A crisp cold winter evening with – 7 o C but fortunately it’s so dry that the roads aren‘t at all slippy. The weather at the moment in central west Germany is a bit like northern Canada, blue cloudless skies during the day, it’s sunny but as cold as hell! At night the skies are star-dusted and crystal clear. A young star has just alighted in Bonn again, this time at the Harmonie in the suburb of Endenich.
Jimmy Bowskill is from Canada, so that’s three things that we have in common, today’s weather, a passionate love of the Blues, and the same sovereign, Elisabeth Regina. Jimmy’s not a teenager any more, he’s matured and moved on some, he’s in his early twenties now, yet he’s already been playing the guitar and the Blues for over a decade! Hard to imagine, but true.
He’s such a great talent, yet for one so young, not at all precocious in the negative sense of being big headed, and for this he is doubtless indebted to having an affable travelling companion and confidant in his father Steve, without whose help and guidance he probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve so much, without any noticeable scars, at such a tender age.
How does his father, combine both roles? He is certainly a wise and careful, yet extremely confidant manager, but I feel when crunch time comes, he is father first, and that is important when making the squares circle around what is, or rather now, “was”, a child prodigy. He is certainly a very proud father, deservedly so, having navigated Jimmy so sublimely through the last decade.
Jimmy’s rhythm section are new to me, but they’ve been playing together now for around a year, and they’ve moulded, gelled and even written together well. Ian McKeowan on bass and Dan Reiff on drums enable Jimmy Bowskill to head up a powerful young and innovative rocking blues trio. On occasions one can close ones eyes and hear Cream and Hendrix and Rory Gallagher and especially sometimes Jack Bruce. Quite rightly so, operating on the musical battlefield of three chords and three musicians and Blues, they wouldn’t be doing it well, if that were not the case.
Jimmy’s certainly singing more confidently, has his voice finally broken? Is that why the Capo is almost constantly wedged on the second fret of the sunburst Les Paul Gibson perhaps? After a while of watching fingers on two fretboards, it was clear. He tunes his Gibson two semitones, two frets, a full tone below normal pitch tuning for a guitar. Why?
It sounds deeper and like many of the old southern Blues guitarists from Louisiana and Texas, used to and still do. Louisiana Red normally plays with his guitar tuned a semitone lower than “normal” tuning, which is fine if you are not an ignorant blues harp player trying in vain to follow the chords on his fretboard.
Jimmy picks up the the twin necked Gibson to play “The Loser” first on the lower six stringed neck and then on the upper twelve stringed neck. He uses the echo to recreate sounds reminiscent of early Pink Floyd, who were, after all “old Bluesers” too. Replacing the twin necked Gibson to the rack, this time he picks up the Les Paul and removes the Capo to play “Sinking Down”. For this song he has been playing the rest of the evening with a Capo on. He wanted to give “Sinking Down” extra Ummpppphhhh, with a tone lower pitch. Not many other guitarists would bother, that’s exactly what I like about Jimmy Bowskill, he does bother.
Talking to Jimmy afterwards I mention that the guitar introduction to “Seasons Change “ reminds me a little of “The Pusher” by Steppenwolf and the subsequent bass riff in “Down the Road” of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”. He smiles wryly and after reflection, grants my point. This is not about plagiarism, though, this is musical integrational gratitude, within the musical straight jacket of three chords and three musicians. All notes have been played before, it’s how you arrange them with other notes and in which sequence and timing that matters.
After the last number “Little Bird” a wonderful funky number which I remembered well from the last time I had the pleasure of meeting and seeing and hearing Jimmy live on stage, on the bill with no lesser legends than Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck at the unfortunately now defunct, open air, yet roofed over, premiere venue in Bonn at the Museums Mile, next to the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle, I reflected…….
…….. what a great encouragement to Jimmy Bowskill that must have been, to share such a wonderful stage with such musical giants in front of so many thousand people, whilst still a teenager…..
…………….the time for retrospection was soon abruptly over, the raucous applause and demand for an encore had brought them back for ………………………………….an encore,
and after briefly grasping once more for the sunburst Gibson Les Paul, Jimmy’s hand initially wavered for a moment over it, then he picked up the Fender Telecaster, which he had not yet played and a grin appeared slowly, not unlike that of a Cheshire Cat, or even the Cheshire Cat. Jimmy’s Telecaster has an unusual look, it has a hand-stitched Fresian cow hide cover,
some people next to me mused, he’s probably going to play “”Country music” now on that guitar!” I thought, “no siree Bob!”, my smile growing now to rival even that of farmer Gabriel Oak’s, which Thomas Hardy so aptly describes in the opening page of “Far from the Madding Crowd”. I noticed from the harmonics as he fine tuned it, that it was tuned to a chord, a minor chord. I now knew what was probably coming next.
Jimmy’s ultimate bottleneck instrumental version of “Summertime” from the Musical “Porgy and Bess”. It’s one of my favourite songs too. It was honed musically by George and Ida Gerschwin and as there are no words in Jimmy’s version, there is no need to acknowledge DuBose Heyward who wrote the lyrics at the time, but fans of Mahalia Jackson will know that the Gerschwins popularised this song, which became a lullaby song for Caucasians, although it was initially derived from the much older negro spiritual song “Motherless Child” a song of great despair and yet also a glimmer of hope, for Afro-American families, where slave children were sometimes sold away from their parents.
“Porgy and Bess” was the first and ultimate musical for me, it was absolutely definitive of the genre. The Gerschwins were so good, musicals could really only go “downhill” after that and become more commercial and somehow less honest.
Jimmy’s version of “Summertime” by cleverly ignoring the lyrics, tuning to a minor open chord and tuning the guitar down full four semitones (one more and he would be knocking on the next lowest string’s door!) and playing bottleneck slide which echoes somehow the searing vocals of the original negro spiritual dirge.
It would have been worth walking 5 kilometers in a snow storm, crossing the river Rhine on foot, just to listen to Jimmy Bowsmith’s version of “Summertime” and then turnaround and walk straight back again. It wasn’t actually necessary this evening, but it would still have been worth it in that scenario.
An American might say that he “owns” this song.
(He obviously doesn’t though, anymore than Mr Zuckerberg “owns” 800 million Facebook users)
Jimmy Bowskill has left his own distinctive low keyed paw mark on this particular song, “Summertime” though, with his blissfully unique version of it.
After pulling up his G-string a semi-tone Jmmy played “Broke Down Engine” in open C major, a good fiery raucous number, but it was still “Summertime” which was ringing in my inner ear on the next wintery day.
Jimmy Bowskill knows his music, he’s paid his Blues dues and he’s come of age, he’s very much worth keeping an eye on, and an ear open for.
You’ll be hearing from him sometime soon.
That’s for sure.
– John Harrison