Book review: WHO IS BLUES Vol.2 – The Interviews. Blues Encounters 2000 – 2020 by Vincent Abbate

Vincent Abbate - Who Is Blues

Self Published [Publication date 01.09.21]

‘Who Is The Blues Vol.2: The Interviews. Blues Encounters 2000-2020′ is an interesting cross section of 20 years of interviews of contemporary blues artists by the German based, New York blues scribe Vincent Abbate.

Abbate is blessed with the ability to get his subjects to open up and tell their stories, while his engaging writing style makes for a very accessible book.

I have already reviewed his excellent Doug McLeod book which confusingly is titled Volume 1 of his ‘Who Is’ series. Volume 2 extends his scope over 15 diverse blues artists.

The antecedents of this book stretch back to 2017 when Abbate established his ‘Who Is The Blues’ blog and first interviewed Watermelon Slim, who along with Bobby Rush and Walter Trout turns out to be one of the most engaging subjects in this book.

Abbate’s gentle enquiring style is the perfect catalyst for 15 miniature, but revealing interviews which provide source material from the contemporary blues scene.

Outside of discussing various “latest” albums, the main focus of Abbate’s interviews is three fold, the business of the blues, the creative process and the eternal argument about what blues is.

When I first saw BB King on the cover, my heart sank a little as I wrongly assumed his subject matter would be the usual roll call of familiar names and stories. But I couldn’t be more wrong.

Eschewing the impulse to find out who his interviewees are in advance, I dived right in to immerse myself in The Holmes Brothers, who have taken the blues to parts of the globe many others in the book could only dream about.

It wasn’t difficult to maintain the element of surprise as the book lacks a table of contents, though the respective artists are printed in bold on the back cover.

My only other gripe is with the structure of the book which segregates the respective interviews from the one page biographies which appear at the end, while a lack of an index is less of an issue as the 256 pages that can be read very quickly

The fact that ‘Who Is Blues Vol 2′ is more of a digest than a weighty tome, means it  provides career snapshots with enough interesting revelations to give you an inside track on the contemporary blues scene.

For the most part, Abbate’s gentle encouragement leads to an interesting insider’s view of the music they play. Occasionally – probably due to a lack of time, as some interviewers only give him 20 minutes – he fails to persist with an analytical supplementary question. But it’s when considering the commercial potential or otherwise of the blues that the sense of common ground dissipates.

BB King for example proudly reflects on his visionary role in setting up his club to foster the blues in the South:”It’s a profitable place business-wise, somewhat because it opened up Memphis to what I thought it should have been even years ago.”

But the book also includes cautionary tales that reflect the downside of the genre.

Excellent slide guitarist John Mooney was mentored by the great Son House and talks about his trance blues and spiritual connection with the music, yet has to settle on weekend gigs as part of his responsibility to his family

The Paladins’ Dave Gonzales reflects on the way his band worked hard to retain their musical independence: “We mixed rhythm and blues, early rock and roll, country, gospel, jazz. We mixed all of that to come up with a hybrid rootsy sound.”

In the 20 year old interview, he also presciently notes: “All the 70’s jive rock players that fizzled out in LA are all in Nashville now.” And they still are, almost in aspic.

Sue Foley the Canadian darling of Austin, Texas in the 90’s, reflects on Canadian to US visa problems and the fact that: “The money is worse than it was ten years ago.”

Guitarist Josh Smith a highly rated sideman and session player also voices his frustration at trying to catch a break as a solo artist :”Everybody’s unique. But in the blues world, they expect you to fit into these little boxes.”

Perhaps he should pay heed to Bobby Rush, who makes the distinction between art and commerce and being an entertainer rather than merely a musician: “An entertainer is an entertainer. A musician is a musician. They’re both important, but one is more important than the other.”

He thinks this is specially the case on the Chitlin’ circuit which has served him so well for half a decade: “Back people go to see entertainers, not musicians.”

Watermelon Slim is another who finds the genre unforgiving, even though he has clearly lived the blues: “I’m a songwriter and a master of the English language. That’s what my entire curriculum was. But that doesn’t make you a commercially successful musician.”

His interview alone makes the book worthwhile, as he moves from excruciating stories of living the blues, to the surreal.

It’s not all doom and gloom of course, as Walter Trout tells us that having stared death in the face he treats each day as blessing and retains the same kind of  independent spirit that has sustained Bobby Rush for over 50 years:” I didn’t let people tell me what to do. I maintained my vision and I followed my muse when people were vilifying me and my music. I didn’t change it. My life has been a great adventure.”

Going back to the entertainment element of the blues the late Terry Evans gives us an insight into reading his audience:” What I try to do is enjoy myself, enjoy the musicians I’m working with. We create an atmosphere and it transcends the people.”

When it comes to blues police, Trout even turns negative quote: “Too many Notes , too loud” into a positive, by printing the quote on his tour T-shirts, while Tommy Castro also offers these wise words: “They forget that the people who created the music were not interested in doing pure blues. They did it because that what was popular with their audiences at the time. They were always trying to do something more creative and different.”

Quinn Sullivan on other hand was mentored by Buddy Guy, but appears to have broad enough shoulders to realize the opportunities he’s had and is eager to see where they will take him.

John Mooney, Paul Delay and Samantha Fish all offer insights into their creative process, while Fish also tantalisingly tells us about a possible book about being a woman in a predominantly male dominated work place: “It’s not necessarily their experiences or their perceptions, but other peoples’ perceptions of them that’s different.”

‘Who Is Blues Volume 2′ offers insightful interviews with plenty of substance and no little humour. The author’s own evocative prose is best exemplified by the way he describes some of his interviewees. In the case of the late harp player Paul Delay, he memorably remembers that:” The nine time zones that separated us were no match for his oversized personality and boyish humour.”

He also describes Ronnie Baker Brooks as: “A warm hearted, genuine person.” They don’t always have to finish last do they?

You get the feeling that as long as Vincent Abbate continues to shine his light on such blues artists they won’t.

One final point, Abbate tells us there are no Europeans blues artists here, an omission he hopes to make up for in what will surely be a much anticipated volume 3.  *****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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