Okay, it’s not Bonn, but I know a great many readers are Blues fans and Stollwerk is only a tram ride away in Cologne. That’s how I excuse leaving Bonn on Saturday – oh, and the fact that it was a rare chance to see the legendary Walter Trout after his paperthin brush with the grim reaper. But honestly, with Danny Bryant and Layla Zoe also on offer, what else could a poor boy do? Cologne and the very first Blues Alive Festival, here I come…
It’s my first ever visit to Stollwerk and I’m impressed. A nice sized hall that’s bigger than Bonn Harmonie but not so big that it gets impersonal. There’s a balcony of sorts but only wide enough for one row of people and standing only. There’s a stage that looks like it could take an orchestra if required, but today, although it’s ‘just’ taking the Blues it has to cater for three bands and two drum-kits. As a result there is an extra ‘block’ of stage leading out into the audience at a height that says anyone standing here will literally be someone to look up to.
Danny Bryant decides, wisely, to ply his musical trade stage right of the aforementioned stage block. My last sighting of Danny was in Bonn recently during recording of his excellent ‘Big Band’ disc. In comparison today’s trio seems sparse – until he plugs and plays that is. I loved the smooth sound and textures that the Big Band layed down, but Danny made his name and reputation playing rough hewn guitar with a sparse vocal and it’s easy to see why his name got made with such a combo this evening.
‘Prisoner of the Blues’ is Danny at his songwriting best and we are all happy to be taken prisoner by his enthusiasm tonight. There’ a sparkle about his performance. Maybe because he knows he has to prove himelf as a guitar-slinger before the real ‘bad-ass’ guitarman hits town later on. Maybe it’s also because he’s been asked to join that ‘bad-ass’ for a jam session later on?
‘Slow suicide’, ‘Take me Higher’, ‘Blood Money’. Songs that sounded good with a brass backing section, but heck, they sound ‘right’ with just a bass and drums. Like this was how they were meant to be. By sets end there’s a stunning ‘All Along the Watchtower’ that lays down the six string gauntlet for Jan Laacks and Walter Trout in no uncertain terms. Maybe Walter is sizing Danny up for a guitar duel after that one? We will soon know. Before that however we have another excellent guitarist to entertain us and Canada’s darling of the Blues.
Layla Zoe’s choice of a floaty long dress is both beautiful and fortunate as she finds herself slightly stranded on the aforementioned front stage blocks in front of the two drum kits and with fans literally at her feet. Those that weren’t fans at 8.30 very definitely were an hour later as Layla delivered one of the best performances I’ve seen from her (and I’ve seen a number now). As the only lady on tonights bill ‘Backstage Queen’ was an appropriate number to get things started and it didn’t take too long for the whole audience to become Laya’s willing subjects as, despite the strong start, the band grew and the quality somehow managed to get better and better.
I’ve been a fan of Jan Laacks for a while now. Yes there are better rocking guitar men out there like Jason Barwick and greater blues guitarists like Henrik Freischlader but Jan is a favourite of mine because he perfectly walks the fine line between genres. Remember that famous criticism of Walter Trout playing ‘Too many notes too loud’? Well Jan always manages to play just the right amount of notes at just the right volume. He’s the perfect guitarist to have watching your back and the combination of Layla’s killing vocal talents and Jan’s spot-on guitar instincts makes them, in my humble opinion, one of the best live Blues acts touring Europe today. I love his use of a stomp box to recreate the old voice-box sound and if you can tear yourself away from Layla kneeling at his feet he really is a bit special on that guitar. Rhythm duo Christoph Hübner on bass and Claus Schülte on drums were new to me but seemed the perfect duo for the job in this case – always underpinning Laacks and Zoe without being flashy or intrusive.
On an evening when emotional lyrics are likely to be spread thickly Layla has to dig deep, and she does so. The theatricality that accompanies numbers like ‘Pull Yourself Together’ and ‘Never met a Man‘ that sees Layla hanging vampishly round the necks of Laacks and Hübner is great visually, but rather like the main act, Layla has her own tragedies to depict and it’s when she is straightforward without play acting that Layla Zoe is at her breathtaking best. ‘Sweet Angel’ tells of a friend, Marsha, lost to a brain aneurism. It seems unlikely to be topped for raw emotion – until Layla comes back onstage for an absolutely devastating denunciation of the Canadian regime that allowed many native Canadians to simply and tragically just ‘disappear’ from the Country that was their own. Laack’s guitar backdrop floats and glimmers along movingly with obvious nods to Gary Moore but as always he’s the perfect foil as Layla delivers the undoubted vocal performance of the evening as she takes us on a ‘Highway of Tears’. Pure emotion, pure adrenalin, pure Layla Zoe.
Much as I loved hearing/seeing Danny Bryant and Layla Zoe I’m under no illusions that this evening will inevitably belong to the evenings final act. Like many here tonight I seriously feared that I had seem my last concert by Walter Trout a couple of years ago. A man who himself admitted to having ‘missed’ a large chunk of his own career through drink and drugs. Trout spent the large part of a year in hospital awaiting a liver that would save his life. Like many of those here tonight I followed him, and then his wife Marie, on Facebook as bad news followed bad news. A rollercoaster of hopes raised and hopes just as swiftly dashed. Walter lost, as he points out this evening, 60 kilos. There’s a picture inside the ‘Battle Scars’ cd cover that shows almost a human skeleton. He survived on hope, on love, and on the fact that, as one of the best and most popular Bluesmen on the planet, his wife and fans refused to let him go – donating towards his endless hospital bills as Marie Trout shared the agonizingly long days of waiting for a donor on the web.
This evening Walter Trout shares the long nights of that terrible nightmare through his songs. First though, as every evening since his 2015 operation, he has a chance to say thank you to the fans and does say from his heart. He can even joke about it now: “I’m happy to be here in Cologne. Well, truthfully, I’m happy to be anywhere!” he smiles, before launching a segment of the show dedicated to that dark time written cathartically about in the post-hospital disc ‘Battle Scars’. The aftermath of his operation was almost as dark as Trout struggled to do the very thing that he cared about most – play guitar. “I sat in my chair and played every day for almost a year until I could play again” he recalled to an audience silently enthralled, and I wrote about those times…
“Push the button, please hear me call. Ain’t nobody coming, they’re just laughing in the hall. This IV is beeping, hurting my head. Spirits creeping around my bed. Looking at hell, can’t stand the sight. Tremble in darkness, haunted by the night. I’m haunted by the night”
It was a time of fear and frustration but also a time of love as proved by ‘Take me Home’ Trout’s thank you to his wife for her selfless love on those dark nights when he would wish to go home and she would hold him in the hospital bed and whisper that he was home now.
Two years on and Walter Trout looks almost as I remember him playing in a Cologne church (Kulturkirche). Just a little lighter certainly, but not so different from the old days. His playing also seems as heartfelt and passionate as ever. Only Andrew Elt at the stage-side with his regular looks of concern stageward is an indicator of past events – Somehow he reminds me of Paul Nelson watching over Johnny Winter. It’s good that he does keep an eye on Walter, because Walter is hopping from one foot to the other and playing like a teenager with his first guitar, from the very first notes of Sonny Boy’s ‘Help Me’. He stays that way for the best part of two hours.
‘Say goodbye to the Blues’ originally a tribute to SVR gets a new dedication tonight to BB King. A man who saw the importance of passing The Blues on via a young Walter Trout. Tonight Trout is the elder statesman passing the music on – this time via his own son Jon who proves to be a pretty mean player already. But Walter doesn’t make it easy for his son – that duel with Danny Bryant is inevitable, and spellbinding.
It’s not really a competition of course. Walter calls it a jam – but you can see it’s more than just exchanging licks that are at stake. Bryant’s is a chunkier style of soloing and Jon Trout doesn’t yet have the depth to give his dad any serious competition YET. Trout has also championed Laurence Jones so BB couldn’t have passed the baton on to a better teacher. Having said that, Walter Trout looks determined to remain a teacher for some considerable time to come, and to paraphrase that other great teacher Obi-Wan Kenobi: May the force always be with him!