Now in its third year, the annual Blues Festival in Dottendorf’s Jazz stronghold at the Ortszentrum is a welcome event that really should attract a lot more attention than it does. Under the watchful eye of local Blues afficianado Bill Baum, you can be sure of quality music at an attractive price. This year’s event kicked off with an interesting combination of local youngsters the Chain Gang Kings and top Bielefeld Blues Man Michael Merwyk who has gigs with Larry Garner and guest appearances with Big Daddy Wilson to the credit of his CV as well as a super 2nd place in the 2013 Memphis International Blues Challenge.
Ten minutes before the show and seats are being moved around to fill up the room more. There are a few people still outside enjoying the late Summer sunshine, but by the time things kick off the audience is still thin on the ground. As Bill Baum enthuses during the introduction, a small audience can still make a lot of noise – and so it did.
With a musical style described as Jive/Chicago Blues I expected The Chain Gang Kings to be of a ‘certain age’. They certainly looked it too from a distance. Except that the bass player looked familiar, and the level of enthusiasm suggested younger musicians – even if the level of musicianship suggested more elderly statesmen (Ah, now there’s a clue to that bassist!) Vocalist/piano player Cat Lee King delivered excellent keyboard work whilst still managing to do a very credible impression of Howling Wolf vocally. Over on guitar Magic Malique was laying down some licks that T-Bone would have enjoyed hearing, and the rhythm section of Jimmy Maxwell and ‘Mad’ Christopher Johnson was a dream team. Recording is in progress in Bluesy Bad Godesberg I hear, so expect some seriously good old blues from young heads, and give the band a listen if they play down your way – you wont regret it.
Main guest this evening Michael Van Merwyk might be described as an ‘older head’ where making Blues is concerned. If you’re into puns, he could certainly, at two metres in height, be described as a Blues Giant. Van Merwyk has been treading the boards for some 35 years now and his experience shows on a live stage. There’s a calmness about the way he chats between songs. When he asks us to join in, on the Clash classic ‘Daddy was a bank robber’ he has the air of someone who isn’t too bothered if you DO or DON’T take him up on the request.
“The Clash?!” I hear you exclaim. “Isn’t this a Blues night” I hear you continue. “Well yes, but”, I hear myself answer – Van Merwyk sees the early Blues singers more as ‘songsters’ (hence the title of his solo CD). The likes of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson (I and II) earned their livings playing to small crowds in bars that weren’t interested in calling what they were listening to anything in particular – they just wanted to be entertained, and that’s still true of the audiences today and tonight. There are some fiercely reflective Blues numbers in tonight’s set for sure, especially later on when British Bluesharp man Roger Wade joins in, but there is a very enjoyable ‘mixed selection’ in Van Merwyk’s box of musical treats. ‘Should I stay or should I go’ and Judas Priests ‘Breaking the Law’ work surprisingly well and freshen up nicely with just a slide, bass and drums. Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ is probably the most successful of the Rock classics to get the Van Merwyk treatment, with some successful lyrical re-working too. No one is going to do the song better than Bowie, but Van Merwyk dares successfully to be different. It’s not all good news. ‘I was made for loving you’ is as schmaltzy as the original and would I suspect not be missed in its absence.
The blues was centre-stage of course, but even here there was room for interpretation. ‘My Baby Left Me – and I’m so happy’ anyone? I love it anyway. Van Merwyk’s own ‘Coffee’ and ‘Fight The Darkness’ showed him as no slouch in the songwriting department either. The introduction of Roger Wade to the proceedings was an inspired one to kick-start the final third of the evening for sure. Wade’s harmonica duels with Van Merwyk’s slide guitar were a joy to hear and the broad smiles on both men’s faces showed the enjoyment was being felt on both sides of the stage.
The Blues, as Merwyk proved on this fine and criminally under-visited evening, is as much a music of celebrating life as of decrying its shortcomings. It’s not about misery, its not about three chords or twelve bars, its about a feeling; and tonight it was very definitely about putting smiles on faces. Seem like a contradiction? Well that’s the magic of Michael Van Merwyk’s approach. Bill Baum was enthusing about Van Meryk’s tone and rightly so. There’s a depth and warmth in his slide playing in particular. Larry Garner considers him a special talent,and you will too!
Thanks to Bill Baum and the Ortszentrum in Dottendorf for an excellent evening, and hopefully the blues will establish itself as the Jazz scene here clearly has if given half a chance.