They seem to be in mass production these days. Girls with Guitars that is. Thomas Ruf certainly knows where to find the cream of the crop for his popular Blues Caravan Tours though. Ana Popovic. Samantha Fish, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Dani Wilde are amongst the past girls to bring lipstick and hot musical licks to the Blues Caravan stage at the Bonn Harmonie. Admittedly It’s a formula that’s worked pretty well in the past – but usually there’s a veteran name in there like Candy Kane or Sue Foley to give the punters re-assurance of quality for their hard earned Euros. This year there are three newcomers: Eliana Cargnelutti, Sadie Johnson and Heather Crosse. So young are they that even combined their ages total only 73. To quote Jimmy Durante: “I’ve got ties in my wardrobe that are older”. The sizeable crowd suggests that blues fans have plenty of faith in Mr Ruf to deliver a top programme – but is their confidence justified?
Not so long ago purists (in those days we called them Jazz Enthusiasts) were pondering that deep musical philosophical question ‘Can a white boy play the blues’. Well I guess they didn’t come any whiter than the late great Johnny Winter. Conundrum solved. The question now though is not just ‘Can a white girl play the blues?’ but ones barely out of their teens (in Sadie Johnson’s case, still in them).
There’s a reasonably large crowd here this evening, and I’m guessing that for the most part, they aren’t too familiar with this evening’s music or musicians. The people gathering around the stage at 6.30pm don’t quite know what to expect. I didn’t know either, but I was lucky enough to have a short interview slot before the show to ask them. ‘A lot of FUN!’ was their unanimous reply – and the girls were as good as their collective words.
To qualify my question – Actually, I know that white girls CAN play the blues. It took just a bar of Ana Popovic playing ‘Navajo Moon’ or a brief slide run from Sam Fish’s gritty cigar box guitar at Blues Caravans past to convince me.
If you have the format for a Blues Caravan show written on a metaphorical piece of paper in your head then bin it immediately in the nearest metaphorical waste-basket. First act one plays, then act two plays, act three plays and finally everyone gets up to jam a blues classic? Wrong! This is everyone playing from first note to last of the evening. Not such a bad move considering that only Eliana Cargnelutti has her own cd’s for sale. Heather Crosse on bass has her own band back in Clarkesdale but no cd’s. Sadie Johnson has a band with sister Sam on bass ‘The Sad Sam Blues Jam’ but is similarly unknown over here. That could all change soon though…
Sadie Johnson shares more than Sam Fish’s penchant for short dresses. She has a similarly gritty voice and isn’t afraid to let the odd snarl run across her face as she plays. ‘My lemon face’ as BB King describes the look. When she isn’t peeling off rough guitar licks on her Luther Allison Gibson Goldtop though Sadie Johnson bears more than a passing resemblance to Katie Melua. BB and Katie – an interesting combination for sure. There’s certainly a lot of Melua in the vocals of ‘This House just ain’t my Home’. I can’t imagine Katie coming out with the sweet solo guitar that Sadie Johnson does though. She’s perfect for the flirty nature of ‘Give me a kiss’ and if she’s maybe not so convincing tackling Joe Cocker’s ‘Feeling Alright’ then the late and great Joe is a hard act to follow. On ‘Wish you hadn’t gone’ you can hear where she got the signature on her guitar with a nice Sam Fish style delivery. To cut the story short, Sadie Johnson hasn’t quite found an identity of her own yet. The good news though is that she’s only 18. She’s got the looks, she’s got the stage presence, she’s got the musical ability – but she’s got lots of competition too of course.
Stage right of her is a part of that competition. Eliana Cargnelutti already has a CD out on RUF records and a reputation in her native Italy for funky Blues driven Rock. She seems a bit in the background this evening though at times. Playing in the stage corner where I remember Snowy White used to hang around whilst his band took the spotlight. When musical muscle is needed she is certainly the go to girl though. She’s behind the Tour’s theme song ‘Girl Band’ which is as obvious hook-wise as it is lyric wise but it’s a fun live number to get the band and the audience warmed up and running. It’s Cargnelutti that’s behind the Joan Jett power chording on ‘I Hate myself for loving you’ too.
Heather Crosse is the experienced head of the girls – at 30. The few extra years she has on her colleagues shows though. She seems clearer about what she does and she has her own way of doing it. Certainly hers was the best voice of the three, with a nice measure of warmth and a bit more depth. Fitting then that hers is the vocal on the evening’s best slow Blues ‘She May have you, But I got your heart’. It’s a Peter Green style that always makes an impression to bring down the pace at a show. What actually has Heathers heart though is playing the bass guitar. I know it because she sang about it.
I was promised a lot more than Blues at the interview and certainly there was quite a hard and heavy sound going down at times. ‘Walking Blues’, ‘Walking By Myself’ and most of all ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ strutted and stomped out of the speakers in a way that only people enjoying what they play can manage. Proof if proof were needed that you don’t need wrinkles, gnarled hands and ten year beards to play authentic blues riffs. Talking of beards, they also did a mean rendition of ‘Tush’ which seems an odd choice of song for a girl band.
Talking of the ‘girl band’ of course I should mention the man at the back who made our feet tap – the wonderful Denis Palatin. It seems like a lifetime ago now that I saw Denis playing alongside Fabrice Ach with Ana Popovic. A mighty rhythm section they were too. Tonight Palatin is like the glue that holds all the various styles of these three girls together. Like all the best drummers you don’t know he’s there because of the flashy stickwork – you know it because the music ticks along like a steady clorkwork train. A Blues Train even. Caravan or train, Girls With Guitars takes you on a fun trip out for the evening. Being Sunday in Bonn of course you will have to be back at the station by 9.30 pm. The caravan though will travel on – and long may it roll.
+++INTERVIEW WITH THE GIRLS COMING SOON+++