We arrived in Sierre to enjoy their festival over the weekend. It had already started however on Wednesday 9th July 2014 with concerts by Dana Fuchs and Popa Chubby on the big stage, and Thomas Schoeffler Jr and The Vinyl on the “Village Scene”. According to the programme Ana Popovic and Uriah Heep alternated on the main stage on Thursday 10th, and Marco Pandolfi and The Coconut Kings on the other one. We weren’t lucky enough to enjoy those concerts, but if anyone is interested in seeing some of the best moments they can visit the Flickr page of Christophe Losberger who managed to capture the music in images of great aesthetic beauty, and whom we had the pleasure to meet and share good times with in Sierre.
On Friday morning we discovered various stages had been set up in the city in front of the terraces of several bars for the enjoyment of those fortunate enough to be seated as well as for passers-by. In front of our hotel we were pleasantly surprised by a group led by a pianist and charismatic singer, Davina & The Vagabonds, who performed at 11.00 a.m. with great dynamism a repertoire rooted in the traditional New Orleans sound. The day before they had played in the Chateau de Villa, a beautiful castle on a hill presiding over a large expanse of vineyards. In the afternoon we returned to see them play, and on Saturday they performed two spectacular concerts in the patio of the Villa Bayard restaurant, connecting with the audience in a very well structured show with the main voice sometimes shared amongst the drummer (who recalled Jelly Roll Morton with “Mamie’s Blues”, a Mamie Desdoumes song), the trumpet player and the trombonist, or Davina herself. The band was complemented by an expert contrabass player who transported us to the Mardi Grass festival, although also 50’s R&B and the soul sound. The versatility of this combo was well appreciated when Davina tackled “I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James, a number which she masterfully interpreted to the delight of an audience completely hypnotised by her beautiful voice. Davina Sowers showed she is a great artist by her vocal qualities, her stage presence and her talent as a pianist. The concert ended with “St. James Infirmary” which the artist introduced with speech followed by frenetic rhythm (including Cab Calloway onomatopoeias), slowing down at the end to evoke a funeral in the purest New Orleans style. That motivated the audience to call for an encore, and Davina complied with “His Eye Is On a The Sparow”, Ethel Waters’s favourite gospel song. And if anyone thought this group might find the main festival stage too large, which they played on Sunday morning, they were very mistaken. The concert they offered was memorable… but more of that later.
What struck us initially about the festival was its organisation and its magnificent position: the compound was in an esplanade surrounded by imposing mountains which offered a unique scenic panorama. Music in such beautiful surroundings offers an inexplicable magic which visitors have been enjoying year after year for six editions. The central nucleus of the festival is situated in this welcoming area in which you can hear concerts on two stages: the main one with a large grassed area in front of it -the Plaine Bellevue-, and the medium size “Village Scene” where the artists perform in a zone set up to supply gastronomic needs as well. Every detail has been arranged, and you feel that the Sierre Blues Society members hugely enjoyed preparing everything for the public’s delight. On sunday, in “The Blues Gardens”, they fitted out a tent with children’s games, and the “Little Chateau” space was the festival bar serving exquisite raclettes and wine from the area (Fendant or Gamay). There was also the merchandise zone with caps, T-shirts, badges, jerseys, etc., and the restaurants with their different flavours, in which you could taste everything from typically Swiss savoury veal sausages to Mexican, Italian, Chinese or Arabian food. A gastronomic variety to savour in the “Espace Village” zone, with tables and chairs in a marquee to protect the diners in case of rain. The always perfectly clean toilets with a special facility for the handicapped was also an indication that everything was organised to perfection… The “Friends’ Club for Friends of the Sierre Blues Festival” is a VIP space offering privacy to partners and godparents of the Festival which offers companies and individuals the chance of supporting it with a donation of CHF 500. That gives them access to the VIP space, 10 entries, 10 raclette+wine vouchers! and a CD compilation of music by the Festival’s artists. An excellent idea to invite the business sector to gift blues to their customers. And once there we began to enjoy the music…
On Friday 11 July 2014 afternoon while people entered the compound and stocked up with provisions, the Joe Colombo Trio warmed up the at atmosphere. These Swiss musicians in guitar and voice, drum and bass format based their concert mainly on Hendrix’s music, and played that with enthusiasm and conviction. Punctually as programmed A Contra Blues began to play; they are the Spanish group who won the 4th European Blues Challenge, and as such are ambassadors of the European Blues Union 2014. Note that the Sierre Festival had promised in advance to include in its programme the winners of the EBChallenge 2014. Supporting an unknown group was an admirable, greatly valued and risky decision, and allowing them to play on the main stage could have lost them money. A Contra Blues didn’t let them down. On the contrary. Soon after their concert started people gathered to see them and liked them a lot, demonstrated by the applause and cheers for their hit “Wine Wine Wine”. In this group the voice of the singer Jonathan Herrero stands out, whose potential includes singing without a microphone in the open air. We’ll supported by the rhythm section of young drummer Núria Perich and Joan Vigo on bass, and by the two guitarists Alberto Noel Calvillo and Héctor Martínez, they continually moved, played and made a well-structured show giving distinct colours to the repertoire which included a homage to Elmore James. The experts’ comments were of admiration and congratulation to the group and to the Festival. When A Contra Blues’ concert finished on the “Village Scene” the Joe Colombo Trio played again for half an hour, which allowed musicians and technicians to rearrange the main stage for the next act. We found it an excellent idea to alternative stages so as not to keep the public waiting. With Swiss punctuality and exactly as programmed Gotthard began, a hard rock group from Switzerland which attracted thousands of followers to congregate on the Bellevue Plaine, chanting the songs of their beloved rockers and enduring the rain with religious fervour. We were told that the group lost their singer in a fatal accident during a trip to the USA by coming off his Harley Davidson on the open road. Following a difficult time Gotthard resurfaced after finding a new singer with a spectacular voice. The group reminded me of my youth when I never missed a Heavy Metal concert, and I really enjoyed their music. A band who played authentically and really delivered to the loyal fans who supported and accompanied them. After Gotthard’s concert the end of Friday’s fiesta was celebrated on the other stage with a young group from Latvia, Coolmans Report. This group played in Riga at the welcoming dinner in Bite’s Blues Club organised by members of the European Blues Union. They undoubtedly impressed Silvio Caldelari, director of Sierre Blues Festival, who contracted them at the end of their concert no less. In this quintet format group the singer and guitarist Rihards Kolmanis stands out… the delivery and quality of his interpretation are impressive. He’s a great and very young artist (born 8-10-1995) but with great musical maturity that let’s him play any style (blues, swing, funk, jazz) with excellent sound and brilliant solos. At all times he expresses his feeling and energy in the blues, offering a very well structured and compact concert without cracks. Outstanding in the group is the also very young bassist Sintija Grigorjeva who played with conviction and good groove, and who delighted the public singing “Fine and Mellow” by Billie Holliday in walking blues form. Another of the group’s very young musicians is the drummer Pēteris Žile who with the singer were the group’s members who most surprised us. They performed an excellent version of “Killing Floor”. On saxophone Nauris Kolmanis brought a jazzy colour playing to perfection some Charlie Parker numbers with Richard Kolmanis doubling masterfully on guitar, and Elvis Artūrs Lintinš on keyboard gave sonorous support completing this group whose future looks brilliant.
On Saturday morning at 11.00 we saw Coolmans Report perform again on the terrace in front of our hotel, where the day before we had enjoyed Divina & The Vagabonds. The boys had little energy left, but still gave a worthy performance. During the day we walked through the city and heard live music in various impeccably prepared spaces with great sound quality and well prepared stages. This part of the festival also brought music to the streets and plazas, and enlivened bars and restaurants. Following the afternoon we returned to the festival compound and enjoyed The Bacon Fats, the group which participated in the 4th European Blues Challenge representing Switzerland. Their concert in the Village Stage greatly pleased us while we savoured an excellent raclette since they were playing at supper time. As The Bacon Fats were finishing at 19:45, music started on the main stage and the public gathered to enjoy it. This was the Danish guitarist Henrik Freischlader and his group comprising keyboard, bass and drums, who rapidly fascinated us with their cool sound, well done on the guitar, with excellent solos, groove, his beautiful voice and very varied moments in a repertoire which demonstrated his great versatility and musical mastery. Henrik had an assistant to help change between his Gibson and Fender guitars, all precious and played with great mastery through an amplifier with a Realtone head and baffles Box. We marvelled at the music which was very elegant and transmitted tranquility despite forceful playing. We were invited to sing “What’s my mother fuckin’ name”, a funk theme with a cool approach that obtains it’s response from the public. Henrik Freischlader, a great name and music to remember.
After that, Howlin’ Bill and his band played for half an hour on the “Village Scene” while the backline was changed on the main stage. As they would finish the night, more about their performance later. At 21:30 the young American artist Jonny Lang came onto the big stage to show his full potential. Accompanied by an excellent combo of musicians, his energy overflowed from note to note but sometimes lost the groove which was always very well maintained by the rhythm section and the keyboard player. Also accompanying him was another young guitarist who only took centre stage towards the end of the concert in a duet of interlinked solos. Jonny Lang’s voice didn’t quite convince us even though it was very well processed by the sound technician who helped him from time to time by using delay to give more presence to the musician’s cracked voice. It was a concert that undoubtedly attracted a large young audience, showing that it was a very good decision by the musical direction of the festival, who have to choose the programme carefully to appeal to all sections of the public. A concert which pleased the audience who called for one encore after another… When Jonny Lang and his extraordinary band finished, the sound of Howlin’ Bill started on the alternate stage. He won the 1st European Blues Challenge, and you could hear this musician at Therri’Thouars Blues some editions ago. Howlin’ Bill proves himself a unique person with a great sense of humour, who knows how to hypnotise the audience with his stage presence. At every moment he moves, gesticulates, snaps his fingers, supports the guitarist, plays the harmonica, sings to the women about bad things with an occasional wink at good food… His body and facial gestures fascinate the public who dance to the rhythm of his new songs which he says he’s ready to sell when the disc is marketed after the summer. A musician of flamenco origin, he was really well accompanied by Walkin’ Winnie on bass, Little Jimmy on guitar and Daddy T on drums, and his concert finished in a fiesta finale.
Sunday morning was sunny and the Sierre Blues Festival compound had been transformed into a space for family fun with children’s attractions and a play zone, and tables and chairs on the Plaine Bellevue grass to accommodate mothers and fathers with children, plus grandparents and people of every age. The performance chosen to get people dancing was Davina & The Vagabonds, who began with “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” in the pure Aretha Franklin style of her first records. The artist suggested a trip to New Orleans with a number dedicated to the good weather, “Sunshine”, which transmitted happiness to the audience. The show continued with drummer Connor McRae singing “Louisiana Fairy Tale” with a voice that reminded us of Jimmy Rushing, a traditional jazz number in which the trombonist Ben Link recreated a spectacular solo. It should be said that in this concert they played a slightly different repertoire to what they played during the week on the city’s small stages. For this occasion they based the show more in 50’s R&B and soul, although they didn’t abandon the sounds of New Orleans in the golden age of jazz. With varied musical colours they we’ll interpreted standards like “I Got A New Baby” as well as their own songs like the beautiful ballad “Always Live Your Dream” by Davina -who sang divinely- forgive the pun. Again the drummer gave her voice a rest and sang “Good Morning Judge”, with Davina doing backup vocals. The concert grew and grew in intensity and reached a climax with “Dirty Little Devil” in which Davina’s facial expressions reminded us of Victoria Spivey, and expressed really well the double meaning of the song. After the masterful solo of the bassist Andrew Burns the group tackled with great humour a voice and trumpet duel, with Dan Eikmeier on this instrument making the most of replicating Davina’s simulation of an imaginary trumpet’s high notes. The musicians were having a great time playing, and Davina showed she possessed mastery of the stage and great artistry. For the finale she also sang “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and “St James Infirmary” which even though we’d heard it the day before enchanted us and could do several times more without doubt. Just as on the terrace of the Bar les Vendômes the public enthusiastically called for an encore, which she granted with “Hey Good Lookin'” by Hank Williams. We couldn’t attend the rest of the programmed concerts on the last day of the festival’s sixth edition as we had to go to Geneva to catch our return flight. We missed Luke Hilly & The Cavalry, Funny Blues, Sierre Blues Band and Bastian Baker, but we left with a wonderful taste in the mouth about all the concerts we’d enjoyed and the great hospitality of the festival. Ten out of ten to Sierre Blues Festival for impeccable organisation, friendliness, programming women in their lineup of artists, for knowing how to elegantly combine different musical styles to attract the public in the context of blues, and for the affection received in every moment. Thank you Sierre Blues Festival, thank you Sierre Blues Society, thank you Silvio Caldelari!
Big Mama Montse (originally written in French for Blues & Co) Translated by Andrew Neilson
Photos by Christophe Losberger and Carme Barrera