Monday, June 15, 2020

Black lives matter - and they created the Blues

Black lives matter. Not that other lives don't matter - but in America, black lives are much more in danger , that's why this obvious truth needs to be stated. That is why  millions of African Americans - and many others - have finally reached the point where they cannot be silent anymore, and are protesting the racism that is such an ingrained part of American culture .
I am eternally grateful  to all the wonderful  African American Blues  musicians who taught me the Blues and who accepted me as a friend: "King" Earnest Baker, Zora Young, Deitra Farr, Joe Louis Walker, Lucky Peterson, Tamara Peterson, Bernard Allison, Jimmy Johnson, Billy Branch, Charlie Sayles, Phil Wiggins, among others. I am eternally indebted to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, BB King, Bobby Bland, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, Walter Horton, Buddy Guy , Junior Wells and so many other giants who created the music I love. Without them my art would not exist.  I do my best to master the craft, to play  the music the right way, to honor the roots and origins of this amazing music. But I will never know how it feels to live in their skin, to live under segregation, and often violent persecution . My friend, the great Jewish-born harmonica player Matthew Skoller came to Chicago as a young man to learn the Blues was taken under the wing of older Blues masters such as Carey Bell. He calls himself a "Blues immigrant" - he says he wasn't born in the Blues, but is trying to make it his home, to become part of it.  As for me , trying to play this music in Israel - I believe my mission is to point the spotlight at my musical heroes, and their current heirs, and to celebrate the incredible art that was created by such a brutal reality.
So keep listening to BB, Muddy and the Wolf - and to Lurrie Bell, Gary Clark Jr, and Billy Branch - and if you come see me play, I promise to play some good Blues for you!

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

My Jewish Blues

During a radio interview held last summer, following the release of  "BlueSoul", the interviewer asked me a question that I was unprepared for: "what is Israeli about your music?" . I tried to think of a suitable answer, hemmed and hawed a bit about how my home is in Israel and music is universal etc. etc....only later (of course) did I come up with a better answer (now I am prepared next  time I am asked :) ).
I was reminded of it this week due to the date of Bob Dylan's birthday. While the music I play is absolutely American, there is a distinct Jewish quality about it: the lyrics. While musically my influences are African-American (Muddy Waters, BB King, Little Walter, James Cotton etc), lyrically my songwriting is not typical "Blues". Since the first commandment of the Blues is absolute honesty, it would be wrong  - and disrespectful - for me to try to write lyrics based on the African-American experience. I needed to find my own voice and write from my own experience and influences. These include being part of "The people of the book", growing up in a culture where the written word is dominant and important. I also grew up listening to '60s and '70s folk and rock , which featured many great Jewish songwriters - Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Robbie Robertson, and first and foremost - Bob Dylan. In Israeli popular music too,  the lyrics have always been considered of supreme importance ,to the point where many of Israel's top rock and pop artists often recorded songs written by poets.  So the "Israeli/ Jewish " influence on my music is my attempt to meld Blues feeling with lyrics that are  meaningful and related to my personal experience , thus following in the huge  footsteps of Bob Dylan - and Meir Ariel , too... 
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Monday, May 18, 2020

Rest in Peace, Lucky Peterson

My heart is heavy again today as I learned of the passing of Lucky Peterson. Lucky was only 55 years old and still had so much music left in him to give the world.
Although he was only 3 years older than me, he was celebrating 50 years in the music business! Lucky was a child prodigy, and at age 7 none other than the legendary Willie Dixon produced his first album. By his teens he was playing with stars such as Little Milton and Bobby “Blue” Bland. He performed on albums by Junior Wells, James Cotton and countless others. He was a “triple threat”, playing guitar, keyboards and singing. In the 1990s I heard his first albums on the Alligator label, and was just blown away by his singing. Like his old mentors Bobby Bland and Little Milton,his voice gives me goosebumps every time I hear him sing. 
In 2012 he came to Israel and was backed by my band. I was so excited to meet and play with one of my favorite artists. If you are a reader of this Blog you may recall that I told of our first meeting - but I will tell it again : Lucky had missed his flight and spent nearly 24 hours in transit, arriving at our first rehearsal completely jetlagged and tired. When he arrived , I introduced myself. Lucky asked what instrument I play in the band and I said "Harmonica". Lucky gave me a skeptical sideways look and said "I don't usually play with harmonica players". I said nothing, since I knew exactly what he was thinking: "bad enough I have to play with a local band I'm not familiar with, now I need to deal with a harmonica too???". We started the rehearsal and after a few songs Lucky smiled and said "there are a lot of bad harp players out there, but I see you know what you're doing, so we're cool...". 
Before our first show in Jerusalem I took him to see the old city. I had planned to show him all the holy sites (he was a church-going Christian), but we never made it past the first shop in the shuk….Lucky went in to buy souvenirs, then spent over an hour haggling over the prices with the shopkeeper. He got some good bargains, but by time he was done, we were out of time, and had to head to the show…
Like many Bluesmen, he could be unpredictable and all you could do was try your best to follow. On his last tour here, we had the misfortune to lose both our drummer and our bass player to illness just before he arrived, and of course Lucky’s plane was late and he arrived just in time for the first show - no rehearsal with the replacement musicians...we did our best to follow him, but you could tell he was frustrated by the guys not knowing his material.Suddenly he grabbed a guitar and started playing a Jimmy Reed rhythm. The band waited to see what was happening, but I picked it up immediately and played some Jimmy Reed style harmonica. Lucky turned at me and I could see his scowl turn to a big grin.“Yeah!’ he said, and we proceeded to play a Jimmy Reed song as he wandered into the audience, singing without a microphone (you could hear him a million miles away), one of the most soulful sounds you can imagine. I think that may remain my favorite memory of Lucky Peterson.
Rest in peace Lucky Peterson. I feel lucky myself, to have shared a few moments with you, and we are all lucky to have all the great music you made.



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Monday, April 13, 2020

RIP Danny Zuckerman

Today I got word that Danny Zuckerman passed away. Although we had fallen out of touch in recent years , we had a long history together, and he is another one of those figures who had an influence on my musical journey. Here are some recollections of my adventures with him :
Although he was only 3 years older than me, he was very experienced when I first met him, having become the in-demand bass player for all the top Israeli artists by age 18 in the early 80s. I had heard of his band “Sanhedrin”  in the late 90s, and went to check them out. I was really impressed - Danny had given up playing bass with successful artists such as Danny Sanderson and “Gan Hayot” to concentrate on his big passion - roots delta Blues. When I asked him why he gave up such good gigs, he said that he had suddenly started asking himself “Is this what I dreamed of as a teenager when I first picked up a guitar?” 
Sanhedrin had 3 acoustic  guitarists (Zuckerman played slide ) and they played the most passionate versions of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker I had heard. I was invited to play harmonica on a few songs on their album and after the session, Danny said to me - “You’ll see that you will be proud of this recording for years to come” (click HERE to hear it)
Later we formed an acoustic trio with Yuval Oz on double bass and we named it “The low budget brandy boys”, in honor of the cheap beverages we consumed during rehearsals….
In 2005, CG & The Hammer were set to play at the IBC in Memphis, with shows lined up in Alabama and Florida, and our bass player had just left the band. Danny jumped at the chance to do a pilgrimage to the roots of the Blues, and joined us as a bass player. That incarnation of the band (with Kfir Tzairi on keys) was the best we ever had. The shows were exceptional, and our adventures in New Orleans (Mardi Gras) , Mississippi (meeting Morgan Freeman in Clarksdale) and Memphis (Where Danny, CG & I polished off 27 shots of Jack Daniels together in one sitting…) were unforgettable. 
Danny had written a Cajun -style tune and asked me to write lyrics for it. He said the title was “Silver dollar” - I wrote 3 verses, and he said “Not bad but it needs more” Later when he came to record it with me he heard the 5 verses and said “what were you thinking, writing such a long song??” - To this day, it’s one of my favorite originals (click HERE to hear it)
I could go on and on - we played countless shows together, recorded a whole album together (as well as guesting on each other’s albums) and traveled quite a bit...Danny Zuckerman was a sharp, intelligent and original musician. I learned from him the value of thinking outside the box, never compromising on quality or performance, and the importance of knowing your value as an artist and not selling yourself short.
His journey was too short but he made the most of it. Rest in peace my friend.

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Friday, April 3, 2020

Blues in isolation

We are living in truly strange times - this Corona pandemic and the global shutdown it has triggered is like something out of a 3rd rate horror film.
I really miss playing live , and even rehearsing with my bandmates. For me music has always been about going out and mixing , reacting and interacting with musicians and audiences .Recording, the process of being alone in a studio has always been something I sort of tolerated as a necessary part of the music making process, but  I LOVE playing live, that’s what it’s all about for me. 
So now that part is temporarily suspended, and I have been forced to make music in isolation. However,I have always had a soft spot for unaccompanied harmonica playing. I love the rhythmic qualities of the instrument, how a tiny pocket-sized “toy” can sound like a whole band. The legendary Sonny Boy Williamson did a few recordings like that which I really love (like this one). Another terrific artist, who did a whole album like that is Keith Dunn.
So I invite you to check out my recent solo performances, which I call “The Corona lockdown sessions” . Click HERE to see them on YouTube.
I can’t wait to get back out and play for you in person - together with some other musicians…Until then , stay safe , stay healthy - and don’t share your harmonicas :)

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Monday, March 9, 2020

Remembering Paul deLay

I like to use this blog to write about what influences me as an artist, but also to shine a spotlight on some great artists who never received the recognition they deserved. I call them the great unsung heroes of the Blues, and unfortunately, there are quite a few incredible artists who remain unknown despite deserving fame and fortune…
One of these is Paul deLay. To harmonica players who know of him, Paul deLay is legendary, a virtuoso harmonica genius, but even in the small harmonica community there are some who never heard of him. When I first heard an album of his I was blown away. In a genre (Blues) and with an instrument (harmonica) which are crowded with cliches and copycatting, deLay sounded unique, like he had just re-invented the whole thing. He used different scales, different instruments, never played stock riffs, always sounded fresh and unique. He was a soulful singer, never mimicking Blues stereotypes, and a very original songwriter. When I heard He was coming to Tel Aviv I made sure to go to all his shows, befriended him and sat in and jammed with him, just trying to learn all I could from this master. He was warm , generous, funny and just a joy to hang with. And the main lesson I learned from him was  never copy, always bring your own flavor to the table, and keep your music honest and from the heart. 
Paul HATED cliches and always tried to break the mold. And he had a great sense of humor. At one of the shows, someone in the audience called out “play “Sweet home Chicago” “ - deLay deadpanned “put together your own band and play it yourself”. 
Unfortunately, Paul deLay never achieved commercial success, even within the Blues genre, and rarely toured outside the Pacific northwest of the USA where he lived. He passed away suddenly on March 7th 2007, at the age of 55.
If you are a harmonica player, you must hear Paul deLay, just to see how you can play the Blues without sounding like hundreds of others. If you are a music lover, you owe it to yourself to listen to Paul deLay, who’s music was funny, soulful, original, honest and swinging….

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Saturday, February 22, 2020

It's the singer, not the song

“It’s the singer , not the song, that makes the music move along” - one of rock’s greatest songwriters, Pete Townshend, wrote that line in The Who’s song “Join together with the band”. It’s always been one of my favorite lyrics, the main reason I chose to cover that song. And my version is quite different from the original (which actually features a lot of harmonica playing) - I turned it into a Chicago-style shuffle. 
The Blues has always been about individual expression, saying something in your own unique way. Much more emphasis is always placed on performance than on songwriting. My first mentor, Ted Cooper , always did this, playing the same song in different ways, in different tempos, according to how he was feeling it at that moment. Sometimes I wasn’t sure what song we were playing until he started singing the lyrics...But It's not just in the Blues - rock musicians often treat a song as a living, breathing and ever-evolving entity, a vehicle for self expression. Even artists who are known primarily as songwriters like to change their own compositions around. Look no further than the greatest ever, Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan, who performs his own songs in radically different ways, or Bruce Springsteen, who changed the rocking “Thunder road” to a quiet piano ballad - while the song was still a new hit! 
Needless to say, I also enjoy treating songs as living, breathing expressions,  whether I wrote them or someone else. I also enjoy letting the musicians who play with me put their own stamp on the music - I might play a song differently with a particular guitarist than with another , or a drummer might give it a different flavor than I was expecting - and these changes help keep the music fresh and alive.
That’s part of the beauty of live music - even an old song has new meanings, and speaks to you in new ways every time it’s played. So go out and hear a show - you’ll hear something new every time!

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Monday, January 27, 2020

Nostalgia just ai'nt what it usta be...

Nostalgia just ain't what it usta be....so often I hear Blues fans and rock fans who miss the music of the '60s and complain that nobody makes music that good anymore.
 What is true is that the music business has changed so much that sometimes it's harder to find  the good music. The late 60s and early 70s were a golden age of music for several reasons, but the bottom line is that it was a unique time in musical history that quality music was also commercially successful, and great innovative artists were also popular and wealthy. Such quality music is not high on the popularity charts anymore, but internet technology allows anyone, anywhere,  to access even the most unknown artists. Today you have to search for good music, but - "seek and ye shall find". One random example: I saw the Tedeschi -Trucks band play a few months ago and I guarantee you no artist of any other era was superior.
 In the same way , many Blues fans complain that black culture has forsaken the Blues and that there are no young African-American Blues artists. As has been the case over the past few decades, commercial interests sometimes cause record companies and festival promoters to promote white artists more than African -American artists and some great artists get overlooked and don’t get the media exposure they deserve.  I suggest you check out Grammy nominees Jontavious Willis and "Kingfish" Ingram (not to mention Grammy winner Gary Clark Jr.) and you will see a great young generation of Blues artists coming up from the roots. But great music needs an audience in order to thrive, so I urge you to continue to seek out unknown music and go see live shows!

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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The harmonica don't get no respect....

The harmonica is a tricky little instrument. It is often regarded as nothing more than a child's toy, something you blow in and out of and make noise. Many musicians also regard it as an inferior instrument, limited in its range and possibilities. Obviously, ever since Little Walter released "Juke" in the early '50s this has been proven false. The only limitations the harmonica has are how much effort the player is willing to invest to master it. Listen to Howard Levy, Carlos Del Junco or Jason Ricci and you'll be amazed at what can be done with this tiny , 10-hole "toy".
The simplicity of the harmonica is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, with almost no learning or experience one can make some fun , satisfying sounds with it. On the other hand, this causes many people to stop right there and be content with this basic level - and the result is a world populated with mediocre  harp players, causing serious musicians to be suspicious of harp players...
When the great Blues artist Lucky Peterson was on his first visit to Israel, my band was going to back him up on his shows in Israel, and I was thrilled to finally meet one of my favorite artists. When he arrived at our first rehearsal , I introduced myself. Lucky asked what I play in the band and I said "Harmonica". Lucky gave me a skeptical sideways look and said "I don't usually play with harmonica players". I said nothing, since I knew exactly what he was thinking: "bad enough I have to play with a local band I'm not familiar with, now I need to deal with a harmonica too???". We started the rehearsal and after a few songs Lucky smiled and said "there are a lot of bad harp players out there, but I see you know what you're doing, so we're cool..."


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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Goin' to Jerusalem

Chicago Blues diva Deitra Farr recently posted on Facebook a photo of herself at the wailing wall in Jerusalem, reminiscing of her visit there 20 years ago. That brought back some good memories for me too, since I was the one who took her there ….
I have done short sightseeing trips like that with a few visiting Blues artists, and it’s fun and rewarding for both  me and for them. Many African-American Blues artists grew up in the baptist church, and a visit to the holy Christian sites in Jerusalem has deep meaning for them. Also, many touring artists don’t get the opportunity to see much of the country,  usually limited to hotel rooms and concert venues, so they appreciate someone taking the time and showing them a bit of the country. 
The first such trip I did was with the late great King Earnest (Earnest Baker), who I had already become close friends with. King was a devout Christian, who had even spent 15 years in “retirement” from the Blues singing in his church choir. That day, I drove him up to Jerusalem along with my wife and infant daughter, he was excited and full of anticipation. He kept saying “I can’t wait to see that cross”, which confused me at first. Eventually I understood that someone back home had told him that the actual cross that Jesus had died on was still on display in Jerusalem. I had the awkward duty of disappointing my friend, telling him that no such cross existed, and if anyone tried to sell him a piece of the cross it was just a scam...he got a good laugh at that, and we had a fine day in Jerusalem - even running into a group from his church right on the Via Dolorosa - which was very moving and meaningful to King.
Being a young aspiring Blues artist in Israel, so far away from Chicago and other authentic Blues scenes in America, these trips  had a lot of meaning for me too - they were my opportunity to spend time and bond with musicians who I admire and respect, to pay back some of the debt I feel to these artists for the amazing music and Blues tradition that I love so much - and to try to mine a bit of “Blues wisdom” along the way…

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