time for a 7:00 am Monday flight to Atlanta. Until now the tour had gone smoothly. At the breakfast table I knocked wood. For once could we make it all the way home without mishap?

No, of course not. That wouldn’t be the Delta Moon way.

We’d been on the road a few hours when Mark said, “We’re losing power.” We coasted down a ramp and into a gas station at the Weimar exit. The van was dead.

If this had happened in the west we might have stood a fighting chance. But this was east Germany, where no one spoke English or any other language we halfway knew, and at 2:00 in the afternoon the restaurants were already closed. Darren got out his German-English phrase book and walked around telling everyone, “Mein auto ist kaput.” People shrugged or fled at his approach.

After several phone calls, Olly at Rebelvans told me to wait for a towtruck that would take us and van across Germany to a Ford dealership in Dierdorf. So that was how we traveled across the Hessian countryside, with Euro-pop disco playing softly and ancient castle ruins staring down at us from every other hilltop. Large trucks have a speed limit of 80 km/hr (about 50 mph), and the driver sat on that number with Germanic precision. It was almost dark by the time we met Olly at the Ford dealership.

Olly wasn’t happy, and I couldn’t blame him. Nobody was happy except probably the towtruck driver, who was already paid in cash. We moved all the gear to a different van, a Mercedes Sprinter. It was nearly midnight when we reached Wetter, but Gunter was waiting up for us. After loading the gear into Earth Music we had coffee in the office upstairs. Gunter got on his computer to find us a hotel within taxi range of the airport. But I figured we wouldn’t get to bed until 2:00, and we had to be at the airport by 5:00. Everybody was starved. I called off the search and asked Olly to take us straight to the airport.

Dusseldorf airport at 1:30 in the morning was like an empty cathedral. Our footsteps echoed off the high ceiling. The one bar open had six people in it. Four of them were us.

After beer and sandwiches we felt a little better. Mark and I each selected a row of four seats in the waiting area. I hooked one arm through the straps of my suitcase, briefcase and guitar case, put on a sleep mask and was out like a light. Darren and Franher stayed up drinking beer until they were surrounded by coffee drinkers. They said Mark and I looked like a homeless camp among the prim 5:00 am businesspeople.

I actually felt pretty good. We were in the chute home.

Delta Moon Uber Germany – 8

On the road out of Prague we hit a detour through the rolling Czech countryside and tiny villages where eight-year-old kids smoked cigarettes. Then we hit the highway again, and — bang — we were back in Germany, with its yellow biodiesel fields, giant windmills and no-speed-limit autobahn.

Friday’s gig was at the Kesselhaus in Singwitz, near Bautzen, east of Dresden. When we first drove up we wondered if we were in the right place – an old brick industrial building out in the woods by the River Spree. But the owner, Andreas, greeted us and pulled up the garage door of a loading dock that opened straight onto the stage. He told us that the building was a 100-year-old gunpowder factory. (Kesselhaus means “boiler house.”) Andreas, a psychologist during the week, runs the club on weekends with the help of his wife and son. A family working together not for profit but for the love of music was a pattern we saw over and over again in Germany, but one we see only rarely in the States. How could anyone not love people with so much heart? This was a fun gig.

At the Kesselhaus we discovered Jever (pronounced “Yay-ver”), a north German pilsner with a unique bite. I wonder if we can swing an American endorsement.

Saturday we drove north of Dresden to Lauchhammer and a club called Real Music. The building started in 1905 as a tavern and dance hall, then served half a century as a Catholic church until Ralf and Iris found it in 2005 and restored it to its original purpose.

Ralf works during the week as a commercial artist. He offered to take us out and show us the large posters for our show that he’d made and put up all over town. Then he said, “Oh, but, no, we took them all down.”

“Why?” we asked.

“Well,” Ralf said, “the truth is there is a Nazi rally in town here today. I don’t know why they come here. No one wants them here. They go around to different towns and have these rallies – maybe 50 Nazis surrounded by several hundred people with cameras. We do not want any trouble here at the club tonight, so we went around yesterday and took all the posters down. We hope they won’t find out about the show. We’ve hired extra security.”

That explained a poster I’d seen on the street: Lauchhammer gegen [against] Nazis. The word “Lauchhammer” was pasted over another town name.

This was our last show in Germany, and it was a good one to go out on. Everyone had a lot of fun — even, apparently, the Nazis. Mark’s mom, Katie, was dancing in the crowd when a guy bumped her gently and started dancing with her. When the song ended he offered to buy her a beer. Then Katie saw the swastika on his shirt.

“No, thanks,” she said. “I’m too old to have another beer.”

Thanks to Real Music and to Tina for these photos:

Delta Moon Uber Germany – 7

Driving into the Czech Republic, we stopped in Pilsen for a pilsner.

Then on to Prague, a beautiful city, with stunning architecture and artwork at every turn. The statues were designed to show the power of the Holy Roman Empire (or whoever happened to be on top at the time), and their main theme is violence and misery. Even the Biblical images are pretty dark — no “suffer the little children” stuff here.

Since 1992 the Czechs have made the switch from communism to capitalism, but they still have a few fine points to work out. For instance, the concept of “service with a smile” has not spread to every restaurant. For the most part the waiters are quick and competent, but they take your order as if they’d just as soon punch you in the nose. It’s a little jarring but nothing personal. They glare at each other too.

Prague has definitely got an edge to it. In an afternoon’s walk I noticed a Dali exhibition, a Kafka Museum (he was from here), a Ghost Museum, a Museum of Medieval Instruments of Torture and a Museum of Sex Machines. Tacky souvenir shops and strip clubs stand in the shadows of great cathedrals.

The Czech language has little in common with English, but one word I knew. The Dopyera brothers, inventors of the Dobro guitar, immigrated to the U.S. from Slovakia. In the 1930s Dobro advertising touted, “Dobro Means Good in Any Language.” In Prague I saw the word “dobrou” everywhere, from signs on the street to condiment trays in restaurants.

We had an excellent dinner in a restaurant by the Vltava River near the Charles Bridge, in a building that was once the home of the town hangman. Because of his job carrying out the will of church and state, he wasn’t allowed to vote or take communion.

It wasn’t easy finding the restaurant after Mark called from there, because there were three restaurants with the same name in the same street. The maitre d’ at the first one told us, “No, that’s not here. That’s two other places.”

Delta Moon Uber Germany – 6

Everywhere we went in Germany, everyone was wonderful to us. I was having a hard time reconciling the sweet, genuine people we met everywhere with the horror stories of the Third Reich. It almost seemed rude to think about it. True, this was a different generation, greatly affected by what had gone before. The German flag today flies only over government buildings and soccer games. The former concentration camps have been turned to memorials, and all German schoolchildren are required to tour them.

On this Tuesday morning Franher and I set out to visit Dachau.

As we entered the camp I took a photo of the gate with the German words, “Work Makes You Free.” After that I didn’t feel like taking pictures. I think Faulkner wrote that the past is not dead; it’s not even past. Walking through Building Z, with its gas chamber and ovens and hooks for hanging people, I was reminded of another quote, from the movie Runaway Train, when the girl says, “You’re an animal!” and the guy answers, “No, worse — human.”

One image that stayed with me I paid little attention to at the time. Among the stark, chilling images on display in the museum was a hand-drawn card showing a group of prisoners in striped uniforms with their heads shaved, smiling broadly, playing accordions and other musical instruments and wishing someone a happy birthday. The faces were obviously caricatures of real people known to the birthday girl. Even under the most horrific conditions, life went on. Not so, though, for millions.

Franher and I didn’t talk much on the road to Ingolstadt.

Our show that night was sold out, with people seated in chairs right up to the front of the stage. It was an excellent crowd, very attentive, and we gave them our best. For an encore I did a solo of “Plantation Song,” a song about being from the South and dealing with our legacy of slavery and racism. My second string was out of tune. The audience was paying such rapt attention that I plowed on, improvising a new guitar part to make the best of the situation and trying to put into the performance some of what I’d felt that day. At the end I was sure I’d made a botch of it. But after the show one German guy shook my hand and said, “That song about slavery was very moving.”

Delta Moon Uber Germany – 5

We drove five hours south to Munich and found ourselves in a different Germany – the land of Oktoberfest and lederhosen and one-liter beer glasses that Franher called “big boys.”

In the city’s largest outdoor beer garden, the Hirschgarten, we met our jet-lagged “roady” tour group of family and friends from America: Mark’s spouse Jennifer, his mom Katie, Darren’s sister Lauren and his mother Barbara, and Sharon and Carl Gentry. We had a few plates of fish and big boys with them, and then we all walked back to the hotel together.

Franher, Darren and I went for a nightcap down the street to a Yugoslavian bar. It was just us, the bartender and his wife, and a two-piece Yugoslavian band with a singer in a tight short-sleeve shirt open at the chest. In our honor the band played an American medley over a slow disco beat: “Strangers in the Night,” “Everybody Loves Somebody Some Time” and “Love Me Tender.” Franher and Darren had their hands over their faces, trying not to laugh. “Be cool, y’all,” I said. “These guys could kill us.” So we smiled and waved and they smiled and waved and soon went back to their techno-Yugoslavian music. As we stepped onto the sidewalk we heard the music stop in mid-phrase.

The next morning Mark and Darren left with the tour group for the Bavarian Alps to visit Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle, the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Franher and I opted to stay in Munich and tour the beer halls, where the waitresses all dressed like Snow White.

We started in the famous Hofbrauhaus, where one big boy led to another.

It was in this beer hall in 1920, maybe this very spot, that Hitler took over the German Workers Party and formed the NSDAP (in typical Nazi fashion, with a fist fight). Now the room was filled with beer drinking tourists from all over the world. We shared a table with a Viennese couple who were eating white veal sausages while a brass band played John Denver songs. I had my picture taken with the pretzel girl, and Franher discussed C-position fingerings with the tuba player.

It was evening by the time we made it out of the Hofbrauhaus and started making our way through the cobblestone pedestrian center of Munich. We found the street musicians surprisingly good. They chose places to play under arcades and archways that naturally amplified their sound. We stopped for a while and listened to a string quartet playing Bach. Franher sat in on upright bass with a jazz band.

A guitarist from Togo told us, “This is a regular job. We play here every day from six to seven. Then these guys play from seven to eight.”

“And you make a living at this?”

“A good living.”

We’d already learned that asparagus was in season in Germany, so we stopped at an outdoor café for a bowl of delicious white asparagus soup. At another beer hall near our hotel we somehow wound up eating pig knuckles, but we didn’t get far with those. As it turned out, they didn’t agree with us so well. In the morning Franher visited an apothecary shop and got some medicine for both of us.

Delta Moon Uber Germany – 4

Muenster is an interesting town, a mix of medeival and modern. We had lunch in a cobblestone sidewalk cafe, within sight of an ancient cathedral with metal cages hanging from the steeple (probably for Protestants). A street musician started playing accordian, which we enjoyed for a few minutes. But he only knew one song, and so he had to keep moving along to change his audience.

This was a maintenance day. German laundromats are very clean and efficient. One coin slot operated everything. While the wash was turning, Mark and I had a short beer up the street in a neighborhood bar, where old guys brought their own darts in little wooden cases.

Bicycles were everywhere in this town, just as in Amsterdam. Europeans don’t seem to mind walking, biking or taking the stairs. Almost everyone looks trim and fit. When we get home I’m thinking of setting up a bike like a European town-bike, with a chain guard and high handlebars, for neighborhood errands.

The next day we drove up to Worpswede, near Bremen. This village was the center of an art movement in the late 1800s, when painters left the cities to move to the countryside. Today there are still several galleries and an artist colony in there. Our venue, the Music Hall, has been presenting live music since 1881 — and that’s in the new part of the building.

Shows at the Music Hall are organized by a nonprofit group of volunteers, and they couldn’t have treated us any better. Our host, Uli, gave us a guided walking tour of the town. Backstage hospitality included a spread of snacks and coffee at load-in, then a hot meal and a bar staffed by two wonderful ladies.

We had a great audience to play to. After the show we hung around the backstage bar with several of the volunteers. They shared with us a local drink called Jan Torf. It came in little shot bottles. The rule was that the first time you tasted it — and after than whenever you wanted — you had to put the bottle cap on the end of your nose and drink from the little bottle held in your mouth with no hands. The tiny bottle cap wouldn’t stay on Franher’s nose, so one of the ladies pulled a big red cap off a water bottle and stuck that on there. At some point I wandered back on stage, and for a while I played a grand piano to an empty hall.

Delta Moon Uber Germany – 3

The autobahn is pleasant and easy to navigate, once you learn to watch your mirror like a hawk. You may decide to pass a truck, and in an instant that little dot back on the horizon becomes a Mercedes on your tail, and the guy driving it is giving you the stink eye.

Our van is a Ford Euroliner with a five-speed stickshift. Neither Darren nor Franher can operate the clutch, so Mark and I are doing all the driving. In exchange, the others agreed that to load the gear after every show. That’s okay by me.

In Amsterdam there are plenty of cars and pedestrians and boats, but the main mode of transportation is bicycle. The Dutch bike is not a sports bike, like the racers or mountain bikes you mostly see in the States. It is a practical street bike, with a chainguard to keep the rider’s pants from getting caught and handlebars set high so the rider sits up straight. Some pull cargo wagons behind them. Some have big wooden boxes out in front like wheelbarrows. I saw a rickshaw-like contraption with one guy in front doing all the work while a couple sat side-by-side behind him.

We rented four bikes and spent a day exploring the city, stopping here and there for tapas and Belgian ales. About 1:30 in the morning we headed back to the hotel. Darren was pedaling along in front of me when suddenly down he went. He scraped his hand and hurt his wrist. He couldn’t ice down his wrist that night, because European hotels don’t have ice machines like American hotels do. But with the help of some ibuprofen, the next day he was sore but okay. We didn’t need to advertise for a German drummer.

From Amsterdam we hit the road back to Germany for our gig in Ratingen, near Dusseldorf. Here we met and had dinner with Alfie Falckenbach, the head of our European record label, Blues Boulevard. Alfie and I had been communicating for some time by phone and e-mail, but it was good to put in some hang time and get to know each other. Everyone seemed to hit it off.

The venue, Manege-Lintorf, was in a local youth center, but the room was set up like a rock club, with a round bar and a good stage. When we came out for the start of the show people were standing right up to the edge of the stage.

The gig went very well. Everyone on stage and off was all smiles. Alfie told us, “I knew I had signed a great band, but I didn’t know it was a great live band.”

Back at the hotel we settled in with cold pizza and a bottle of red wine. On TV a pair of rough-looking nude women were laughing and batting at each other with boxing gloves. Brother, this ain’t America.

Delta Moon Uber Germany – 2

How can I describe the Blues Garage in Isernhagen? Maybe it would be better to describe the man himself, since everything else flows from him. Henry is 58 years old, with a muscular build, a strong chin, bright blue eyes and shoulder-length blond hair. He grew up in East Germany, where the Russians renamed his native town Karl Marx Stadt. In 1974 he went to prison “for speaking my mind.” In 1980 he escaped to the West, and his wife Ramona followed in 1982.

The way it looks, American rock and blues music is to Henry a symbol of freedom. He has made his club a shrine to it.

When we first pulled up to our lodging, the Motel California, and saw a portrait of Jimi Hendrix flanked by two electric guitars on the wall, we knew we had arrived someplace. Parked on the street and in the yard were two Lincoln limousines, a few Winnebagos, a Smart car, and a red American fire engine.

Henry greeted us and showed us to our rooms. “This is not yours yet. Darren, this is yours. Franher, this is yours. Okay, Tom this is yours.”

In my room, under a portrait of John Lee Hooker, was a double-manual Wurlitzer organ. Within five minutes I had it on and was jamming with the latin rhythm box. This might be my favorite hotel room ever!

Isernhagen is just outside Hannover, on the edge of the countryside. After we’d settled in we took a walk along a path through the fields and woods. Flying over France and Germany on Thursday we had noticed a lot of bright yellow fields scattered across the landscape. Now were were walking among them. When I asked Henry about them, he told me they were a biodiesel fuel called something that sounded like “raps.” Henry’s son told us you can also use them to make beer or eat them in a salad.

Darren among the biodiesel fields

When we walked into the Blues Garage for sound check, one of the first things I saw was a poster with photo of my former bandmate Keith Christopher, along with some other old friends, Dan Baird, Mauro Magellan and Warner Hodges, who are playing the club later this month as Dan Baird and Friends. Mark asked Henry, “What’s the craziest band that ever played here?” He said, “That Dan Baird band is pretty crazy.”

The sound quality on stage for our show was excellent. (In fact, all of the German venues we’ve worked so far on this tour have had first-rate sound systems.) The crowd was a lot of fun to play to. After the show we hung out a while and had a couple beers and some really good bratwurst from the stand outside. Here’s a video from the show (thanks, Ulrich!):

Delta Moon – “Nightclubbing” – Blues Garage, Isernhagen

Back at the Motel California, Franher and Mark stopped by my room for a late night Wurlitzer jam.

Mark and Franher jamming on the Wurlitzer organ.

Henry graciously offered to put us up another night, and having a few days off we took him up on it. Sunday we slept in till noon, then enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and took another long walk in the country. We heard a cuckoo just like in a clock – probably not a big deal in Germany but a novelty to Americans. That night Henry, his wife, son and daughter, along with her boyfriend, took us out to an excellent Italian ristorante. The whole family lives upstairs at the Motel California and works at the Blues Garage.

Back at the ranch, after our hosts had gone upstairs, the four of us sat around the kitchen table, sipping weissbiers from a case Henry had brought over from the club and listening to his Creedence CDs. Henry had offered to let us stay another night. He said, “I don’t have another band in until Wednesday.” We didn’t have another gig until Wednesday ourselves, but we didn’t want to wear out our welcome. Some time after midnight we decided that it would be a mistake to lose momentum. We resolved to pack in the morning and head for Amsterdam.

Delta Moon uber Germany – 1

After 24 hours of travel – by plane from Atlanta to Paris, then Paris to Dusseldorf, by train to Cologne, then bullet train to Montabaur to pick up the van, by autobahn back to Dusseldorf to pick up Darren and Franher, and autobahn and country road to Wergen – we arrived at the Hotel Henriette Davidis for one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.

The hotel is named for the author of a famous 19th-century cookbook. The restaurant serves meals prepared according to her recipes, using fresh, seasonal ingredients from local farms. We washed them down with local beer.

By the time we unwound enough to look around and see where we were, where we were was a little pub in a half-timbered house that dated back to 1541 (picture below). At first the locals didn’t know what to make of us, but before long we broke the language barrier. Udo, our host, started producing secret bottles from under the bar and pouring into little glasses. Everyone in the room just kept laughing. Finally some kind of corn liquor from a brown bottle convinced us that it was time for bed. Later I wondered if that hadn’t been what Udo was trying to do all along. So it was “gute nacht” all around, and we crossed to street back to our hotel, resolving that for the rest of the trip we should be careful with anything in little glasses.

I woke up the next morning, if not in synch with the local time at least not too far off. Mark and I had breakfast and took a walk up a hill where we discovered the town cemetery. It was May first, a national bank holiday, and people were all through the cemetery, jogging or talking or tending graves. This was no broad grassy lawn like an American cemetery. Each plot was a separate garden, arranged with natural stones and planted with bushes and flowers. We saw a few stones saying something like, “1st Lt. So-and-So, 1921-1942,” from back in the days when this village was the home front.

Once everybody was up, we drove to Wetter, the next town, and found our venue for the night, Earth Music.

Gunter Erdmann runs a musical equipment sales and rental business in an industrial area on the edge of town. He and his wife and sons, who all work in the business too, live in the rear of the building, on the bank of the Ruhr River. Twenty-some times a year, in conjunction with a non-profit group promoting live music, Gunter volunteers his room, gear and time to put on a show. Our deal here is that we waived a cash fee in exchange for the use of Gunter’s backline (amps and drums) for the rest of the tour.

The backline proved first rate. Mark and I scored matching Egnater Rebel 20 amps, made in America by Bruce Egnater, with a unique design that allows the player to blend a pair of 6V6 tubes (a classic American sound) with a pair of EL84s (classic English rock sound). Very cool.

It’s a little strange starting your first show in a different country. You wonder what in the world these people think of you. The last chord of the first song died away into complete silence. But then the applause started, got louder and kept going. We ended up doing two encores and, I think, making some new friends. After the show we had soup made by Gunter’s mother from her vegetable garden, and a taste of schnapps distilled by his father.

Germany was working out okay.