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Lucerne Blues Festival

PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2014 11:27 am
by Garth Cartwright
I’ve long been aware that Lucerne hosts an annual blues festival. Specifically, a festival that brings leading US artists – and their bands – over. Artists’ of the caliber unseen in the UK these days. The London Blues Festival that now happens at the Royal Albert Hall each October is a joke – Van Morrison, Level 42 and a few other big names that have, at most, the slightest connection with African American music – and reflects on how the UK public have both little interest and access to US blues today. The Swiss, with their wealth and sponsors, put on this superb festival – 2014 was the 20th anniversary – to celebrate the genre in its myriad forms.

The Lucerne festival runs in total for eight days but, unless you live there, it is only the Friday and Saturday nights that demand attention. The event is held in a large basement room of the Lucerne Grand Casino and starts at 7pm, running until the very early hours (I tended to retire around 2am but it lasts until 4 if you are so determined). Friday night started with Kara Grainger Band. I’m previously unaware of Ms Grainger but it turns out she is an LA-based Australian who plays guitar and sings and performs competent if rather ordinary blues rock. Not an exciting start to proceedings. Then it’s Jimmie Johnson’s band. I’m vaguely aware of Jimmie as older brother to Syl and a veteran of the Chicago scene but have never seen him before. Well, he plays beautifully, his blues having an unhurried, lyrical flavor. JJ is in his 80s but looks and sounds decades younger. Next up was Otis Clay with Johnny Rawls as his MC. Rawls is a soul blues journeyman who wears a blindingly bright red sequined jacket and leads Clay’s superb big band through a handful of tunes. Then Otis comes on resembling a black Moses – purple suit, huge grey whiskers, a voice akin to what I imagine the Old Testament god supposedly possessed – and shows how deep soul ballads are sung. What a master! I’ve seen Otis once in the US and once at Italy’s Poretta Soul Music festival and he never fails to deliver. At one point his sax’ player faints on stage – being a basement it is very humid – and Otis appears almost ready to quit the stage but carries on, mentioning how collective prayer got the sax man through. Next up was The 44s, a Californian bar band who model themselves on The Red Devils, that LA bar band who briefly made waves in the early-1990s. They play blues that would well soundtrack Sons Of Anarchy, tough and crunchy.

Saturday begins with Sugar Ray Rayford and his big band. Ray is a huge young black man with an expressive voice and winning personality. His band are tight if somewhat indistinctive – the obese guitarist proves he can play all kinds of styles but never settles into one sound of his own. Then there’s Cyril Neville leading a 4-piece funk band. Neville has huge energies and a lot to say and his rhythm section are magnificent. But, being a veteran of jam band events, he lets his guitarist play rock solos on too many numbers. Then it’s Delbert McClinton’s turn. I’ve wanted to see Delbert perform ever since I first became aware of him back in the 1980s. I doubt he means much to British music fans but Charlie rated him and put his Honky Tonkin’ on the first Honky Tonk compilation (did Charlie name his radio show after the Delbert tune? I wonder). McClinton is 72, a small man with a beautifully expressive voice and a note perfect band. His music effortlessly blends blues and country and soul. He is, I’m happy to say, even better than I imagined. To see Delbert alone was reason enough to travel to Lucerne! He’s followed by zydeco veteran Buckwheat Zydeco who has the brightest smile in town and a great accordion sound. He also sits at the Hammond and plays Jimmy Smith and Booker T tunes. Not very zydeco but they sound good and he obviously loves to play that organ. His band are tight yet Buckwheat tends to draw songs out while I find zydeco works best as concise dance numbers. So when it gets to 2am I slink back to the Jail Hotel (good value).

Switzerland is predictably expensive yet there is affordable accommodation and cheap Asian restaurants. Lucerne is beautiful and has a fine art museum full of Picassos. The walking is superb. The festival hosted excellent sound yet lack of any seating makes standing for seven hour stretches punishing. Yet what’s blues without a little pain along the way?

Re: Lucerne Blues Festival

PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2014 1:32 pm
by Jamie Renton
Lovely review. Thanks Garth.

Re: Lucerne Blues Festival

PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2014 3:51 pm
by uiwangmike
Agreed. I daresay Delbert McClinton means quite a lot to some of the members here, in my case at least thanks to Charlie. It's good to hear he's alive and well - he was indisposed earlier this year. He has a page on Facebook.
And here with his son Clay (who's also been in the wars this year), doing a song that Charlie used to play a lot.