Blues music at The Harmonie, my favourite Bonn venue, and with it’s 2G+ rule tonight, a proper standing-up/unmasked audience for the first time in what seems like centuries. The musicians on the poster have gone through a couple of name changes – no one outside is entirely sure who will be onstage inside – in the event it’s Ghalia Volt, Katie Henry and, after last minute cancellations and phone calls, Will Jacobs. To be honest, no one I saw before the show was too concerned who would be playing – it was the RUF Records Blues Caravan for goodness sake. Have faith in Thomas Ruf. Has he ever let us down?!
The way that names have come and gone, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Blues Caravan was actually more a bus – with people seemingly hopping onto the tour posters and hopping off again before the poster-ink was even dry. 2021’s Caravan originally advertised two ladies – Ghalia Volt, Eleana Cargneluti and Finnish Bluesman Micke Bjorklof. Covid put an end to that tour sadly, Plans went into a (hopefully) Corona-free 2022 Caravan with Ghalia Volt, Katie Henry and Eddie 9V, then the latter was replaced by 2020 Caravaner Ryan Perry. Then Perry had to drop out, and RUF Records owner Thomas Ruf found himself phoning friends of friends in the music business. Finally he arrived at the phone number of one of the friends friends. The call certainly took Will Jacobs by surprise – Thomas Ruf recalls that getting Jacobs on the Caravan wasn’t automatic either – he had to get time off from other projects at short notice. But a place on this tour is gold-dust for making a name in Europe and Will Jacobs secured his ticket.
But if all this makes you think that the 2022 show was stuck together with a thin layer of balsa glue and the wheels were in danger of coming off, I suggest a visit to one of the shows. Two weeks of rehearsing and nine shows down, this band are already as tight as a ducks you know what.
Following the time-honoured tradition of a warm up with all musicians onstage together for the standard up-tempo blues ‘Hop On A Ride’, we were all keen to hear what the largely unknown, at least down Bonn way, Will Jacobs, was going to present. The 28 year old is based in Berlin but his roots are clearly in Chicago as evinced by a robust guitar style on tracks like Freddie King’s ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman?’ He also has a funky root to his musical style and delivered some fine wah wah playing on ‘I’ll Play The Blues For You’ that burst out like he was going down the Hendrix road before pulling back into a pattern more fitting the songtitle. He didn’t only play the Blues for us though, and his own ‘Funky Woman’ took that earlier start riff and turned out as rockingly funky as the name suggested. Denis Palatin laid down a sledgehammer drumbeat that defied you not to move your feet on the Muddy Water’s classic ‘Mojo Working’ and everyone was clearly having fun whether on or offstage. Jacobs himself was especially entitled to be having a good time – it was after all his Birthday. As it turned out, we were the ones to get the present – an energy laden set full of strong grooves and chunky, melodic, guitar riffs. In fact, while Jacobs is no slouch as a vocalist, he impressed me most with his guitar playing, and not just on his own set but throughout the evening, fitting into everyone’s groove without dominating when it was the turn of others to shine.
Katie Henry hails from New Jersey, an American state more associated with Rock than Blues (mainly down to the likes of Bon Jovi and Springsteen) and it shows in her musical style. Her 2018 pre-RUF disc ‘High Road’ has a Blues root but there is a lot going on stylistically. Even Henry’s debut for RUF ‘On My Way’ reveals a range that is sure to appeal to a wider audience than just the main core of artists in Thomas Ruf’s musical stable.
I suspect even that with her own band Katie Henry would deliver a rather different set. Tonight though is a blues night and the musicians are clearly glad, given the mentioned pre-tour short rehearsal time, to be able to fall back on a common denominator for much of the set. Even so, the moment her vocals come in on the bluesy intro to ‘Someday’, is a moment when the songs feel suddenly shifts towards Country.
Henry shifts musical feel as smoothely as she shifts instrument. Behind the electric piano she reminds me very much of Beth Hart and ‘Nothing To Lose’ is as good both lyrically and musically as anything served up by Beth.
When I ask Katie after the show for her musical inspirations she mentions Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi, which seems odd for a keyboard player – until she moves centrestage and picks up a Telecaster for the soulful ballad ‘Carry You’, delivering a delicate but fine solo to prove the guitar is not just for show. I really enjoyed Katie Henry’s varied set. My favourite track overall from her? I loved the fairground barrel organ piano stride of ‘Empty Cup’. Check out Katie Henry, especially if you like Blues with a Country/Rock twist.
Throughout the earlier sets, I spotted Ghalia Volt sitting quietly at the bar, watching and listening with an air of quiet serenity. Rest assured, neither the word, ‘quiet’ or the word ‘serenity’, will be referred to in the following account of her set which kicked off Blues Caravan part two. She was in fact a loveable bundle of fiery energy.
Ghalia Volt actually hails from Belgium, but her passport would be the only proof of it on tonight’s performance. She paid her musical dues by playing in the streets of Brussels, and like many a former street busker, Volt has developed a strong presence that comes with having to compete for attention (Bonn’s own Cynthia Nickschas is another great example of this). Add her strong stage presence to a Louisiana drawl, and a Blues upbringing as vocalist with hard-hitting New Orleans local legends ‘Mama’s Boys’, and you have a lady onstage who commands attention even before she starts to play.
The first thing she does after stepping onstage, flower pinned neatly behind her left ear, is strap on a cigarbox guitar. She revs up the volume on that cigarbox and the Harmonie in Bonn is looking more and more like the best place to be for Blues lovers on planet Earth.
A stonking ‘Bad Apple’ sees Ghalia Volt managing to get that four string to perfectly match her vocals – no mean feat on these guitars. I’m already impressed and the set is still young. Back to more conventional six strings for the down ‘n’ dirty ‘Reap What You Sow’ punctuated with equally dirty bottle-neck slide. A joyful set of Chicago Blues the way it was meant to be played in fact. Big Mama Thornton would be proud that there are still women pumping out the music with such passion. electrifying jump blues with ‘Hoodoo Evil Man’ and finally, backed by the whole Blues Caravan troupe, the closing Muddy Waters classic ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’. A quintessential Chicago Blues rocker that seemed tailormade for this band.
John Fogerty’s ‘Fortunate Son’ also proved to be a perfect choice for the band, as did Fred McDowell’s ‘You Gotta Move’ that seemed to transcend time as if he’d written it for cigar box guitar slide all along.
‘All good things…’ and all that. Shows end and there is a queue of happy faces stood in front of Thomas Ruf’s merchandise table, with an equally smiling Mr Ruf. He already knows I’m going to say it was a great evening. Thomas knows his Blues and he knows that on this particular Caravan there are three young musicians with very different talents but all equally ego-less. Is there another Olli Brown or Samantha Fish in there just waiting to get that break into the top league? Time will tell. I loved Jacob’s guitar playing, I loved Henry’s well crafted songs and melodies and I also loved Volt’s ability to strip the songs down to their original power. Three different styles of course means hard work for the rhythm section. Excellent work by Denis Palatin on drums (and dream-catcher decorations too). Pumping perfect tact from a Fender Precision bass (always my favourite bass sound) by big Tom Germman. One of the best overall sounds I’ve heard in fact from the many BC’s I’ve been to. Not bad considering only a few weeks back the wheels of the Caravan looked to be holding on with Blue Tack. Nice one (as always) Mr Ruf!