Hot on the heels of the Cazorla Blues Festival comes the San Javier Jazz festival. The name is somewhat redundant, as Uriah Heep are appearing this year, and if they’re jazz then I’m a teapot. but, be that as it may, at least the festival, strung out over an entire month and situated in a town only a couple of hours away from where we live, affords the possibility of seeing world-class talent under the Spanish sun.
The night we picked featured Bettye LaVette, a singer who’d only come to my attention via Jools Holland’s BBC2 show ‘Later’, and who’d greatly impressed. As Bettye herself said on the night, “It’s only taken me 50 years to become an overnight success..” Approaching 70, she’s had a long, hard career in the music business, starting with her debut single in 1962: “My man- he’s a lovin’ man”. Raised in Detroit, she flirted with fame over the years. A brief stint with James Brown, a stage musical with Cab Calloway…but for the most part Bettye languished in obscurity.
It was the interest of Gilles Petard, a French soul music collector, that began to shine a light on Bettye, after he sought out and acquired the rights to her unreleased Child of the Seventies masters, having been played the mono recordings by Bettye herself. It was finally released, decades after its creation, as Souvenirs in 2000.
But it was LaVette’s appearance at the Kennedy Centre Honors, where The Who were honorees, that really gave Bettye’s career the necessary momentum. An amazing performance of Love reign o’er me had the Kennedy centre audience, most unaware of Lavette at that point, on their feet, and Townsend and Daltrey moved to tears. Just check it out:
It highlighted her ability to turn a song inside out, de-construct it, and make it her own. This led to The British Rock Songbook, a wonderful collection of British rock classics that Bettye performs as if her life depends on it.
Bettye at San Javier Jazz – Photo by Rafe Marquez
Seeing her live was a privilege. Her band, tight and funky, and able to draw subtle nuances out of every arrangement were a perfect complement to her rich raw vocals. Opening with Lennon and McCartney’s ‘The Word‘ she simply stole the show. ‘Love reign o’er me’ sent shivers down my spine, and when she announced a Neil Young cover “Heart of Gold” with the tongue-in cheek statement “but I sing it better”, you damn well believed her before she’d even sang a note.
I met and chatted with her bassist, James Simonson after the show, a real nice guy, who was still buzzing about meeting Marcus Miller at the North Sea Jazz fest just days ago. We got into ‘bassist’ talk for a while. I asked him to pass on my compliments to Bettye and the band, and I bought The British Rock Songbook that very night. Bettye’s message, throughout her long career is an unspoken, yet potent one: If you’re good, believe in it, and don’t give up. ever. As she approaches 70, Bettye LaVette’s got a helluva lot more to give.
Shuggie Otis. I knew the name, but was fairly unacquainted with his music. However, a quick rummage through my record collection revealed that I owned “Strawberry letter 23” by The Brothers Johnson on their greatest hits CD. This was a Shuggie-penned tune, and this recording of it gave Shuggie his big break. Just listening to it, you can hear how he was to become a huge influence on the likes of Prince and Lenny Kravitz. It’s a great piece of pop-funk-psychedelia. I awaited his performance with interest. With a 9 piece band, the arrangements were superb, and the musicianship absolutely top-notch. Shuggie’s fluid guitar playing, especially when he played the blues was also pretty impressive. But…..
….the guy was on another planet. I don’t know what he’d been smoking, but the end result was that it seemed like he just couldn’t be bothered to reach the notes when he was singing (or finish sentences when he was talking) in contrast to Bettye, who, although not speaking Spanish spoke slowly and clearly to the audience. Shuggie was a disaster. I was willing him to sing properly. Every now and again he would seem to remember where he was and a couple of lines would suddenly leap out clear and powerful, then just lapse away again. When they played ‘Wings of Love’, a fine song with a fantastic arrangement, beautifully performed, his voice just destroyed it. He also looked like he couldn’t get away fast enough, and his son and brother who were band members sort of hung around on stage to try and get everybody to ask for an encore, which he eventually gave. These people paid to see you man. You are an undeniable talent. Stay focused, and make the effort.
By the Friday, the whole town was in on the Party, beneath the unforgiving sun, the blues fans boogied, shimmied, got drunk, and availed themselves of the spring water that flowed freely all over town, almost as freely as the beer! The variety of acts was great, even though I has some misgivings about the inclusion on the Thursday night of Fito and Fitipaldis (or Emerson and the Fitipaldis as I couldn’t resist christening them) -who were plainly a Spanish ‘chart’ band, and an undeniably big draw. A commercial decision? Certainly. The right decision? I’m not so sure.
The Friday night saw the likes of Little Mike and the Tornadoes – a fast talking New Yorker who delivered a powerful set…then we were assailed by Janiva Magness, a woman who, if the bio in the programme was to be believed, had suffered immeasurable hardships in her life. Her considered portrait alongside however, did not prepare us for the behemoth of bad taste that tottered onto the stage in impossibly high heels. The woman can sing, and sing well….but I can’t help feeling she needs direction, both in choice of material, and dress sense. But that’s just my opinion. I’d so wanted to see UK blues stalwarts Nine below Zero, but their inexplicable time slot of 3.30am meant that realistically wasn’t going to happen.
Saturday afternoon saw Suzzete Moncrief accompanied by guitarist Lito Fernandez on the stage in the old square. She did a great job, and had the sweltering crowd with her, particularly on ‘Dock of the Bay’ where the whole crowd attempted to whistle the solo!
Next up, Chino and the Big Bet, one of my favourites of the festival. A resonator guitar, half a drumset and an upright bass, this Spanish trio from Barcelona proved to be excellent exponents of Blues and Swing, having come 2nd in the European Blues Challenge. Although the seemed a little ill-at-ease out of the confines of their more normal club-sized gigs, they nevertheless delivered an endearing set with great style and feel.
The Saturday night of course, we headed to the Plaza del Toros for George Thorogood, but we were blown away by the band that took to the stage before him. the band of the festival for me. Los Coronas were simply magnificent. Imagine being thrown into a dream where you were at a rock concert that kept morphing between surf city, a Quentin Tarantino movie, and a Spaghetti Western, and you might get an idea what Los Coronas are all about. Their set, devoid of all vocals save “Poison Ivy” sung by their drummer, who does the whole set standing up (some of the most magnificent snare work I’ve ever witnessed, by the way) – is a journey, cinematic in scope, on the wings of blistering, glorious twanging guitars, channeling Duane Eddie, The Surfaris, and Ennio Morricone. Many years ago, in a covers band, we would play ‘Wipe Out’ as a filler, a throwaway number….when these guys exploded into it about three-quarters of the way through their set, it was pure joy. If anyone had told me I could not just sit through a 90-minute instrumental set, but wildly enjoy it, I would have said they were crazy. All wearing White cowboy hats and shades, and possessed of a trumpeter extraordinaire, surrealistically hailing from the Ukraine, they exuded style, cool, top-drawer musicianship and self-deprecating wit – they were one of the best live acts I have ever seen.
It is to George Thorogood’s credit that he was able to follow that, it would have killed most bands. his open statement “Somebody’s got to go to jail for rock’n’roll, it might as well be me!” set the tone for the evening, and he and the tornadoes delivered a blistering set that had to of course, feature his take on John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer”, and the classic “Bad to the Bone”, where he wrings ever last drop of blues out of the slide that attacks his hollowbody guitar.
Cazorla Blues – you have some festival here. Love the town, love the people love the vibe, but keep your eyes on what’s real. Don’t let pop insinuate itself. Keep this festival BLUES.
The festival not yet upon us, we continued to explore the town of Cazorla and surrounding areas, discovering the amazing story of the ‘open air’ church that would form the back drop for one of the blues stages. The history of the creation of this building reads like a Monty Python sketch, the architect designing and building it adjacent to the mountain, and on top of a river. The mountain promptly collapsed upon it, the church in turn collapsed into the river, then the rains came, the river had nowhere to go because of the rocks and church debris blocking its course, so it promptly rose up and washed everything about twenty kilometers away. This sort of thing happened often. Personally I think God was trying to tell them something, but well, the Catholics were clearly a stubborn bunch. It stands today as I believe, the only church with a river actually running underneath it!
It was fascinating to walk beneath the town square and the church, and wonder at the sheer bloody-mindedness that religious zealotry can provoke. There was supposed to be a statue of the virgin Mary in the alcove on the outer wall, but she didn’t make it. Probably too busy manifesting herself at the chapel high up on the ridge in order to put another collection-gathering scheme in operation. Pity, as I would have loved to see her presiding over the blues gig wearing a set of ray-bans and cradling a resonator guitar….
We finally made it to the Chapel high on the ridge via a punishing and circuitous route that also took in La Iruela and the amazing Castle there. Yes, they’ve got castles and watchtowers coming out of their ears round here, it’s almost reminiscent of that beacon-lighting scene in Lord of the Rings.
After finding the Castle, we trekked ever higher, and began to double back along the high ridge towards the chapel that we had seen from Cazorla. It turned out, like so many places around here, to have a) a wonderful supply of natural springwater and b) an unlikely legend. call me a cynic, but I’m constantly amazed at the amount of places that magically seem to be the site of some kind of ‘vision’, which then gives rise to some celebration, money, etc, etc…SO lucky, don’t you think? Judging by the amount of places I’ve visited where Mary’s supposed have rocked up, she was certainly a busy woman, probably on a European tour. Apparently, in this instance, a bolt of lighting struck a rock, cracked it in two, and a shepherd fell down and whacked his head on it. When he came to, the Virgin was looking down on him…mmm…that’s not a miracle mate, that’s concussion.
Anyway, we made our way downhill, unconverted, in readiness for the following day, when Walking Stick Man would be the first act to take the stage at one in the afternoon. Unless we had a visit from the Virgin Mary of course.
there was a fabulous atmosphere in the square that first afternoon as the sun beat down, the beer and tinto flowed, and everybody immersed themselves in the acts performing. Later that evening, the action transferred to two other stages, including the old bullring where Brazilian blues harp player and singer Flavio Guimaeres and his band with an English Guitarist really impressed.
The old bull rings of Spain make superb concert venues, turning ‘Death in the Afternoon’ into ‘Music in the Evening’, and cultural differences aside, it’s a fair exchange.
The shows are relentless at these Spanish festivals, particularly this one, acts begin on the first of three stages at on in the afternoon, and wind up finishing in the Bull Ring around five in the morning! The first day was amazing, and there was so much more to see….but that’s in Part 4!
I’d only been home from Italy for a day when me and my partner Miki set off on our Motorhome, The Boomobile, inland towards the Spanish town of Cazorla. This beautiful place has hosted a Blues festival now for nigh on twenty years, and it’s somewhere we’ve been meaning to visit for a while, but my own gigs have often clashed, so this was the first opportunity we’d had.
We broke the four hour journey by overnighting by an embalse, or dam, built in the 80’s, resulting in a beautiful vivid green lake in the middle of a hot dry wilderness. A cafe by the shore was a welcome sight, serving ice-cream and beer to die for, and we undertook a huge walk around the dam and surrounding landscapes to assuage our guilt at pigging out!
The following day we hit the road again, making a stop in a village called Tiscar, which means ‘Mountain Pass’ in the Berber language, a reminder, like so many in Andalucia, of the Arabic influence of the past. The winding road, before disappearing into a tunnel in the rock face, passes the Sanctuario de Tiscar, an old monastery, and opposite was a large parking area where we pulled over.
A steep path and stairway cut through the rock led down to the Cueva de Aguas, an unbelievably beautiful place, where a thirty foot waterfall thundered through the natural caverns into an oasis below. It reminded me of my time on the island of Dominica in the rainforest there. To get to the falls, one had to bend almost double and pass through a fifty foot tunnel to reach it, making it all the more enchanting for that.
Not content with the punishing journey to and from the caves, we noticed an imposing stone watchtower atop the rocky cliffs that loomed over the Sanctuario. It had been the last Arabian refuge in the area until the Christians took it form the Muslims in the 14th Century. As we climbed the cliffs a little, I noticed, seemingly clinging to the sheer rockface hundreds of feet above, a metal grille staircase disappearing up into the distance. Further exploration revealed an entrance, unmanned, over grown, but passable, that led us to the base of this amazing metal construction.
Without a thought, we made our way upwards, on and on, higher and higher until we were within the foundations of the ruined tower itself, with no safety net, but, oh, what a VIEW! Stunning scenery stretching for miles, the rooftop of the monastery far below, the motorhome a speck in the distance. A tough climb, especially on the see-through grill of the staircase, but worth the effort.
The Watchtower at Tiscar
We eventually arrived in Cazorla a full three days before the festival was due to start quite deliberately, as we wanted to explore it as fully as possible before everybody descended on the town later in the week. It turned out to be a great idea, because Cazorla had so much to see and do, and the surrounding countryside was magnificent for exploring and long (and punishing!) walks.
The castle of La Yedra watching over the town was a great visit, and a legend connected with it told to us by the guide has given me a new Witch Cross song, so you’ll have to wait until our third album to hear what it is!
We parked up on the big open space where the Market is usually held at the bottom of the town, and one could follow the river up to the old Plaza through a beautiful riverside walk, the myriad waterfalls and overhanging trees providing a welcome respite from the unrelenting Spanish sun. However, pretty much everywhere we walked was uphill!
We had a couple of days before the music started, so we planned a couple of hikes….more about them in Part Three!
It’s only about an hour up the road, but I’d never been before, so we decided to take the Boomobile, our art & music studio on wheels, up there for the weekend, free of the internet and well, everything really. It proved to be a great idea. Parked by the bustling harbour, we spent the time exploring this lovely seaside town and its many treasures, on foot, and by boat. Treasures such as ….the immense and expensively-restored Castillo de San Juan de Aguilas, perched atop a vertiginous cliff rising out of the sea, not for the Cardio-impaired! (They’ve built an impressive glass-walled lift shaft for the last killer 300 meters, but sadly seem to run out of money before they could purchase the lift to go in it!)
….the dual windmills that sit on opposite hills rising out of the town, as if waiting for some modern Don Quixote to come tilt at them. One is restored to former glory, sails and all, the other still a little worse for wear, and recipient of the some of the relentless graffiti that blights the town.
I have a problem considering all graffiti as art. Some yes, but to blanket all of it with this moniker is to bestow on it a worth that frankly 90 % of it does not merit. Some uneducated git spray-painting that his bird who dumped him is a puta is not art, it’s ugly, and moreover criminal damage. The harbour wall that faces the sea however has some marvellous graffitied (is that a word?) murals on it, but there’s no fun in it when you’re actually allowed to do it, is there? Mm…..
…..The Don Pancho boat trip, what a wonderful way to spend 7 euros! The whole experience was pure entertainment, and I’ll tell you why. Firstly, the lady in the kiosk whom Miki bought the tickets off was extremely friendly, secondly, as we sat in the pointy end waiting for others to embark, we were witness to some great cabaret: one guy let slip a ten euro note which the girl taking the money failed to retain, and it fluttered into the drink, causing the Captain to (impressively quickly) assemble a long handled net and go fishing for money, successfully too. I managed to restrain myself from asking if we’d be fishing for 50 euro notes once we were in deeper waters. It didn’t end there though, one would-be passenger alighted on the deck minus one flip-flop, which ‘flip-plopped’ into the water also! True to the saying that the sea gives up its dead, the soggy footwear was rescued, this time by judicious and speedy use of a boat hook by another crew member. I turned to Miki and said “If we’re having this much fun before we cast off, it’s gonna be worth the money!”
The whole crew were great, and clearly loved their job, or at least gave a superb impression of doing so. Smiles all round, and the guy tasked with the commentary on our jaunt up the wilder coastline to the north of Aguilas was passionate about his subject. When the sleek dorsal fin of a dolphin broke the surface off our port bow, he was about as ecstatic as we were. I can only say it was mesmerizing. Time after time it buzzed our vessel, playing with the wake, darting off, leaping out of the water to our cries of childish delight. Witnessing a dolphin in the wild makes one regress. It reduces life to a microcosm of simplicity, to something almost Utopian. It speaks to the very depth of your being, of freedom, innocence and sheer, unadulterated joy. I’ve swum with dolphins in Venezuela, but they were in captivity, more’s the pity. This is were they belong, and seeing one exuberant, dancing on the waves where it’s supposed to be, is a privilege, and something I’ll never forget.
The great thing about disappearing for a few days in the Motorhome is, you can choose what your backyard looks like on a daily basis if you fancy. We were perfectly happy to stay put for most of the time at the foot of the castle.
After exploring the town in the mornings, I’d often just sit by the boats and read…tranquility doesn’t begin to describe it. Actually it really doesn’t because the seagulls sounded like a bunch of women at the January sales, but, it was relaxing, honest!
We took the Boomobile out into the mountains North of Aguilas too, for the hell of it, got lost, ended up on a road that…well, ran out of road, in a place called Cuesta de Gos. When I say ‘place’ it’s intentional, it wasn’t big enough to warrant being called a village. The tarmac ran out, and there was a church. Not fancying taking 3.5 tons of Motorhome on a gravel track to who knows where, I turned it round, and purely by chance spied a quite wonderful statue under an almond tree. Remember – we were totally in the middle of nowhere. We discovered it was a statue to, and the initial resting place of, the Internationally known Spanish actor and director Paco Rabal, who had a huge career in Spanish film and received numerous awards. Miki thinks she may have actually seen him attend the Alfas del Pi film festival many years ago, and indeed he was part of her consciousness throughout her whole life in Spain. He’d died in 2001, and this memorial had been erected 10 years after his death. He had been born here, in this quiet, beautiful and unassuming valley. On our travels, we often stumble upon wonderful little moments like this, and that’s part of the beauty of it.
I’m going to close this post with Paco Rabal’s own words, translated from the Spanish, and which are inscribed by his feet on the statue.
This week is very special for me. It is the first time my Dad has been over to visit me where we live in Spain. We thought it was about time, and my sister and I clubbed together to bring him over as an 80th birthday present last year. We finally agreed on a date that didn’t clash with any Derby County football Club fixtures!
One great thing about having him over is that I manage to get out and about much more than I normally would, and get to see where I live anew through different eyes. I do believe it helps in appreciating everything we have.
We nearly didn’t make it though. The weather was so bad in England on Friday when we were due to leave, the plane was delayed by over and hour, and by the time we arrived in Spain, the airport in England was closed! I don’t think Dad could have picked a better week to escape the weather, as we watch reports on the BBC of power failures, 20 foot snowdrifts and even deaths with growing disbelief.
Ignoring the old beleaguered homeland and its plummeting temperatures, we’ve been swanning about in the roadster visiting places of interest such as Agua Amarga, Garrucha, Mojacar and Carboneras. It’s wonderful to spend these days together, and finally get to show him where Miki and I have made our home.