Layla Zoe with Jane Lee Hooker – Blues with a feeling

A double bill of  Blues driven ‘Power-Frauen’ at Bonn Harmonie.  Canada’s Darling of the Blues meets New York’s Darlings of no nonsense Blues Rock n Roll.  Layla Zoe and Jane Lee Hooker.  The decision to go to this one was as quick as my decision to select a fast shutter speed for my Nikon.  It was going to be  a lively night…

Long hair and Rock n Roll isn’t just for the boys…

They’ve been to Bonn a couple of times now, and indeed guitarist Tracy remarked later how much she loves the atmosphere here.  The last visit was even videoed for Rockpalast so I had no excuse for not being up on the music of Jane Lee Hooker.  Oddly though I hadn’t seen them before and they’ve been a band that gave me mixed feelings without actually hearing them play a note – on either disc or stage.  My problem: everything about them seems contrived.  The name is a whimsical joke on the great John Lee of course (and it’s surprising how many people ask if the girls might somehow be related – despite all being white girls playing the blues).  Then there are the names themselves: Dana ‘Danger’ Athens (vocals), Melissa ‘Cool Whip’ Houston (drums), Tracy High Top (guitar), Tina ‘T Bone’ Gorin (guitar) and Hail Mary Z (bass).  Everything has to be hyped up it seems. Not one to miss a show by longstanding favourite of mine Layla Zoe though, it was time to see if there was some substance behind the glam names that had Thomas Ruf sign the band to his excellent Blues label.  I’m pleased to say that, yes, there most definitely is.

 

I must quickly however point out that you are not going to hear guitar solos that Hendrix would have loved to play, or flashy bass/drum solos.  The strength of Jane Lee Hooker really lays in the collective sum of its parts – and the sheer enthusiasm that the girls bring to every second of every song.  A big favourite of theirs is a rocked up version of the old classic ‘Wade in the Water’ which actually gets an early outing in the set.  You can see where the band’s coming from in their track ‘Reefer & Dope’ with it’s crawling slow blues and the refrain:  “There should be no law, for people that wanna smoke dope”.  

Dana Athens lets her hair down

The band, with their RnR nicknames and John Lee wordplay are a strange mix of marketing hype and unpretentious fun.  Thankfully,  just seeing the smiles on their faces when they play, it’s obvious that sheer love of Rock n Roll music wins the day.  Tracy’s Gibson and Tina’s Telecaster are not up there with duos like Lizzy’s Robertson and Gorham but the songs stomp along grittily enough nevertheless, aided by the thumping Precision bass backbone  of Mary and frantic drumming of Melissa.  I’m purposely ignoring all the glitzy nicknames because if you want to really enjoy this band forget all that and just let them ROCK.

 

Dana Athens certainly possesses a healthy pair of lungs and a great voice for Blues rock and the girls have a new disc out soon called ‘Spiritus’ which hopefully will have some more distinctive melodies on it rather than the tried and tested Blues/RnB riffs and lyrics that are great for a live night out but not so good at getting attention in a crowded musical marketplace.  I’m still not sure I would recommend a studio disc by them – but I would heartily recommend seeing Jane Lee Hooker live.  There are not many bands out there who play every song with the same energy as they play the encore.   Danger, Cool Whip, High Top, T Bone and Hail Mary Z rule all do so with passion.

Is that Jimi applauding up on the balcony?

Is there anything left for me to say about Layla Zoe?  Since my first meeting with the self titled ‘Firegirl’ in 2011 there have been numerous concerts and an interview so I should be prepared for the power of her performance;  but as always I’m taken aback by her sheer energy force onstage.  The set-list hasn’t changed too much and is largely as featured on this year’s live RUF CD, with a large chunk of 2016’s ‘Breaking Free’.  It’s a great disc so I’m only being picky if I say I miss some of the older classics like ‘The Lily’ and ‘Gemini Heart’, the latter especially for the guitar contribution of Jan Laacks.  But like I say, the last studio disc is a strong one and Layla could sing from a telephone book and make the audience hang on every Tom, Dick and Harriet she found there.

 

Where Jane Lee Hooker were all Rock n Roll swagger, Layla Zoe is delicate precision – open heart surgery almost, as on ‘Sweet Angel’, dedicated as always to her close friend Marsha who left this world through a brain aneurysm some years ago but is still here on planet Earth for a few seconds of every day that Layla plays this song on tour.  It could sound contrived, except nothing about Layla Zoe’s music is contrived and the tiny grin on Layla’s face as she sings ‘Say hello to Heaven, my sweet Angel’ tells me this song means as much to her this night as it did on the night she first wrote it.

Jan Laacks proving Blues guitar can be fun

Layla without Jan Laacks on guitar has become almost unthinkable.  I’m pleased when I hear talk around the hall afterwards that I’m not the only one who thinks Jan is one of the best guitarists in Europe, quite possibly the World.  Guitar styles are a matter of taste of course.  Peter Green?  Rory Gallagher?  Hendrix? Clapton?  all fantastic players and all with a sound unique to them.  Go pick your axe hero.  If like me you love refined understatement and the right notes and volume at the right time every time, then Jan is indeed the Man.  No offense meant to the guitar-slingers of Jane Lee Hooker, but Jan is quite simply on another planet when he plays.  He’s pretty fearless when it comes to equipment too – the last time I saw a guitarist using a voice-box was – well – when Jan was last onstage.  Peter Frampton pretty well put that particular sound to bed forever on ‘Comes Alive’ which is a pity because it can sound seriously funky in the right hands – and Jan Laacks has those hands.

 

All in all, the difference between the Hooker’s and Layla Zoe was musically chalk and cheese but then of course you can’t eat chalk and you can’t draw with chips.  Everything has it’s purpose and both band’s this evening delivered hammer shows in their own ways.

 

Onstage, it’s close on ten o’clock and Layla is apologizing that that there is no way they can shoe-horn in the whole set they wanted to play tonight.  Time for loud music – even melodic loud music – is over for this Sunday evening.  Most people would take this moment to thank everyone and say a last goodnight.  Most people though don’t possess a voice like Layla Zoe.

 

‘Me and Bobby McGhee’ would have the audience at the average Folk Club heading for the door, it’s one of those songs that has been done – to death…  Only the Lady onstage this evening in Bonn at 10 pm is Canada’s Darling of the Blues and happens to have one of the best female voices ever to come out of that genre.  By the last verse Layla has the microphone so far at arms length that only her powerful natural voice is floating in the air.  It’s joined a few moments later by a chorus of voices in the hall joining in – “Freedoms just another word…” By this time the only electricity in the hall is coming from the audience and the natural voice of Layla Zoe.  Until next time Firegirl!

CLICK HERE FOR MORE LAYLA ZOE PICTURES

CLICK HERE FOR MORE JANE LEE HOOKER PICTURES

 

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