Psst! Don’t tell them, but I’m actually quite proud to share the stage occasionally with John Harrison and Paulo Pacifico. If you’ve ever caught one of their all too brief couple of songs together at Bonn Folk Club you will know why. John’s love for raw acoustic blues has found a perfect companion in Paulo’s intuitive harp playing. Last week they were booked for a whole evening of Blues at Theater der GaLarie Lae so, guitar in hand, I took the Blues train (the 61 tram actually) to Bertha Von-Suttner Platz for some musical nourishment.
When I passed by the venue on Saturday it had straight as a needle rows of seatingvisible from a shop-front window, so I was relieved to find that there were black curtains down when I arrived to at least give a more ‘select’ atmosphere. The owner is a very charming lady named Larissa Lae and it’s quickly clear that this is one of the numerous places in Bonn where Culture is put on for love rather than for money. Sadly this is clear also because I learn that this will be the last short season of music at the Theatre. Art it seems, like crime, doesn’t pay. Which is itself criminal.
There’s a small but enthusiastic crowd already inside to see “Two men born a thousand miles apart… and now meeting at the halfway house in a small town in Germany for a musical history of acoustic rural blues music” as the poster on the door so eloquently put it. Before the metaphorical curtain goes up there’s time to talk to Larissa whilst John & Paulo are back in the star dressing room snorting cocaine and pushing television sets out of windows, or whatever it is the stars of the evening do before concerts these days. Finally it’s time for the house lights to dim, and the (very bright in comparison to Bonn Folk Club) spotlight to alight on the gleaming white top of John’s panama hat.
Being John of course we start with a bit of Culture – this time courtesy of Goethe:
“Every day one should at least hear one little song, read one good poem, see one fine painting and — if at all possible – speak a few sensible words.”
After which we are whisked off down the Mississippi Delta with John Harrison as our very knowledgeable tour guide…
They really did cover everything John and Paulo. From the traditional ‘Take this hammer’ made famous long ago by Leadbelly but written long before that of course. When the Lomaxes caught up with Huddie Ledbetter in jail he was found to be in possession of several hundred ‘standards’ that have sinced passed into Folk/Blues history. Many had their cadences, like ‘Take this Hammer’ in the shifting of rocks and the hammering of railroad lines. Our evenings Bluestrain takes us on through the very first song with the title ‘Blues’ in it – WC Handy’s ‘St Louis Blues’. Written in 1914, long after the blues had a feeling if not a name.
Blind Blake, Robert Johnson, Rev Gary Davis, if you love your blues raw and emotional then this was the place to be. If you were a youngster you might recognize numbers like ‘Little Red Rooster’, St James Infirmary’ and ‘Crossroads’ from their more famous ‘Stones, Laurie and Clapton’ incarnations. All of these famous modern luminaries would I’m sure say though that the songs have survived not because of their versions but quite simply because they are wonderful songs that touch hearts in 2014 just as strongly as they did on the day they were first played in Juke Joints, plantation Saturday evening parties, chain gangs and plantations “where people danced to celebrate that they had SURVIVED another week of the Delta” as Robert Gordon describes in his biography ‘Can’t be Satisfied’ about the greatest ‘modern’ bluesman of all, Muddy Waters.
Sometime around 10pm I joined Paulo, John and Steve Perry on mandolin for probably the only non-blues of the evening – Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’. It has blue sentiments though. ‘There’s a train a’coming and you don’t need no ticket, you just get on board’. It’s there for everyone when they need it, just like the blues.
Evenings end, lights out, I’m heading out the door with my guitar in hand, and it’s raining cats and dogs outside. Somewhere up there in blues heaven Muddy and Robert have decided that if I can’t PLAY the blues I should at least FEEL the blues. But hey guys, I did feel them thanks to John and Paulo. It’s not about electricity. Even Muddy was bemused at how the white kids suddenly wanted him to play plugged in: “I’ll be goddamned if I can figure out what those English motherf**kers want… they got their heads up their Ars!” is how Buddy Guy remembers him describing it. John and Paulo were further reminders that these songs remain with us not because they come from a Strat or a Les Paul but because they come from a heart.
After a 20 minute wait in the rain there was indeed a train a-coming and I did indeed wake up the next morning feeling ‘round for my shoes – and proud to have been a miniscule part of Blues history for a tiny moment in time. Thanks John and Paulo for taking me on-board.
… and finally, Big Bill Broonzy with ‘Take this Hammer’