It’s easy to take something like the regular Crossroads Festival at Bonn’s Harmonie for granted but I’m betting there are a lot of envious halls up and down Germany who would love to have Rockpalast introducing such showpiece evenings as we get down in Endenich. The four days this time around included Established bands JJ GRey & Mofro and The Great Crusades. Rising stars like Prince Bass-girl Nik West, and best of all – lots of new talent to discover.
Kicking off the first 2015 Crossroads Festival is always a difficult thing it seems.The first evenings bands tend to play to a smaller crowd and I wonder sometimes if the mighty Rockpalast is using them as a warm-up for the next three days. They get more than their fifteen minutes of fame though of course and maybe a chance to shine?
Well, maybe shining isn’t what the name Black Lung inspires. It suggests a thick stuttering sound and if they say ‘What’s in a name’ then this one is on the button. Psychedelic Rock is the name on Wikipedia for these guys.
A Rock power-trio without a bassist actually but singer Dave Cavellier seems to prefer the first four strings of his six string and the result is a bass sound of sorts. Not really my cup of musical tea these guys until drummer Elias Schutzman switched to Blues-harp for a number. That had my full attention. A bit of movement and a bit of madness as he stalked the stage blowing harp.
Radio Moscow from Iowa were billed as torch carriers for 70’s rock and certainly had the long hair for the occasion. They had the riffs too, but seemed often to be playing at least two songs I couldn’t quite put my finger on from way back simultaneously. I though I heard ‘Radar Love’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ together at one point. Confusing.
For younger rock fans though probably the comparisons won’t happen and they can enjoy the music as a whole. Certainly lots of energy, lots of flying hair and lots of Hard Rock riffing going down. Even the camera team looked to be sweating by evenings end and it was only day one.
The first thing I notice on day 2 is a sign announcing that Rockpalast has decided that the title of this website should also be a rule for the remainder of the Festival: ‘Photography only for the first three songs’. Apologies then for the lack of photo diversity – some people spend three songs behind a microphone before leaping out with unfettered abandon from song four on. I’m hoping none of the acts to come are like that… If they are then the excellent Rockpalast photographer Thomas Van Der Heiden will nail them – even if the odds are sometimes stacked against him surrounded by video cameras and cable runners.
They play Blues-Rock with a passion and there are three of them. You wouldn’t mix up their music with that of Cream or Taste though, Wille & The Bandits are as different as their hand knitted drum logo promises. Hand knitted Blues-Rock in fact, and as a bonus for me they hail partly from Southern England.
Actually, saying they hail from southern England is a simplification. Leader of the Band is obviously William Edwards aka Wille (not Willie I hasten to point out before anyone suggests my spelling has gone astray). Wille actually hails from Sydney, but after some to and fro-ing, has now settled in Britains Rock capital – Cornwall. Actually when we talk later he admits this might be the reason no one seems to have heard of the band yet. Well, this is going to change very soon for certain – they’ve already toured with the likes of Status Quo and Deep Purple and when a certain Mr Bonamassa starts singing your slide guitar prowess the only way is up – rapidly. “I wrote this for my Mother after she died” says Edwards of ‘Angel’ and just as you expect a sad acoustic ballad dripping bottleneck wails it launches into an uptempo folk instrumental that Bert Jansch would be proud of with a bit of heavy riffing thrown in and will prove to be my highlight of the entire festival.
If the knitted drum logo wasn’t enough of a sign that this trio were a bit different, then the dreadlocks sprouting out of Edward’s top-hat and the double bass so thin it would be better called a half-bass, were the clinchers of their originality.
It all started seemingly peacefully though. The bands promotion shouts their onstage dynamism but it seemed at odds with Edward’s being seated firmly behind two lap-top slide guitars and a Guild. The dynamism it turned out comes in the form of the music itself which has a root in Robert Johnson, a stem in Johnny Winter and shoots disparately in the directions of pop, funk and hip-hop. Jones has a voice that tears out of his throat rather than floats out – like it’s a contest between metal slide and metal lungs to see which can be the roughest diamond. If I was a band building my live reputation on a raw live set I would not, I repeat NOT let these guys onstage before me. Harmonie Bonn, get Wille and the Bandits back for a set of their own ASAP please and if anyone offers you a stage with them make sure you get on first!
JJ Grey & Mofro are unlikely to have been phased by the last hours adrenalin powered set. They have their own style and it serves them very well indeed. They also have a message, or JJ himself does: “We work too much and play too little” he noted wryly, before kicking off into an excellent set. In a ‘Blues Magazine’ interview recently he attributed this observation to visiting the edge of the Abyss himself not so long ago (without explaining further I should add). It’s clear from the off though that we won’t be in for a set of songs about baby, girl or dog leaving the singer.
I’m rather ashamed to admit that I lost touch with JJ Grey & Mofro after buying their 2008 album ‘Orange Blossoms’ on the strength of it’s super catchy title track. I thought I knew what to expect this evening though, but boy was I wrong. There’s still that Orange Grove feel about the music which I guess is born in it’s Florida roots and part of JJ’s DNA. What blew me away on an evening of excellent music was the man’s soulful voice.
“Feels so good to walk in the sun, loving every minute of living” from ‘Every Minute’ sums up the atmosphere that JJ radiates this evening. He smilingly admits to ‘stealing’ a tune (‘Everything is a song’) from his young daughter and promising – “I’ll pay her back the royalties for it when she’s older”. On the subject of smiles: bassist Todd Smallie has one etched on his face the whole evening and it only disappears from the face of drummer and instrumentalist supreme Anthony Cole when his face disappears behind a towel to wipe away the sweat.
I’m reminded of my brief visit to JJ’s music all those years ago by a much pacier and grittier version of ‘Orange Blossoms’ and maybe it’s just JJ’s cheerful mood but I can hear the positive in the song now. It’s not about lost love but about realising that what seemed like a tragedy actually wasn’t “Now I can’t even remember her name” as the last verse wryly notes. My lasting memory of JJ and his contribution to one of the best Crossroads shows I’ve seen to date is of his fine leather shoes pushing wrinkles into the stage carpet as their wearer got down to the beat. Mofro Magic indeed.
With the obvious attractions of Prince bass-girl Nik West, I’m reckoning on day three being a full house made up almost entirely of testosterone driven men. It’s something of a pleasant surprise then to be standing at the entrance surrounded by women. Silvert Høyem it turns out was singer with a top Norwegian Rockband named ‘Madrugada’ before tragedy played it’s part in his career with the shock death of the bands guitarist; at any rate here he is, eight years later, hairless and surrounded by devoted women followers. It almost makes me want to visit my barber for some serious re-styling.
I wouldn’t be able to copy Høyem’s trademark baritone though. Overall his music has a sonorous quality about it. Dark and brooding. If there’s a darkness in his music though it’s not intentional. He says in an interview with Rockpalast that deaths like that of Robert Burås and also of the band’s Manager not so long ago, lead to music that tries to bring something positive out of the sadness. Høyem’s deep voice, together with regular guitar glissandos brings a natural gravitas though. As in ‘Honey bee come buzzing me, I ain’t seen you for so long’ (Honey Bee) It’s clear this bee is gone for good. Sad melancholy. Mood music for a dark mood?
Fortunately Nik West was on hand before I wallowed too deep…
The lights go down and a thin band of green fluorescent lights glimmer onstage. They belong to the guitar strap of a lady who is obviously aware that if looks are not everything, they are indeed something very important, in the getting yourself noticed league of music anyway. It’s not all mouth and no trousers though as we like to say in England. This girl can ‘Dig In’ as she puts it with her Fender precision bass. Indeed I haven’t seen anyone catch the eye with one of these since the days of Phil Lynott.
Nik West should know about getting noticed though of course. She made her name as bass player with Prince, and if you didn’t know that before you will after the show broadcasts because she spent a couple of long monologues telling us about how she came to be there and how he personally taught her how to not just play bass but to actually PLAY bass. Maybe a little too much talk? But as said before she doesn’t just talk the talk, this girl can really groove, or ‘funk out’? it’s not my musical territory so I can’t do too much grading of funkiness here but I have to say I rolled my hips just a little. There was a super version of ‘Kiss’ to finish the set and I liked very much indeed the guitar parts of Hubie Wang throughout. I would call Nik West a ‘star in the making’ except she already has the appearance of one. Is it too much too soon? Time will tell if she has the staying power – but she certainly has the bass power.
So here we are. Feeling pretty tired at the end of a a festival that’s seen us tossed like flotsam in so many directions on an ever changing sea of music. We need energizing.
Whilst Hayseed Dixie are plugging in their acoustic instruments (yes, it’s going to be an interesting evening!) I ask singer John Weller aka Barley Scotch where the drum is. “Oh, we’re loud enough without one” he smiled back. I surveyed the acoustic bass, banjo, no-name acoustic and mandolin laying on the stage before me and wondered. Weller as it soon transpired, was not kidding.
I haven’t heard this much raw electro-acoustic power since The Pogues unleashed their marvelous musical madness. They don’t have a songwriting genius on hand like Shane MacGowan but they don’t need one. That name should give the game away: say it fast several times and it starts to sound just a little like the name of a ginormous Hard rock band from Australia. The Dixies make their name from playing rock classics like you never thought you would want to hear them but then find out you love it. ‘Highway to Hell’ with a mandolin anyone?
Stand-out track of the whole evening for me was ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. I won’t even try to describe it, you will just have to wait until the show is broadcast live on WDR television. These guys put a heck of a lot of work into not just the songs but the presentation too. Weller apologies for his poor spoken German which is actually pretty good and further proves he knows how to win an audience over by including some German songs in amongst the rock classics that even included a Willy Millowitsch classic ‘Schnaps, das war sein letztes Wort’. I’m thinking that these guys would be a must during German’s Karneval Season if they added German carnival text to songs like ‘Hells Bells’ and ‘Ace of Spades’. Speaking afterwards to their english mandolin supremo Hippy Joe Hymas I hand him a visiting card for Bonn Folk Club – not before pointing out though that even without electricity they might have to play outside the venue to avoid the volume blowing out the windows.
Who better to finish the latest Crossroads show than the band that began the very first one in 2002? The Great Crusades are a new band to me, despite being a bluesy bunch from Chicago. ‘Rolling Stone’ describes them thus: “The Great Crusades look at life through a shot-glass lens…mixing anger, muscle, and minor-key remorse like a roughneck Tindersticks with the bonus of a singer (Krumm) who’s got the tubercular pipes of Tom Waits and Axl Rose’s love child.”
There is certainly something whiskey soaked in Brian Krumm’s vocals and his songs have a story-telling air about them that makes me wonder how I missed them for so long. Inside of five minutes I can see sweat pouring from the forehead of drummer Christian Moder as he hammers out the beat. I notice later that he’s actually standing behind his kit which explains why he looks the tallest man I’ve seen behind a tom-tom since Rob Heijne.There’s something of the exuberance I last saw here when Dr Feelgood took the stage last year – a band that knows each other and the music inside out. That not so much plays it as lives and breathes it. If they were millionaires tomorrow this is where they would be, on a stage playing rock n roll.
There’s a party atmosphere as coloured confetti pours down on the audience during the final song of the evening ‘Lucky’. It’s a very fitting name for the whole Festival in fact. I feel lucky to have seen and heard so much new music in so short a time. Best band for my money was JJ Grey although I really loved Hayseed Dixie too. Discovery of the Festival for myself and many others will I’m sure have been ‘Wille & The Bandits’. A big thank you though to everyone, Rockpalast, All the bands and especially to The Harmonie who have established the perfect environment for these shows which has ensured that WDR brings it’s cameras here every year. Cheers,‘til the next time!