Blues Caravan 2023 in Bonn

Now in its 18th year, The RUF Records Blues Caravan shows no sign of running out of gas. The formula has remained unchanged – three acts from the RUF records blues stable go on the road. There’s usually a Caravan ‘veteran’, an established RUF artist and a newcomer. That road has gotten longer over the years to take in more and more countries but the formula is a winning one and remains. This year’s ‘veteran’ (her first appearance was in 2019) is a young 24 years old and currently sitting pretty indeed at the top of the Billboard Blues Chart. Ally Venable is her name and that album contains contributions from no lesser Blues Gods than Buddy Guy and Joe Bonamassa. Chicago-born Will Jacobs is on his second Caravan and Manchester Blues rocker Ashley Sherlock is the newcomer. Join me if you will at the merchandise stand where the Caravan mastermind and label owner Thomas Ruf is smiling the smile of a man who knows he’s right on the money again…

“We’re all very proud that Ally’s record is topping the charts – and for three weeks now!” Thomas Ruf says with the boyish enthusiasm that first got him started in the music business as a fan and manager of the late Luther Allison. The same enthusiasm propels him onto the stage a few minutes later to proudly announce the show is getting underway, and we are immediately off and grooving to ‘A Little Help From My Friends’. I understand the need for an opening number that everyone begins as equals. It’s always been so to start the Caravan shows and it seems all the more appropriate for Manchester-based Ashley Sherlock whose rounded sunglasses give him an unmistakable John Lennon air. It gets the evening started and everybody warmed up – except that two people then leave the stage again to come back later separately. Why don’t they all do individual sets and then combine only at the end for the grand finale? Every year this opening irritates me. Now, I’ve said it…

Tradition has it that the new kid starts the first solo set and tradition also says that new kid has a microphone in the corner. Today the corner ‘stall’ is occupied by Ashley Sherlock. Manchester isn’t known as a fount of blues music – I think the only Mancunians in my record collection are 10cc. Sherlock’s music is also not pure Blues, although they are in there for sure. There are elements of more progressive rock – ‘Trouble’ is an example with its strident bass fuelled riff, and there is also a hippy/early ’70’s element in the mix too; along with a high vocal range that often takes you by surprise in a nice way. I will need to sit down with Ashley Sherlock’s disc and give it a few plays for sure. On the critical side I would have liked him to come out of that corner more and ‘own’ the stage. It can’t be easy though being the newcomer with no established fanbase to cheer you on, and your own band is back at home, so I take my hat off to the young man in the feathered hat and tinted Lennon glasses because if you are clearly talented and likeable you can come back with that own band as a name artist. Ashley Sherlock is both talented and likeable so fingers crossed for that return.

Will Jacobs is actually making that return and a welcome one it is too. Of the three acts this evening, Will is the one closest to traditional electric blues this evening – due in no small part to his hailing from Chicago! I spent some time trying to read the tattoo on his arm with ‘1947-2009’ and ‘Hey Big Guy’ on it and eventually had to ask. It’s actually in memory of Will’s father. As already noted, Will Jacobs knows his roots. His voice can even go back to that of BB King. But that’s not to say he is stuck in the past. There is also a modern funky element that comes across in the sound. The first really Bluesy Blues of the evening in fact is Will’s ‘Dirty Dog’ and then there’s the title track from his new release ‘Goldfish Blues’ with that welcome dash of funk to the mix. Whilst I’m about it I see that the new disc’s artwork is from Michael van Merwyck – love those goldfish in the swimming pool shots (Tino Sieland) but I’ve got off subject a bit. It’s Will’s second Caravan and he’s moved over to the other stage side from that of Ashley Sherlock but he moves centre stage regularly and engages easily with the audience. You could easily be forgiven in fact for thinking that Will Jacobs is the seasoned veteran this evening, but it’s difficult to have anyone else centre-stage when the final musician of the evening is topping the Blues charts and numbers Joe Bonamassa and Buddy Guy amongst the contributors to her new release. Indeed, it’s produced by veteran Blues drummer and producer (think Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Susan Tedeschi, George Thorogood here) Tom Hambridge.

Ally Venable then has a lot to live up to and she’s still only in her early twenties. She comes across as a little shy when it comes to the audience but in an agreeable way. I detect even a slight lisp in her voice reminiscent of Dani Wilde, or is that imagination? All that doesn’t matter though because it very quickly becomes clear that Ally Venable owns the stage as soon as she starts to play that Jimmy Wallace Stratocaster copy of hers with Buddy Guy’s autograph proudly handwritten on the headstock.

The album itself has Bonamassa guesting on ‘Broken & Blue’ but Venables shows this evening that ‘Jiving Joe’ didn’t really need to unpack one of his many guitars to contribute – the girl has got a great solo nailed to the track anyway. Venable being from Texas, there is no getting around mentions of Stevie Ray Vaughan of course. But again, this girl seemingly has no trouble with expectations. She plays a Les Paul with a plain guitar strap – but her Fender Strat copy has the initials AMV on its strap – a nod to the SRV on Stevie Ray’s famous Strat for sure – and when she plays an hommage to Stevie Ray there’s no doubting the girl has the licks.

It’s noticeable that the rhythm section kicks in more with Ally Venable too. Not surprising since the ‘house’ drummer for this tour is her drummer Isaac Pulido. That Jazzy influence of SRV also brings out the best in bassman Arne Imig who my research reveals is very much at home in the jazz scene. All in all, Ally Venable showed why she is the main act on this tour in the best way possible – with her musicianship.

But don’t take that as a criticism of either Ashley Sherlock or Will Jacobs. All three acts this year bring their own style to the table superbly. As always, the Caravan show finishes with everyone back onstage. With the Texas influence of Ally Venable, there is, not so surprisingly a rendition of ZZ Top’s ‘Gimme All Your Lovin” and a barnstorming ‘I Should Have Quit You’ to get everyone dancing.

Back at that merchandise stall there are no egos present, just three excellent musicians who love doing what they do and appreciate that we dig it too. As always, the Blues Caravan runs down a long road. There are still many dates to come but I’m sure these people will still be talking to each other at the end of it. Blues is a feeling as the song goes, and Thomas Ruf, Ally Venable, Will Jacobs and Ashley Sherlock all have it in their souls. If the caravan rolls your way – get a ticket to ride!

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