On the Road with Kathi

On the Road with Kathi McDonald: Hansi, the owner of the Palette in Kappeln is a flamboyant guy who came up to the stage at the end of our show with a tray of champagne and we all had a nice toast before the encore. First time I’ve ever been kissed by a club owner! He also served the best meal of the tour in my opinion – and there were many great meals! This was what a tour is supposed to be – never paid for a meal, never paid for a drink, never paid for a room and never had to share a room. Most of you probably know I’m not much of a drinking man but I developed a taste for Jaegermeister. I couldn’t bring myself to mix it with Red Bull as Kathi preferred (that’s called a Jaegerbomb). Driving along the highway in northern Germany Kathi and Butch are having a great laugh about “Richard” somebody and finally I say “Richard who?” and Kathi says “Penniman! Little Richard!” Ohhhhh K. There were lots of road stories, mostly Long John Baldry stories because Kathi, Butch and Hansa, the driver, had done this tour with Baldry many times. Later as we're approaching Hamburg, Butch points out three hills in the distance, each with the ruins of a castle or tower at the top and he tells us they belonged to three brothers in the 12th century who spent their whole lives quarrelling…or rather at war with each other. The next day we played a mini blues festival in Kellinghusen and I ran into John Campbelljohn from the Maritimes. He played great and so did the other bands, mostly local. And English performer called Julian Dawson was on the bill as well, and had arranged to do an interview with Kathi for a book he was writing about Nicky Hopkins, the great pianist who worked with the Stones and Baldry. The producer of this festival asked for one of my CDs and expressed an interest in having me back doing my own thang. That happened at a couple of other gigs and it was encouraging considering I was only doing a couple of my tunes to open the show. By now, Kathi and I had worked up a couple of duets, too, but whatever we came up with mostly happened right on the stage (or in the dressing room) because there was never a single rehearsal with Kathi – though there were a few attempts. Even though Kathi had warned me that she can get pretty teary at the last gig of a tour, that did not really happen but there was hardly a town we played where I didn’t hear stories of the wild and crazy adventures of Long John and band. I ended the tour with a new level of confidence in my playing – I’m not a jobber who knows 3000 songs, but I was able to learn a bunch of new material very quickly and hold my own with a powerhouse singer who had worked with a long list of amazing guitarists: Robben Ford, Nils Lofgren, John Cippolina, Neil Schon, Ronnie Montrose, Dave Mason…not to mention Ike Turner (R.I.P.) and Keith Richard. After this experience, I feel like I could accompany just about anyone. Anybody out there lookin? Lots more on the tour at http://www.brianblain.ca. You can see pictures by going to www.flickr.com and search for “Brian Blain Kathi McDonald”. And if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a little montage of me and my band from last summer on www.youtube.com. Just search for “Brian Blain”.

Amsterdam: I think I was the only person having a coffee in the “coffeeshop” and come to think of it, that was probably the worst coffee I had in Europe. We must have dropped in to a dozen or so of these establishments, each with their own laminated menu that could not be removed from the counter. Each place had its own personality – the first one we visited was around the corner from the hotel, Spirit, and we were the only customers in the place – large screen TV blasted heavy metal videos. I was looking for “King Mohammed” (highly recommended) but I never found it there or in any other shop. Had to settle for “King Maroc”. Then we made our way to the red light district where we were accosted by a street barker who said to Kathi “Come in here and she’ll show you how to make two perverts happy.” Another “girl in window” gave me a nice friendly wink but most of the girls looked quite bored. We took a taxi the size of a golf cart to the live music area but didn’t find much interesting. We talked our way into the “Paradiso”, the big showcase room where Baldry had played many times – similar to the Phoenix in Toronto but with two levels of balconies wrapping around. At one bar, Tom ordered a round of Absynth and the barmaid came to the table with a tray full of equipment that was used to set alight a sugar cube over the glass, then the sugar melted into the drink, then…bottoms up! My one regret is that I never got to try the cheap and delicious Indonesian take-out food which Butch recommended. After 3 solid weeks on the road we got used to eating on the run. At every rest stop on the autobahn Kathi would ask “hand or bistro?” (meaning “take out or sit-down?”). Next day I was looking for an internet cafĂ© (never did find an internet coffeeshop) and was directed to the Ben & Jerry’s where they had several workstations and, of course, great ice cream. I was telling the server that I used to live just a few miles from the first Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington Vermont (where you would be served by Ben or Jerry) but I don’t think he believed me. The cab I had reserved to take me to the airport never showed up so I started walking and was practically at the train station before I found a cab – I should have just taken the train but time was tight. The cabbie picked me up while he had another passenger to drop off and I got to witness a big kafuffle when the cabbie didn’t have the change for the American businessman (and probably expected he would “keep the change”).

Somerset: I didn’t get a chance to hook up with blues guy Steve Payne and his crew in Bristol but there sure was lots to see in Somerset, UK: Glastonbury, Avebury, Stonehenge… Wookey Hole. I almost had a gig in Wookey Hole but it didn’t come together. I did go to the place though and even got a peek at caves of Wookey Hole, which have become quite a tourist destination. It’s become a bit of a theme park, actually, much to the consternation of one of the custodians who was telling us about the history of that place, how Wordworth and Dickens used to drop by. Now it’s like Disneyland. Wookey Hole is famous for the Witch of Wookey Hole who -- having been jilted herself -- frequently spoils budding relationships. Finally one jilted lover went to her cave a killed her. She was known as “Bocus” and that apparently is the origin of the expression “hocus-pocus.” Before I saw the cave, I found myself at a gathering of modern-day Druids who were protesting in front of the Well Cathedral museum where the bones of the Witch of Wookey Hole are on display. They were demanding that the bones be buried and had a ritual at the entrance of the museum where we all held hand and the priestess blessed a loaf of bread which we all tasted and which was then buried instead of the bones. Wells is the town where they shot a popular movie called “Hot Fuzz” and the pub and other locations had memorabilia from the shoot. These folks should only visit Toronto where you can’t hardly walk around without tripping over lights and cables. Stonehenge was imposing, even though it was overrun with Japanese tourists. We also visited Avebury where there is a similar arrangement of huge rocks and more great mystery about it, but here there are no turnstiles and guides. We observed another group of Druids (a drove of Druids???) at Avebury where they were gathered among more ancient rocks. Here the priestess looked more like a schoolgirl with parka and backpack but she was giving her blessings to her fellow travelers. I really wanted to approach her and get a blessing myself but my shyness got the best of me

There were a couple of gigs, too. It kicked off with a jam session on the night I arrived, I met some of the players from Kangaroo Moon, the band I would be sharing the bill with on the weekend. They are a fabulous party band, hi-energy celtic-crossover and I dare say I crossed them over into some blues as we finished off the night on stage together. After the show everyone drove out to an encampment with a large circular tent (yurt) where a large group had gathered for the traditional making of “black butter.” They spend a couple of days (and nights) taking turns stirring this huge cauldron which is mostly apples that are reduced and flavoured until it becomes a paste that you eat on bread. We would have had to stay until the following morning to taste the results so we settled for some great homemade soup & cheese. Didn’t spot any Druids, but a strong scent of patchouli permeated the air.

Glastonbury is a very special place. It might be a bit commercialized now, as you walk down the main street every second shop is selling crystals and other esoterica. One thing is pretty well the same every country I’ve visited, though, and that’s the “blues jam” In Glastonbury the blues jam was at a pub called the Rifleman’s Arms and hosted by a young guitarist from Bristol called Damian. His idea of a jam was a succession of guitarists and harp players coming up to play along with him. I had to be a bit aggressive to get onto that stage and once there I had the audacity to suggest that I would like to sing one. He said to the crowd “The gentleman wants to sing a song” and I just launched into “Live the Life,” a blues standard (I thought) but the bass player never quite quite got the hang of it but we forged through it. After that, one of the “local legends,” Z.Z. Birmingham, got up and I played along with him. A real old-timer. He probably played with Cyril Davies and Long John himself at one time or other. My last day in Somerset, I went to a jazz brunch in Wookey Hole and heard a charming jazz quartet.

Next day I was off to Paris and that was a pretty short stop-over with the second day entirely pre-occupied with getting to the airport on time since the railway had just gone on strike and getting a cab was hit or miss. I did get to hear one of my favourite jazz groups playing in their home town - that was Paris Washboard. They put out as much energy as a heavy metal band but it’s all done by a bunch of old guys on acoustic instruments. My last evening in Paris was spent having a lovely dinner with Brad Spurgeon, a fellow alumnus of Puck’s Traveling Circus. These days he writes about Formula One for the International Herald Tribune. We jammed and had a great time then I made my way to the airport (with many hours to spare). As it turned out this was the only Air France flight (of the 4 or 5 that I took) that left on time. After the incessant delays, everybody was calling them “Air Chance.” However they get points for allowing me to bring my guitar as carry-on luggage and I am told that British Airways has a new policy allowing musicians to carry any instrument as long as it’s not larger than a guitar. We’ll leave you with that “tip of the day.”