Articles by 'blueshammer' appearing in the Blues Festival Guide 

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I Smell Trouble

Curves On The Blues Highway 

 

We all have stories when it comes to traveling to blues shows. ‘Getting there’ is most always an adventure, and a major part of the live music experience.

 

I asked a few of our artist friends for their most memorable road story or unique venue, while routing to the main fest gig. Some stories are pretty funny, some heartfelt and touching; all were unforgettable. Our first artist here was beginning to wonder if kidnapping was a local custom:

 

“We did this tour in Europe in 1994 for about 3 and a half weeks. Our European tour driver, who didn’t speak much English, took us on a highway that hadn't been completely built yet. We were driving for what seemed like forever. Eventually we noticed that there weren’t any other vehicles on the highway. Finally the road just stopped! We had to turn around and go all the way back and get on a road that actually went to our destination. Eventually we got to the show in the nick of time. It was a long, strange day that was more than a bit unnerving!” - Smokin' Joe Kubek

 

Sometimes the challenges of winter driving in the northern states can be daunting. This next band demonstrated that perseverance, slow and steady, wins the race to show time:

 

“Let’s face it – the end goal is the gig, right? But you gotta get there. We left Nashville in plenty of time to arrive and rest in Detroit, Michigan before setting up for sound check.


Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas. By the time we got through Cincinnati, the pace was already slowing and the weather continued to drift into
whiteout conditions. We were passing truck after truck jackknifed along the shoulder and hundreds of cars in ditches. We slowed to a crawl ‘til we got into Michigan. What should have taken nine hours turned into a 16-hour-long, white-knuckle ordeal. With no rest for the weary, we threw our suitcases into the hotel, ran to the gig, set up and played all night to an amazing crowd! Sometimes the journey can be rough but, it’s always worth it!” - Shaun Murphy

 

Now, that is just how professionals roll. I believe the U.S. Postal creed of “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night” had musicians in mind. Once in a while though, the fates present us with life choices that put our priorities into crystal-clear perspective:

 

“Just after we performed at the ‘Smokin' in Steele BBQ and Blues Fest in Owatonna, Minnesota, I got a call that my father-in-law had passed away. We played the next night at Uncle Bo's in Topeka, Kansas. Although we had never done it before, we canceled the rest of the tour. I could book those venues again, but I only had one chance to pay respect to a beloved Korean War vet. The boys dropped me off in Salt Lake to catch a plane to New Jersey for the funeral, then they drove home to Portland, OR. Talk about a curve in the road!” - Lisa Mann

 

Sometimes the beauty of mountain scenery becomes ugly as conditions turn musicians and equipment into the equivalent of a pinball machine inside the van. Then it gets worse:

 

“One of our scariest events happened in Colorado in 1984. I was traveling with Pat Chase, Tim Wagar and drummer Jimmy Bott. We were driving over Rabbit Ears Pass, above Steamboat Springs, climbing to ten thousand feet at the summit. The weather was cold and clear, but the roads were covered with patches of thick black ice. I was driving about ten miles an hour when I suddenly lost traction. We spun out of control on the slippery pavement, doing donuts in the middle of the highway, spinning like a top. The only way to stop was to go right into the snow banks that lined the sides of the pass. We hit a huge snow bank. Crunch!  Stopping by 'snow bank' is like hitting a tree. We all flew forward inside the van with the equipment and instruments flying around us. Splat!

 

‘Nice driving,’ one of the guys moaned. ‘Black ice,’ I replied. ‘Dumb ass!’ someone in the rear commented. 

 

We put the equipment back in place and secured it this time. We couldn’t find any damage to the equipment and nobody had gotten hurt. The van seemed all right as well. ‘No problem,’ I said as we got rolling again. We made it over the pass without further incident.

 

I had thought everything was fine until we got to Nevada. I started hearing a funny noise. By the time we were in the Sierras, a steady shudder was growing in intensity. It had become a loud banging noise by the time we were near Vacaville, California. I stopped to have a mechanic take a look before we went any further. Turns out the snow embankment had seriously damaged the van, causing a break in the seal of the rear end. Differential fluid had leaked out. I thought about trying to make it the remaining sixty-five miles home with the van the way it was, but ended up towing it. Our respective girlfriends had to come and pick us up from the repair shop. 

 

‘It’s just one problem after another on these tours,’ one of the girlfriends commented. ‘Don’t you ever get sick of this? You should quit this touring before something really bad happens.’ ‘Don’t be like that, baby,’ her boyfriend responded. ‘I can’t quit this shit. It’s what I do. Aren’t you glad to see me?’ 

 

When I called my girlfriend to come and get me she asked what had happened. I thought for a minute, while staring at my van up on the rack and told her, ‘No worries. It’s part of what I do, but that new rear end is going to cost me a fortune.’  ‘I’m just happy you’re home,’ she said after a long pause, ‘even with your blown rear end.’” - Mark Hummel

 

Survival on the blues highway is an art as well as an ongoing challenge of resources and persistence. When the good Lord’s willin’ and the creeks don’t rise, sometimes you end up at the occasional, magic hole-in-the-wall venue that is a pure pleasure:

 

“It’s feast or famine out here. Nice hotels you don’t have time to stay in and flea-bag hotels you can’t seem to check out of. All in all, it’s for the love of music that we do it. One of our favorite places to play on the way to, or from, big festival events is Byron’s in Pomeroy, Iowa.

 

The first time I played Byron’s, I pulled into what appeared to be a ghost town — not even a stop light in this town. This club is owned by a deadhead, hippie type, with tie-dye and stuff crammed everywhere inside the building. You load in and set up, eat a frozen pizza and then, out of nowhere, come a roomful of people ready to hear real music — pumped and ready to rock out all night. This place is magic in the middle of a cornfield. I love Byron's — it helps keep the music alive!” - Kelly Richey

 

The inviting comfort of a true rural roadhouse does make it all worthwhile. However, like Forest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get until you open the door:

 

“As strange as it is, I assure you, this story is true. I had booked a gig at a bar in Shreveport, Louisiana the night before I was to perform at the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, Arkansas. I had never played there before and had no idea what to expect. I drove into the parking lot, went into the club, set up and started the first set. I could hear people in an adjacent room, but thought it was odd that no one came into the bar area.

 

After a bit, we took a break and wandered into the next room. We found they had their regular weekly transvestite drag show going on. Their show took a break and the full party came in to see my band for the second set. When their show started again, they were gone, heading back to their regular festivities. The nice thing about it was we made some new fans, sold a bunch of CDs and were invited back to play there again sometime.” - Eddie Turner

 

The lesson is, you never know who your target audience might be but they can be fans willing to support you on the road, no matter how their mama dressed ‘em. On other occasions, the variety of fans you catch on a day of multiple gigs can cover a wide swath of style:

 

“Sometimes gig opportunities seem to bunch up at one time. Went I got started in the blues, my first band, Plan B, played three full shows in one day. We did a BBQ competition and blues fest in Albert Lea, MN at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds in the morning. We moved on to Marcussen Ball Park in Austin, MN in the afternoon for another outdoor event. Finally, we ended the day playing a formal wedding in Owatonna, MN that evening. Our audiences that day ranged from guys in bib overalls setting up their BBQ smokers, to families hanging out on picnic blankets, to fancy guys and gals in wedding attire. It was a diverse and fun day of music!” - Sena Ehrhardt

 

Sharing the joy with the audience is one of the benefits of a traveling band. Other times, unexpectedly, we may share a world-changing experience that will define the rest of our lives. Who can forget where they were on a fateful day in 2001:

 

 "I was flying out of Los Angeles to meet up with the band for some shows, like I’d done so many times before. This time was different and I was scared. Before even getting near the airport, I was stopped at a security checkpoint, told to park several miles away and take a designated cab. The cab, cab driver, my guitar and I were meticulously searched at three different security tents that had been set up along the route before reaching the airport. The normally bustling LAX was eerily quiet and empty except for armed military in camo, strategically placed throughout. The handful of people on this flight didn't speak, didn't even make eye contact. Everyone was on edge. It was the first day that commercial planes were allowed back in the sky. The pilot choked up a little while thanking us for flying during this difficult time, trying his best to sound normal. But we all knew that nothing would ever be the same after September 11th, 2001." - Becky Barksdale:

 

Whereas, events like 9-11 challenge the human spirit, it does inspire a frame of mind that allows us to appreciate the important little things in life like new friends and hospitality:

 

“I think one of the most unusual stops I remember was on the way to a festival in Texas, or Louisiana; I can’t quite remember. It was long ago. As a road musician, you are always trying to hook up as many dates as you can to get from point A to B. Someone had given me a card, so I called this guy who had a small club in Beeville Texas, population 50. The gentleman said he would love to have us route through. I think it was called the 9th Hole, or something relating to golf.

 

We got there and I asked who the manager was. I was directed to a guy in a cowboy hat who was sitting at a picnic table outside. I greeted him and as he got up to shake my hand, he fell to the floor, dead drunk. Composing himself he said, ‘Welcome to Beeville. Anything you boys need, we will take care of it.’

 

So the first problem was the P.A. of course, which they didn’t have. We rigged something up with our amps. Then, since they didn’t even have a mic stand, we duct taped a mic to a broom handle attached to a chair. You get the picture!

 

We managed to play that night and were treated to a feast of grilled sparrows, I think. They were very small birds wrapped in bacon. I assumed it was a local delicacy! The crowd loved us, thank goodness, or we might’ve been the next thing barbequed.

 

Of course they didn’t have hotel rooms for us. They offered us the owner’s house as he was staying at some friend’s place. I got to sleep in the master bedroom and as I was tucking myself in, I noticed what I thought was a toy gun on the bedside table. I picked it up and nearly fell to the ground. It was real and loaded. Welcome to Texas!

 

We happily left the next morning, all safe and sound and off to the next gig.” - Mitch Woods

 

Of course, one of the best sources of income to a blues road warrior is merchandise. The unexpected may spur on sales:

 

“It's not unusual for us to play five totally different types of venues in any given week on the road. The good thing about blues is that it works just fine in any setting. Once, we even played a blues festival held at a clothing optional resort (nudist colony is the old way of saying it). It's really more about the people than the venue anyway. Blues fans are the most appreciative bunch I've ever had the pleasure of performing for and this group was no different. I’d have to say the dance floor could get a bit distracting though.

 

The added bonus for this gig was, as the sun went down, so did the temperature. We sold every single t-shirt we had brought along!” - Tinsley Ellis

 

Well my friends, they say the time spent on the road defines who we are. The beauty of the blues fest season is we all get to head out on the road and create our own adventurous memories. These memories will provide material for hours of story tellin’ next winter, while waitin’ for fest season to begin all over again…..

 

TECHNOLOGY BYTES

 

Findin' Gold in the Stream

 

Music is still music! However, the 'Standard Operating Rules' have changed in the music business. On the musician/artist side, creativity is sometimes assisted thru the miracles of Auto-Tune, Pro-Tools, and a myriad of instrument synthesizer programs. On the consumer/fan side the changes in how we get our blues fix can only be described like the difference between a model T and an interplanetary star ship.

 

How we discover, listen and share music just keeps evolving at the speed of tomorrows' technology squared by the trigonometric exponentiation of our desire for instant gratification. To avoid a long discussion on just how we came up with that precise formula, lets break it down into three basic consumer centric needs: Discovery, Consuming, and Sharing.

 

Discovery

The Blues, and other non-Grammy genre's, have most certainly benefited from Al Gore's invention: the Internet. You know there are a limited number of broadcast 'Commercial Blues' stations on the radio, but there is a countless number, (REALLY, we actually tried to count), of Internet Blues Stations available at your fingertips. Some for free, and others at a modest subscription. They stream 24-7, 365 days a year any and all kinds of blues. Bill Gates dream of every home having a computer has come true. We all have access to a library that seems infinite. Also, with over 100 million smart phone owners, and 4g coverage, we possess a reliable and portable smorgasbord that is pretty overwhelming. There are satellite radio providers like Sirius XM that require special equipment and an annual contract. They boast a fabulous selection of slickly produced 'syndicated' shows and different levels of advertising 'buffering'. The programmed song selection in both these mediums introduce you to more music than you could play in a lifetime on your old hand crank victrola. As sure as death and taxes, you WILL find just what you are looking for.

 

Consummation

   Our focus group was reasonable and not too unhinged, (this was as close to 'Fair and Balanced' as we could get with blues fans). They were folks who listen all the time, whether relaxing or working. Beyond catching the stream of internet radio, they all had music sharing service favorites like Napster, Rhapsody, Slacker and Spotify. All allowed them to create a personal play list keeping their favorites handy no matter where they log in. This is saved on the providers server and does not take up 'memory' space on their device of choice. Consider it an extended 'test drive' that can be shared with friends. Yep, everyone is a closet DJ, and this lets 'em dazzle friends on the cheap. Whether 'free' or 'subscription' driven, there is an unending number of choices like i-Tunes, Grooveshark, or Radical.fm. In checking out some of these services I learned a term called 'Jailbroken' which is a way to 'free' your i-Phone from the shackles of Apple, opening up a whole 'nother world of available App's!

   Now there are folks who still felt the need to 'own' the music. They will download directly to their electronic jukebox, whether it's computer, smart phone or I-Pod like device. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit more than one member of the group shared the melancholy tale of entire libraries of music disappearing due to memory failure. To clarify; that's electronic memory not the actual music lover's. Now you have the ability to 'rent' space to store all your favorites; services like mSpot.com or Maestro.fm. They are 'safely' stored for as long as they tickle your fancy. Other folks said that once they 'discovered' new music, they still preferred to go out and purchase a CD. As 'older' members of the group, it was suggested they were still clinging to that archaic 'tactile and visual' experience of vinyl LP shopping and simply needed to let it go.

 

Sharing

   Loosely defined, 'sharing' implies giving something as an outright gift. When it comes to 'sharing' music, we distinguish two catagories. First and foremost, the musicians' desire to promote and get their music in the hands of potential fans. Musicians take advantage of programs like SoundCloud, Spotify, or AirPlay Direct to send tracks directly to Radio DJ's and promoters. They also utilize social media outlets to reach out and provide free downloads of teaser tracks to fans in an effort to get them to buy the album from Amazon, CD Baby, or any of the other purveyors of electronic media. The very latest in file sharing is the QR code. This is a fancy barcode that holds a boatload of information on the download card.

  Secondly, there is the rest of us: the closet DJ, the personal music guru (you know the folks who HAVE to share their latest discovery: the BEST SONG EVER!), or your BFF who knows what you like better than anyone. We post our minute to minute favorites on Facebook, MySpace, or the social medias du jour. We invite folks to our personal listening 'rooms' with programs like Soundrop and MixCloud. We email zip files and tweet songs via Tinysong.com. We reach out to the ENTIRE world instantly, filling in the imagined cultural cracks with the salve of our healing, audio ear putty. We share our LIVE music experiences in little videos we send each other prolifically.

  With Siri, and other personal assistant programs, your phone can even suggest songs you may like. Are these Smart Phones talking to one another? OH Yeah! I'm sure you've seen the commercial where one smart phone transfers it's play list to another when their bodies gently touch each other! Hmm, maybe 'tactile' is not so archaic after all.

  The coolest thing about these fully loaded, smart phone juke boxes we carry around is that they easily interface with audio systems in the car, home or office to provide that 'Hi-Fi' boost and wall shaking subwoofer we need to interject our personal play list into others' space.

TEN LONG YEARS......

 

Memories are the diamonds that warm our soul to a brilliant glow as we move forward on this mud ball. I remember with much ballyhoo, in 2003, President George W. Bush proclaimed it ‘The Year of The Blues’. Whatever your political affiliations, it was pretty cool that the Government shined a light on this one true original American Artform. I don’t know what your expectations were, but I was feeling a potential renaissance and revival. To be brutally honest, I think the scales ended up just about even. Progress is a messy proposition with winners and losers. There is the passing of luminaries and legends, as well as new standard bearers of the torch and creative change. Sadly, you can ask any blues musician, and they will tell you that times are tough out on the road. The fact of the matter is the rates paid to blues musicians hasn’t kept pace with the cost of inflation. So much for Grand Government recognition.

 

As with all things to do with memory, soon the disappointments drift away and the joy comes shining through. As I fell into fond reverie while pondering the past ten years in the blues, I was startled by some of the monumental changes in technology. No doubt the result of my advanced, yet wizened, age. Technology has played a crucial role with PA systems shrinking in physical size while providing better sound quality and control. Don’t forget the computer controlled LED lighting systems with Smart Track. Nowadays, things are brighter, lighter, more cost effective, and make everybody look gorgeous (those that needed the assistance of better lighting know who you are).

 

Thru technology, blues artists have been provided incredible up close, personal access to fans and potential fans thru the creation of MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005) and ReverbNation (2006). My Lord; the current generation of smart phones allow us to carry our computers around in the palm of our hands providing instant gratification to our favorite music and videos, while keeping in constant ‘tweet’ with our favorite peeps. They have app’s for things I never even thought I needed (or wanted until they offered it)! Unfortunately, that same technology has created a culture that moves fans away from traditional acquisition of music; actually buying CD's and records. Talk about your classic 'slap and tickle'!

 

On the other hand, the importance of the experience and quality of LIVE music seems to have grown. Sure, we have lost a few fests and venues over the years. Take the 37 year run of The San Francisco Blues Festival that quit the game in 2008 blaming the current economic climate, or the closing of Blue Cat Blues Club in Dallas. But new promoters keep stepping up and new clubs keep investing in LIVE music. Just let your fingers take a walk thru an issue of Blues Festival Guide and you will find more on the blues festival buffet than anyone could possibly fit on their plate! Now as a vintage blueser, I admit anyone under 45 looks like a ‘kid’ to me. As I look around at festivals and clubs, it seems to me the proportion of folks ‘my age’ to ‘kids’ is about equal. Ahhh, a clear indication the blues is drawing new fans as well as retaining the ‘refined’ crowd (Ahem).

 

Of course, I would be remiss, if not myopic, if I did not mention the rise of the phenomenon of the ‘Blues Cruise’. Since the ‘virgin’ voyage of the largest franchise, The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise in 2002, these venues sell out in a heartbeat to rabid fans craving a pampered and unfettered environment shared elbow to elbow with the artists. It also creates an unprecedented opportunity for artists to spread their creative wings hosting fabulous jams with artistically  differing large groups of peers. The special memories for all involved in this experience are priceless.

 

One thing that caught my attention is the ‘naming’ rights for blues festivals as the larger corporate sponsors get involved. The mega sized (average of 200,000 attendees) Ottawa Blues Fest was renamed The Cisco Ottawa Blues Fest and recently changed to the RBC Royal Bank Blues Festival just last year, insuring financial backing for years to come. Of course there are other reasons for alternating nom de guerre. You may recall the historic (1986 to present) King Biscuit Festival was required to change their name to The Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival for the years 2005-2010 due to somebody’s insistence they didn’t have the rights to use the name. Thankfully for those of us with information overload and shrinking memory, they returned with the original name in 2011. There is also the five day, seventy one act, and equally gigantically titled, East Coast International Blues & Roots Music Festival. Established in 1990, it is held every year in Australia. As of 2008, the locals simply refer to it as the Byron Bay Blues Fest. Leave it to those sharp Aussies who invented the abbreviated ‘G’Day’! Even our own beloved and respected W.C. Handy awards got the politically corrected change in 2006 to The Blues Music Awards to ‘better embrace’ what they stand for. Ain’t it the truth, though?

 

Now, my dear friends the ‘blues purists’ would surely take umbrage if I didn’t touch on what they describe as ‘the decline of REAL blues festivals’ as we know them. I have been right next to them, while we are happily dancing our patooties off, just to hear them grumble “I thought this was supposed to be a blues fest! All I hear is rock (or jazz, or pop or country - whatever)”. Personally, I do not hold such shallow, yet rigid standards. I can hear the basic progressions and structure of the blues in just about anything. However, to give them their due, I will acknowledge that in recent years some promoters may book a few name acts that may have been promoted in other genres to draw a larger and more diverse crowd. Folks, that is the nature of profit centered ‘promotion’. I prefer to think of it much like that commercial that highlighted the invention of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: ‘You got some chocolate in my peanut butter’. It’s all good!

 

Well, as we took this short stroll down the memory lanes of our even shorter memories, you may ponder the point. I prefer to look at it in simply grand terms. Reflections of the past most certainly define our heritage and creates a point of grand expectations for our future. As Bruce Cole (Chairman of the National Endowment For The Humanities) once said: “Citizens ignorant of their history are robbed of the riches of their heritage”. We are where we have been, and we grow from where we are going. I believe we should grab some more memories and pack for the next blues festival. We’ll see you there!

 

Vinyl to Vinyl – What goes around, comes around 
   At the tender age of nine, I thought they were just talking about records.  I was in  seventh heaven because my folks now trusted me with their  three speed Voice of Music phonograph – quite a step up from my Roy Rogers one. 
   Now, I had a pretty impressive collection for a kid. Serendipity played a greater role than design in that. One day I was playing kick the can down the alley when I came upon this kid who was up on the porch tossing old '78s like clay pigeons and trying to nail 'em mid-flight with his sling shot. I knew this was no way to treat records, so I chased around to catch as many as I could before they hit the gravel parking lot. The kid soon got bored and told me I could have the rest of the box. Wow, instant record collection that wasn't nursery rhymes or sing a-longs. This found treasure featured some of the most popular music of the 1940s including Billy Holiday’s ‘Good Mornin’ Heartache’, and Louis Armstrong’s  ‘St. Louie Blues’. They started me down the path of blues music collecting.   
    As I aged, and technology marched forward, I eagerly embraced anything that would make my music portable. A battery powered turntable got strapped to the floor of my first car. It was good for parking, (you know what I mean), but not practical while driving around. We don’t even want to discuss what it was doing to our favorite albums. The needle dancing the groove soon wrecked  my precious LPs. The epiphany was the eight track tape. We viewed them as indestructible and road bump resistant. One that got endless play was The Allman Brothers ‘At The Fillmore East’. But we had issues. They were extremely prone to wear and tear, not to mention annoying sound quality. We were introduced to the audio recording terms ‘wow’ and ‘flutter.’ Yeah, when the player ate the tape you generally exclaimed ‘wow’ as your eyelids fluttered in disbelief. No problem; the wizards of technology came up with the cassette tape. I was thrilled. Now I could put together compilations of just the good tunes from all that vinyl I already owned. When the tape machine ate the tape, half the time you could salvage your creation by just manually winding it back on the spindles. However we still had wear and tear. As the tape would stretch, your favorite music began to sound like your ears were strapped to one of those old vibrating exercise machines. At least the tape made dandy tinsel for the Christmas tree in hopes that old St. Nick would be impressed and leave you the next big thing. 
   Progress –  Compact Disc’s and the digital age seemed the best thing ever. Obviously more indestructible than tapes, easy to load, and players that held 500. Now we’re talking. Read by laser light, we figured there would be no surface degradation. But then the realities started creeping in. We learned about laser burn.  These laser things can cut through steel. I’ve seen it on the Discovery Channel. We also found out that they were just about as fragile as our beloved records. Scratching can render them unplayable, but still appropriate for a shiny windchime. 
   The answer to our prayers: the MP3 player. You've got 33 hours of music in an iPod Shuffle the size of a postage stamp on steroids. This was way cool. I had one for awhile. Sadly, I believe it got dropped into a bowl of Chex Mix and was devoured in a late night munchie attack. Then there was the issue that music on a memory device is not really owned-- It’s just borrowed until the device crashes, losing it all. 
   Here’s where we hit that goes around, comes around thing. In our quest for perfection, we found digital sound was limited and less full sounding than analog used in vinyl recordings. Hmm; back to the future. It was time to dust off the collection. Artists love the retro vibe of the album and sound quality of the record, with some releasing new vinyl for the first time. JJ Grey & Mofro’s 2010 ‘The Choice Cuts’ was released as vinyl only, and Gregg Allman’s 2011 ‘Low Country Blues’ is a hot seller. Call it nostalgia, call it the quest for the best in sound reproduction; vinyl is the choice of audiophiles and it ain’t going away. Well, at least until the next big thing ends up under your Christmas Tree. 
John ‘blueshammer’ Hammer is a writer/photographer/promoter/producer and radio host based in Minnesota. He publishes Blue Monday Monthly. His weekly radio show, Hammered By The Blues is broadcast on KOWZ 1170am. Both magazine and radio show are available at bluemondaymonthly.com. Contact John, at: blueshammer@bluemondaymonthly.com
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Ode To Albert

Too Blue or Not Too Blue

   -John ‘blueshammer’ Hammer

    Hello. My name is John. I am a friend of the blues. I cannot control my desire to seek out and listen to more blues. I am a blueser. As I started the twelve bar program to gain control of my passions, I searched the internet to gain insight and camaraderie from others similarly afflicted. I feel compelled to share what I found in hopes that you too can be saved.

    To start my journey to salvation, I began by looking for a common definition of this powerful force of nature, the Blues. Of course, I was eminently aware of the different flavors that make up the blues; Acoustic blues, Piedmont blues, Acoustic Chicago blues, Gospel blues, British Blues, Chicago-Memphis-Texas-West Coast-Delta blues, Pre-War Blues, and on and on. By the time I was done counting I was up to forty-seven recognized styles; and I am relatively positive there are more I missed, or just had never been introduced to ….yet.

     Now, academics and professionals will blog on ad infinitum as to what is really blues and what is not. Is it performed behind, on top of, or after the beat? If it is blues riffs played to a rock beat, how can they call that blues? Dare it be too funky; too jazzy; just a little too Motown? It appeared as though they had cut back the definition of true blues to an incredibly small amount of the music I crave. Well; after trying to digest what the heck they were talkin’ ‘bout, I had an epiphany. Follow along with me now: If I, as a hopeless and uncontrollable blueser, could just control my intake of these ‘true blues’; my life would be back in balance! I could happily seek out and listen to all the ‘other’ music I had previously called blues, (in my ignorance). Free at last, free at last; thank those who need to pigeon-hole; I’m free at last! In that small revelation a dynamic paradigm shift took place. In accepting others’ definition of the blues, it became eminently apparent I had no problem at all! Hmmm, I wonder if this could work with my other vices…..?

    As a rational and somewhat ‘aware’ human being, I felt I could be deluding myself. However; truly, reality is only perceptions in which we strongly believe. Unfortunately sometimes the logic we base our perceptions on can be a little ‘fuzzy’. I’m OK with that.

    Now that I had a new perception, I felt the need to understand the hook that causes this undeniable craving. Was it just simple eight and twelve bar progressions? Was it fiery guitar, poundin’ ivories or stratospheric brass? Was it empathy with lyrics that dwell on oppression by the man, cheatin’ on or by a lover, misery, goodtimes with good buddies, or just plain bumpin’ grindin’ sex? Well, yeah. that’s all good. But the hook is something much more substantial; something that connects directly to a bluesers heart and soul. It is the pure poetry and bedrock honesty of the genre as shared by artists. These artists channel something they feel inside, rather than just play notes they memorized. This presents for your enjoyment, the passion of the artist, and his or her interpretation of a force of nature deep inside. That passion, communicated intimately to the audience is THE Magic. In this respect the blues is a living thing; given to turns unpredictable and indefinable.

    So my friends, we have defined the affliction and its undeniable draw. The connection goes way beyond sociological. I’m pretty sure it is not genetically inherited, nor learned behavior through some twisted Pavlovian backbeat. Though I’m not sure what causes it, I believe bluesers lust may be ingrained at a cellular level at a prominent location in the cerebral cortex. Oh Yeah, I know. None of us want to go messin’ with no cerebral cortex. They’re all tangly and electro-statical like! Why, to do that you’d need a degree from some ivy league school….like Yale or some such.

    It became as clear as piercing feedback thru a 12’X 8 foot stack of Marshalls in a 30’ X 50 foot cheap Tequila bar: We simply cannot accept pigeon holed, constrained definitions of others to avoid dealing with our problem. We’ll just have to tackle it head on; commonsensical like. Now I believe that the most expedient and effective way to deal with ‘excess’ is to change it to: ‘just right’. So, in effect, I needed to make a plan to control my intake of this powerful force….THE BLUES.

    First thing on my list was a no-brainer: If it ain’t got ‘the magic’; if it’s just a string of notes memorized and repeated without heart; if it just plain sucks, I will stop listening immediately. Now I felt we were gettin’ somewhere! We cut out the adulterated crap in one fell swoop. My second thing on the list was pretty much self serving by any definition. I want the pure stuff. I want to make sure it is always available. I figured ya gotta go to the source and support it. Yep, you got it: LIVE MUSIC!!!!  I vowed to spend less time with my I-Pod and catch live blues at all opportunities, (well, except the part of the day I can’t catch live blues for some scheduled thing like work or an appendectomy  or whatever….). Oh yeah! Then ya gotta have quantity! Say; ya know,… Blues Festivals are like…. huge orgasmic smorgasbords of the blues!! I get quality, variety and quantity all in one fell swoop.

    I checked my personal laminated copy of the Blues Festival Guide that I keep chained to the dashboard in my truck, (for convenience and security of course). My eyes glazed over like a wino who just hit the end of the tour at the Gallo Bros. Vineyards and was offered all the free samples he could drink in 6 months. The selection was beyond my wildest dreams. Even as I salivate, I know in my twisted little heart of hearts, I could not possibly hit all those festivals. Why, some actually take place at the same time in different locations. Even a rabid Blueser has limitations…..but Oh…just the thought…..!

    So I pull out my Blues Legends Photo Calendar and start to develop a plan of attack. Call it dyslectic or idiosyncratic, but prefer to start filling in the fall dates and work my way backward thru the year, (kind of a festival moonwalk). I carefully build a plan totally balanced in types of blues, the locations, and the scheduled times. I double check to make sure my plan is devoid of conflicts to that tedious ‘scheduled’ stuff we mentioned earlier. I meticulously plot out on my Rand McNally, the trail for this year’s odyssey; (noting I needed to e-mail the D O T to petition for national designation of a ‘Blues Highway’). Caught up in the thrill of the chase, I pull out the tools of the trade and start to pack. I checkout camera gear, grab extra batteries and memory cards. I pack suntan lotion, bug spray, sunburn lotion, some BenGay and a tube of Head On. I toss in tums, foot powder, aspirin, vitamins B,C, D and E. I add an appropriate variety of hats/caps, shades, lanyards, (to keep tickets close to my heart), sandals, athletic shoes and boots. You know I had an assortment of shorts, jeans, t-shirts, windbreaker, sweatshirts, more t-shirts, a jacket or two, and foul weather gear. I would never forget creature comforts of camping chairs, air mattresses, large capacity coolers, and ear plugs (only if I become in danger of OD-ing on sweet, sweet blues music). I also packed pictures and periodicals and gifts for my friends I’ll run into, old and new.

   So I load all this into my truck. I put on my favorite obnoxious Hawaiian print shirt, sandals and shorts. I slide on my best Ray Bans. I drop a homemade compellation CD in the player. I don’t remember who’s on it, and don’t care….it is ALL  screamin’ guitar, pounding ivories and stratospheric brass with catchy lyrics I could empathize with. I cranked ‘er up as loud as I could take and still breathe normally. I AM IN THE ZONE AND READY!!!!! I could feel my pulse race and a ten inch smile spread across my eight inch face. I hit the garage door opener as I start to salivate at the thought of this incredible orgasmic blues smorgasbord. The door seemed a little slow….until…….the vision that greeted my eyes was three feet of snow and squirrels still bundled in winters coat…….OH MY GAWD!!!!!! IT IS STILL FEBRUARY!!!!!

    My stunned shock was interrupted when my wife yelled down to find out what the heck I was doing in the garage for so long. I replied, “Nuthin’ Honey. I gotta head downtown to meet up with some buddies”. I pulled out before she could see the truck was packed for adventure. As I drove down to that old familiar watering hole, I reflected on the slim possibility that I MIGHT have a tiny obsession problem. Of course by the time I parked my truck and walked into our gathering spot I had totally gotten over my concern. I ordered a cold one and went over to a gaggle of tables in the corner near the jukebox. I dropped some coinage into the old Wurlitzer and selected Mr. B.B. King croonin’ ‘The Thrill is Gone’. I turned to my comrades, who were sitting there all dressed similarly to me, and started the meeting. “Hello. My Name is John. I am a friend of the blues. I am a Blueser.”

    

Click to Play:

Long Greasy Night

Mid Winter Blues Opus
       In the long winters of Minnesota, you have a few realistic choices to keep on an even keel. You can look at the snow and listen to the blues on your stereo; you can travel thru the snow to catch the blues in a bar or hall; you can play in the snow and listen to the blues on an mp3 player, and you can ponder. Now pondering is an art in Minnesota. It is something that can be done alone or in groups of any size. Ponderings on the weather, definitions of what we crave in the next CD we buy, or why more people don’t listen to the blues are all fairly common. It can be practiced in short snippits or, in the case of your truly, can be easily expanded to the size best described as ‘Opus’.     
     So here we are, pondering last years resolutions, festivals caught and festivals that got away, and of course, the imponderable. As a confessed blues addict I know I can lose sight of moderation in my pursuit of the blues. I’ve been told my priorities are askew. I don’t know; is it truly wrong to mourn the festivals I miss as much as savoring the ones I get to?  What is wrong with adding ‘latest 5 blues CDs’ to the weekly grocery list? Is it not just as important to our health to nourish the soul; and the blues does that! DUH. And, why can’t I write off the ticket price of an outdoor festival rained out as gambling losses? You actually have better odds with blackjack than predicting the weather in Minnesota on any given day.    
     To be proactive, in a moment of doubt and weakness; a few like minded folks started a support group to ponder our addiction and share other joyous ramblings of events savored from our past. We share favorite artists, imbibe adult beverages and discuss issues of accommodating our inner blues demons. Our philosophy is based on managing the perceptions of our total acquiescence to our obsession without embarrassing ourselves. We started this Twelve Bar program, not just to deal with our own happy demons. We simply believe our positive vibe will create a blues paradise on earth and beyond.Ya gotta think large to stay warm. Why, with such a noble resolve as to perpetuate the ’mission from God’ that Brother Jake and Brother Elwood testified about; all family members actually believe we have mastered our demons.
     Now at a mid winter therapy session one member proudly announced he just named his new twins ‘Ledbelly’ and ‘Pinetop’ and the girls were doing just fine. Another shared his new tattoo of a rubbing from Robert Johnson’s gravestone. No one had the heart to tell him that Robert Johnson wasn’t buried in southern Iowa. I overheard another idea to maximize LIVE music time at big festivals thru the personal use of a catheter and bag, but wiser heads prevailed and the idea never came up for group discussion. By now we were havin’ too much fun, so it was time to get down to our topic du jour: In these troubled times; what is the future of the blues?
        Our little support group boasts a cross section of demographics certainly representative of our great country. More importantly, the rabid nature of our demons causes us all to seek out data, trivia, trends, and even minutia of the living, breathing force of nature; THE BLUES. An actuary associated with us extrapolated that we probably have expended close to 250,000 man/hours in the pursuit of information; some valuable, some downright silly. Now this confers upon all of us, admitted bluesers with issues, a doctorate level of expertise in our chosen field. That and about $5 will get you a tap beer at some festivals. Although no formal thesis is planned, we will freely share with you the condensed, totally abridged version of the very essence of the scholarly blatherings of a bunch of blues addicts.
       First point explored was: With the current state of the economy, will there be discretionary funds available to support festivals and Bands? This question created quite a stir as some of our honored alumni took issue with the notion that we were implying  festival attendance did not make the ‘necessity’ side of some folks’ budgets. At the end of discussion, it was decided that most folks who appreciate the arts are smart enough to realize the positive, exponential influence on the greater economy and will prioritize their needs to allocate appropriately. Does the general public even care about the blues and will attendance at  festivals grow? The answer was a resounding “Hell, Yeah!” In fact one member said he was going to go to one extra event a month and make his mother in law come along. Another said he tried distributing festival flyers at the Agoraphobics Anonymous meeting to encourage a new and untapped fan demographic to come out, but nobody ever showed up at the meetings….. Anyway, the consensus of our scientific poll indicated unanimous love for the blues. Next issue discussed delved into what the blues of the future would sound like. This debate was spirited to say the least. It opened some old wounds. The purists declaring real blues dead and SRV devil spawn for inspiring a generation of ‘rawk-guitar posers’ who wouldn’t know the blues if it ran over them. At that moment, the esteemed panel had to be reminded of the most important foundations of our group: ‘acceptance’ and ‘common ground’. We could all agree the blues is a pure artform. We could all agree that an artist must embody their interpretation to their creation to grow. So it just stands to reason, by nature, it will evolve into something impossible to imagine; yet be totally apparent to those who behold. Some you'll love; some not so much, all based on personal taste.
    We were all feelin’ the spirit of peace and love the blues inspires as the purists bought the rockers a round and they responded in kind. At this point, the Librarian in our group, (who never speaks), got up and asked if he could say a few words. Now he went on for an hour and a half, quoting tomes we had never heard of and historic precedence never reported on CNN or FOX. For the interest of brevity and your comfort, I will cut it down to the nitty gritty.
      The blues were born in a time of slavery and oppression. By the nature of it’s purity, the artform lifted the spirits of those who were oppressed. As technology increased, more and more people were introduced to this artform and felt the uplifting power of the blues. With the increased exposure to artists, the blues naturally evolved. The music we call the blues has always gained the strongest popularity in times of hardship, economic uncertainty and moral strife. Certainly the commonality of misery provides magnificent inspiration for the artists and the fans who care. When things are ‘too’ good, we take for granted the importance of art and we just don't support it the way it deserves. Simply put, when society is challenged, at lowest ebb of progress, they embrace that which defines the greatness of the human spirit. The blues is an unbreakable thread that binds up wounds and heals the souls of all who take time to listen to it’s siren song. As we have learned thru the historic times of repression, prohibition, global financial calamity, depression, war and intolerance; the blues has always come back strong to lead the charge of ‘recovery’. Yes, we are at the crossroads once again. I have no doubt that we will pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off. I believe we are soon to witness a resurgence of popularity that hasn’t been felt since before congress declared 2003 the year of the blues and we lost ground. At the end of his speech the soft spoken Librarian rose up and said; “History is calling once again and we will rise to the occasion. My Brothers and sisters; go out and preach the gospel of the 12 bar to the faithful and uninitiated alike. Feel the power of your convictions, the morality of your soul and the heady rush of spirits uplifted by the blues. Embrace all you meet and help bring change the world so desperately needs and mankind deserves!” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Some members grabbed phones to buy tickets and make travel arrangement. Some ran into the streets to minister the glory of the blues to the populous at large. Needless to say, in their defense, every evolution-revolution meets some resistance and we bailed them out the next morning. Organization and discipline are the key to success in any movement. We have to get as organized as possible to make up for our admitted lack of discipline.
     My friends; make your plans and share the love. We will see you this summer at the blues fests. You’ll want to be able to tell your grandchildren you were there for the beginning of  this century's resurgence of the blues in global popular culture. Yeah; you gotta think large to stay warm….   
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