Hi there Peeps,I just finished a 2 months long blues jam tour as a harmonica player.Most of the eastern US,From Austin Texas to Vermont and back.
Here is the story,if you’re interested:
It had been over 100 degrees for more than 2 months already in Austin,I like it warm but not that warm and not in the city…Time for a vacation, get out of town and do what? The idea was quickly realized that I could drive north, find blues jams along the way, looking for greener pastures,see something new and play more music
Having done a similar “tattoo guest spot tour “ in my trusty Dodge minivan years before that had me explore the coast from Texas and Florida, all the way up the east coast to Virginia,I knew it could be done.
Not the most comfortable way to go about it,but manageable and certainly the most affordable way .With certain adjustments and improvements on the car and its interior ,having learned from the past at least in this regard, I took off with the first jam to be scheduled in Little Rock AR at the [White Water Tavern]
Focused on live music for decades,it is easy to see once you muster up the courage to go inside ,considering the location and the looks on the outside. Live music almost every night,old posters of gigs long gone ,memorabilia ,crooked wooden floors included,it just asked for the blues. As so often the case, the dingier the place looks ,the better the music,musicians and of course the cheaper the drinks.
Timing is everything as I am often being reminded of, the jams often happen to be on Sun,Mon,Tues,rarely Wed and almost never Thurs never mind the weekend.
So from Little Rock, with some time in yet another State Park to regroup,shower and research where to go next, Nashville TN was the destination. Memphis was being kept for the grand finale on the way back was my reasoning. I had sat in with Vince Johnson at the[ Blues Hall Juke Joint ]on Beale Street 4-5 years prior. He graciously gave me 3 tunes while he took a break,being a harp player himself, It seemed even more generous of him to give me the time o’day.
I also wanted to go further North fast to get some cooler temperatures.
It became clear very quickly that it wasn’t as easy to find these jams as I hoped, still sitting at my desk and computer at home,but this is what it is now. Between the times without service on my phone, there was a constant search for destinations and blues jams. Plenty of “open mics” which is singer songwriter territory and usually painful to listen to,only karaoke is more painful…
Nashville then it is, [Bourbon Street Bar seemed promising,never mind the name ,but a day too late…
It was Carol Ann’s on Murfreesboro Pike, and across the street the supposedly “famous” Drake Motel, where the “Stars” stay. At least that’s what the photographs in the lobby suggested, never mind the missing autographs to give them any authenticity, but apparently an often used location for movie shoots.
Carol Ann’s has been around for close to 20 years ,soul food kitchen,assigned tables and seats, and the most well dressed people I had seen in any of the bars I played in before and since, without being snooty.Here people made an effort ,because they don’t go out all the time and they are definitely not getting sloshed; they are here for the food, the music and to see some old friends again,and I mean old. At 57 I might have been the youngest person there,the friendly waitress excluded.
Numerous patrons had been walked in by sometimes more than one helpful friend or relative, all the while smiling and nodding to people all around out of sheer happiness to be still alive and the expectation of a beautiful evening with great music, food and a mixed drink,maybe two.
By now I should know what to play when the guitarist shouts “C-minor” and I will work on it, I promise, but not that night. Trying not to look like a total idiot, I moved as far stage right against the wall as I could, more to not have to look at anybody looking at me. Squeamishly doing a bit of German foot dancing, I was finally absolved of my ignorance as a musician when the next song was in a familiar key so I would at least have a chance to redeem myself. It went over good, puuuuuh…
After the politically correct 3 tunes I took my leave, to get another beer, Coors light…why not ?
Another gig under the belt without serious faux pas other than the first tune,I received encouraging nods once or twice and after some more beers went on home to the place where the Stars stay.
Good Night Drake Hotel, thank you Carol Ann’s.
I always liked the name Knoxville Tennessee,it just rolls of the tongue with the promise of pizzazz.
It evaded me, when I arrived at[ Open Chord] in Knoxville the next day and I realized it was a music shop. Usually frequented by good or better musicians,there is no beer,the vibe generally doesn’t get off the ground. Maybe good to find out how strong your chops are,hence more sobering than a lot of fun, but not in this case…Adjacent to the shop is a perfectly outfitted stage with lights,camera,action and a full bar….it’s gonna be alright, it’s gonna be alright.
Blues jams are in fact a lot like coming to a new school or kindergarten,you meet your future class-mates and the more you do it the more you find the same characters present.
The bully ,usually the bar owner or the guy running the jam,the clown or friendly guy,the guy that doesn’t get out much and is happy to just talk to someone other than his wife or dog, the aloof guy that is actually really good,the over confident asshole and the guy that plays the same instrument as you and is wondering if you are better than him,or maybe that’s just me wondering.
It serves you well to be diplomatic to make nice and have people to play with. My cousin once told me the story when he went to a new school and was advised to knock out the first guy that tries to give him ANY grief.
It worked for him, instead I took note and acted accordingly by either smiling ,responding or ignoring somebody all together… The Jam went over pretty good ,some nice tunes, even though the ‘Facilitator” let’s call him, squeezed himself in endlessly, while telling people on stage what to do during the song.I hear he is a guitar teacher as well….
My Van parked outside in the parking lot, I was safe and sound for the night .
Fast forward to Pennsylvania 2 days later.Meeting up with an old friend after not seeing each other for more than 5 years is worth a long drive. Since he had some time off of work, we could hang out drink beer and reminisce about the last years .
Not expecting much of the area of Doylestown PA it soon turned out that there were indeed two jams coming up,the first at a restaurant called Villa Capris and the second one in the adjacent town of Hatboro PA at a bar called Crooked Eye Brewery.
Considering that I had done jams in every imaginable place from farmers markets, coffee shops to mexican restaurants in the past I wasn’t too excited about Villa Capris, it sounded and looked mor like a restaurant,but it turned out to be a very old, small location in a once probably private house and the bar area had a tiny stage, that was split by an open door that was leading to a second story patio.
As the members of [the Little Red Rooster Band ]started piling in, I became more convinced that this was maybe a good choice.
The biggest challenge I found doing all the jams was to get your microphone set up.Loads of musicians don’t realize that as a harp player it is never advisable to play through one of the vocal mics already set up. As a blues harp player you don’t play like Bob Dylan or Neil Young with a harmonica holder. When you cup a vocal mic, they will be too loud and are then prone to feed back.The chosen harp bullet mics have a lower and slightly distorted sound,that were put on record by the likes of Little Walter and Snooky Pryor, Chicago harmonica sound at its best and what the ears are accustomed to hear. These were the cheap microphones of the day back then,readily available and often endured at fairground rides to workplace intercom speakers. Trying to make it as easy as possible to” jump up” there and play ,I resorted to playing through a DI pedal, to plug right into the PA. Made by Lone Wolf in Louisiana,called the Boogieman, especially for harmonica players,it enables you to create your own sound with a range of adjustments from distortion to delay. By far the easiest and fastest way to plug in and not annoy whoever deals with the PA,it still takes a moment that a lot of present musicians can’t be bothered with. Hence I tend to show up early and get the set up out of the way. That poses another danger…
Whoever shows up to set up the PA is not always willing or interested to hear your preferences on what you want to play through, they got stuck with, or volunteered to set up the PA ,wanna get it out of the way so they can cuddle and coo their instrument for the gig ahead.
“Whaddaya play?..Yeah we’ll get you up later…” which translates to: You’re one of those annoying harmonica players that is too loud through MY mic and doesn’t know how to play a real instrument like me,piss off.
Now the choice is yours, knock him out like my cousin did in his new school…probably not a good idea if you want to play here, be persistent in your presentation,which could lead to more piss off attitude,or chalk it up and look forward to a moment of desperate panic when its your turn to play and you have to set it up yourself while handing your XLR cable to the guy next to the PA with a begging expression on your face to get you plugged in and soundchecked.
Neither one of these options present themselves as desirable and can cause shitty sounds and sweaty palms. Fame and fortune at the blues jam,if I only would have practiced my guitar; I too could be taken more seriously. Too late…
The house band usually plays a whole set,they are the only ones getting paid for their effort,which gives you more time to fret about how you are gonna make this as smooth as possible, fun times.
Little Red Rooster Band also had a harp player who brought his own amp,so the decision was made to play through that instead of setting up my own sound. When in Rome and such.
Another challenge was my name : PRAKASH ,pronounced : pruhkaash, seems fairly straight forward when you see it spelled out ,but it proved to be a never ending source of confusion and tongue twisting efforts ,even after numerous repetitions. Down the road at other jams I just said: “Call me Pete !” Your name really doesn’t matter when you show up once at a jam,never to be seen again,or does it?
Great tunes from the band,nice people and again encouraging nodding and a fist bump or two on my back to the bar for another beer.My buddy recording the tunes on his phone was a nice byproduct which proved to be useless ,because I wasn’t loud enough,oooh if I only could have set up my pedal.
The next day we’re off to Hatboro Pa,really just the next town over. In this region of Pennsylvania it’s one town bleeding into the next, sometimes separated by a corn field or two,if you don’t pay attention you might end up in New Jersey before you know it
At the [Crooked Eye Brewery] on arrival it was clear that these people were serious about the music. Full on Stage with lights and solid PA, as a German native, beer drinking is part of your DNA and the brewery selection was speckled with IPA and hops heavy brews that I never enjoyed ,but the choices
were plentiful. No attitude here,even when the 6’4 already socially lubricated lighthouse of a guy shows up, to declare to me that he was a harmonica player as well. Well harp players gotta stick together, we are the red haired stepchildren of music…Quick exchange about different harps and mics,all the while I am confused about his harp case that consists more of cardboard and duct tape rather than anything that keeps his instruments from falling through the cracks. He is the local talisman of the place,everyone knows his name and smiling at his arrival. He gets first spot in the jam and does a mix of stand up and playing his harp, while spilling his balls all over the stage when he pulls down his pants a little and ping pong balls pour out of his shorts. Gotta love the east coast people !
Being a baby of the sixties and an avid connoisseur of the music that I might have heard in my mother’s womb while she was attending some hip party in Germany, the next destination was self explanatory : WOODSTOCK NY
Not a blues destination per se,but nevertheless a definite music destination. I was advised to bring an umbrella by numerous FB friends, never having owned an umbrella or ever planning on owning one, I considered this to be the same joke as the repeated comments about not to take the brown acid…still haven’t looked into what that was all about.
At the entrance to this by now historic town was a pristine golf course, which was to set the tone for the rest of the town. Having arrived 50 years after the fact I was somewhat prepared for what I was about to see.Really just a very nice and clean and friendly looking place with one major intersection, bedazzled with little shops of crystals,incense and day glow tie dye outfits,plus the nowadays obligatory yoga studios and coffee shops.Certainly nothing left of the naked mud caked hippies and their tree hugging friends, but then again the actual location of the famous festival is not in town
A quick inquiry at the local music shop, confirmed : No blues jams ,but one open mic ( god help us) and the best location for anything like that , [THE STATION
Once an actual train station,it is nowadays transformed into an indoor/outdoor bar that has live music almost every day. For this evening entertainment pleasures :
Crow Bones ,maybe I get to sit in with those cats,maybe…
Most of the time I was reluctant to just walk up to bands at their gig and asked to sit in.
These guys don’t know me, they have a show more or less figured out and I usually get eyed as the typical harmonica player that is here to fuck up your set, because I am a drunken fool that wants to be on stage for a little while and doesn’t know what he is doing.
Can’t blame them, I’ve seen it way too many times myself. So I don’t.
This time is different though, cause I wanna be able to say I played in Woodstock,yes,not quite what it sounds like, but I am doing it, laugh all you want.
But Mr Crow is open to the idea, friendly and almost more tattooed than me. The gig goes on,he remembers me after he plays Smoke Stack Lightning by good old Chester Burnet, aka Howling Wolf. That would have been nice to play but so it goes. I don’t recall what I eventually got to play, but let me just say : I played in Woodstock ! (August 2022…I should have brought an umbrella after all ! )
to be continued