Tuesday, July 08, 2014

WWDBD? goes to Montreux: The Tedeschi Trucks Band & Buddy Guy

© Simon Poulter 2014

At risk of stepping on the toes of blasphemy, I must confess to holding a somewhat fundamentalist view on music, equating the blues as Old Testament and pretty much everything else as New.

The simplest explanation is that in the biblical sense, the Old Testament is the foundation, and the New Testament builds on it. Or to put it another way, and in the words of Willie Dixon, "the blues are the roots, everything else is the fruits".

However, before this analogy overreaches itself, and this latest post from Montreux turns into a sermon, let me turn your attention to Blues Night at the Jazz Festival. To start with, it is hosing down, biblically so. At some point Noah is going to pitch up with hammers, nails, timber and a clicker.

Montreux is prone at this time of year to spectacular thunderstorms that creep up from the Mediterranean bearing rain-leaden, planet-sized clouds. Framed by the Alps, they suggest the arrival of an alien mothership, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind-style, dumping a significant quantity of water on Lake Geneva and its surroundings, which all seems somewhat unnecessary.

During the July weeks of the Jazz Festival, it is actually quite refreshing, as long as you're not dressed up to the nines, as the predominantly Eurochic clientele that pours into Montreux at this time of year are.

Needless to say, What Would David Bowie Do? is well and truly soaked as it gets directed mistakenly to the wrong venue, the result of being given the wrong coloured bracelet by a now mortified gopher. As much as it would have been interesting to have seen Eels play the Jazz Club, good money was spent on seeing The Tedeschi Trucks Band and Buddy Guy play the Auditorium Stravinski, and so no amount of precipitation is going to get in the way of seeing a return on that investment.

As it is, getting well and truly drenched doesn't dampen the experience, any less than the opening act of the night - blues power couple Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks and their substantial ensemble - warm the soul.

Compared with the previous evening's stripped-down acoustic guitars, from the drummer's count-in, this is a full-on event. And proof-positive that, against the prejudices of those who think of the blues only in terms of the plaintive "I woke up this morning...", the blues comes in a spectrum of shades.

It is also the root of virtually every form of popular music to have emerged in the 20th century, from jazz to rock and roll, hip hop to R'n'B. Blues music is the heart and soul of Americana, blending the sweat and toil of cotton field labour, with immigrant spiritual and folk music. At it's simplest, it's a blind man with a one-stringed guitar and an empty beer bottle.

At it's broadest, it's a ten-piece supergroup, sewn together by the marriage of a New Englander with a powerful, God-given gospel voice and a guitar-playing gift, to a Jacksonville blues slide prodigy who grew up around The Allman Brothers Band (his uncle, Butch, is its drummer), eventually being invited to join the group at just 20.

Picture: Mark Seliger
Since deciding to pool their resources three years ago and effectively create a husband-and-wife supergroup, Tedeschi and Trucks have elevated their game considerably. The Tedeschi Trucks Band's first album, Revelator was just that, a perfect storm of the Delta and rhythm and blues, with added funk and soulful Southern good times, earning itself a Grammy and Rolling Stone's verdict "a masterpiece". Their 2013 release, Made Up Mind brought TTTB on further, with a stronger fusion of the gospel vibe of Tedeschi's musical upbringing, and a delightful, carefree turn-of-the-70s feel to it (with, even, a flute making an appearance - yes, a flute!).

It's on that note that I suddenly realise, as The Tedeschi Trucks Band starts to warm up the sodden Auditorium Stravinski audience that we are, in fact, witnessing the reincarnation of Delaney & Bonnie, the first white group to sign for Stax and which, at various times featured Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Duane Allman, and led to the former forming Derek & The Dominos, from which Trucks earned his Christian name. Do you see how rock music works? Back to the Bible again - there's a lot of "X begat Y" and "A, son of B, son of C".

The set draws on a broad church of TTTB material - much drawn from Made Up Mind, such as the bright and breezy Do I Look Worried, as well as the odd cover, including Derek & The Dominos' Keep On Growing, an expansive song to begin with, and made even more so by the musician-packed stage with Trucks' stunningly fluid slide work at its centre. Throughout, Tedeschi's voice is unrelentingly fabulous, one that inevitably draws comparison to Mavis Staples and indeed Bonnie Bramlett.

© Simon Poulter 2014
There is a notion that proper, old-school rock'n'roll died out a long time ago. I can assure you, it is very much alive, and the Tedeschi-Trucks supergroup lives it comprehensively. This is the sort of show that leaves little room for breath, such is it's supremacy as entertainment. That might sound like hyperbole, but when you consider the vapidity of most, if not all, pop being churned out by a business focused on the short-term rather than the long, @derekandsusan - as their delightful Twitter handle reads - are keeping alive a spirit that can be traced back to the very era in which Claude Nobs launched this magnificent annual celebration of the best of contemporary music.

TTTB shuffling off stage would normally be the end of it. An evening well spent in the warm embrace of utterly infectious blues-soul-whatever. But this being Montreux, we're only at half-time. In fact, after a 30-minute beer break, the fun - and surprises - are a long way from over.

© Simon Poulter 2014
At 77, Buddy Guy isn't the oldest of the still-performing 'original' Delta bluesmen. BB King is till going, just about, at the age of 88.

And even though Guy is just eight years older than British invasionists like Clapton or Jimmy Page, there is no questioning his authenticity. Born in a Mississippi-side rural community in Louisiana, Guy followed the mighty river north to make use of his guitar skills in Chicago, falling under the mentorship of Muddy Waters, soon playing alongside Howlin' Wolf  and Sonny Boy Williamson, and contemporaries like Otis Rush and Magic Sam.

Even if the increasingly frail King remains king of the blues, Guy is without doubt still its most vibrant original. Dressed in his now trademark polka-dot shirt (a matching Fender Stratocaster is also available, amongst other lucratively marketed merchandise in the bluesman's very astute commercial endeavours), from the very beginning he is showering the audience in charisma that is the very antithesis of sneering, indifferent rock stardom.

With Clapton talking of giving up touring - and, frankly, looking increasingly bored on stage - with his recording output weakening with every release (Old Sock was, largely, just that), it is not only a joy but a privilege to find an elder statesman like Guy still giving and showing total enjoyment of his craft.

From the outset, Damn Right, I've Got The Blues, he's on absolute form. His shows could easily be played as cabaret reviews, but the set remains firmly entrenched in the blues, with brilliantly faithful covers of Waters' She's Nineteen Years Old (famously slipped into Led Zeppelin's I Can't Quit You Baby), Hoochie Coochie Man and I Just Want To Make Love To You, Guy provides an education in the very Chicago blues recorded at the Chess studio I got to visit last August.

Throughout, there is the cheeky humour that lies beneath most blues songs (forget that they're all about human misery), with 74 Years Young being 'upgraded' to "77", Hendrix's Voodoo Child (Slight Return) getting a dusting off for the sheer hell of it, and John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom providing another connection to the incredible canon of Chicago's blues heritage.

I mentioned earlier in this review that there were surprises in store. Well, one: Quinn Sullivan. If people marvelled at the teenage Derek Trucks, and the 17-year-old Clapton playing in The Yardbirds and later becoming "God" in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Sullivan is having much the same impact. Indeed, more so.

First spotted at the age of just seven - yes, seven - Quinn has been championed by Guy, joining him on tours. He is, quite frankly, a jaw-droppingly good guitarist, working his Strat like someone several decades his senior...and he is still just 15 years old.

Uncanny: Sullivan (15), Clapton (17)
It's hard to comprehend just how accomplished a player Sullivan is by these words alone. And while it is tempting - when you see the child Sullivan being hawked around American talk shows - to suspect some exploitation going on, you have to recall how Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Page were the same age when they began their professional careers, Clapton the same when he was busking in the pubs of south-west London. Michael Jackson was only six when he made his professional debut...

Throughout Sullivan's turn in the spotlight you can't help but notice Guy beaming at his protegé.

For someone like Guy who has seen it all, in his journey up the Mississippi to become one of the blues' most senior living legends, he demonstrates a visible delight for his teenage discovery, one that first saw him give Sullivan a guest spot on his 2008 album Skin Deep (at the age of nine...).

After working their way through the likes of Cream's Strange Brew, Guy invites Tedeschi and Trucks back out on stage for the obligatory blues jam, Sullivan remaining with them. I say that as if we're being inflicted with a hackneyed tradition. We're not. In fact we're getting the sort of joyous finale that only musicians of this instinctive talent can pull off, extending the evening's double-bill with a coda that, frankly paid for the entire week in Montreux.

Noticeably dryer than when I entered the Auditorium Stravinsky, I make my way out, vowing to never pick up a guitar again. After all, what's the bloody point when you've got a 15-year-old making mincemeat of everyone else?

Picture: Facebook/Montreux Jazz Festival

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