A trip to Memphis and on into the Delta has been on the cards for a long time. I’d originally planned to do this trip when I was researching my book (The Gospel According to the Blues), but ill health had prevented me. Having now visited the Mississippi Delta, and experienced the land, the people, the pace of life, for sure it would have been helpful to have done this trip before now. No matter, I was in better health and a trip to New York City with my wife gave me the opportunity to slip down to Memphis and meet up with a couple of pals from Texas and see what Tennessee and Mississippi had to offer.
The journey began clearing US customs in Dublin airport, where previous experiences of surly US customs officials was repeated. Our guy was an unsmiling, unfriendly fellow – young, but looking like he had the cares of the world on his shoulders. My wife was quite unnerved, getting her right hand and left hand mixed up for the fingerprint taking and got no sympathy from our guy. After he finished dealing with me, I thanked him and told him he was doing a great job – quite sincerely, actually. I’m sure it’s no fun doing what he does all day long. He cracked the glimmer of a smile, so I hope he was a bit more pleasant with subsequent passengers.
We shared US customs war stories with the passenger beside us on the plane – who’d had a truly awful experience. As the conversation wore on, he told us his life story, which was quite heart-warming. John’s a retired Englishman. A northerner, affable, good talker, big guy. He’d been married as a young man for three short years and then divorced; he then lived his life for 40 years working in Scandinavia, having remarried happily. A few years ago his wife became very ill and before she died he heard from his first wife for the first time since they’d divorced. She needed some documentation relating to the divorce. She’d lived all her life happily married for a second time in the US. As it happened, her husband was also dying at the time. John and she supported each other from separate continents until both of their spouses had passed away. In due course, they got together again, now in their senior years, living half of each year together n a rural Southern State and half the time in Ireland.
Somebody ought to make a movie of this story.
We were blessed with blue skies and sunshine, along with near freezing temperatures. No matter – the warmth of New Yorkers everywhere we went more than made up for that. You hear reports of New Yorkers being rude and short. But everyone we met – hotel and restaurant staff, people manning the subway, people in stores, police, people we stopped to ask directions – were all unfailingly courteous and pleased to help. Topped off by the woman who approached me in Harlem when I was struggling to get the bus ticket machine to work so I could get to LaGuardia. She topped up her MetroCard in the machine, gave it to me, and despite my protestations, would not take any money from me.
But hey – music’s the reason you’re reading this, right? The Saturday night we were there was the night before the Grammys. And I’d booked us into the City Winery on Pier 26 to see Guy Davis and Fabrizio Poggi play, along with Eric Bibb. Three of my favourite artists and all three nominated for a Grammy in the Traditional Blues Album category. I’ve interviewed all three of them recently, so was especially looking forward to the gig.
When we arrived the small restaurant was packed with tables and diners, with a small stage for the performers. We got seated – right beside Shemekia Copeland, whom I’d also interviewed a while back and whom I was delighted to chat to; and across the table from Dom Flemons, ex-Carolina Chocolate Drops and Grammy winner. Guy and Fabrizio sang some songs from their outstanding tribute to Sonny and Brownie, Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train. Eric Bibb was up next and performed an utterly spine tingling unaccompanied version of “Refugee Moan” from his album Migration Blues. Eric live is always a wonderful experience, but this song, sung in this way, at this time in New York City, was very special.
That would have been good enough for me – but next on the bill was the 75-year-old John Hammond, Blues Hall of Fame inductee and multiple Grammy nominee, who has lost none of his resonator and harmonica prowess. Then we had Elvin Bishop – also nominated in this year’s Traditional Blues Album Grammy category for Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio – with a couple of pals. Elvin settled himself on the stage and evidently was hoping someone would loan him a guitar. A few moments later, someone duly obliged and we had a short set from Elvin.
The biggest surprise of the evening was that Keb’ Mo’ also turned up and took the stage. Keb’ Mo’ deservedly took the Grammy along with Taj Mahal the next day for Best Contemporary Blues album. I’ve seen Keb’ Mo’ play a few times – and he never disappoints. He’s an outstanding guitarist, singer and song-writer. Congratulations on the Grammy, Keb’.
Disappointing, however, the next day was the result of the Best Traditional Blues Album. Nominated along with R L Boyce, Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi, Eric Bibb and the Elvin Bishop Trio was the Rolling Stones. Guess who won? Now the Stones’ album I quite enjoyed and we ranked it in our Best of list for 2016. But a traditional blues album? Come on. Especially when pitted against the other contenders here. It seemed to me that the result of this category was more about the alliance of two big brands – the Grammys and the Rolling Stones – rather than the merit of the artists and albums.
But the City Winery event, which also featured Dom Flemons, R L Boyce and Barbara Blue, was something special. It had the feel of a private party and we felt privileged to be a part of it. And thanks to Fabrizio for the warm welcome! We’ll see you again, my friend, on down the road – and many congratulations for the Grammy nomination.
So from the blues in New York to the home of the blues – on to Memphis and the Delta.
(to be continued)
Check out our Best of List for 2017 which features Guy & Fabrizio, Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal.