You really couldn’t blame Bill Baum, given the current (dire) situation for live music and musicians, if he stopped playing live and retreated behind the ‘safe’ confines of his Plittersdorferstrasse instrument shop to just sell amplifiers to foolhardy musicians who are still prepared to book tours and step onto a stage after traveling for miles in gas-guzzling tour vans. After all, bands who used to confidently attract big audiences are trying not to see the ever-widening gaps between audience members when the lights go up. Bill and his band Baum’s Bluesbenders are determined not to let the current scene get them down. As Bill’s self-penned 2021 song says – ‘Live is Better‘ and on Sunday night at Bonn Harmonie, with the help of Virginia Bluesman Greg Copeland he proved it in style.
Bill Baum’s feelings towards Covid are ably expressed in that sticker on his Maybach guitar – the white skeleton finger poking up in defiance. For a man who first set foot on a live stage forty six years ago he might have lost some hair along the way, but he’s lost none of the enthusiasm. That goes for the whole band. I heard talk of an anniversary coming up, and you won’t find many groups who have maintained pretty well the same line-up for so long. I joke that they can’t change line-up now because they would need a new poster photo to replace the one I shot of them in 2018, but can you imagine any other line-up but this well-oiled groove machine with Rainer Wilke on bass and Francis Holzapfel on drums almost telepathic after so many shows together backing Bill Baums guitar and Uwe Placke’s harp?
Sometimes you take for granted what’s right under your nose. Why isn’t Uwe Placke on the list for best harp player when it comes to European Blues Awards? He has the sound and the fire of Little Walter at his best. Sometimes there is no justice. I love his tone on the Floyd Jones/Canned Heat classic ‘On the road again’ and he’s no slouch either when it comes to vocals on numbers like ‘I’ve had my fun’.
I like to think that the reason there are always so many smiles onstage during Bluesbenders concerts is that they know the music so well now that the band can also sit back and enjoy it as much as the audience. No one has a smile bigger than the man himself though. Bill Baum is a chameleon, in the best sense of the word. Quietly spoken off-stage and in his shop, but able to take control of any audience and throw in a few classic ‘rockstar’ poses to make the music look as good as it sounds. Here’s a strange fact though, with a shop full of guitars to choose from it’s interesting that Bill’s rack has no Gibsons or Fenders. Instead there is the the Skeleton-fingered Maybach Stradovari and a Duesenberg Falken. There’s also a Yamaha acoustic for one of the numbers in the set – as you will find out later.
The first set is pretty much what it always is with Baums Bluesbenders. A foot-tapping hour, give or take, of vintage electric Blues. Tracks like ‘Part Time Lover’ and ‘Say Yes‘. If you’ve seen the band in the last five years you will know the music. I saw some of the dance troupe who are often to be seen, particularly at the Summer outdoor shows, in the audience tonight but didn’t see them jiving in front of stage this time around. Despite this there was still many a foot tapping, especially when Placke swung energetically into a harp solo. The concert, part one, was enjoyable. Part two was where things really became interesting…
Despite having had only two brief rehearsals with Greg Copeland the Bluesbenders totally nailed it on every number played backing him. For the record, it’s a feat they also managed locking in behind Louisiana Red some years ago. For the non-Blues initiated, Greg Copeland hails from Portsmouth in Virginia and plows a similar Blues trail to Big Daddy, who features heavily on Copeland’s 2020 disc ‘Brown eyed handsome man‘. Like Big Daddy, Greg Copeland is a smart-dressed man onstage with a check suit and a light tie pinned neatly to his black shirt. When he talks his voice is surprisingly lighter than you might expect – but when he sings, it reflects the image perfectly. A raw, somewhat smokey, voice full of honesty, so that you immediately believe him when he says ‘Brown eyed, handsome man’ comes from the description given of him at birth. His voice is chocolate smooth too on ‘Let’s straighten it out‘, a number that also gives guest keyboarder Doc Prünte from the band RnB Express a chance to show his skills on and smile – both of which he does to the full.
Time for Bill Baum to pick up that Yamaha acoustic for the Curtis Mayfield classic ‘People get ready’. Again, that smooth chocolate-coated voice rolls through. It’s a surprise to hear ‘Just a little bit’ in the set. I had to scratch my head a little to remember where I’d heard it before, and it turned out, of all things, to be from an early album by Slade. You really couldn’t imagine two more different voices than Greg Copeland’s and Noddy Holder’s, but the song itself works regardless – always the sign of a good song, but also of a good singer.
I’m still waiting for a disc of original songs, but Bill Baum has written some topical songs of his own to be found individually ‘hidden’ on the internet. ‘Hey Herr President’ (on Donald Trump), ‘Stop that war’ (The Invasion of Ukraine) and of course his ode to the fall in concert goers begun after Corona took hold (Live ist besser). Tonight’s song is ‘Blues Club’ and really it’s true that there are an awful lot of us in the Blues Club these days. Luckily, we have local heroes like Bill Baum and his Bluesbenders to shine a light in the darkness and bring us fine music and fine musicians over the years such as Louisiana Red, Big Daddy Wilson, and tonight Greg Copeland. If you’re looking for the heart of music in Bonn you won’t go far wrong looking for it in Plittersdorferstrasse. If you’re lucky, Bill will be in his shop to demonstrate what the guitar can do – but be prepared to wait a while to get it back. Bill Baum loves to play!