Richard Bargel Interview

Monday’s concert was very much a homecoming for Richard Bargel. A full house and tumultuous applause Unter der Zeder was a just reward for Richard’s long involvement on the Blues/Folk scene, and his recent award from the Deutsches Schallplattenkritik (his third!) is proof that the Man is still very much a force to be reckoned with on the international music scene. I asked Richard about his career, his music, and also his connections to Bonn and Bad Godesberg…

Firstly, congratulations on your latest disc winning the Deutschenschallplatten Award for quarter 3 under Blues.  How does it feel to have your music valued still after spending so much time on the music scene?

It feels good. It’s the third time that I have been honoured with this prestigious award (1992 for the album „Fresh Tracks“ and 2005 for the album „Mojo And The Wolf“).  I’m an old man now but you never get used to it when it comes to getting prizes. It feels good because it confirms that I’m still going strong, that my creativity is still vivid and intact, and also that my music still reaches people –  even the younger ones. Maybe I’m like a good wine? the older the better! 

Who are your heroes and greatest musical inspirations?

I never had any special heroes. When I started out I was very much into the old Mississippi Blues sound, listening to Son House, Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams, and many others – the Rural Blues, Field Hollers and Work Songs, and good old Gospel Music. I was into Folk Music a lot. I liked to listen to French Chansonieres like Georges Brassens or to the songs of Berthold Brecht. My musical interests were and still are widespread, and that’s where I get my inspiration from.

Clearly still having a good time playing music – Richard Bargel

Your new disc seems to have given you a new lease of life on the Blues scene.  This is I think in no small part down to your collaboration with Fabio Nettekoven?  Would you agree?

I totally agree. When you start getting old you get a little bit stiff and stubborn. Working together with a much younger man is always refreshing. Fabio and I have an identical musical understanding, we are soul brothers, and we know each other by heart. That’s a very important thing when it comes to live concerts when you’re on stage. When we started the production of the new CD I put all my faith into the great musical capabilities of Fabio. I was happy to put him in the position of the producer. I just let him do it. I never interfered or told him what do. I gave him my songs and he did the rest. The award shows that I was right to put so much trust in this guy. He is a little genius!

How did the two of you meet?

In the seventies Fabio’s father, Norbert, used to drive me and my equipment around in his old VW-Bully. Decades later he called me on the phone to say he had a 16-year-old son who was playing guitar and loves to play Blues. He asked if I could teach him to play Bottleneck-Style. Some days later we settled down in my little kitchen: Fabio grabbed his guitar, I grabbed mine, and we started playing. 15 minutes later I put my guitar down and told Norbert that his son don’t need no teacher no more because he’s already playing it all, and much better than I’ll ever being able to play. Imagine that. Fabian was only 16 years old, the little devil! In 2014 he became the guitar player of my band Dead Slow Stampede and we’ve been working together ever since.

Fabio Nettekoven – A key figure in the new albums sound

Tell me a little about the new CD ‘Dead Slow Stampede’ please (and how did you come upon such an unusual name for the band?)

It’s a further musical development of the previous album „It’s Crap“ where I started to work with different styles like Blues, Rock, Country and Americana. The new album is deliberately going even more in this direction. Besides my slide guitars and dobro Fabio is playing a lot of different string instruments, but the real kick comes from the „Mellotron“. That’s the archetype of a sampler-keyboard-instrument still working with tapes. Fabio played the Mellotron in a way that gives the whole production a sound that reminds me of opulent choirs or string orchestras. And that’s what makes the whole production stand out because I’ve never heard of a Mellotron being used for a Blues album. 

I named the band ‘Dead Slow Stampede’ because of my love for a leisurely pace within life or music. If you watch a stampede of bison on the wide plains you only see a rush of bodies in clouds of dust. Now watch it in Slow Motion. Suddenly you see the individual animal, you see more details and when you see more details you are much more able to memorize what you see – and that’s why you’re being emotionally involved much stronger – same with the music: People love guitar shredders, fast-finger freaks racing up and down the guitar neck. At first this is impressive, but what’s left? My philosophy is: if you give your music, the single notes, enough air, space and time to develop, then the more emotional it gets and it hits you much stronger than any fast finger ride on your guitar will hit you. Hence the name Dead Slow Stampede. A slow but powerfully impressive musical happening. Even if we play a fast song, which we do from time to time, it’s always with the idea of the Dead Slow Stampede principle.

Am I right that you come from Cologne and later moved to Bad Godesberg? What was the Blues/music scene in Bad Godesberg/Bonn like at the time you lived here?

It’s vice versa: I was born in Frankfurt/Main, grew up in Bad Godesberg, and moved to Cologne in 1967. When I started playing the guitar I was 12 years old.  Only a couple of years later I was on stage already, playing pubs and clubs in Bad Godesberg and Bonn. This was in the sixties. There was a lot of Folk Music going on, not so much Blues. There were guys who could play all the Donovan songs, others played Skiffle or Dixieland Music. Some played English or Irish Folk Songs, Woody Guthrie was popular and Joan Baez, Bob Dylan too of course. Some were singing German Folksongs or were creating their own songs in the German language, and that’s why they were called  „Liedermacher“.  I can remember a big Folk Festival at the University in Bonn in which I was part of a competition. In the end, I won the second prize – a barrel of good old German beer! My first prize ever – I was just 16! With the result that I found myself nursing a heavy, painful hangover the next morning. Maybe this was the start of my drinking career – Ha! Ha!

You were busy in the Cultural scene in Cologne also, but started to play internationally.  How did this come about?

From the beginning, I was curious about how my music would be appreciated in other countries, especially in England. The first opportunity to find out came when I met Warwick Reynolds in the South of France at the home of my friend Jack Goodfellow, an American writer and musician, who’d worked with Chris Strachwitz from Arhoolie Records. Together they did field recordings with the likes of  Lightnin’ Hopkins and Fred McDowell. Jack also played the harp on my first album „Blue Steel“. His friend Warwick was a London Photographer with good connections to the London Music Scene. He heard me playing and was keen to get me gigs in some of the clubs in London. My first trip to England was in 1975 and I played all around London. Warwick drove me from one club to the other in his tiny battered car. In the beginning, I was doing Floor Spots, singing a couple of songs before the main act started his show. The audience liked the way I played the Blues and soon I was getting real gigs, like at the Half Moon in Putney or the 100 Club. The fee was a couple of pounds and you had to pay for your own drinks. But I was happy having made it and also that I was recognized as a „very interesting German Blues singer and guitar player“ by the popular Music Magazine „Melody Maker“.  Between 1975 and 1978 I made regular visits to London and even had the chance to play in Birmingham and other cities.

You were playing music internationally in the 1960s and in the 1970s at a time when Folk and Blues were often intermingled.  In fact, I gather that on the Folk scene you appeared in prestigious venues like 100 Club and Dingwalls in London with the likes of Wizz Jones and, interestingly also D.P. Costello (later Elvis Costello).  Any memories of Wizz and Elvis you can share with us?

Oh yes, two very impressive guys!  When I came to London I stayed in South Croydon at the home of my friend Warwick Reynolds who organized my gigs. South Croydon was also where Wizz Jones used to live. One day I met him on the street and he was surprised to see me in his hometown (we had known each other from Folk Festivals in Germany where we had shared the stage). Wizz was a very friendly, decent guy with a strong voice and an extraordinary guitar style. He invited me to join him at one of his concerts on stage, too bad I can’t remember the name of the venue. I remember it was great fun though and I came in contact with other great London musicians like the piano player Bob Hall (founder member of the Band „Savoy Brown“) or Blues Lady Jo Ann Kelly. Wizz Jones had some impact on the English music scene and even Keith Richard refers to him in his autobiography as an important and strong musical influence. 

And DP (Elvis) Costello?

D.P. Costello was a different personality. In those days I’d formed a  friendship with London singer/songwriter John Spencer who was quite popular in the London scene with his band The Louts. Most of the time we used to hang around at the Half Moon in Putney, because that’s where all the musicians met to listen to other bands and to get drunk before curfew! One day a guy entered the stage who looked quite different from the rest of us. We were all Hippies, and Punk Music was still at the brink of dawn. Here comes Costello, dressed in a suit, a tie around his neck and wearing glasses with a thick dark horn rim. He looked like a bank employee with a proper haircut and clean fingernails. Like me he was doing Floor Spots, making three or four clubs a night to get his name around. We were all very sceptical when he got on stage at the Half Moon but as soon as he hit the guitar and started singing we all went nuts. The lyrics of his songs, his music and his personal charisma hit a nerve of the time and the London magazine „Time Out“ soon wrote „a new star is born“.  Sure we talked after his performance and my friend Warwick organized a couple of gigs featuring John Spencer, D.P. Costello and me. We played in clubs, pubs and even wine bars. Funny to think about it: in a location called Wolseley’s Wine Bar we hardly had any audience, only the crew behind the bar was enjoying our show and an additional lonely drinker, who kept asking me to play „Black Magic Woman“ again and again. A year later, when I came back to London, D.P. Costello had changed his name to Elvis Costello and had his first nationwide hit with „The Angels wear my Red Shoes“. He was making it big and sure we lost contact.

In the 70’s as part of the ‘Rolling Blues Review’ you played alongside Blues luminaries like Champion Jack Dupree, Memphis Slim and Sunnyland Slim.  What was it like to be a part of such tours?  Did you experience a lot of racism segregating white acts from black ones?

The Rolling Blues Review was my idea to present the blues within his historical styles. Beginning with the Field Hollers up to the modern electric City Blues. So I hired a band that included musicians of the former popular Bad Godesberger „Uli’s Blues Band“ and then I asked Champion Jack Dupree and later Eddy Boyd to join the project. Dupree and I had met on many occasions when we shared the stage together. He had made Hannover his home town and soon we became good friends. The first Rolling Blues Review concert took place at the auditorium at University at Cologne in 1976, where Eddy Boyd was with us. Eddie lived in Finland and was on tour at this time. At other concerts, such as in Hannover, Jack Dupree joined us. There was no racism going on in those early days. Black musicians liked to play with white musicians and they had no problems to do so. In turn, we regarded the old musicians as our heroes and we were very respectful with one another. I did experience a different kind of racism some years later though, in the 80s. “No whitey can sing the blues like the black musicians can do!”. That’s what I was hearing from bookers and concert agents. It became difficult for me to get gigs in Germany. I was told nobody wants to hear a white Blues Musician. The audience want to hear the real stuff, from a black man, because only black musicians can sing the Blues.   

You are more than ‘just’ a musician as anyone who has visited your website and your Facebook site will know.  Particularly interesting to me are the regular black & White photographs that you put out on Facebook etc.  You are clearly a keen street photographer.  What camera/kit do you use and what inspires you to take photos?  Do you have any photographer ‘heroes’ who inspire you?  (Cartier-Bresson of course springs to mind)

Time for some t-shirt advertising

I don’t use any special camera. All pictures are taken with my Mobile Phone. At home I do a little bit of editing at my computer, that`s all. I like it rough and raw. No glossy photos. It’s like my music -the real life. Between 2020 and 2022 I took thousands of pictures in the south side of my home town Cologne. It was the time of the pandemic. Now I’m going to publish a book, a documentary about Cologne during the pandemic.   Titled “1111 Augenblicke – a pandemonic view of Cologne“ with 1111 photos showing how the Cologne people were coping with the Lock Downs and the restrictions during that time. The layout is already done and I hope it will be available in autumn this year.

You are also an actor?  Is there time in your life to fit this in with all the other interests? I don’t do so much theatre acting at the moment.

I do more film acting because most of the time the shooting takes only a couple of days or a week. That makes it easy to fit it into my other artistic work.

And to add to your ‘trades’ you are also a poet and writer: “Ein Werewolf hockt im Kreidekreis, heult leise blaue Lieder“ (A werewolf squats in a chalk circle howling soft blues songs) for example.  Which ‘Lesart-Literatur‘ magazine describes as “Wonderfully un-German!” in its self-deprecating style.  I think this is also evident in your blues lyrics.  Would you prefer to have been born in a different Country to Germany?  And if so, where would you ideally be located?

I never thought about it, really. I have been to the South of France for 5 years, trying to make a living there. That was in 1978-1983. But no, I don’t have any special idea about where I would like to live. I’m quite happy within my little community in south side of Cologne.

I recently asked Tom Robinson if he still felt the need to write songs in support of causes and against society’s failures.  Is this something you still feel the need to do?

Oh yes, but I don’t force it. It must come naturally to me. I must feel the urgent need to comment on what’s wrong with society and other problems the political situation creates these days.   

With your finger in so many different cultural ‘pies’ (singing, acting, writing, photography…)  Is there something that Richard Bargel still has on his bucket list of ‘to-do’s’?

Well, there’s always something I want to do. After each project I’ve finished I’m already looking for the next. I’m quite restless. Can’t stand still. I would like to do a new album, a duo album with Fabio Nettekoven. I want to record some of the folk songs I played way back in the sixties. They were never recorded and there are some beautiful songs to remember and they are worth listening to again.

The Band – Dead Slow Stampede in action

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