Notodden is a city that certainly loves the blues. For years musicians and fans have joined forces to promote the festival in their own country, Norway, and beyond its borders. Blues artists from all over the world have played with norwegian musicians in a cultural exchange which has benefited diffusion of that music and dignified its interpreters. Multiple trips to the Mississippi have motivated strong bonds of friendship between Norwegians passionate about the blues and many of the current bluesmen/women in that part of the USA.
The first Notodden Blues Festival arose from the initiative of a few musicians when a large part of Notodden’s population became unemployed due to the closure and relocation of its main industries. So the first program was conceived to raise the spirits of people who had seen their lives change unpredictably in three months (all this is explained in a visit to the Notodden BLUESEUM, a highly recommended experience) … A multitude enjoyed the first festival which took root and now aims to maintain a similar spirit to its beginnings. It now counts on the potential of 600 volunteers who cooperate year after year with their time and availability, impregnating this great blues fiesta with human warmth. Notodden Blues Festival has kept on growing into Europe’s most important and biggest budget blues festival, using the blues as a banner to generate wealth in their territory.
On arrival at Gardermoen-Oslo airport on Tuesday 29th July 2014 I was met by a young man ready to drive me for two hours to his town, so that I would arrive in time for the festival’s first concert. Named Vegard, he took me to a very beautiful 12th century church, the Heddal Stavkirke, built of wood whose lavish profile with multiple pointed roofs revealed the telluric character of this marvelous construction. Inside people had already gathered to enjoy the concert by Mike Andersen, guitar and voice, accompanied by Kristian Fogh on piano. I arrived just as the performance had begun with Mike singing “Careless Love”. I was impressed by his warm agile voice impregnated with soul which filled the interior of the church with good feeling in a totally acoustic concert. Mike Andersen appeared very relaxed and forthcoming, inviting the audience to sing and clap along to his magnificent rhythmic beat. An artist with good stage presence who showed his sense of humor during the presentations, involving the public and making them feel like family. His versions of “Ain’t No Sunshine’, “Something”, “Georgia On My Mind”, and “Shake, Rattle ‘n‘ Roll” were extraordinary, as were his interpretations of his own songs like the exquisite “Raindrop In a Drought”, a marvel which you can also hear on his new disc “Home”. An authentically wonderful concert to start the 27th International Notodden Blues Festival, and one that delighted the audience who gave a long standing ovation to the two musicians.
I attended Notodden as an invited artist, coordinator of an event (European Blues Expo), music journalist, and jury member of the Union Blues Cup 2014. All that let me to see the magnitude of the festival from several angles. On arrival at the office area where everything was cooking, I witnessed the frantic rhythm of the organizers: press conferences, constant coordination with various volunteer groups (artists’ transport, merchandising, entry control, drink sales, attention to the public, etc.). Complex work requiring great responsibility as the festival has an astronomical budget which has to be managed with rigor. Those who give body and soul to this commitment for the whole year then work without rest during the festival so the public can enjoy it to the full.
On Wednesday 30th July I attended the concerts in one of the festival’s spaces, Teledølen, an intimate stage in the patio of a bar with capacity for 300 people. The Showcase night opened with a surprising group, the Marcus Løvdal Band, winners of the Union Blues Cup 2013, whose members although hardly more than 20 years old showed impressive stage maturity. Marcus Løvdal is undoubtedly a guitar prodigy following the trail of great figures like Knut Reiersrud, Vidar Busk and Kid Andersen. An impeccable concert with his own songs very well arranged and interpreted with energy and feeling by the group. A compact band which not only warmed up the ambience but offered a high quality performance. The evening continued with Caravan Blues Band, a quintet based in Notodden led by the singer and guitarist Østen Ytterbø who played a repertoire based on the houserockin’ style which connected well with the audience. The verve of the musicians was notable as they transported us to the rugged blues of Maxwell Street, a good choice to continue the second night of the festival. After that another artist from the same city took to the stage with her orchestra, Lady J & Her Bada Bing Band, accompanied by the guitarist Tommy Larsen. A good show in which Lady J shone and sang with glamour and elegance, with humorous touches in her interpretations overflowing with femininity. Based mainly in 50s music, the jumpin’jive of Lady J, Tommy Larsen and his companions delighted the audience with her voice, the arrangements and the guitar, piano and horn solos. Last to take the Teledølen stage that day were A Contra Blues, the winning group in the European Blues Challenge 2014, who arrived from Barcelona keen to deliver from the first moment. They offered a grand concert in which the solos of the guitarists Alberto Noel Calvillo and Héctor Martin worked the audience into a frenzy. The rhythm section comprising Núria Perich (drums) and Joan Vigo (bass) sounded like a single body, solid and very well blended with the other musicians. Jonathan Herrero’s voice was powerful and splendid. We emphasize that A Contra Blues are playing in Europe’s main festivals by representing the European Blues Union who make a great effort to promote the blues.
The morning of the following day Thursday 31st July 2014 began joyfully for the children of Notodden’s infants’ school with a special concert by Rita Engedalen & Backbone. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend it but the photos showed a happy musical day with the artists greeted with blue balloons held by smiling kids, faces painted in striking colors. Undoubtedly a beautiful way to initiate little ones into the blues universe. At midday, the 2nd European Blues Expo was inaugurated in the library of the emblematic Bok & Blueshuset (Book and Blueshouse) presented by Espen Fjelle (director of the Europas Blues Senter), Jostein Forsberg (director of the Notodden Blues Festival), and Tom Ruf (president of the European Blues Union). The exhibition was similar to the one mounted the previous year in the library of the Tecla Sala of l’Hospitalet de Llobregat (near Barcelona), but with more content and also more photographers who generously gave their work to contribute to spreading the blues. Among them were Pertti Nurmi, Alain Hiot, Sylvie Bosc, Roser I. Valls, SKAttomaTTO, Charlie Hussey, Aigars Lapsa, Moten Gjerde, Carme Barrera, Fred Delforge and Roald Jungård, and the team of Bad Music Blues who produced a new 2h 15min video of the winning performances (first and second prizes) from the four editions of the European Blues Challenge. Pertti Nurmi also showed his photographic work in the hall of the same building with 120 photographs which summarized his years as editor of the Finnish magazine Blues News and more than 40 years’ passion for the blues. Notable in this 2nd European Blues Expo was the documentation compiled as a database and shown on a computer to constitute a European Blues legacy whose ambition is to be grown and shared online by all European blues lovers. A series of posters about the European Blues Union showed this association’s activities, as the European Blues Challenge, Blues Market, promotional CD, European Blues Expo, etc. Other posters showed European blues’ magazines from countries and festivals forming part of the EBU. Some European blues journals brought samples for the library to exhibit permanently (BluesNews from Norway, Twoj Blues from Poland, Blues Matters! from the UK, and Blues & Co from France), displayed beside articles about the European Blues Union from the specialized press and photocopied for all to read. As coordinator of the exhibition together with Espen Fjelle I want to thank all those who gave their art and time to this cultural activity, as well as Ragnhild Kraugerhud and the workers of the Book & Blueshuset library, especially Mary Ann who was a stupendous help in mounting it. Arranging the European Blues Expo prevented me from attending an emblematic concert in Teledølen given by several bands from five Norwegian prisons with some of their members serving sentences. The project to support jailed blues musicians was sustained by Trond Ytterbø and Jostein Forsberg, who the pianist of the band accompanying them, John “Rev. John” Ultvedt, told me did this work of solidarity not just during the festival but throughout the year. A laudable task which deserves mention. So in Teledølen prisoners and guards mixed with the public who wanted to participate in their blues.
That evening another covered space called Hovigs Hangar in the town center with capacity for 3000 was filled to the brim for the official opening of the NBF, with the participation of the Norwegian Minister of Culture, Thorhild Widvey. The event was televised with performances by Keb’ Mo’, Grainne Duffy, the winners of the European Blues Challenge 2014, A Contra Blues, etc. On the same stage, the Notodden Bluesprize was awarded to the accordionist and singer JT Lauritsen who received it with joy and emotion. The next act began with the performance of Rita Engedalen & Backbone who presented their new disc “My Mother’s Blues”, with Margit Bakken guesting. The night continued with a really memorable concert by Keb‘ Mo‘ in quartet formation. He lit up the stage with little intention of leaving it, tackling a very well constructed repertoire which didn’t leave out “Government Cheese”, “The Whole Enchilada”, “Dangerous Mood”, or the emblematic “The Door” as finale in which each musician sung masterfully. Surprising to hear how Mr. Mo’ reinterpreted himself, changing the tempo of his songs and modifying the harmonies in what seemed like a game to give his work new dimensions. For an encore and with the audience totally on his side he played “More Than one Way Home”, bringing great joy to his fans (including me!) as this is his best known song. A concert which didn’t miss out on humor when, for example, the musicians improving on kazoos to simulate a wind section with Keb‘ Mo‘ doing splendidly. They were followed onto the stage by Rival Sons who filled Hovigs Hangar with music at full volume.
My following day started in Hovigs Hangar listening to the award-winning JT Lauritsen & The Buckshot Hunters who delighted me from first to last song. With a repertoire rooted in Louisiana, JT Lauritsen’s accordion brought perfect color to every song chosen, and his impressive voice stood out for its power, feeling and register. The band pulsed with cohesion as they are masters of the genre. A concert I liked a lot. In the city’s main street there’s a boulevard dedicated to blues stars, similar to Hollywood’s, known as Notodden Walk of Fame. The media had gathered there to celebrate another great event: joining the stars dedicated to BB King, Solomon Burke and Johnny Winter, the festival director Jostein Forsberg placed two more with the names of Notodden Blues Band and Reidar Larsen inscribed in the centre. Both the band and the pianist are major figures in Notodden’s music scene and have ramped up the blues for years in parallel with the festival. It was undoubtedly a very emotional moment but didn’t lack the honorees’ sense of humor. Afterwards I went on to the Book & Blueshuset where a TV team awaited me to record an interview documenting the Bluesmuseum. It took place in the control room of Juke Joint Studio where Delbert McCLinton was rehearsing with Royal Southern Brotherhood, Heidi Solheim (Pristine) and the recent honoree Reidar Larsen on piano. From what I heard I thought the concert they were preparing (with McClinton in place of Gregg Allman) would go really well. I couldn’t attend that because I had promised to be a jury member for the Union Blues Cup 2014, which made me very proud. After the interview I returned to Hovigs Hangar for the concert by Spoonful of Blues with Bogdan Toposki and myself as guest artists. As I took part in this concert I won’t comment on it, but would like to express what I felt from the stage when I saw the enthusiastic audience showing their unity and affection for the band of Jostein Forsberg, Morten Omlid, Tony Caddie and Eskil Aasland who every year turn Hovigs Hangar upside down with their music. Without any doubt I felt very intense emotions, and sharing the stage was really sensational. Afterwards I was reunited with my friend photographer, Carmen Barrera, who told me about her experience on board the midday BluesCruise listening to Mich Woods which she found totally recommendable. Afterwards we went to the enormous Brygga to hear Hugh Laurie & The Copper Bottom Band. In this space for 8000 people they didn’t seem small but on the contrary great artists. We had already seen them in Barcelona and noted that in the show they had included new gags and two more musicians. Hugh Laurie proposed a journey through blues history, starting with “Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair” by Fletcher Henderson recorded by Bessie Smith, followed by homages to Leadbelly and Billie Holiday when he played the guitar, and to Dr. John when he played piano and sang. The concert is a mix of theatre and sentiment, very well interpreted by excellent and versatile musicians, with an undisputed leader who drives and enters into the spectacle while clearly enjoying it. A show which has grown in stature since we saw it a year ago in our city.
I was pleasantly surprised by the visit I received one day during the festival: a young teacher student presented herself as “Artist Host”. It seems that the organization provides every artist performing in the festival with a volunteer to fall back on, and she dedicated her time to me. What a great idea. My new friend Linn Veronica and I walked and talked, she taught me some Norwegian phrases, explored Notodden and ate together. It was one of the best experiences of the festival which made me understand the importance of fraternity for the organizers. Notodden Blues festival generates a lot of money (you can consume something everywhere) but also stirs many emotions. The festival’s motto is “Notodden has the best of people and blues”, part of the lyrics of “Bluestown” by Kristin Berglund, and it certainly does. NBF counts on volunteers who follow strict rules like no alcohol while supplying their services, and they are a key part of this great European event. And not only the population of Notodden are involved, but a multitude of people coming from all parts of Norway to participate in this festival from which blues germinated and growed throughout the country.
On Friday night after seeing Hugh Laurie and walking through Notodden we went to the Bok & Blueshuset to enjoy the concert of Nick Moss and his band. In the auditorium of this emblematic building dedicated to blues culture, the concert was sublime and the sound magnificent. Nick Moss expressed himself confidently, powerfully and intensely on the guitar, making it talk and sound as though it was in a present day Chicago club. All the musicians played perfectly in the groove, and Michael Ledbetter stood out especially, completely hypnotizing us with his voice and electrifying solos. 10 out of 10 for them. The night continued for us at Teledølen where we had a great time listening to Super Chickan & The Fighting Cocks. This great artist overflows with creativity demonstrated by even making his own guitars, simply shaped like a “cigar-box” and very well decorated in striking bright colors, which sounded like a million dollars. He is a man of humble origins (son of the bluesman Big Jack “Oilman” Johnson) born in the Mississippi area, who loves country life and feels proud of his origins. He loves to laugh and imitate chickens on stage, and his folk origin show he’s a person with a big heart who wants to make people happy with his music. He has rhythm in his body and plays with his movements to bring joy to whoever is watching fascinated by the privilege which for him is simply a gift. A trio of women accompanied him with his daughter on drums, bass and keyboard. A great blues roots’ show to end the night.
Saturday morning started with A Contra Blues in Hovigs Hangar. Not many people to start the party but the musicians sounded great and gave a fine concert. I left just before the end to hear Super Chickan’s talk with Art Tipaldi in the Bok & Blueshuset library. On arrival the gathering was very animated as James “Super Chikan” Johnson explained the need to accept everyone for what they are and to love individuals unquestioningly. A good lesson on self-esteem from this wise maestro who is always in a good mood. “Talkin‘ Blues” is an NBF initiative to bring musicians and the public together and let them talk. My day continued in the Bok & Blueshuset’s concert hall as jury member of the Union Blues Cup 2014, the blues competition organized by the Norwegian Bluesunion to choose the best band of the year and support them on the road to professionalism. In a future report you could read about the conversation I had with the president of the association, Bitten Svendsen, a woman of great integrity who left her job to dedicate her time and savings as a voluntary worker for the blues in Norway. My jury companions were Per Oskar Olsen, director of Trondheim’s Nidaros Blues festival, and the musician Stein Idar Stokke, vocalist and harmonica player of Solid Comfort quartet, who played twice in Arno during the NBF. In the previous days’ semifinals another jury selected four finalist from the seven bands participating. These four performed in the following order: Steve Cooling, Sticky Forks, Blueskollektivet, and Tin Pan Alley. I was surprised by the high standard of all the musicians and by their youth (in Sticky Forks between 14 and 16), and in some cases by their musical maturity. After discussing the points and notes taken during the performances the jury members agreed to award the Union Blues Cup 2014 to Blueskollektivet, a band who played a well chosen and arranged repertoire based on original compositions with Norwegian lyrics. A group of good soloists and an excellent singer (who also played rhythm guitar with great timing) who knew how to put on a good show. Good luck next year to Blueskollektivitet, and we wish that the tour the Norwegian Bluesunion has awarded them becomes a beautiful and motivating experience.
After the competition we went to the Folk & Blues stage, a space with capacity for 750 people, with every seat already taken. The stage set was a wooden house in whose porch Eric Bibb and Staffan Astner were playing. The accompanying Swedish guitarist was bringing melodic richness to Mr. Bibb’s songs in the solos and ornamentations. Both musicians managed to create an intense atmosphere in which the blues troubadour (as Eric Bibb styles himself) transmitted emotion with his meaningful lyrics which pulsed to his guitar’s rhythmic arpeggios, impregnating the audience with the beat. An endearing concert that ended with an exquisite interpretation of his song “Connected”. This provoked a call for an encore which the artist granted with his most popular song, “Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down”, sung with a great spiritual force that touched everyone’s soul. Inspired by this concert we went on to Notodden’s church, a fine building with capacity for a congregation of 500 who, for this occasion, mixed with festival-goers attending Dorothy Moore’s concert. With the church full to the brim the attendees were fascinated by the singer’s rich deep voice, very well accompanied by her musicians who knew how to fill the ambience with soul, blues and R&B. Miss Moore surprised more than one of us when she played the harmonica, and pleased the audience with her chosen repertoire. In front of the church in a type of restaurant serving food made by the parish we tasted the pastor’s wife’s succulent fish soup, and had second helpings to make the most of this delicacy. With such spiritual and organic reinforcement we were full of energy and ready to enjoy Vidar Busk & His True Believers’ concert, although first we walked to the Bok & Blueshuset to hear Mike Andersen with his band, who delighted us again.
Vidar Busk is an extraordinary musician, a genius who plays the guitar with passion and total artistic freedom, feeling and bringing soul to his music. Really well accompanied by a fabulous rhythm section, Alex Pettersen on drums and Rune Endal on bass, and leaving space for other soloists (harmonica and piano), they all gave a glorious concert. Vidar’s musical language is so extensive that he fascinated anyone trying to understand the development of his discourse which is always original and transmits very varied emotions. With the rhythm always in his fingertips, the numbers he played strode along and made the people (who filled Hovigs Hangar to full capacity) move with the beat. He culminated the concert with a minor key blues and a startling solo expressing extreme suffering, every note soaring from his guitar strings at the limit of tension. Finally he changed key and began a number toying with a latin rhythm and singing “Te Quiero”, one meter from the microphone until he was hoarse, losing his voice bit by bit. A magic moment which continued with an AABA song without a solo at low volume and with his voice broken by total commitment… Several members of Royal Southern Brotherhood stayed in the stage wings hypnotized by the singular artistry of Vidar Busk, who simply enjoyed playing and seemed unwilling to leave the stage, completely immersed in his music. To boogie rhythm at the end, the audience went crazy for a concert which deserved to be remembered as one of the best of the festival. The show continued in Hovigs Hangar with Exile on Royal Street, led by Royal Southern Brotherhood, Reidar Larsen and Heidi Solheim (Pristine), in a tribute to the Rolling Stones. I had already seen the band the previous year and I liked them. The prodigious vice of Devon Allman gave the Stones’ repertoire a new personality. Cyril Neville appeared almost supernaturally, dancing like a New Orleans “Indian red” and as such master of ceremonies. He commanded a solo from Charlie Wooton on bass that ended in an authentic explosion of rhythm from the extraordinary drummer Yonrico Scott. A heightened moment which enthused an audience who maintained their interest in the concert to the very end. Meanwhile, Carme Barrera visited the Bellman Pub to see Dave Fields and his band, who in her opinion gave a concert of the first order. To finish I had the luck to enter Teledølen and hear Super Chikan & The Fighting Cocks again, who gave a spectacular finale.
Sunday morning was on the festival’s last day. For that, Hovigs Hangar opened its doors for two free concerts which had a great popular response, collecting funds for the Norwegian Workers‘ Union and to support humanitarian aid in Gaza. I saw Reidar Larsen & The Storytellers‘ concert, inspired by the music of New Orleans, in which the artist’s creativity could also be heard in Norwegian. Following him was a well known singer in her country called Anne Grete Preus with a concert probably aimed at a young audience. Many of the friends we already knew or had met in Notodden left that same day. I took the opportunity to stay and visit the Blueseum again which greatly moved me. The entrance to this museum makes an immediate impact when you hear the voice of Morgan Freeman talking about respect between human beings and the importance of the blues. As you walk round you can understand the history of this music and how it became the spinal column of Notodden when the first festival arose from a moment of collective loss for people unwilling to give in. A museum that illustrates the reality of blues in Norway and gives voice and exposure to its most representative artists. A museum which you leave full of emotion after understanding the hard reality Notodden’s working community lived through more than a quarter of a century ago, and how they moved forward motivated by the blues.
On Sunday night there was the volunteers’ party. Espen Fjelle invited us to dinner with them in the Bok & Blueshuset and enjoy the shows laid on there. The concert hall stage was ready and decorated with fairy lights and on that, after a wonderful meal, Grainne Duffy began her performance with her three accompanists, delivering from her heart. Mike Andersen’s Band followed her, filling the hall with the beautiful voice of this artist and motivating the audience to dance to the music’s groove. An excellent concert once more. At one point of it, a jam session started with JT Lauritsen on piano, and continued with Nick Moss on guitar joined by Jostein Forsberg singing and improvising with Mike Andersen and his group. Marcus Løvdal Band performed the finale and again our jaws dropped at their musical maturity. A great ending for a festival of which I’ve only recounted a tenth, given that the program was much greater, with overlapping concerts so that everyone could work out their own itinerary. And without any doubt, the route we followed was a beautiful journey.
Big Mama Montse
(translated by Andrew Neilson)