Lucerne is a magnificent city in Switzerland with a population of 80,000 surrounded by scenic high Swiss mountains on the banks of Lake Lucerne with wonderfully restored features of its 800 year old heritage and tradition, super friendly restaurants like my regular haunt Café Rex and wonderful museums, which has become famous amongst Blues Fans in the past decade as one of the world’s foremost, important and primary Blues Festivals, showcasing top quality performances from the finest Blues Musicians on tour from the American Blues circuits.
Six hours of the finest world class blues live every night for a week every November in the elegant and excellent sound stages of the Grand Casino in Lucerne with Sunday brunch performances in the plush and stylish Hotel Schweizerhof. This is a well run professionally organised Festival that has gone from strength to strength because of its uncompromising commitment to providing a focus on real bluesmen, providing a stage for masters of the craft, exciting and revered legendary performers treading the famous blues stages of Chicago, Memphis, Californian and the other Blues States of America.
The spectacular line up of performers for each Lucerne Festival for the past eleven years is credited to the superb selection process of Guido “Mojo”Schmidt and his administration committee who spend the months leading up to each years Lucerne Festival visiting blues performances around the world to assemble each years world class line up to provide 12 acts for 30 exquisite performances throughout the week.
The official performances are sold out well in advance but because of the brilliant organising committee we had pre-booked our tickets at the Grand Casino Lucerne and accommodation arrangements at the Hotel Flora months in advance thanks to email exchanges with Festival Administrator Martin Bruendler and everything was ready and waiting for us like clockwork in through Swiss fashion.
I set off on this years blues pilgrimage in the company of veteran Irish blues travellers, Charlie Hussey presenter of my favourite weekly blues radio program Bluestrain on Dublin City Anna Livia 103.2 FM every Sunday night, Big Eddie Breslin regular blues traveller abroad, who I met for the first time and exchanged tales of all the concerts we had both been in attendance at in Dublin over the previous 30 years and also Southside Eddie Soye who weaned me off the guitar styles of Keith Richard, Nils Lofgren and Angus Young back in the 80’s and converted me to the primitive beauty and perfection of pre rock guitar styles from the likes of Jimmy Reed, Freddie, BB, and Albert King with his regular homemade compilations, and encyclopaedic knowledge and passion for the Blues.
The Lucerne Festival Committee have created a specialised atmosphere around the performances that makes it a pleasure for Blues travellers with a staff that demonstrate a rare and wonderful courteousness, efficiency and professional attention to every possible detail including earplugs if God forbid anyone would want to subdue these amazing performances in any way.
At the end of each performance fans have a chance to meet the performers and get CD’s from the nearby Crosscut Records stand, programmes and fan paraphernalia signed in a specially designated area that was a real treat for I believe both artist and fans alike. I ended up coming home with twenty-four CD’s from the Lucerne Festival representative of the musicians in attendance at this year’s festival. I watched as fans got old LP covers they had brought with them autographed and I witnessed one lady get a harmonica signed by her idol Charlie Musslewhite.
One of the notable features of being in the presence of such fabulous calibre of musicians is the beautiful individuality of each performer and that’s one of the striking experiences, I acknowledged and recognised, witnessing up to seven hours of live blues each night across the two stages in the Grand Casino from masters of the harp and guitar like Billy Boy Arnold, James Cotton, Charlie Musslewhite, Philip Walker, Bob Margolin, Johnny Bassett, who have each clocked up a half century of on the boards experience, entertainment finesse, flair and refinement. At this level the artists all have immediately recognisable blues styles; they not only speak the language fluently but also can master the grammar book as well with conviction. Watching players like Billy Flynn and James Wheeler play their guitars is like watching passion and personality articulated through the language of the blues, add the rhythm section from heaven Willie Big Eyes Smith on drums and Bob Stroger on Bass and the end result is totally beyond anything words can describe.
This was the line up for Billy Boy Arnold & The All Star Band and it featured a magical musical marriage of legendary performers who have carved out their own signature sound, have refined their chops down to reflect and reproduce Chicago, Texas, Southern States, and West Coast Blues perfection effortlessly and naturally.
Chicago Blues Guitar luminary and leading light Billy Flynn’s economical approach and perfectly placed fills crafted some of the most memorable blues guitar of the festival with the ultimate ability of knowing when to get in and when to get out and seems to truly enjoy performing adding humour and class to the proceedings looking like a very competent bank manager on stage. Describing himself to me afterwards as the only Irishman who’s never been to Ireland, the multi-talented Billy Flynn has the gift of the gab, a humorous, easy going, affable musician playing a clean Les Paul Copy through a Fender Amp and occasionally pulling a slide or harp from his pocket for a killer blast.
The All Stars created a great atmosphere in advance of the arrival of Chicago Harp Legend Billy Boy Arnold on stage, whose landmark 50’s classic’s “Ain’t Got You” and “I Wish You Would” inspired every pub blues band in Ireland and England in the sixties following successful chart hits for the Yardbirds. Born in Chicago 1935 and recording since 1952 with Bo Diddley “I’m A Man” in ‘55 and on Vee Jay Records with Jody Williams and Henry Gray, a youthful looking Billy Boy Arnold leads the All Star Band into each of his classics by playing the opening riff on a Fender Strat and as soon as Billy, James, Bob and Willie are locked into the groove he would fumble in his jacket for his harp, wet his lips and the world would stop for what seemed like blissful eternity as the audience swayed along to the infectious groove of his hypnotic R&B blue vocal, his unique harp and his classic compositions delivered with authoritative conviction and effortless ease.
“I got women to the left of me
I got women to the right of me
I got pretty women all around me
But I Ain’t Got You”
For me the wildest, high energy performances of the Lucerne Festival in 2005 was from Chicago Slide Guitarist Lil Ed and The Blues Imperials and it zapped me completely with its electric fast lane house rocking intensity and had the packed Grand Casino overjoyed and rapturous in its appreciation and amazement for every minute of Lil Ed’s fun loving acrobatic stage moves.
Following in the classic slide guitar style of his uncle J.B. Hutto and evoking the spirit and memories of razor slide legends like Hound Dog Taylor and Elmore James this is one of the best heads down, raw and exciting blues and boogie bands to ever set foot on a stage. This was a sweat dripping, blistering, jaw dropping suspension of belief performance with the Blues Imperials pounding out the rhythms, his massive half brother Pookie Young on Bass and long time accomplice Mike Garrett on rhythm and lead guitar, and the pulsating Kelly Littleton on Drums laying down the pounding foundations for Lil Ed William’s tireless duck walking, back bending, tip toeing, flying leap, mind blowing guitar escapades around the stage and out into the awe-diance playing screaming raw edged solo’s that sound like the speakers had been slashed with razor blades.
This is pure old fashioned Chicago magic from the grinning pocket sized former buffer at the Red Carpet Car Wash, who demonstrated to all present how he has built a reputation for tearing up concert and festival stages for the past twenty years with ferocious, roaring hot slide playing and sizzling, solid, hard hitting live blues energy adding a platoon of new supporters to his loyal following of fans affectionately called Ed Heads at Lucerne this year.
“Because you never miss your water
Till your well runs dry”
One of the Lucerne Blues Festival favourites over the years has been Bob Margolin and his All Star Blues Jam this year was a fantastic celebration of Chicago Blues from himself and his sidemen. Steady Rollin Bob who learned his chops in Muddy Waters famous band also had the aforementioned Muddy sideman Willie Big Eyes Smith on Drums and award winning Brooklyn born slick back biker look alike Mookie Brill on Bass, David Maxwell on Keyboards accompanied by Bobs sister Sherry, the marvellous Mark Kaz Kazanoff on Saxophone, and a brilliant performance from Nappy Brown regarded as the greatest living blues singer, with a strip teasing procession into the middle of the crowd. Bob has a proven track record for producing the brightest and best blues performances on stage and in the studio and his passion and skill motivates brilliant Chicago Blues performances from his collaborations. One of my favourite blues writers, Bobs insightful contributions to Blues Revue are a wise counsel and a must for any aspiring musicians wishing to create music and perform and keep the Blues flame alight around the globe, a tremendous guitarist and bandleader his sound is dependable and foot tappingly spontaneous and when he cuts loose on his Les Paul the result is a adoring wailing blue sound that is vintage, groovy, authentic and bone chilling.
Charlie Musslewhite put on two superb showcases of his talent and music in Lucerne, one the first night I arrived he performed a sumptuously intimate solo show that was like a workshop demonstrating his mastery and skill in an atmosphere of palpable warmth and affection for this very likable journeyman of the blues. With his case of Harps open in front of him he dipped into a treasure throve of delights holding the audience’s attention in the metaphorical palm of his hand. When he arrived for his second show two nights later, with the remarkable Kid Anderson on Guitar, it was a stunning, electrifying solid Musslewhite spectacular. The sizzling chemistry on stage between Charlie, Kid and the Band was musically explosive relentless and the individual brilliance at play on stage combined to generate a rocket fuelled blues presentation and performance that was clearly as enjoyable and pleasurable for the Charlie Musslewhite Band on the main stage, as it was for the elated crowd beaming in a state of high excitement on that Saturday night in the Grand Casino.
“You know the blues overtook me
When I was a little child
Fast women and whiskey
Made this southern boy wild”
One of the early morning highlights of the Lucerne Festival was going down to breakfast in the Hotel Flora for a relatively healthy fare in comparison to the greasy fry ups back in Ireland instead settling down to an a tasty assortment of cold meats, cheese, fresh fruit garnished with loads of yoghurt and pots of tea .The other treat was meeting all the musicians resident in the hotel having a chat with fans and planning rehearsals and interviews for the day ahead and a favourite every morning as I dragged myself out of bed in time for the breakfast, was greeting Billy Flynn and The Carter Brothers always bright and cheerful and groomed for the day ahead even though I would have left them jamming at 4am in the Grand Casino.
The Carter Brothers are enjoying well deserved acclamation on the Festival scene with their brand of soulful blues and the crowd pleasing conversations from Roman Carter on vocals and his brother Albert on guitar dressed in matching full length pin stripe suits on stage was visually dramatic and fabulous as they worked their back catalogue of hits from the early sixties.
These great survivors Roman and Albert had been playing their brand of invigorating, tough bluesy southern soul and good time stompers, in the shadows of the music scene in local clubs back home after slipping out of the limelight in the late sixties and have re emerged onto the international circuit in recent years to find their reissued material has fashioned a popular fan base in Europe and Japan. Roman has a wonderfully catching, anguished toned voice that could peel the potatoes for you, and takes the audience into a magnificent ambiance of down home blues and deep soul updated by the sound of their rhythm section and the modern blues guitar sound of Adam Myles who told me he mastered his chops playing along to our own Rory Gallagher’s licks and techniques, bursting forth on cue like a double barrel shotgun on stage. The Carter Brothers are amazing and if fair is not just something you pay in the taxi then they will hopefully enjoy their well earned success in their senior years ahead, and finally, sticking with the breakfast theme, from their 1964 hit, Southern Country Boy.
“You cook me fried chicken and hot biscuits
You serve it to me in bed
You pick the seeds out of my watermelon baby
And put a pillow under my head”
Great Harp legend James Cotton known as Mr Superharp arrived on stage with another fantastic assemblage of talented sidemen that included Darrell Nulisch on vocals, David Maxwell on keyboards and the incendiary guitar talents of Rico McFarland. This crowd were delighted to see and hear this true legend of the harp that shared stages with Sonny Boy Williamson, Howling Wolf, Johnny Winter and Muddy Waters who commanded the crowd’s attention with his personality and style.
One of the hardest working bluesmen on stage and in the studio James Cotton’s reputation as a Harp player has been recognised across all genres of contemporary music in the last fifty years and his music lives and breaths as the template for blues harp performance in not only Blues but also Country and Rock as well. Perched on his seat on stage James blows the living daylights out of his harps creating a wall of sound and texture with a relaxed atmosphere that makes you feel your standing at the steps of a front porch in Mississippi in the presence of a Blues Master.
Detroit was well represented by the excellent Detroit R&B Revue with the very tasty and assured guitar skills of Johnny Bassett breathing fire into his sweet licks backed up by the driving sound of a stage full of Detroit’s finest rhythm n blues players with 50’s star Joe Weaver laying sweet soul tinged blues vocals for the first phase of the set and the belting Thornetta Davis arriving later to take the session into the stratosphere.
Bringing to mind another great Master of the Blues was heralded by the arrival of the great John Lee Hooker companion and studio associate and incredible slide guitarist Roy Rodgers with his superb Delta Kings. Working with an assortment of amplified acoustic guitars including a stunning double neck this was a barnstorming, high-energy set of pure and authentic blues guitar mastery and technique. It was a rock solid throbbing honky tonk performance that pulsated beneath the soles of your feet with a cutting edge of tightness and force that was breathtaking to observe and had the camera brigade at the front of the stage furiously trying to track the manic pace on stage some of whom were wielding elongated lens and attachments that would require planning permission back in Ireland.
Roy Rodgers connects to the audience with a certainty and solid confidence in his absolutely amazing skill on the six strings. Like his famous namesake Roy Rodgers rode into Lucerne on his six-string trigger and proceeded to shoot up the place with a rousing, motivating inspired performance leaving not a sinner on the streets when he walked off the stage. Roy remembered fondly his open air performance in College Green, Dublin back in the 90’s at the Temple Bar Blues Festival sadly now defunct and was looking for forward to revisiting a stage in Ireland some day soon.
One on my most memorable blues gigs in Dublin was by Philip Walker and it was acknowledged by many in I spoke with in Lucerne this year that their cherished performances was from the Philip Walker Big Band Blues Show with his four piece brass ensemble.
The super talented line up of superb musicianship and first class blues guitar presented a unique blend of blues.
Philip Walker is deservedly considered to be one of the best guitarists and live performer on today’s blues stage and has earned the respect and love of his colleagues and fans the world over for his outstanding full size sound embroidered with immaculate fret work. Standing with authoritativeness centre stage he builds each song up from its roots into a flowering orchestration of counter melodies taking the audience with him into dynamic climax after climax full of blue swing, jive and West Coast versatility. His voice has a wonderful silky smooth sleek timbre that is uplifting, raspy and swampy and fills the air with intimate, impassioned, emotional magic and is in pole position as one of the most important performances for any fan of the guitar and a live performance to witness on stage with 50 years of stagecraft charisma standing tall as a well dressed mountain in living breathing authenticity.
The final performance bringing proceedings to a close in the Grand Casino was left in the very capable hands of young gun Ronnie Baker Brooks now cutting a blazing reputation for himself after serving his apprenticeship as sideman for his famous Dad, the legendary and celebrated Lonnie Brooks. He has got the blueprints and is building a blistering, smokin, full frontal assault on his fret board with his modern speedy blues shuffles driving along with the rhythm crunchiness of tank tracks under the hood.
Ronnie is a classic showman on stage manipulating the guitar and sound into a melting brew of audience captivation fuelled by a boundless non stop energy and unpredictable joy at one stage bringing his performance across the hall and in behind the bar where he proceeded to have a cocktail through a straw while playing a paint peeling solo behind his head.
Rico McFarland joined Ronnie midway through a song on stage with as unbelievable as it sounds four hands tearing note perfected fills from Ronnie’s guitar and in true camaraderie Ronnie handed the guitar to Rico to finish out the song in his own inimitable style while looking on approvingly from the side of the stage.
It doesn’t get and better than this and as we danced into the early hours of the morning in Lucerne and began to wind down we all felt collectively blues zapped and orgasmic after such a range of sublime and intricately beautifully potent blues performances from the stellar line ups on the Lucerne Blues Festival stages in 2005 where age was nothing but a number.