Saturday, 6 March 2010

The old ones

On the Word magazine blog, a recent thread involved contributors listing the first 11 gigs they ever went to. Depending on their age, most people’s lists were full of bands from the prevailing youth movement of the era – prog, punk, ska, new wave, baggy, whatever.

I can’t actually list my first 11 gigs with any degree of accuracy, but I know that at least two of them didn’t fit that pattern at all. I spent the summer of 1982, before going to university, working as a cleaner in a printing works near the town of Ludwigshafen in West Germany. It was a grim and lonely period of my life, but one of the few consolations was that I did get the chance to go to some great gigs. Not in Ludwigshafen, which is rather like a German version of Stoke, but across the Rhine in neighbouring Mannheim, an altogether classier town.

It was in a theatre there that I saw two classic blues acts that summer: Sonny Terry (b. 1911) and Brownie McGhee (b. 1915), and the comparatively youthful Albert Collins, who was around 50 at the time.

I’m making a big deal about their ages because it was a major factor in the impact of their performances on me. Terry was blind and had to be led onto the stage by a helper; he wore a belt with pockets that contained his harmonicas, presumably in a set order so that he could reach for any particular harp and know where to find it. As for McGhee, he limped on stage with the help of a walking stick and played the entire concert sitting down.

I can’t recall any specific song they performed that night, but their raw, acoustic country blues had an ageless feel that plugged you right in to the medicine shows of the 1920s where they first started playing. If I’d had any doubts beforehand (from my limited exposure to the blues via the likes of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton) that this was music with a history, it vanished right then.

As for Collins, he was my first exemplar of the showmanship of the blues. He had two big gimmicks. One was to emphasise the ‘ice-cold’ sound of his guitar with instrumentals whose titles made full use of the thesaurus – ‘Frosty’, ‘Deep freeze’, ‘Icy’ and so on. The other was an extraordinarily long guitar lead that allowed him to free himself from the confines of the stage - most memorably on one song when, while playing a solo, he disappeared from view altogether, only to reappear (to huge cheers from the audience) up in the balcony. He never missed a note.

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