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I thought, and still do think, that Lemon was a very good guitarist. Gary disagreed. (laughter) Gary started to play a very accurate pastiche of Lemon's Black Snake Moan, and Gary just opened his mouth and let out with this incredible blood curdling scream, and then he stops and says, "Man, he couldn't have sung no louder if someone was cutting his throat". He was merciless - Reverend Gary Davis, by Dave Van Ronk

Author Topic: American Folk Blues Festival 1967 - another written account  (Read 1308 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Thumbing through Blues World magazine in search of something else I couldn't put them back in their box before scanning the anonymous editorial in issue 18 (January 1968). This was in all probability written by editor Bob Groom

The visit to Europe of the sixth Blues Festival headlined by Son House, Bukka White and Skip James was heralded by all and sundry as the European blues event of all time. Certainly it was that and from all accounts it was also a financial success which bodes well for future festivals.

Despite this, reaction to the F.B.F. has been very mixed and all the artists have come in for a slating from one quarter or another. Only Son House could be said to have been an unqualified success but the denigration of several artists seems to me unnecessary. There was no shortage of individual talent, rather the Festival lacked integration and balance. The first half when we watched the living legends for the first time was atmospheric enough but inevitably the second half was somewhat anticlimactic. Due to the fact that this F,B,F. didn't visit Manchester I was only able to see one performance, the Leicester concert held at the De Montford Hall on October 22nd, 1967. This was their first date in England after a strenuous European tour and naturally they were all rather tired. Little Walter in fact was sick and this reflected in his performance on stage. Odie Payne's drums had gone astray in transit and a substitute kit had to be found locally. Things were rather chaotic when we arrived at the hall and I received a rather icy reception (not typical of Leicester I trust) when trying to have a word with the artists. Fortunately, things were straightened out later on.

Bukka White opened the show with "My Mule". His voice is rougher and coarser than it used to be and it was sometimes difficult to catch the words over the clamour of his National steel guitar. "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues" followed, with Bukka using a steel slide on his little finger and slapping the body of his guitar for heightened rhythmic effect. Despite the changes in his music I found it very satisfying to watch Bukka performing one of his classic numbers in person. An improvised "Old Lady Boogie" followed with Bukka producing a tremendous volume of sound from his guitar. Words and tune alike were almost lost in the immense rhythmic swing which Bukka's playing generates. Some of the old subtlety has gone from his music but it has been replaced by a very developed dynamic sense as displayed in his "Two-Step Boogie", a powerful instrumental with shouted comments. Bukka was brought back for an encore and was obviously pleased by the enthusiastic applause. He broke into "Baby Please Don't Go" which ended his performance on a high note. Every piece was concluded with a little anecdotal comment; at the end of 'Baby Please Don't Go' came 'He stopped off at Rollin' Fork, he put a cotton sack on'.

Skip James, a thin, almost frail figure in a suit contrasted forcibly with Bukka's large (a little under 61) and powerful frame and flamboyant poncho (almost obligatory for F.B.F. country bluesmen since Fred McDowell introduced it is 1965). Skip's restrained, introverted music is ill-suited to the concert stage and Skip makes no concessions. He seemed withdrawn but the audience adjusted quickly to a different type of performer and his first number, the lightly swinging "Crow Jane" was enthusiastically received. "Four O'Clock Blues" followed. After being used to hearing the badly worn original record this superb version came as a pleasant surprise. Less successful was his "Cherry Ball Blues", a moving performance on record it sounded rather empty on stage and the guitar accompaniment seemed unsure. A brief "I'm So Glad" with its difficult guitar passages helped dissolve doubts about Skip's instrumental ability. Then his guitar moved into the desolate sounding introduction to his classic "Cypress Grove Blues" and we heard the wailing falsetto voice intone one of the most moving and poetic blues ever recorded. I was hoping that Skip would finish with my favourite of his pieces, "Drunken Spree" but instead he chose the equally fine "Illinois Blues" (Banglon Boys) with its stimulating rhythmic guitar phrases. This piece was composed as a message to his friends in Mississippi about the times he had whilst recording in Illinois. A similarly topical note was struck in his stage performance of "Four O'Clock" when he sang "?leave from London".

Next on stage was the man everyone was there to see. We were about to witness the reality of the Son House legend. Son came on slow and easy, smiling broadly, his brightly coloured poncho around his shoulders. It was with some trepidation that we watched him feel out his beautiful National steel guitar. Bukka and Skip are hardly the musical shadows some would have us believe but it is undeniable that they have lost some of their old fire. Did Son still have it? As son broke into the opening bars of "Death Letter Blues", all doubts vanished. It is difficult to describe the transformation that took place as this smiling, friendly man hunched over his guitar and launched himself, bodily it seemed, into his music. The blues possessed him "like a lowdown shaking chill" and the spellbound audience saw the very incarnation of the blues as, head thrown back, he hollered and groaned the disturbing lyrics and flailed the guitar, snapping the strings back against the fingerboard to accentuate the agonized rhythm. All this might sound highly melodramatic but that is how it really was. I felt the same emotions as when hearing 'My Black Mama' for the first time. Son's music is at the centre of the blues experience and when he performs it is a corporate thing, audience and singer become as one. Breathless from the sheer ferocity of his playing and singing, Son paused a little to talk. Son is a quietly dignified man, a little thinner than I expected (touring must take a lot out of him). He is of medium height (about the same height as Skip James, perhaps about 5' 9"). After a few genial remarks from Son, the lighting effects changed (the coloured lighting added drama to the proceedings) and sliding the copper tube on his third finger up the strings Son began his own favourite "Levee Camp Blues" - "I had a job on the levee, I had a good lookin' woman she lived in Hughes". The whole thing lasted eight minutes. His marathon versions on the C.B.S. and Verve L.P's are great but to see him actually performing this tremendous number was something else again. After thunderous applause Son concluded his performance with a magnificent version of "Empire State Blues", a lineal descendant of Willie Brown's "M. & O. Blues". Everyone wanted more but the first half had to end. The lights came on for the interval and I headed for the dressing rooms.

The second half saw the Chicago contingent on stage, Hound Dog Taylor (guitar), Little Walter (harmonica), Odie Payne (drums) and Dilland Crume (bass guitar). The group suffered from the lack of a pianist (which presumably was, indirectly, the reason why we were deprived of hearing Skip James on piano). Hound Dog Taylor opened proceedings with his tough-sounding Chicago blues. His guitar-playing is very much in the Elmore James idiom and although there is little originality in his music it is nonetheless very effective within its limitations. Taylor's final number was a good version of "When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too)". Little Walter took over the vocal spot and although a little off form turned in good versions of "Blues With A Feeling" and the inevitable "My Babe". Koko Taylor was this year's female representative. A brash young Chicago singer somewhat in the Sugar Pie De Santo mould she was hardly an acceptable substitute for Sippie Wallace who was such a success on the 1966 festival. However, taken on her own merits she was professional enough but her material was rather weak with the exception of Howlin' Wolf's "Wang Dang Doodle".

To end the show, 'veteran' blues entertainers Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. International favourites for many years and on their umpteenth British visit, the "old firm" of the blues tend to be dismissed by critics as sophisticated and out of touch with their material. Obviously both are complete professionals and Brownie tends to be rather mechanical and at times overbearing. Nonetheless it would be blas? not to appreciate the good things the duo can still produce. "Walk On" has become extremely boring but the duo turned in good versions of "Poor Stranger Blues", "Backwater Blues" and an updated "Rock Island Line" and brought the show successfully to a close.

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: American Folk Blues Festival 1967 - another written account
« Reply #1 on: July 18, 2010, 09:49:46 AM »
Anybody want to play with this guy in the audience? :P
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)


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