Europe has long been a creative well for the blues, and while American culture and English language still remain the building blocks, Finnish blues bands and their European counterparts have been busy carving out their own niche.
It’s perhaps stretching the point to make connection between traditional Finnish sleigh songs and the minor key folkore themes of Finnish tango with delta blues, but there’s an essential shared empathy at the core of the music that glues together a historic lineage.
For a county of barely 5 and half million people and a music scene that only started in earnest in 1970, Finland has forged an impressive infrastructure along with some great bands. It’s fitting then that veteran musician Eero Raittinen (once of Tasavallan Presidentti) is here tonight to pick up a Lifetime Achievement Award. His 1970 ‘Eeron Elpee” (re-issued as ‘Blues From The North’) remains a landmark release.
The first Annual Finnish Blues Awards – subtitled the Blues & Roots Music Awareness Summit 2015 – strikes the perfect balance between a well organised showcase for leading Finnish blues bands and a great party atmosphere as evidenced by plenty of dancing and a closing celebratory jam.
Organised by Davide Floreno guitarist, producer and song writer with the Erja Lyytinen Band and hosted by the indefatigable Olavi Rytkönen and Lauri Ankerman – two musicians turned MC’s for the night – the Finnish Blues Awards is shot through with quality, commitment, optimism and great music.
There’s a roar of appreciation for Micke Björklöf & Blue Strip who win the ‘Best Blues Band’ category. Micke been leading his band since 1991, and previously won the ‘Best Blues album of the Year’ award.
Up and coming vocalist Ina Forsman wins the ‘Newcomer of the Year’ award on the back of a 15 day tour of Belgium, Holland and Germany, suggesting the next generation of Finnish blues is already making an impact on the international blues scene, while the ‘Best Song’ award went to Dave Forestfield & Joey Buddy.
Micke Björklöf & Blue Strip sets the standard for a high quality blues night with a rootsy set full of solid rhythm guitar playing and harp flourishes, fired by the left handed guitarist Ville “Lefty” Leppänen, the first of 6 slide players on the night.
Lefty is a master of his craft who uses tonal variation to find real feel. He switches to a slide-led Dobro on the nuanced funk of ‘After The Flood’, and the band hits a mighty groove on ‘Trouble Maker’, full of fine solos, Micke’s gritty vocal and a great hook. They cleverly pay a contemporary homage to Son House on the preachers rap and fervent stomp of ‘Ramblified’, as Lefty’s feverish Dobro slide and Teemu Vuorela’s use of maraca’s on his bass drum creates a hypnotic trance.
‘House For the Blues’ features a big guitar figure from Lefty and finds Micke on harp, and it perfectly eclipses a set bursting with creative energy.
Lefty returns almost immediately with the impressive Lena (Lindroos) & The Slide Brothers, who revel in three part harmonies and twin slide guitar on the double-slide shuffle and three part harmonies of ‘I Won’t Sing Hallehuah’.
The bass playing vocalist Lena is a focal point, but the band is the impressive sum of its parts and is built around strong material. They head towards Americana on a beautifully crafted song with a hook that sounds like ‘No Man’s Land’, while ‘All That I Need’ is a well crafted radio friendly outing, given its impact by Lena’s expressive phrasing and powerful range.
By the time of a cover of Ruth Brown’s ‘Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean’ they’ve got the place rocking.
Honey B & T-Bones have been described as neo blues with country and psychedelic influences, and they open up with ‘Tell Mamma’, with Esa Kuloniemi on cigar box guitar. They also hit a lovely groove on the back of a lilting bass line and crisp cymbal work on ‘Shake & Shimmi’, which features Aija Puurtinen’s sensual vocal and colourful stage presence and Esa Kuloniemi on slide.
Aija has a starling range which extends from an Eartha Kitt style growl to contrasting falsetto. She dominates the funky, slide-led, bass heavy groove of ‘Shake That Thing’, and momentarily plays bass on a surprisingly laid back ‘Mojo Boogie’. A raucously received set finishes with the dance floor full of jivers on the call and response of ‘I Could Love You If You Let Me’.
Known as Finland’s ‘Queen of the slide guitar’ Erja Lyytinen’s credentials are no idle boast. She’s a guitarist who knows how to build up the dynamics through layered sounds, real intensity and a solo resolution.
She’s a sassy performer and an emotive singer who always connects with both her lyrics and the crowd and she’s backed by an intuitive band featuring guitarist Davide Floreno and the sumptuous walking bass lines of the magnificent Juha Verona and the rock solid drummer Markku Reinikainen.
An enveloping slide guitar figure leads the band into ‘Spoonful’ and she adds imperious guitar on her own ‘Mississippi Callin’. The band gels beautifully on a swaggering shuffle version of Elmore James’s ‘Hand In Hand’ and she further explores deep and resonant tones on ‘The Sky is Crying’. Tonight confirms Erja Lyytinen as one of the leading slide players of her generation and a charismatic performer who makes blues gig a joyous occasion.
And so to the biggest surprise of the night with Marjo Leinonen’s Huff ‘N’ Puff. Marjo is a unique vocalist who fronts a horn heavy band with bv’s. She generously allows her band to solo while she indulges in some of the most original dance and mime routines seen anywhere near a blues or soul band since James Brown!
Huff ‘N’ Puff combine the past with the present in an R&B and soul review with a refreshing twist. Marjo’s idiosyncratic approach evokes early career Cindy Lauper and she draws the crowd into her music. As her band swings, she gets soulful, rocks out, digs deep for the blues and sings call and response lines with her backing singers The Fabulettesista.
Marjo hits the crowd hard with a snarling, nasal voice, gritty phrasing and non-stop dance routines that emphasizes the band’s musical punch.Her windmill like energy and the band’s slick playing is subtly shaped by the peerless bass player Matti Vallius.
In the post Amy Winehouse world of retro cool, Marjo Leinonen’s Huff ‘N’ Puff are in the right place at the right time to extend the big impact they made tonight.
Final band of the night is Scotsman Robbie Hill, who a few years ago came to Helsinki as a guitarist in search of a jam session. He’s an elegant blues guitarist who knows the value of space, dynamics and a resonant tone.
He may be the most straight forward blues band of the night, but he delivers soul, feel and passion through a slow blues, a vibrant boogie and some warmly received jump blues, all bathed in subtle echo reverb.
He’s a reasonable singer but it’s his playing that speaks to us. His intricately threaded solos are by turns, fluid, spacious and trebly and delivered with a lightness of touch. And finally, in keeping with an evening of sundry slide players, Robbie whips out his own slide solo in a big toned finale to a perfect evening.
But there’s still more. The lights dim and on walks Erja to lead an ad hoc band into one final jam. I leave the theatre at 2am, walk across the main square in Helsinki to find the place still buzzing, and quietly reflect that there’s few better places for the blues.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos (1/2/4/7/8/12/13) by Satu M. Leppänen
Photos (5/6/9/11/14/15/16/17) by Juha Seila (http://www.juhaseila.com)
Photos (3/17) by Satu Jääske
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 19:00
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