Event Reviews – Festivals – Lucerne Blues Festival 2011

Lucerne, Switzerland – 11 November 2011

The evening began with the red neck Texan quartet Shawn Pittman and The Blues Stars who treated us to a ferocious set of blues typical of the lone star state. Blistering, in your face guitar, thundering drums and a Hagrid look-alike bass man with a ‘don’t you mess with me’ attitude. It reminded me, for no apparent reason, of the first time I heard Hound Dog Taylors ‘Alligator’ debut. You knew the titles of the covers that Shawn sang but the deliveries were all Pittmanised. A brilliant show-stopping act spoilt only by his own self-penned ‘I Don’t Want To Be Famous’ the sentiment of which I doubt was true. The band received three or four encores – which gives you an idea of the impact they made on the crowd.

Following this was always going to be difficult. Bob Corritore’s Rhythm Room All-Stars with guest star Kirk Fletcher originally made the mistake of starting loud and in your face, with guitarist Chris James trying to match what went before; probably a bad idea but ‘what has a poor boy got to do?’ When Kirk was asked to step forward he pointed the way with an excellent cool solo, which caught our attention. Unfortunately it was a while before Kirk was given another chance to shine and by then Henry Gray had taken over the show with his class act on keyboards and vocals. Meanwhile Bob’s high-energy harp playing was punctuating meaningfully and with class.

Soon it was Tail Dragger’s time to strut his stuff and that he did. Soon he was trying to dominate Henry who seemed bemused by Tail Dragger wandering off into the crowd and at times giving us all lessons on how to behave together with snippets of his biography – “I have had four wives and I know how to treat a woman right”. I did notice that this seemingly congenial old man did not make reference to foreshortening Boston Blackey‘s life with the help of a revolver! But perhaps this was not the time or place to bring it up.

This show was definitely not choreographed and at times it teetered on the chaotic but, for me, it was real and indicative of an evening in a non-pc Chicago club. Well done to Bob and the band for managing to hold it all together.

Otis Clay was, for me, going to be the main man of the evening and hearing Mike Stephenson’s excited review of the sound check wherein Otis’s full working band, complete with horn section, were as tight as a drum and the thought of it certainly got my juices working hard. I had never seen him before but have all of his amazing recorded works so expectations were high.

The ‘sound check’ should have been the main course. Unfortunately Otis seemed to have lost the set list, much to the dismay of the members of the band and over and over he stopped them in full flight to chat about this and that. The rest of the audience, myself included, became restless, started to chat with one another and lost interest.

There were flashes of his former glory when he and the band cooked up a soulful stew and I felt like dancing but before I managed to get myself in motion the fire was gone. Consolation was an autographed CD – even if he signed it while chatting to some lady whom he attempted to give it away to!

I think I came to the party a few years too late!

Next up were Larry Garner and his working US band. By now I had been on my feet for some six hours and I needed a fix of something with verve and finesse as of his early Louisiana days. Instead we were regaled with numbers that rocked on guitar endlessly and made me feel old. I do hope that the rest of the evening with him got better but I think he might have noticed on his English tours that European and perhaps US audiences in the main prefer ‘rock blues’ instead of ‘blues with a feeling’.

I went back to The Jailhouse Hotel and, ever comfortable in my cell, I fell asleep.

By the time I arrived at the casino for the Saturday show Quintus McCormick had been onstage for some forty-five minutes but, judging by the last forty minutes of the show, missing it was a bonus. I have only his records to go by so I cannot say whether he was stoned from the start or this was his normal state. He cackled and twitched and staggered about in a fog whilst sweating profusely, allowing the band to provide some sort of support. At one point he did take off his guitar and seemed, for a fleeting moment, to consider jumping into the crowd; reality luckily prevailed and some Swiss lady was serenaded with ‘Lets slip away’ – the extended version. He then dragged his sorry self back onto the stage – the promoter did not seem amused.

After the Quintus debacle Ruthie Foster was truly a breath of fresh air. I knew her by her first album but did not consider her a blues player and expected to find her a lightweight Americana folk singer – how wrong I was. Ruthie’s band consisted of a male mandolin player who doubled up on keyboards, a female bass player who doubled up on violin and another rather large lady smacking the drums. Together with Ruthie’s fine vocals and mainly acoustic guitar they managed to garner a storm on stage mixing blues, soul and gospel in even doses whilst genuinely seeming to enjoy the evening and treating the audience with respect. The hall responded in kind – this was a class act and I am pleased to have bought her new double signed CD.

Joe Louis Walker came on stage at 23:45 and seemed to have partaken in similar substances to Quintus. He managed to depress the audience with a show wherein he preferred to allow his sidemen and guests from other bands to do the work for him. Apart from the two African artists, who might have been part of the band, none of them amounted to a crock of beans. To top it all he managed to stagger to a mike and complain about promoters who didn’t pay their dues. He then began singing an ode to promoters in general being financially unreliable. It was crass, stupid and extremely offensive; all this coming from a man who took money from a friend of mine who is a UK promoter. A tour was organized for Joe Louis but he didn’t turn up in the UK – but did keep the money. I don’t suppose he will be back to Lucerne next year.

I heard Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience in the Schweizerhof Hotel at lunchtime and he sounded similar to when I saw him in Austin some ten/twelve years ago. He was a great zydeco artist and great fun to see. He was billed to be on after Joe Louis Walker but I felt tired after the Joe Louis experience so I sloped off back my cell at The Jail House Hotel and dreamt of home.

Gerald Homan