Brooks Williams and Hans Theessink are seasoned blues troubadours who play to knowledgeable audiences across Europe and the United States. Brooks hails from Statesboro, Georgia (yeah, he’s got them Statesboro blues) but is now based in England, while Hans is based in Vienna, Austria.
Both are fabulous guitarists, have a deep appreciation for, and knowledge of, the blues and the social history of the blues, and are engaging and absorbing performers. Going to a concert given by either man will entertain you, challenge you, and above all, send you home satisfied with a big smile on your face.
Getting both playing together for an evening, swapping songs, alternating the lead vocals, harmonizing and trading guitar licks would be really something, then, right? Well, the two guys have embarked upon a joint tour of Great Britain this month, playing 21 gigs in 21 days. Not to be missed – check out the schedule for the Steady Rollin’ Blues Tour here.
And, be sure and get yourself a copy of Brooks Williams’ new album, Lucky Star, out in July which features a couple of tracks with both Brooks and Hans playing together.
Down at the Crossroads spoke to Hans and Brooks before their evening in the Core Theatre in Solihull and asked them about their life in the blues and life on the road…
DATC: How do you two know each other and how did this tour come about?
Brooks: Well, I’ve known of Hans since the very beginning of my career. And we did meet at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1996, but we met properly for the first time when we went to Dallas in 2005, at an anniversary concert for a great venue called Uncle Calvin’s. And we have mutual friends and that was kind of the connection. And then a couple of years ago I did the tour here with Guy Davis. And about half way through the tour, it just occurred to me that the audience really like it when we did stuff together – it became apparent that that was the point in the evening when the show just took off. Even though each of us could do our own thing, there was something magical happened then. So, I started thinking that perhaps this could be thought of as something that happens every 18 months.
And the first one at the top of my list was Hans. ‘Cause I just thought our styles would complement each other. And I was really excited about the possibilities. And thankfully when I presented the idea to Hans, he said, yeah, let’s go for it.
Hans: And we also said we’d not do separate sets and then two songs together at the end. Let’s do the whole thing together. So we swop songs, but we’re on stage playing together all the time.
DATC: And what sort of music can people expect?
Brooks: Blues, but a range – some country blues, a little bit of Texas blues, some of the Delta in there, some really nice Broonzy-style finger picking. Stuff that we love, and we bring it together through the process of how we interpret songs.
DATC: And when you talk about re-interpreting songs – how do you go about that, when you pick up an old blues song, and feel, yeah, that might work. How do you reinterpret that from the original?
Hans: Well, you couldn’t reproduce it. So you can only go another way. I try to get the feel of a song, try to crawl into that.
Brooks: For me, there’s usually one lyric in the song that I latch onto. I mean I’m into the whole song, but there’s usually one lyric that’s my cue. So, we’re going to do Backwater Blues and when I was doing the arrangement for that – and there are so many beautiful arrangements, there are some great ones – but the line that caught me was, I think it’s at the end of the 4th verse, where it says there’s going to be a lot of people with nowhere to go. It’s talking about the storm and the rain, there’s going to be a lot of people homeless. So, I thought, what kind of mood would there be in the guitar part, if that’s the line you’re ultimately going to get to? And so that affected the tuning that I used, the little guitar figure. And then as Hans and I do it, Hans brought this, almost moving bass line – almost like a kind of slowed down blues bogey, like a blues shuffle. It just great. It’s got great power, but it’s got a little edge of desperation. And it was just that lyric that it should all feel like that. Now I know that’s miles away from other versions, but I really like that lyric and where it takes me.
Hans: And I also think it’s good that it’s miles away from other versions! But then we have a song like Deep River Blues, which is pretty close to the original.
DATC: So for each of you – what do you admire about the other person’s playing and performing?
Hans: Well, Brooks has this great thumping guitar style, and beautiful slide playing. We both obviously listen to the same people – Mississippi John Hurt and Fred McDowell and people like that, so even though we come from places far apart, we both have the same kind of general influence. So when we talk about music or listen to records, we obviously know the same things.
Brooks: One of the things that I’ve always admired about Hans’s playing is something I would have aspired to in the early days when I was listening to his Flying Fish record. It’s that way of keeping the bass going – either alternating bass or thumping bass – but doing lovely figures at the same time. So it’s like two or three parts all at once. It moves the way a piano player moves. I like to hear motion. And Hans has a great sense of the songs that he chooses to cover. And a great sense of bringing all this to his own writing, that same feel, that same tradition – so you can put a song from the ‘30s and a song of Hans side by side, and they sit very well right next to each other. The lyrics are poignant and relevant in both cases.
Hans: And even though a song might be slow, it’s all, like, groove oriented. Which is very important, not to lose the groove. And it might be really slow, like behind the beat, or whatever, but it’s still moving and that groove is really important. And Brooks has got that totally.
DATC: And you mentioned Mississippi John Hurt. You get that in a player like John Hurt don’t you?
Brooks: Yeah, that fingerpicking, the way the thumb moves, yeah.
DATC: You mentioned some of the country blues players. When you think back to the context in which they played, the situation they were in, the instruments they played, what do you admire about some of those players?
Brooks: One of the things that grabs me about those early blues players is that they were so far ahead of the curve, so to speak, they were creating something that really hadn’t been created before. When I was learning to play and learning to play slide guitar, there were lots of people I could get ideas from. But with some of the early players, you get the idea there might have been only one other person they possibly could’ve listened to – or maybe in some cases, no one else! There wouldn’t have been the access to records – it would all have happened because they crossed paths with other musicians.
Hans: I’m sure a guy like Charlie Patton had nobody to lean on. They just created their own thing.
Brooks: I know the world has changed many times over. But fundamentally they were trying to make their way in the world and make some sort of living, to make a way in the world playing music, and that is powerful, considering what some of those players would have been up against, socially, economically. Those were some pretty huge mountains to cross, and just the fact that they did it and we’re still listening to it. And it’s still vibrant!
DATC: So both of you play to audiences in Europe and the US – is there still an appetite for this sort of music where ever you play?
Hans: People come and like the hand made feel of things – things happening on the spot, the voice and the guitar and that’s it. And they can see what we’re doing.
DATC: And it’s real music.
Hans: And sometimes we fly off, we get into some improvised bit, and people enjoy that. They can see that its happening here and now and it’s never going to happen again. And that’s the big charm of this kind of music
DATC: What about the demographic – is there a younger audience for this type of music?
Hans: I find that the audience is getting up there! But there’s always young kids in the first row who want to play guitar and want to see what fingering you’re using. But I think the general audience is getting older.
Brooks: One of the things I’d like to see – and I’ve been thinking about this pretty seriously for about a year – how can one expose people to the wonderful flexibility in the blues so that they can see how vibrant it can be for them? It would be exciting to see it moving forward in some way – I’m not sure what that way might be. And the two things that I’ve seen in my travels that keep the blues vibrant in the ears and eyes of people is firstly, blues has such a direct link to rock and roll, so that even some kid who is 13 and wants to play rock guitar, they’ve figured out they need to know how to play blues guitar; that that’s part of the process. So that’s a cool thing. The other thing is that when you find an audience that has figured out that this music – even though it’s set in a time and place and an economic and social situation – that it’s as relevant now for people as it was back then. It’s very alive. Even though some of the language in some of the older songs may be a little bit foreign to our ears, it’s really vibrant music.
DATC: And – unfortunately – increasingly relevant in the world we’re now living in.
Brooks: Yeah, absolutely.
DATC: You’ve both had long careers. What ways has the music industry change for you as a recording and performing artist?
Hans: Well, lots of colleagues complain it’s not working as well as it used to. I must say, on my part, I cannot really complain. For my part, I’m pretty happy, but I guess for new kids starting out, it must be difficult to get your foot in the door.
Brooks: The changes haven’t affected me. I had my best year in 28 years, last year! I’m still travelling that little bit under the radar and so some of the changes that might slow some aspects of the industry down, actually don’t reach me. And because there is less opportunity to hear roots music on the radio, people go online more to listen to online radio and what is interesting is they’re getting turned on to artists they wouldn’t otherwise know of. And so I’ll show up in a little town where I’ve never been and someone will say, oh I heard you on such and such a radio station which you only can get online.
Hans: Or you get somebody from Nepal ordering a CD! You know, I think continuity is really important. To keep doing what you’re doing, so people know what to expect. And if you do quality work over the years, that’s what they’ll expect. Keep doing what you love doing. And if people catch your enjoyment, you being happy doing what you do, that really rubs off.
DATC: So on that point Hans, we’re all getting a bit older – how does touring feel compared with when you were younger, and what is it about what you do that keeps you going?
Hans: I still enjoy playing and playing for an audience. Now this tour is a pretty hefty one – something like 21 days of concerts. So it’s good that we are sharing the stage and swapping songs, so you’re not singing every song! But I really enjoy playing, and as long as the health situation is good, that’s the way to go.
Brooks: You know, for the first 10 or 15 years of my career, I had to constantly just stay on task. I don’t know whether it was just me, or the nature of the travelling, I had a young baby at home, I was married and it just seemed like a lot of burden. But what has been an absolute pleasure in the last decade has been being able to sit back and enjoy – really enjoy – what it is I am doing. And to look ahead at a year and say, “Hey wouldn’t it be great if Hans wanted to come over, and we’d do a tour, and what about three and a half weeks, wouldn’t that be great?” And if we could just dream that? And here’s it’s happening and that’s really exciting. And I feel like, if at all possible, as long as I can keep playing, I’d like to have experiences like the one we’re having now – where it’s fun, it’s interactive, where I’m learning, where I’m loving the music and the audiences. And then, after the tour is over, Hans will do some solo shows and I’ll do some solo shows, and we’ll each play with our bands – but we’ll go back to all of that a little bit richer, and more inspired. It’s like, now, I’m finally at a point in my life I can enjoy it!
Hans: It’s exciting to do things you haven’t done before. Like, when we took off last week, we just said, here’s a list of songs, you pick one, I’ll pick one – and here we go! This is great.
DATC: And this sort of enthusiasm for sure comes across to your audiences. Great, thanks guys and best wishes for the rest of the tour!