Four days of music as assorted as a box of chocolates, Rockpalast brought it’s twice yearly Crossroads show once again to the Harmonie in Bonn this week. From the Unknown (IndianAgeFlüster) through the rising stars (Die Nerven) to the established icons (Wolf Maahn) and Blues from finest (Sonny Landreth). If you missed out on a ticket – share mine…
A Rockpalast interview with The Volcanics suggests the band came over to Europe because Rock ‘n’ Roll isn’t ‘in’ down under. Audiences here in Europe are more likely to be jumping about at the front than to be standing at a distant bar watching the band with a cold drink in hand. The audience this evening certainly is ‘down the front’, which is surprising for the first evening of Crossroads in Bonn. The crowds usually come later. Could it be that more and more people are snapping up the Four Day tickets these days? This being the 25 Rockpalast Crossroads I can only say “About bl**dy time!”
Vocalist Johnny Phatouros has an Oasis haircut and a Jagger swagger about his presentation. He seems to let the music take him where it will and at times it takes him teetering on the very edge of the stage , twirling his mike stand perilously close to the jumping heads of the audience, or hunched up onstage with his ear firmly pressed against the hole in the bass drum. He picks up tambourines only to fling them back down again without even playing them, and generally seems to direct his attention everywhere except out at the audience. A man on the edge – and I don’t just mean the stage. I don’t know if it scared the band at times, but I loved the unpredictability of it.
The Volcanic’s music itself leaned very heavily on early period Stones and Who style with that electric presence that RnB bands like Dr Feelgood delivered (and still do God bless ‘em). It occurs to me at one point that it’s a long time since I saw someone onstage playing a Fender Precision Bass as Pete Acklin was doing, yet these used to be standard ‘weapons’ in the ‘70s. I love that deep satisfying ‘thud’ sound they make and realized tonight how much I miss it. Two excellent guitarists for delivering jangling, edgy rhythms and a drummer who took the plain and simple path, ensured that we got good, plain, honest and immensely enjoyable top drawer RnR. I loved it so much I bought the CD. What better recommendation can I make? Western Australia – wake up and embrace the super Rock n Roll in your midst, before it migrates to Europe and is lost to you forever!
The Volcanics have, amongst their many style descriptions, Proto-Punk, which makes them, chronologically speaking, the Ancestors of this evenings second band Love A. Punk music with intelligent lyrics? I guess that’s what the march of time does to a genre. Well, Trier based band ‘Love A’ are not your average spotty teenagers either. Lead singer Jörk Mechenbier has a Sean Connery style about him -a hint of someone who can be shaken but not stirred as he delivers Post-punk with style and a theatrical humour.
The lyrics fly past my ears at such a rate that I don’t quite have time to take them in and make something of them. What I do make suggests that we are living in a desolate world of emptiness and ruins – A pretty vacant world in fact. So, not really that different from our 70’s friends Johnny, Sid and Joe then, just more cerebrally stated perhaps. This wasn’t really my sort of music, but the band’s sound was tight and the competitions to win tickets for the show paid off with a good portion of the crowd jumping up and down stage front clearly there to see them. I made my way to the bar half way through to let them pogo more freely – well, whatever the dance is called that post-punk fans do in 2015.
This had the hallmarks of being very similar to Day 1, with New Zealanders this time before the German band. There were several noticeable differences though to suggest it would be rather different. For starters, the New Zealand Band had lived in Berlin since 2009, and the German Band had recently won a competition in Hamburg as a top young set-up.
Sun and the Wolf might even have been a Blues band by name – Son House meets Howling Wolf anybody? It would have been an interesting mix. As it turned out their music was an interesting mix but of an altogether different kind. Certainly a roughness from Garage Rock was to be heard, but a smoothness was in there too – maybe this was the influence of ‘Shoegaze’ a genre applied to them by some (very hip I imagine) website.
I can best describe them as creating a sound carpet on top of the famous carpets tacked onto the Harmonie stage. Certainly lead singer Brodie White spent some considerable time bending down to the said woollen carpet in order to change the said musical one. Or gazing at his shoes perhaps? Lots of pedals and buttons to be pushed before and during each number. It’s not something I like seeing at a live concert, but I suppose it’s the modern version of backing tapes – adding an ambience to the mix.
Guitarist Peter Mangan actually looked more like a laid back Californian with his colourful jacket and bore something of a resemblance visually to Tom Petty. The music was certainly not like Petty’s though and even Mangan had an extra microphone set up for making occasional whooping noises into. Most curiously of all I found that, despite the flashing lights and Rockpalast atmosphere, the band sounded greatest when I closed my eyes and shut out all visual distractions. I will probably discover myself having been filmed looking like I’ve fallen asleep when the show is broadcast on TV – but who cares. I liked this band a lot. They’ve been together quite a while making music and clearly that’s a key to how they gel together inside of such a fluid musical style. Recommended.
Already recommended by ‘Der Spiegel’ was the second band of the evening. “One of the most significant German language albums of the decade” was how this illustrious magazine described Die Nerven. “One of the best Live Bands in the Country” was how taz described the band onstage. With descriptions like that to live up to I would be frightened to even step on a stage. Never mind plug an instrument in and actually play something with it.
Full credit to the trio then for getting up there and playing – although it was clear from the off that The Nerves actually have nerves of steel, it was also clear that bags of energy and a hard hitting ‘in your face’ style don’t alone make a great band. After a while I found myself at the bar with a cold beer and watching Max Rieger shouting into his microphone from the back of the bar screens. Positively seen, The jumpy, explosive style of presentation that is a Rockpalast videostyle blueprint will suit them onscreen I’m sure. Onstage in front of me though I found the band lacking in ideas and real stage presence. There are at least four bands in Bonn who I KNOW would have been better – obviously there are a lot of somebodys out there in Rockpalast/Der Spiegel/Reeperbahn Festival land who think Die Nerven are special. Time will ultimately tell. At any rate my beer tasted good and I got a chance to rest my feet for day three.
For a Blues fan like me this had to be THE highlight this year. Remember those halcyon days of the Blues Power trio? Well the trio from London going under the name of Miraculous Mule might have lacked Eric Clapton or Rory Gallagher but they sure didn’t lack power and energy. In particular Patrick McCarthy’s pumping bass pushed the adrenalin level up and up in the course of their appearance. Not that it was slow to begin with. From the opener ‘Two tone testimony’ they were firing on all cylinders.
Ian Burns was having a nightmare with his snare drum and the cymbal/tambourine perched on top of it but even so the rhythm section was ‘knallhart’ as they say here in Germany. Michael J. Sheehy, with his Sonny Boy goatee beard and grin, found the perfect tone to turn out heavy, garage punk versions of spirituals and work songs of the kind that The Lomax’s captured on their many tape cassettes travelling through the now gone plantations of the Mississippi Delta.
During a break (to sort out the drum problem again) Sheehy praised Germany for its humanitarian reaction to the current refugee crisis, very different to the harsher reaction coming from the UK. Which he said made him ashamed to be British. This was, after all, the music of an oppressed people that we were hearing, albeit in a modern coating.
The late BB King may have been the last Bluesman to have stood behind a mule but is the desperation that made him run away from that plantation very different from the desperation felt by modern refugees fleeing their homelands at present? The plantation houses have gone, the mules have gone, but not the Blues. Long live bands like Miraculous Mule who make the old music as cutting as it ever was.
A power trio of a very different sort – Sonny Landreth and his band mates. Eric Clapton rates Landreth as one of the best unsung heroes of the Blues Slide guitar and who am I to argue with God? Landreth has a similar style to Jeff Beck in that both men seem to play whole guitar runs without seeming to actually touch the strings. A gift from God some might say (or the Devil? When it’s a Blues tinged gift)
You can watch, mesmerized, all evening and just end up shaking your head. I swear Sonny Landreth played single notes just by tapping the top of his glass slide lightly with his right hand against the strings. Amazing stuff!
There was of course plenty of classic Blues to be heard. “You can’t play an evening of slide guitar without one from Elmore” as Sonny wisely pointed out before launching into the classic ‘It hurts me too’ and a guest appearance from Canada’s Layla Zoe on ‘Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’ was about as good as classic live Blues in 2015 can get. The Jazzy and Zydeco numbers though showed Landreth’s wide talents on the guitar – or I should say ‘guitars’ plural as he seemed to change for each song although it seemed to be from a Fender Strat to another Fender Strat each time!
‘Pedal to the Metal’ brought the show to both an end and a perfect description of the whole evening to me from both bands. A special mention here also to Indianageflüster who began the show. They only had a short set to introduce their Rap/Rock style to us but still managed to show us just why they were voted best Schoolband in the recent Planet Rock awards. A bouncy set musically and vocally that started the evening perfectly. Nice one lads!
It was always going to take some doing to top Day 3’s musical riches but The Buttshakers actually made it to be my Band of the Festival. Singer Ciara Thompson had the energy and looks of a young Tina Turner and the Soul sound of a young Aretha Franklin. It was an energy that had her climbing over the camera pit fencing on several occasions with panicking camera teams unfurling cable in hot pursuit. “We’re called the buttshakers, and you know what that means?” she called out. “ I wanna see everyone dancing, and if I see you NOT dancing I will come and get you!. You might think that’s nice – but I’ve been on the road a while and haven’t had time for a shower…!” You had to love her and indeed the whole band, because despite the obvious front frau this was adefinitely a BAND effort. Every man Jack of them played well and actually seemed to take the name of the game ‘LIVE music’ to heart. Something missing all too often over this Festival I felt.
So here we are with the final act of the 25th Crossroads Festival – and it’s the first man that ever sung on Rockpalast in German. Wolf Maahn is something of an institution in German Rock music for literally putting the German back into the music (and admits even he initially had problems making Blues Rock sound authentic ‘auf Deutsch’). On the Tshirts hanging at the merchandise stand Maahn looks like a young Rory Gallagher. Onstage he is a touch more the present Keith Richards, but there is a young sparkle in his eyes that curiously makes me think of Michael Palin.
The first song ends abruptly and Maahn apologies, but his guitar is actually out of tune. Not close enough for Rock n Roll even. He’s someone you instantly take a liking to, and there’s a nice interview on the Rockpalast site discussing the music where Maahn answers the question “Why do you sing?” and he replies “Why do the birds in the trees sing?” I rather like that attitude.
I was rather less keen on the greeny/mauvy lighting swirling around the stage though and my mind wandered a bit (maybe it was those famous German lyrics I’m sorry to say). Why did such a successful musician have an expensive Martin guitar hanging round his shoulder on a strap held together with gaffer tape? What was the leather case with roses perched stage-front meant to signify? And why, oh why, after all those concerts does he have a sheet music stand on stage in the way of my camera?
I found myself, not for the first but for the last time this Festival, with a cold beer watching the screen behind the bar. There was something 70’s Rock about the sound. That slightly plodding, quasi-anthemic tempo that power trios swept away. Suddenly I missed Miraculous Mule, I missed Sonny Landreth, and even that edgy feeling that, despite my misgivings, Die Nerven did deliver.
Was this the best Crossroads Festival ever? No it wasn’t. Was it as unpredictable as ever? Yes it was. Will I be here next year? You bet!
PHOTOS (unfortunately only the first three songs allowed):