Two gentleman of distinction filled in the acoustic double bill of the concert evening at Banana Peel (BP), traditionally a Monday, more precisely May 5th of 2014. The first one is since his childhood a regular visitor of the club, at first as a viewer, bearing the Christian name Guy Verlinde, later as a performer under his alias Lightnin’ Guy, solo or with his band The Mighty Gators. The second, Doug MacLeod (please pronounce ‘MacLoud’ or he’ll know where to find you!) was here from time to time since the eighties. There are traces to be found of these passages: on his third record ‘54th & Vermont’ he even thanks Toni Gallen, the likeable owner of the place then called Hotel Memling in Aalter, where the artists performing at BP often passed the night (NOTE: another trace of this legendary hotel is ‘Last Train To Aalter’, an instrumental track by Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers, written after they had missed their last train from Ghent and had to call Toni to get them…) Since those days Doug didn’t forget about this tiny little country and was at times to be heard in one venue or other. We saw him excel in one of the many fine concerts at the Boerderij in Eine (Oudenaarde), a gig that Doug really liked himself, just as we have fond memories of that evening. His last performance at BP dates March 24th of 2008. Almost a year ago, May 19th of 2013, he played at Crossroads in Antwerp. So Guy as well as Doug have a special bond with the club in Ruiselede. That’s why they weren’t economical in their praise of BP and made us part of their deep satisfaction to be able to play here. Indeed ‘Banana Peel’ is known all over the world, wherever the blues has nurtured great talents and performers, though the shack is tucked away in the hushed community of some 5000 souls, in rural West-Flanders (NOTE: Belgium’s version of the Midwest)
Great talents and performers, that also goes for both protagonists! They both have their own particular and unique style, born out of the drive of youth or nurtured by the wisdom that the years bring on, depending on the artist. Moreover they are both, and in the first place, songwriters focused on the blues. While Guy likes to bring in songs from others, or dedicates a whole show to a hero as Hound Dog Taylor, Doug only and exclusively plays his own material. Guy isn’t that far as yet, but the songs of MacLeod (more than three hundred by now!) have been covered since the seventies by giants the likes of Albert King, Albert Collins, Papa John Creech, Dave Alvin, Coco Montoya, Son Seals and many others. So the electric guitars stayed in their cases tonight. The volume was a lot lower, but laughs grew louder that May 5th. And where’s a laugh, there’s also a tear, as William Shakespeare, the well known pioneer of British blues (1564-1616), already pointed out. So the sound of silence ruled at BP, and this in more than one respect, because you might have expected that a big name as Doug MacLeod would attract a huge crowd for his only Belgian concert. But attendance wasn’t really overwhelming. There were a lot of blues concerts in a short time, that might explain this.
That’s a pity, as these two artists keep on doing the unexpected: no two concerts are identical and they always have something special up their sleeve.
(… Omitted the part specifically about Lightnin’ Guy…)
…And what can you say about MacLeod, who is actually 68, which you scarcely can believe. A part of his secret for eternal youth is the ‘musical philosophy’ he sticks to, since someone, a certain Ernest Banks, told him: ‘Never play a note you don’t believe, never write or sing about what you don’t know about‘ New Yorker by birth, MacLeod lived in different places in the States. One of these is St. Louis, Missouri, where he got to know the country blues (it helped him to master his stuttering until it disappeared completely) but since then he also played electric blues and even jazz is known territory to him. No concert without mentioning and honouring George ‘Harmonica’ Smith (1924-1983), the harp player who was his mentor and about whom he’s got many a story to tell (another famous protégé of Smith was William Clarke) Smith gave Doug zijn nickname, which he carries proudly: because Smith couldn’t or wouldn’t pronounce his first name in a correct manner, he dubbed the young guitar player simply Dubb.
That’s why you’ll find on Doug’s CD before last, ‘There’s A Time’, a track called ‘Dubb’s Talking Religion Blues’. He didn’t play that song from the CD, but he played others. It’s no wonder: with this record he won no less than than two 2014 Blues Music Awards (previously called the W.C. Handy Awards), namely ‘Acoustic Artist Of The Year’ and ‘Acoustic Album Of The Year’. Since 2006, then with ‘best song’ ‘Dubb’s Talkin’ Politician Blues’, he won at least one award every year! Also ‘best song of the year’, and also from ‘There’s A Time’, a remarkable tune called ‘The Entitled Few’. This one was to be one of many highlights in this concert that started out light-footed and light-hearted, with lots of humour, but gradually things got more serious and contemplative. On his magnificent black National guitar that he calls Moon, he opened quite fiercefully, at first with ‘Since I Left Saint Louis’ (‘Sure know some blues, since I crossed the river, since I left Saint Lou’) and then ‘You Can’t Take My Blues’, title tune of a CD from 1996. There’s almost certainly a kind of policy statement behind this. It’s more than an intent, it seems, as the man is convinced of what he states: ‘No two people are the same, not even twins. The only thing you’ve got to do to be unique is being born. Just be yourself, that’s the only thing that counts. Nobody can take that away from you and as the blues is my life…’ One can fill in the blank! In these terms he introduces the second song. When you see and hear the dexterity and the musicality with which the fingers of both his hands travel over the strings and produce the magic that’s part of his artistic persona, one has no shadow of a doubt about his resolve.
As to illustrate this, Doug immediately hereafter shows a completely different side: ‘If You’re Goin’ To The Doghouse’ has nothing to do with dogs, but everything with the… married man who must be taught to be careful and to be ready to respond to the whims of his darling spouse: ‘If you’re goin’ to the doghouse, remember where you buried your bone’. His anecdotes and short stories make you smile and chuckle, and sometimes laugh out loud. His closing remarks end here with ‘The difference between ‘dog’ and ‘Doug’ is… You!’ No doubt he has prepared these thought provoking word games long ago and has tested them in live conditions, but it always works when you hear them a first time… or more than once. MacLeod has indeed the right countenance, a way of stressing that gives the right tone to his words and above all he possesses a great timing, the ‘secret weapon’ of the true comedian. But he can be very earnest. Before performing the prize winning ‘The Entitled Few’, a song we already mentioned, he has to retune his guitar in what he calls ‘tuning in too many G’s’, but no sweat, he fills the gap with a few winged words that corner the song: ‘Someone that I liked much until then, took me to the mall. As he couldn’t find a parking space, a drove into the blue parking spot for disabled people and conjured up the right permit. I said I didn’t know he was handicapped. He answered that he wasn’t, but that he had bought the said card for $ 5000… Anticlimax! Then I immediately had to think about parents with a disabled kid, or war veterans with lasting wounds, people that couldn’t use the parking space because someone with money bought the right to occupy their spot. I wrote this complaint out of anger and disappointment.’ (Not the exact words, but hopefully close enough to the intended meaning)
Less painful, but certainly as remarkable, is the story behind the catchy ‘Rosa Lee’ (the opener of ‘There’s A Time’) Doug wrote it for someone who practiced ‘the oldest profession’ in St. Louis. About that lady, who taught him a lot, as he admits, he wrote a long time ago ‘Nightbird’, that nightingale Eva Cassidy sang shortly before her untimely death. Doug found ‘Rosa Lee’ back: she now lives in Baltimore and apparently she’s doing great. For the details we have to refer to the author. Doug introduces almost every song with ‘It goes exactly like that’… He explains why: ‘Many singers say: ‘It goes SOMETHING LIKE this’… Wrong: you bring a song exactly how you bring it. You can’t change that!’ Yep, thinking about the proper use of the language is part of the deal. He then delivers exactly like that ‘A Ticket Out’ (from the brand new ‘Brand New Eyes’), a song inspired by bluegrass phenomenon Doc Watson (whom he also calls an excellent blues singer) You’d better keep the message in mind: you’re leaving the love of your life, but although you know it’s a bad choice, you still go for that train ticket. It’s wrong… But you surely can’t say that about his magnificent guitar playing: time and again you stare at Doug’s technique which seems out of this world.
In ‘Ploughing Mule’ he states that it’s doesn’t matter at all who you are and what you do, you might even be a ploughing mule, so to speak, as long as you do it ‘with pride and enthusiasm’. Then it’s time for a tune from his new one, though the late great Son Seals recorded it in 1978 already: ‘Some Old Blues Song (aka I Can Count On My Blues)’. Doug had never recorded it before. Suddenly he digs deep into the emotion: as he doesn’t do that very often and because you know he wouldn’t do it just for kicks, it’s smack dab in the middle: suddenly the audience of BP, listening in reverence, is extremely quiet. But the man also likes opposites: while tuning back Moon he earnestly points out how humour seems to have vanished in the blues (as well as in other musical genres) It’s all become so dead serious. The ‘elder’ (whom Doug in many cases has met and known personally while experiencing their music) didn’t take things so seriously. ‘Blues was a term they never used themselves, but it was ‘a way of life’ and part of that was taking oneself not seriously, not at all.’ In this context he’s thinking about Albert Collins. So Doug delivers ‘Cash Talkin’ (The Working Man’s Blues)’ that Collins covered and that’s definitely an example of the ability to put things into perspective: ‘The po’ stay po’ and the rich stay rich / An’ I’m right here in the middle… / Now ain’t that a…..!‘ ‘My blues is killing me’… although wife and kids, the taxman and the government are a big help in this! And there’s time for one more word play: ‘Do you get paid weekly?’ – ‘Yes, very weakly!’ A lot of hilarious comments and stories, like how he makes good use of his name (though we don’t believe he ever does this in real life!) we deliberately omit: it’s an incentive to go and hear him live. That’s where the fun lies. But watch out: MacLeod succeeds frequently and massively in putting his audience on the wrong leg, and to send them on a wild goose chase. Hereby you are warned!
Retuning Moon leads us, as was to be expected, to George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, the man who christened him ‘Dubb’, and when he was angry, Dubbles (i.p.v. Douglas)… Smith gave him a life lesson he wasn’t ever to forget: we all get a bucket where we put all good things in, but because of the trauma’s we contract over time, the bucket springs a leak. It can even get more than one hole. All goods threaten to disappear this way…Hence the message: ‘Fix The Bucket’ (or ‘Buy a new one!’ he adds) ‘Welcome In Your Home’, the track that closes ‘Brand New Eyes’, also wraps up this concert. It’s a song full of warmth and friendliness: it is love that someone unselfishly bears for you that gives you a future. But we also learn how he got acquainted with… Belgian beer, when blues reviewer Dirk Van Clooster, who also helped with concerts, handed him over a beer on a thirsty day in 1986. He didn’t know he was given a Duvel and drank it in one time, thinking it was a kind of Bud Light… Blimey! ‘An American beer but with four shots of bourbon in it’, he describes the ‘meeting’. For the very last time tonight we get to hear the ‘it goes exactly like this’: ‘Welcome In Your Home’ indeed doesn’t miss its target…
There are a few requests for the encore, but he only goes for his… own request, ‘New Panama Limited’, as this gives him the opportunity to refer to two great Delta blues musicians. Train song ‘Panama Limited’ was written by Bukka White (+1977) (NOTE: Bukka is as musch a ‘phonetic spelling’ as is Dubb!), exciting singer,guitarist and songwriter. In this context he also mentions his encounter with David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards (1915-2011) This is an open invitation to talk about the trains that played such an important part in the lives of the hobo’s and in the songs of the old tunesmiths, but also to imitate the magical monsters. The Panama Limited was a ‘sister train’ of The City Of New Orleans, which is well known from Steve Goodman’s classic. Once more Doug MacLeod, master performer and a wise man indeed, goes from one emotion to the other (goose bumps!) without notable transition and demonstrates how superior technical mastery can be completely at the service of the message… A message that rang through (Mac)Leod and clear tonight!
Antoine Légat (original still to be found online at www.rootstime.be; this translation finished August 19th 2014)