I’m going to take a break from my usual heavier theoretical themes here and take a moment to play rock reporter. Yesterday I had a great day at Puisto Blues up in Järvenpää, Finland. If I take the time to tell what I enjoyed about it perhaps it will stimulate your own thoughts about truth, beauty, tolerance and the meaning of life.
Since my Finnish-Irish host family here left this week to visit relatives in their other home country I’ve had the house to myself, with just the cats for companionship. I’ve tried to use that time constructively, but mostly I’ve ended up watching TV and playing with other forms of procrastination. So I was kicking myself for not getting out of the house more especially with all of the free concert events happening at the annual blues festival up on the north shore of Tuusula Lake.
Traditionally when I’ve been in town I’ve done this festival the cheap way: going around to a few of the shows around the center of Järvenpää (which literally means “head of the lake”), occasionally going to one of the gigs in a bar, and if I’ve bothered with the main Saturday show it’s been by listening from outside the fence, or from a boat out on the lake. Blues, after all, is supposed to be poor people’s music, about making the most of whatever joys in life you can find, even if you aren’t a “fortunate son”. But this year I ended up reversing that pattern –– only going to the main event.
The lineup for the show certainly captured my attention. At the top of the bill was John Fogerty, former musical prodigy, now one of the distinguished granddads of country rock. I’ve bought my fair share of old CCR records over the years, so this was a distinct opportunity for someone of my generation (pushing very hard on 50 at the moment) to see a cultural hero face to face.
Then there was one of my favorite local acts: Honey B and the T-Bones. My friends in South Africa might remember me regularly wearing a t-shirt with their logo on it down there. There is a bit of off-beat humor to that, but there’s also a solid band behind it.
Then there was Los Lonely Boys, a Tex-Mex blues rock trio that I found out about the last time I visited my grandmother. That I should explain: About 7 years ago I was in my parents’ home town of Fremont, Michigan with my teenage sons in tow, visiting their last surviving great-grandparent and learning something about the family history. In seeing what was new and what had remained the same over the years in this little town, we discovered a rock guitar shop on the main street. This was surprising on a number of different levels, so we went in to check it out, and among other surprising elements there was a poster of Alexi Laiho on the wall. So after chatting with the shop keeper for a bit I asked what new bands there were in the States that we wouldn’t have heard of in northern Europe yet, that would be worth watching out for. Without hesitation he said Los Lonely Boys. We looked them up, and damned if he wasn’t right.
The fourth act on the list was someone I’d never heard of, but that didn’t really matter: every music festival experience should include at least one new discovery.
It was a beautifully sunny day to start with. I drove up to the park in the late morning, discovered they wanted an incredible €30 for on-site parking, and went on down the road by a kilometer to a friendly front yard blues parking service for considerably less. There was free parking with shuttle bus service in downtown Järvenpää, but I was happy to avoid that crowd situation. So in any case I arrived right in the middle of the arriving crowd, lining up for over half a kilometer to get in the gate. The line moved quickly and smoothly though, and I had plenty of time to stake out a piece of lawn for myself and grab a cup of coffee before the first act went on.
There were people of all ages there, and there were even children’s events going in the back of the park for the first few hours, but in spite of that the vast majority of those in the audience were clearly old enough to be grandparents. I might have even been younger than average for the crowd. Some were wearing old John Fogerty t-shirts but there were at least as many Lynyrd Skynyrd shirts on display. Some had bandanas; others, cowboy hats. Some had coolers full of beer; others, gourmet picnics with fine wines. Blues rock has its own very eclectic culture these days.
Honey B & Co. took the stage first. For those who aren’t aware of the fact, the band name has nothing to do with the given names of the musicians. The honey bee herself is Aija Puurtinen, a hot little brunette bassist with particularly playful pigtails. Her primary T-bone and fellow front person of the band is guitarist Esa Kuloniemi. Esa announced in one of his first chats with the audience that they are now celebrating their 30th anniversary as a band. So the obvious first thought was, “Damn, she’s looking good for a woman that age!”
The second thought to come to mind was to note with some surprise that they had branched out from being a trio into quartet form… sort of. The band’s second T-bone has always been a drummer –– for the past 5 years or so one Jaska Lukkarinen –– and with that they’ve maintained the sort of fat yet economical trio sound as bands like ZZ Top, Rush or Cream (or the Who or U2, if you can ignore the fact that their lead vocals don’t come from among the instrumentalists). But now the T-Bones have added on an additional percussionist, who is also the first conspicuously non-Finnish member of their lineup: Mamba Assefa. Their sound was thus even fuller and funkier, without compromising on the pure blues/rock economy of just the guitar and bass up front.
When I speak of “just the guitar” though I mean just one at a time. Esa was the only guitarist in the show who had his weapon rack openly on display on stage, with a fascinating variety of very heavily used looking instruments to pick from. No hired hands for swapping, hiding and tuning these things for him. Somehow that made their show all the cooler.
Honey B and the boys were clearly at home on the stage, even if it was a bit bigger than the average size they’ve been playing on over the years. They overcame the border to intimacy created by the big steel crowd fence by tossing old band t-shirts over it into the audience a few times during the show. They were also the only band there to announce where they could be met afterwards for autographs and the like. For a tight, danceable, seasoned professional blues sound, combined with a sexy sense of humor (Aija’s mischievously breathy tone as she croons, “I’m easy”) and that laid back sense that they’d be happy to join you for a drink after the show, it doesn’t get any better than these guys.
But then they might have done well to go on first, because when the boys from Texas took the stage it was hard to imagine anyone else musically measuring up. With a quick tap on each mike and a quick strum on each instrument to make sure they were live, guitarist Henry thanked the Almighty for allowing them to be with us, and the park commenced to rock!
You could sort of tell that the Garza brothers, a.k.a. Los Lonely Boys, were family in the way they seemed to play off of each other and musically finish each other’s sentences. Henry’s lead guitar was the clear show stealer, but JoJo’s lightning fast bass lines, stage director strut and dramatic dance moves kept him from slinking back into his brother’s shadow. If there was anyone in the shadow it was drummer brother Ringo. Morbidly obese these days, and making no moves beyond what were necessary to play his instrument, he nevertheless laid down the perfect rhythmic groves for keeping his brothers’ melodic and tonal improvisations on track.
The muchachos solitarios are clearly men of faith, even if they don’t follow any particularly traditional gospel music path. But with “Heaven” as their first hit single, and albums called “Sacred” and “Forgiven” you don’t need to see the crosses emblazoned on Henry’s Stratocaster guitar bodies and his guitar strap, and tattooed onto his left forearm, to get where the boys are coming from. Their love song lyrics are authentically emotional but cleaner than a church youth picnic. Besides repeatedly stating their thankfulness to God for the opportunity to play in this beautiful country, JoJo’s message to the audience after each of their closing numbers (on either side of the encore) was a tender exhortation to “take care of each other and love each other.” Maybe it’s just me, but I think the music industry could do with more of that particular level of spirituality –– not trying to convert anyone to anything, just a very basic foundational sense of connecting with God and each other through the music.
Towards the end of the Los Lonely Boys set we got our first scattered showers of the afternoon. I stood up and quickly threw on my rain jacket and tossed the rest of my festival provisions into my backpack. After that I stood there in the rain taking pictures for a few numbers, until the people sitting behind me offered a dry place to sit on their blanket. I wasn’t sure if this was out of pure hospitality or a form of flirtation from the ladies in question, or merely an attempt to keep me from blocking their view, but I gladly accepted. I was no longer a loner there; I had connected with other members of the audience.
It wasn’t too long after that when the first signs of drunkenness in the crowd started to show –– people stumbling into each other as they made their way between the mini campsites scattered across the lawn, and smiling as they enjoyed the human contact in the process.
I got up after the set to scout around through the concessions to see if there were any special deals on Lonely Boy albums. It turned out that they were the only ones playing there who didn’t have their concession stand at the festival. The main commercial record shop which had a stand there was in the process of selling their last Lonely Boys CD just as I got there. There were a few other fans there for me to commiserate with on the matter. One old fellow went as far as to say that they were the first rock trio that really hit home for him since the Cream. Another compared them favorably to the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The shop himself keeper was rather taken by surprise that such a hot band as they turned out would have such a weak international marketing campaign going.
There was a second-hand record dealer in the back corner who had a couple of Los Lonely Boys CDs that he was selling for 15 € each. One of them sold while I was looking at them. I contemplated and thought that if I knew that I’d be able to find the Garza boys to autograph it for me I’d be willing to pay that sort of absurd price, but as it was I wasn’t quite that desperate.
Meanwhile Honey B. and the T-Bones were still working the crowd at their stand, so I bought one of their CDs and chatted with Aija for a little bit as she signed it for me. She’s not the sort of older female performer who needs to be seen from over 10 meters away to look attractive and to come across and personable and charming.
I got back to the shared blanket spot just before the next act took the stage: “Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed”. It wouldn’t be too much of an insult to him to say that his act was the low point of the afternoon. He had a 4-piece backup band –– drums to stage left, keyboards to stage right and bass and guitar standing like statues in the back of center stage –– as he bounced around the middle with either a microphone or guitar in hand, hopelessly trying to properly engage the audience. The voice was somewhere between imitation Marvin Gaye and imitation Otis Redding. The look was somewhere between Rick Astley and Harry Connick, Jr. His original material in terms of writing style and quality was somewhere between Hot Chocolate and New Kids on the Block. He was the only one who ended up apologizing to the audience for taking up time on stage while they were patiently waiting for John Fogerty’s set to begin.
He finished and walked off, and the festival MC took the mike and asked the audience, “Umm, would you like to hear some more of Paperboy’s music?” Those in front politely applauded and cheered just loud enough to make the encore worth bothering with.
You really had to feel sorry for the guy. He seemed like a nice enough kid, working hard to break into a tough business, sent off by his manager with Capitol Records to promote his first album, and now in way over his head. I’d really like to wish him all the best with his career, and if his stuff comes on the radio I wouldn’t change the channel, but I don’t think I’d be willing to pay to hear him again.
The weather continued to fluctuate. The festival MC promised the headline act would begin in about a half hour. “Paperboy’s” gear was flushed from the stage and tarps were pulled off the Fogerty band’s drum kit, keyboard array and guitar amp stacks, each on their own wheeled risers. Wires were strung together. A 20 inch video display was tucked in behind the sound monitors center stage. Plexiglas barriers were constructed in key locations. Large banks of instruments were tuned and had their pickups checked. A half hour passed.
I told my new companions that I was moving down front for some pictures. Easier said than done. Whereas I was easily able to move around the front of the lawn during the first two shows, there was now an impenetrable human mass extending back 20 meters from the barricades in front of the stage.
15 more minutes passed. The roadie manager wandered around with duct tape securing wires to the floor, putting down choreography markings and triple checking sound connections. Drum mike levels were re-calibrated. Groupies milled in the wings. A couple times the crowd began to cheer with false alarms that the show was about to start. The last of the “campers” in the front rows began to fold up the blankets they had still been trying to rest on in the middle of the crowd. The crowd compressed forward to fill the spaces they left open. Nerves were starting to show.
Then at the last possible moment before a riot might have erupted the band ran to their places and started to play an intro, and finally –– wearing the signature blue plaid flannel shirt with custom pick pocket that they were selling at the souvenir stand –– JF took to the stage.
His freshly dyed hair was a few shades darker than in the promotional posters and his clothes seemed to be chosen to cover up how thin he is these days, but overall he looked to be in a lot better shape than most of his fans. His voice and lead guitar riffs fell into place entirely as they were expected to, and in song after song the audience sang along and cheered enthusiastically, making life far easier for the aging rock star than for the soul wannabe that had preceded him.
The band consisted of a bald drummer in his own plexi-enclosed cubicle center stage, a keyboard man on a riser back stage to the left, a rhythm guitarist in front of the keyboards, and a multi-purpose man (mostly on slide guitars) and a bassist over to the right. These guys had a bit more freedom of movement than the supporting musicians in the previous band did, but they were careful not to do anything that would make old John look old by comparison.
Fogerty moved around with relative ease, giving a dramatic jump at the end of certain songs, but never getting more than a few inches off the ground in doing so. After every song or two a gray-haired assistant would run in from the wings and give the star a different guitar, overall making for fairly even wear on his red PRS, his golden Gibson, his basic blonde acoustic, his red Telecaster and a few other axes in his collection.
During this set the weather went from light drizzle to blue skies to steady rain and back again a couple times. This added a certain irony to Who’ll Stop the Rain and Have You Ever Seen the Rain in particular. Meanwhile the road manager was seen swinging in from the wings unfurling Finnish peasant rugs across the stage for flood control, and then kneeling behind the sound monitors to mop up puddles with a bath towel. It was almost enough to make us forgive him for the delays in getting the show started.
Four or five songs into the set I made my way back up to where my new friends were watching my backpack. That area too had become standing room only but not quite as tight. There was also a bit of cross-traffic in that section as some of the other all-day participants started to reposition themselves closer to the main gate. But overall the crowd of mostly wet, drunk, older Finns continued to sing and dance and cheer and bump each other around with ever increasing joy. And other than the poor guy on flood control detail, everyone on stage also seemed to be having more and more fun as the show went on. It’s hard to say if the crowd got caught up in the band’s energy or visa-versa, but I suspect the latter.
In fact the difficult part of Fogerty’s work was done years ago: writing and recording dozens of rock and pop standards back in the early post-Woodstock era. As long as you can convince people that they’re not getting a cheap cover version, it doesn’t take much to get an audience excited about and involved in a performance of standards like Proud Mary, Have You Ever Seen the Rain, Fortunate Son, Down on the Corner, Born on the Bayou and Bad Moon Rising, especially if you happen to be the guy who wrote them.
The set only included a couple of numbers that weren’t from Fogerty’s own pen and/or hits from the Creedence days: Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman and Ricky Nelson’s Garden Party. The later was a particularly brave and ironic move. Here we have a fellow in his late 60s, still trading on the stuff he did while in his mid-20s, standing there plunking out a tune written by a guy who was already a has-been at the time when CCR were at the top of the charts, with the bold declaration at the end of the last verse, “If memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck.” News flash: Memories are pretty much all John Fogerty sings these days, but there are thousands of Finns, and millions of fans worldwide, who are thankful that he hasn’t resorted to truck driving yet.
So when all was said and done I said farewell to the folks I’d been standing and dancing with. I contemplated trading phone numbers with the lady that one of her drunken friends was trying to set me up with, but decided not to bother. I availed myself of the closest public urinal that wasn’t overflowing onto the users’ shoes yet, and then made my way down the muddy path to the main gate and then down the road to my personal bluesmobile, chatting with strangers all the while as I went.
So now having slept on it and digested the experience, what am I left with?
The point of all arts, I’d say, is to enable people to have deeper emotional experiences of what it means to be human. Music is a particularly effective art form in terms of enabling people to momentarily connect with each other, swaying to the same beat and getting caught up in the same vibe. Of course no music –– nor any other art form –– is capable of pleasing everyone, but when you find something that you can please yourself at, and when you can spontaneously connect with a crowd of people who are pleased by the same thing –– who readily get into the same groove –– life can be particularly sweet. You find yourself sharing a sort of love that isn’t necessarily particularly deep or lasting, but it doesn’t really have to be. And that state of mind is extremely easy to get back into by just throwing on a recording and maybe closing your eyes and singing along. If the music leads to new lasting friendships and/or deeper relationships, so much the better, but it doesn’t really have to in order to provide a valuable experience. How many other things can we think of in those terms?
In any case that concert ticket was money well spent, and I’ll have no shame in reliving the experience for years to come.