It’s hard to believe that this is the 15th Blues Caravan Tour. It’s always fun to chat with fellow Caravan fans and argue over which was the best. Oli Brown? Samantha Fish? Ana Popovic? Candye Kane? You could argue until the cows come home (and we do) but collectively the 2020 show has to be amongst the very best. Jeremiah Johnson, Ryan Perry and Whitney Shay. Add the bass talents of Roger Innis and drummer extraordinaire Amanda Dal radiating a good time. Musicians truly in harmony at the Harmonie? It makes me want to run away from home and join a band – THIS band.
On the merchandise table, there’s a cardboard box with the history of Blues Caravan inside it. CD’s from pretty well everyone who played on the annual RUF Records tour of Europe and the States (and yes, Great Britain too…) What became of Roxanne Potvin? Candye Kane stares back at me from the cover of a CD where she is fittingly dressed as a Super Hero. Over on the Harmonie stage meanwhile, new Blues Caravan history is being made.
After the initial warm-up songs, it falls to Mississippi born Ryan Perry to establish the bar for the evening. Perry is still only young, but he’s been around the scene a while, hijacking the International Blues Challenge as long ago as 2007 with his Homemade Jamz Bluesband. He’s one of those players whose body seems to dwarf his guitar, but his style is deftly light, as often as not using just his fingers to pluck out delicate guitar runs as on ‘Aint Afraid to Eat Alone’ and ‘Homesick’. The man can play a meaty solo too though and his take of Wille Dixon’s ‘Evil is Going On’ was a gorgeous mix of Howlin Wolf vocal and Jimi Hendrix riffing. Barely a half-hour on the clock and the music is hotter than hell.
San Diego’s Whitney Shay would be noticed walking down the road, never mind singing on a stage. She has that Attitude about her (note the capital ‘A’!). Comparisons have been made to Etta James, but that applies to so many singers out there. “The Voice of a Future Blues Icon” announced the UK’s Blues Matters magazine. I don’t hold too much to comparisons like the former and it’s too early to make claims about the latter. What Shay does though she does very well indeed. The sassy delivery of ‘A Woman Rules The World’ made me think again of that Candye Kane CD cover. Laura Chavez guests on Shay’s new RUF cd. Coincidence?
The 2020 Blues Caravan is very much a team affair. The team onstage are clearly having fun playing together and the smiling faces in the crowd show that they are enjoying the fun as much as the five who are making the magic happen. I call as evidence ‘P.S. It’s Not About You’ where vocals are shared between Shay and Perry with a sizzling guitar solo from Jeremiah Johnson. When it comes to audience contact though Shay is a natural-born front frau. It’s Shay that has everybody clapping and stomping along during the encore on ‘One More Time’. Comparing a red-headed female bundle of energy from San Diego with Wolverhampton’s finest export Slade’s Noddy Holder seems somewhat bizarre – but this number has ‘Get Down Get With It’ as its template for sure. It takes an ‘in your face’ frontman/woman to make it work and Whitney Shay is the girl for it. She describes her job onstage simply so: “I want people to dance and be engaged. To me, blues has always been about catharsis, the purging of sad experiences. If I can make the audience leave smiling and feeling like they’ve forgotten about the troubles of their day, I’ve done my job.” Well, Whitney Shay certainly did her job on Wednesday night.
Teamwork Blues Caravan style means also having a cracking rhythm section able to play behind three complete different musical styles. Hats off then also to Bass player Roger Innis who needs no introduction to UK and European blues lovers. Roger is one of the nicest and, also one of the best, bass players around. Much as I enjoyed Laurence Jones’s set last year here I missed Roger’s presence on that chunky six string bass of his. Drummer Amanda Dal is not so well known to me, but she did get a loud round of applause when she appeared after the show was over. Certainly, the lady knows her way around the kit. I don’t think I ever saw a drummer and a bassist smile as often as these two do. Is this happiness truly what the blues are about? Come to think of it – how could an audience fail not to smile back with five such happy people making music in front of them?
It can be a tricky job following a performer as electric as Shay. I loved the last release by Jeremiah Johnson, found him to be an all-round nice guy when we spoke after last years Caravan show when he was the newbie. His new release is even better. He doesn’t set the stage on fire immediately though – it’s not Jeremiah Johnson’s style. His is a slow-burning approach. Title track off the new release, ‘White Lightning’ establishes what’s to come. It’s a swirling Texas number. The elements beyond our control feature often in Jeremiah’s texts. ‘Tornado’ continues the theme. Johnson recalls making the video to his new single on a freezing cold day out in a barn in the middle of nowhere, it’s not a problem – he comes from Texas, Flood Country, and the recent storm in Europe? “I’ve experienced “Katrina” he remembers the hurricane from 2005. Everything else is just wind and rain.
Johnson has a new guitar I notice. First of all I notice how the strings are perfectly rounded over the headstock pegs. The work of a man who knows how to fix fence posts and plant barbed wire? Certainly the music his Keith Richards inspired Newman guitar spits out has a wonderfully rough around the edges quality. It’s a sound that for my money is one of the reasons new release ‘Heaven To Betsy’ is going to be a monster seller. Hopefully The Harmonie will book Jeremiah with his own band pretty quickly – I think he has a hit on his hands and a headlining tour in Europe is well within reach.
Three top musicians individually then. The only thing they have in common is US passports. Well maybe that’s not quite true. They all obviously share a love for playing music and all are hungry for success. As Dylan once inscrutably said “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you?” Well something is happening at these Blues Caravan shows in 2020. there’s a crackle of energy in the air. A feeling that something exciting is going down, and indeed it is. Audiences are leaving, feeling like they’ve forgotten their troubles. Job done, mission accomplished.
If there’s place on the tour bus Thomas Ruf, I can play a mean harmonica version of ‘God Save The Queen’, I’m cheap to keep, and you all seem to be having so much fun on the 2020 Blues Caravan…