It all started innocently enough as an e-mail. Some nice bloke from the UK wrote & asked if I would like to play at a blues festival in Norway in the summer of 2001.
Well, I’d never been to Norway and that was a key factor. We all know that in my 42 year resume, a great deal of ground has been covered, but none Norse. Also, from Boston, it’s only a seven-hour plane ride and that’s not too bad either. Just a little over an hour from going coast-coast in America. Why, they could even afford to bring my band - and that was the clincher. I knew I could do myself proud anywhere in the world if I had one of my bands with me; either The Rekooperators or The Funky Faculty.
When people ask me to appear in the states, they don’t offer enough money for me to bring a band. It became necessary to put together a strong solo show in order to go out there and perform in the new millennium.
When my book came out in 1998, I did a lengthy tour to support it, the backbone of which were solo shows in various size clubs along the way. Now, in their own right, they’re intimate, humorous evenings, where the stories behind the songs are told, and an unprecedented closeness with the audience is achieved. However, it shows off different skills than a band performance and you cant really close a solo show with the bravado you can in an ensemble situation. Nowadays, I am usually relegated to solo shows outside the driving range of my current hometown of Boston. So a chance to visit Norway with my local Boston band, The Funky Faculty, seemed like a great idea.
We were scheduled to play two separate nights, August 3rd & 4th in a club that held 1200 inebriated Norwegians. The wonderful soul singer Shemekia Copeland was to open for us. It seemed a tasteful, thoughtful, combination in a nicely-sized room. On the afternoon of August 4th, we were also scheduled to conduct a workshop on the intricacies of rehearsing a band. This was to take place in a smaller venue with a more intimately-sized audience; more like a lecture in a rehearsal room.
It was our first road-trip as a band. After all, these are all teachers at the prestigious Berklee School of Music and they don't get out much; no less to Norway to play rock n roll in a big, sweaty hall. Our usual gigs took place around Boston every three or four months. But, there is a lovely camaraderie in our group, and a lot of mutual, musical respect. Bob Doezema plays guitar, Tom Stein plays bass, Larry Finn plays drums, Jeff Stout plays trumpet and Daryl Lowery plays saxes and flute. Everyone has a great sense of humor and is a master of their respective instrument. I’m quite lucky to be surrounded by such a compatible, classy orchestra.
We flew from Boston to Newark on August 1st at 3 PM. In Newark we hooked up with SAS Airlines for a flight scheduled to take off at 7:10 PM for Oslo. The plane was overbooked and they wouldn’t give seat assignments anywhere else but the gate which was like a beehive that had been smashed by a baseball bat. Every half hour one of us would inquire about the seats and be sent flying away from the hive with no answer. 7:10 passed uneventfully without any takeoff or loading. At 7:30, we got seat assignments and they began loading the plane at 7:40. At 8 PM, about an hour late, we took off for Oslo.
I had some ten-year old no-english-speaking brat sitting next to me, who did his best, without actually conversing with me to keep me awake the entire seven and a half hours we were aloft. Don’t ask. I did watch the amusing David Mamet film, State And Main for an hour and a half of minor hilarity. The rest of the trip was not amusing thanks to that Danish Dennis The Menace sitting next to me.
On this trip, we took an old friend of mine along as road manager. I thought it would be nice to have a camp counselor looking after the lads. Well, he didn’t last long.
As we walked the hall towards Customs after we landed, we came across this cute little puppy who fell in love with our road manager, who was quickly detained by the authorities because said dog was a K-9 drug-sniffing cadet and our boy was taken off and thoroughly searched, resulting in the discovery and confiscation of a bag ‘o’ pot.
I had just watched the film Brokedown Palace on cable, where two cute American girls are snagged on a bum rap in Asia and thrown in prison there for a few lifetimes. I was horrified for my friend, but confounded by his judgment call. We waited after we cleared customs for an hour to see what his future held in store. The lucky lad was slapped on the wrist with a fine and immediately deported back to America. I was incredibly relieved with his luck and felt like we could move on without any more concern for his Nordic safety/future.
We were to co-headline the Notodden Blues Festival. This takes place in a quiet little Woodstock-like village, at the foot of the mountains, three hours out of Oslo, where we landed at 9:30 A M August 2nd. By the time we made the hotel and got our rooms, it was 1 PM Nordic time, 9 PM US time. I wisely went to bed.
The festival provided us with three helpers who were volunteers. Anne (pronounced Honor) Bengkt (pronounced Benkt) and Katrina (pronounced Katrina) were a great bunch of people and helped us tremendously to adjust to our situation. The hotel fed us buffet breakfast (7:30-Noon) and dinner (5:30-10 PM) Lunch was overlooked there, and being isolated in the woods, one had to stockpile breakfast items or hoard packs of chips and stuff bought in town on show jaunts.
Anne organized things, Bengkt was our driver, and Katrina lugged instruments and filled in the blanks. Now I have to tell you about the phenomena of the Notodden volunteers. There were 650 of them, first off. They came from all over Norway for the chance to help musicians, hear music, work gratis, and sleep in various hostels with 15 beds in a room. Wives left their husbands and vice-versa for the week, sons and daughters left their parents, and no worries were dispensed by any parties. Without them, the economics of the festival would have been impossible. This could NOT have happened in the states. This was an asexual, non-druggie, nonviolent environment, the likes of which I’ve never seen in the states or anywhere for that matter. I was impressed by the power structure as well - everyone reported/cel-phoned in to Ed Murphy, an expatriate American, who ran the festival with a clear head and a love for music and people. Sort of a comparatively calm Bill Graham loose in the fjords.
Our first concert was Friday at midnight. So we had a day to rekooperate from traveling. A makeshift rehearsal was set up at the hotel Friday afternoon to brush up on some new tunes and to check out the equipment they had rented for us. Everything was fine except the keyboard I had requested to go atop the Hammond B3 organ was not the one I had requested. They were having trouble getting the actual one I wanted and it was rumored to be arriving at the sound check later that day. I wasn’t told this in advance of being offered the bogus keyboard at rehearsal and I was annoyed because I couldn't do my best without the requested keyboard. It finally showed up towards the end of sound check.
Our two shows were the first to sell out on the schedule. There was a lot of expectation because I had never played in Norway; in fact I hadn’t toured Europe since 1974. People were coming from various other countries to see us, and I really wanted to give them their money’s worth.
Shemekia Copeland was an inspired choice to share the bill with. She is talented far beyond her years (22) and with a command so strong at such a young age, she could be the next Aretha by the time she reaches 30. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand and put on a great show. Half the venue was outside and rain poured down forcing the sold out crowd to jam into the roofed section of the club. It was intense!
We came out and played about a 7 out of 10 show. I don't know what it was, but we couldn’t reach some of the heights we’ve reached in the past. The audience seemed to enjoy it, and we got the nod for an encore at 1:50 AM. As we came off after the encore, my lack of eyesight missed a monitor speaker in my path, and i went face down ass-over -teakettle in the wings with no way to break my fall. I was out cold for a few minutes, and they forced me to go to the hospital. Anne came along to translate. I checked out okay, but was banged up enough to cancel the next days workshop and save my energy for Saturday night’s performance. The Friday night show was recorded, but it wasn’t memorable to the band or me save for the "trip" at the end which you cant hear on tape.
The hotel was 30 minutes by car from the downtown area of Notodden where the concerts took place. As one drove the narrow two-lane country road, one couldn’t help notice a preponderance of squiggly tire tracks every few hundred yards, where previous drivers had not been able to negotiate the terrain. These tracks were humorous at first, but each time Bengkt drove into the pitch black night, I began to consider them a sign-less warning.
The road was so rarely traveled out where the hotel was, we would count the oncoming cars nightly (7 was the record) to the amusement of our native assistants.
The hotel was booked out completely for the festival’s duration, but exclusively to the musicians playing at the festival. This made for some serious, late-night early-morning, partying. The locals are notorious for their alcohol intake with beer being the undisputed Norwegian beverage of the blues. By 6 AM, the bars would be bereft of beer and finally close. Horn players would form de facto New Orleans-style second-line bands and parade blaring through the bars at closing time. In the summer there, the sun sets at 10:30 PM and rises again at 4:30 PM. This was not wasted on a few of us ugly American insomniacs.
I gratefully rested all day Saturday and we drove to the gig two hours early to go for a walk in town and then hear the end of Shemekia Copeland’s set. Jeff Stout, my trumpet player and I, strolled the packed streets of Notodden, admiring the craft stalls and marveling at the native Norwegian gnarled navigation. This is something else that doesn’t happen in America. These people are soooo drunk, that they just plow into you in a crowd and keep staggering with nary a "sorry," or "pardon me." In the US, at least one in every four persons who got stumbled into would mount some sort of physical or derogatory vocal response. Here, it’s understood that they’re plastered and can’t help it or even comprehend that they’ve smashed into you. Fortunately, someone warned me about this previously, but I still had a knee-jerk reaction the first time it happened. While I was having that reaction, i was a standing duck, and it happened the second and third time to me in short order and I quickly recalled my previous warning and kept moving again. It was actually funny.
Basically, the males I saw were aged 19-35. Most of them looked like a crossbreed between a Hells Angel and an Allman Brother. I guess that's the hip look for a Nordic Romeo. There were a great deal of mid-teenage girls walking in packs of three for some reason. They were all showing their flat stomachs a la Ms. Spears and Aguilera, but were all jailbait nonetheless. I felt a shudder of parental camaraderie and sympathized with their collective dad’s plight. By today's standards, it was actually more tasteful when your daughter dressed like Madonna in the 80’s.
After an hour of being jostled, stared at and perplexed by Scandinavian Lolitas, Jeff and I sought the sanctuary of backstage. Shemekia was wowin em again and I went in the dressing room and put on my stage attire for the night. We went out right on time and this time the weather was great and people were jammed in all over the joint. After a shaky start, the chemistry in the band began to coalesce. By the end of the second tune, we were humming on all twelve cylinders. It turned out to be the best set we ever played as a band. I’d like to point out at this juncture, that a musician has no way of knowing what’s going to happen when they go out on stage. There’s no barometer for predicting a good show or not. All this technology and it’s still a coin toss in 2001. We all hope to play as together as we did this set, but it rarely happens. Too many parameters. But we basked in the glory of this show. The only downside was the previous show we did was the one they recorded. Had it been this one, I would have had a live album not to be missed. Ed Murphy, the boss, came over after the show and said that he was standing with a festival veteran during the performance who proclaimed our set "the best ever in the history of the festival." Well, I doubt that, but at least our music translated the ethno-language barrier. Ed invited us to a party he was throwing the next night for all the volunteers. I quickly asked if we could perform. "You’d actually play there?" he stammered. "Hell, yeah," I laughed "What a great way to thank all those people who helped us out and worked for nothing and slept on cots!" He said he would set it up and needless to say, the boys in the band agreed to play this fun, gratis set.
Opening for us at the party was a local band, The Texas Twisters and American ex-porn star Candye Kane (hopefully not her real name) What Candye Kane had to do with the blues, I’m still pondering as I type this, but I had to sit through her set from the dressing room, where it was quite loud, amateurish and white. If it was in there somewhere, I didn’t get it. Sorry, Candye, if indeed that is your real name. We went onstage and it was great to play for these people. They were finished working a tough week, joyously partying and really enjoyed the music as much as we enjoyed playing it for them. In fact, two of our lads, turned up missing as the bus headed for the hotel, but that's all in a night’s work in Norway.
Back at the hotel, I packed my stuff, took one last bath in that giant tub, and could NOT fall asleep. Breakfast was at seven and thankfully our missing two lads were accounted for. At eight we began our trek homeward with a three hour bus ride to the Oslo airport. Again our flight was overbooked. They offered us an alternative flight that left an hour and a half later than our booked flight, but landed in Boston an hour earlier. This one stopped in Iceland and then went straight into Boston unlike our booked flight which stopped in Newark first. They also offered $400 to anyone who rebooked on this flight. The lads all grabbed the dough except for Tom Stein, our bassist and myself. "I can’t wait the extra hour and a half before you guys take off" I offered. Our flight was scheduled for 1:15 PM departure. So you can imagine how annoyed Tom & I were when our flight was delayed three hours while they changed a hydraulic something and we watched their plane push off from the gate right on time from inside our temporarily grounded flying tube.. Someday you eat the bear - some day the bear eats you.
I watched Castaway on the return and ate lousy steak. When we landed in Newark, we had to clear customs, drag our luggage to another long line to rebook the Boston flight we missed, then go the last gate in the building. Apparently luckily, I got us a ride on a motorized cart to the gate which saved us at least a mile of walking. Did I ever mention to you that Murphy’s Law follows me like a stalker? After the cart dropped us off and left, they announced a gate change for our flight. Anyway, we had left our hotel at 2 AM Boston time and I arrived home at 10:30 PM Boston time. Will I go back next year?
Only if they invite me.........