Blues is not normally considered a genre for poetic license. Thursdays guest at the Harmonie though managed a whole evening without once mentioning waking up early in the morning or riding the rails. In the course of the evening he probably even spoke more words than he sang lyrics. Poet of the Blues? It’s a media created title that Larry Garner has been playing under for some years now and with good reason, as Thursday proved.
I know Larry Garner has been treading the Blues boards for some years now because I almost caught his act in 1994. He was on a two day Festival bill in Southsea but I could only afford to visit one day and headlining on the other Festival day was a certain Mr Rory Gallagher. A shrewd decision as it turned out since a year later Rory was no longer with us. So, better late than never, I finally got to hear the ‘Poet of the Blues‘ and am glad I did. I’m glad too that I caught him playing with Norman Beaker and his experienced and talented colleagues. The band was formed in 1984 with Beaker himself a part of the British Blues scene for some three decades and appearances alongside such illustrious names as Chuck Berry, Jack Bruce, Robert Plant and Alexis Korner to his credit. As Larry Garner joked, small in stature the man may be, but Norman Beaker is big on talent. As an Englishman myself I’m pleased to report that in fact Garners whole band was from my home Country. If further proof of collective talent were needed they have been chosen as support for Van Morrison’s UK Tour this year.
Bang on time, Beakers sparkling white shoes take the stage. His Band follow, to warm themselves and the somewhat thinned out audience up for the appearance of Louisiana born Larry Garner. Beaker’s thoughtful, melancholic expression is in direct contrast to the beaming grin of the man from Baton Rouge, whose smile instantly brightens the stage like an additional spotlight.
The sound is clear, powerful and funky. Garner’s finger style playing on his signature guitar contrasts perfectly with the earthy metallic attack of Beaker’s plectrum attacks and also with the later arrival of Michael Van Merwyck who plays lead in a rather unorthodox style with thumb resting on the heavy E string and guitar neck pointed almost vertically to the stagelighting. Rather appropriately, with his style evenly based between rhythm and attack he stands between his fellow axe-men. Three blues guitarists of the ‘Erste Sahne’ (the cream) as they say here in Germany. It still seems hard for me to see men like Garner and Robert Cray as Blues Veterans, it’s a term that says to me Buddy Guy and BB King. Doffing his hat for a moment he reveals he has a similar lack of hair to that magnificent duo though and he certainly shares BB’s ‘lemon face’ grimaces when he solos and Buddy’s mile wide teeth when he grins. How long until we hear of Joe Bonamassa described as a ‘veteran’ I wonder’?
The music, coming as it does from musicians with a long musical history, is excellent quality, but my memories of the evening are actually more related to Larry Garners in between banter. Having heard the ‘Blues Poet’ descriptions I’d actually feared an evening of long lectures between wordy songs, but Garner is a born storyteller. He often refers to the ‘youngsters’ in his asides and is, one could say, almost devoted to making sure they know their modern music history. The tale of being deafened by the stereo of a Rap devotee in a neighboring car was my favorite. Asking the youngster to turn it down when he stopped at the same gas station and proving he was no ‘Old dude’ by knowing not just who was rapping but the lyrics (and also giving us a display of rapping that suggests a young Larry Garner born into the rapping generation would also have made his musical mark). The only Blues musician the youngster recognized was BB King “But he don’t count – everbody knows BB!” smiled Garner, who then proceeded to give the man a lesson on where the music came from. It’s a wonderful story that, rather like that other book of wonderful stories from the twelve Apostles, makes it irrelevant what is fact or fiction. It’s the message that counts and Larry Garner has been carrying the Blues Message around the World for a long time now.
Not quite as long as the evenings surprise vocalist however. Norman Beaker also provides the backing for a British Blues legend – Larry Garner’s own words for his special guest of the evening Chris Farlowe. No youngster but with a sparkle that a great many youngsters neither have, or will ever, attain Farlowe takes the stage like a duck to water. He is himself a popular act here at the Harmonie and it’s clear that everyone is a little disappointed when after a rousing rendition of ‘Stormy Monday’ he smiles and vacates the stage. Five minutes have been enough to suggest he could easily take over for the evening. It’s Larry Garners gig though and it doesn’t take more than a couple of anecdotes for him to be firmly back in the saddle. A story for instance of being showered with so many free drinks at a gig once that he tried to brush away the spider tattoo on a well endowed ladies chest, much to her amusement – but not that of her husband.
Before we know it we are joining in on a sparklingly funky rendition of Muddy’s classic ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’.and even with the sing-alongs Garner brings his own style: “I only want the real Hoochie Coochie men to join in this verse” he calls out and gets a loud chorus back. “This time just the women who have a good, Hoochie Coochie man for a partner” he requests – and to loud laughter gets maybe three replies. As his popular song, sung again tonight, proudly declares, Garner is going to ‘Keep on playing the Blues’ and even though he didn’t play my own personal favourites ‘When the blues turns black’ or ‘Live a little’ I still found myself astounded that it was already 10.30pm and time to go home. The story goes that Larry Garner took a bit of convincing to give up his original day job. Everyone in the hall was glad he set out on the Blues road though, and long may he continue on it.