I remember the first time I walked into a Blues club, and the butterflies which began to rise and flutter in my stomach, as one of those rich, spine-chilling riffs bounced off the walls of the room as I entered. I was 16 or 17, had come to Blues via the beatnik atmosphere of a folk club which used to meet over a local pub in Blackpool. This Blues club was, I think, short-lived, even though I am talking about the mid 60s, when Eric Burdon and the Animals, Eric Clapton in his many incarnations, the Stones, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and other bands were beginning to acquaint us, of the North West wasteland, with the music born of the anguish of Africa, of the misery and hope of slavery, and the failed promises of Reconstruction in the US.
It was apt. It was the time of the freedom marches and the eloquence and inspiration of Martin Luther King, and the music spoke of the pain and the injustice, as well as of broken hearts and sexual innuendo. Maybe it’s because, to the majority of the audience at Santa Blues, that’s all just a part of history now, that there lacks the atmosphere and intensity of audience reaction one finds in other places. I noted that it takes the consumption of a certain amount of alcohol on the part of the crowd before it starts to move or dance with the rhythms. It also has to be noted that these concerts are totally free, so a certain amount of people are there for that reason only, and aren’t familiar with the music, let alone its history.
Blues, clearly, has a small but very loyal following in Tenerife. After my arrival in 1987 the only Blues I heard was recorded, until a friend and I stumbled, almost accidentally, on a concert sponsored by the local authority in 2003 in El Fraile, Arona. El Fraile is an immigrant neighorhood, which, I presume, is why that setting was chosen by some weird logic, but the majority of the immigrants, at that time were South American, and the music was as strange to them as to locals. My friend and I sat, spellbound by the music of a local band called Cotton Blues, who were seriously good, and who allowed other musicians to jam with them, which added to the richness of the music, and the atmosphere, despite the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the small crowd. I remember a duelling-banjos-style number in which it took two guitarists to produce a sound which gave more than a nod to the memory of Stevie Ray Vaughan, but produce it they did! After that the venue moved to the next village, only a ten minute walk away, but with a more appreciative audience. To be best of my knowledge it didn’t happen this year, presumably a victim of La Crisis. If it did my bad luck that I missed it.
The Santa Blues festival in the capital is in its 6th year now. It began as a month-long celebration, with concerts on various nights throughout the month, but has changed format for at least the last 3 years, and now occupies 3 nights at the end of June in the plaza de la iglesia de la Concepcción, the parish church of Santa Cruz, which sits at the beginning of the wonderful Calle Noria. The stage used to face down to the street, but now faces outwards to the main road.
On Thursday, Colleen, Mari and I arrived a little early, being unsure about parking, I knew that there were road works close by, but in the end we parked on the harbour front with ease, and had a short stroll around the district, before heading back to the plaza.
The audience was sparse as a local group, Rojas Blues Band and Esther Ovejero, opened the night, and the festival, with a curious lack of fanfare or introduction. What they lacked in polish and style this group more than made up for in enthusiasm, and they kept us well entertained until the festival’s first treat, Larry McCray and his band. McCray was a new name to me, although he is clearly very well known in his sphere. His Blues is of the Hendrix legacy, and whilst I do enjoy it, it’s the older stuff which really gets me going. Still, it was a great night, the audience eventually warming up, and the moon arising from the ocean into a clear sky adding to the ambience, as we bopped. Colleen and I had no doubts about wanting to return the next night, Maria, sadly, was off to Barcelona the next day. It’s around an hour’s drive for Colleen, a bit less for me, so it’s a consideration.
Friday night we realized that we could leave a bit later, which gave me time for a necessry siesta before leaving. Since I’d been up early to take Austin to the airport, there hadn’t been an awful lot of sleep, but as driver Thursday night I hadn’t had a drink, so a siesta neatly compensated, and I was raring to go by 8pm. Despite the fact that Spain were playing Chile for a place in the next round of the World Cup we found the roads surprisingly not that quiet, but the plaza almost deserted when we arrived in Santa Cruz, and we parked even closer to the venue. Despite the marketing for this event hugely lacking on many fronts, someone had had the wit to channel the match to the screen which usually displays advertising during the performances, so we were able to watch the final moments.
Seemed, however, that there few soccer fans around, as this guy was the only one who seemed to be celebrating the win!
Events beginning late is more or less expected here, so add the soccer to that and we began at 9.30 eventually with the Johnny Pérez Band from Cataluña, who were absolutely excellent, and deserved so much more than the scattered applause they received.
I do wonder about audiences here. A Canarian friend once explained to me that there is no history of showing appreciation or enthusiasm, and it isn’t unusual for nothing more than polite applause at the end of a performance. That friend is very well travelled, and we were at a classical concert at the time, and it was some years ago, but it disappoints me that things haven’t changed much. Friday night there were lots of people who simply stood and watched, never moved, never applauded. They might as well have been watching a politician pontificating, or a demonstration of the latest implement to chop carrots.
Happily for Sandra Hall, who headlined Friday, by the time she concluded her stunning performance, drink had raised the enthusiasm bar a bit, and there was a fair amount of whistling, and ululating as well as clapping and shouting, which is not to detract from her rapport with her audience, despite not speaking Spanish. She draws her performance from the rich reservoir of blues and soul, and warmed the crowd up considerably when she dragged a random guy up onto the stage to dance a very suggestive dance with her, in the real tradition of juke joints and music and sex as escapes from a hard life. She did one encore, and I am guessing that because of the late start the hours of a noise abatement type law were already exceeded. Always leave an audience panting for more I guess. I certainly was!
Saturday we left even later, and yet still had a wait before the music began. This time The Tina Rioro Quartet warmed up the audience, and indeed the welcome was warm. Tina informed us that it was her first professional performance, and she clearly had friends and fans in the crowd, which called her back for an encore, the first time over the weekend this happened for the opening band. She clearly has potential, and struggled valiantly with both a tight dress which kept riding up a bit too far (someone get the girl a stylist!), and a spectacular excess of dry ice, which, actually, hide the group from view at times. Her girlish enthusiasm spilled over with each number, but the band lacked both warmth and energy. As, presumably, amateurs they will, hopefully, learn as they get more gigs, and perhaps relax into their music.
It doesn’t always happen that the best is saved until last, but this year Santa Blues did just that. It’s a measure of my huge enjoyment of Kenny Neal and his band that I don’t have a single photo to show from the event. I was as rooted to the spot as it was possible to be in that sort of crowd. His spellbinding style was matched only by his own clear enjoyment of playing. One look at his wide smile and you couldn’t help but smile yourself …. if you weren’t already of course! His music is modern Blues at its best, with huge respect to the traditional and just a hint of bluegrass. His band, in the best griot tradition, comprises only family members, and his nephew also treated us to a couple of pieces, which were pure Blues of the very best pedigree. Their fast-paced numbers had almost all of us tapping and bobbing, and when they slowed down the tempo you could feel your soul leap. I could have listened all night and then some.
The only spoiler on this last night was the audience, or some of it at least. Although it was, overall, more receptive and appreciative than on earlier nights, there was a large element of Saturday-night-out-on-the-towners there who chatted, argued and generally displayed a total lack of respect both for the music and other people who were trying to listen. During the upbeat, loud sessions they were drowned out, but when the pace slowed they really were an embarrassment, when Kenny Neal announced that the band would be signing autographs after the show I felt like going to apologise. In the event I didn’t, we had a long drive for the third night running, though happily for us, Colleen’s husband, Pablo, was doing the honors this night, and so we wound our weary way home listening to Blues on the car stereo, and wishing we could hear more of it live.