By Per Ole Hagen, Rock At Night Oslo Correspondent
Bues in Hell is a Norwegian blues festival, taking place at Hell, a small place close to the Trondheim airport some 350 miles north of Oslo. The name Hell comes from the fact that there are shallow caves in the mountainside, “heller”, supposedly used by people in the Stone Age as living quarters.
The organizers at the Blues in Hell know how to use the name to get publicity for the festival. The last years it has been held at the train station at Hell, and you could by one way tickets to Hell one the train. This year, for the festival’s 25 year anniversary, the festival was held at the big congress hotel in Hell, the same hotel where the festival started 24 years ago. Since then the hotel has been expended, and it worked perfectly for the festival.
The Blues in Hell festival has been nominated one of Europe’s best indoor festivals six time the last years. The festival’s profile is traditional blues, and they have booked many of the blues artists that aren’t best known, but who are important carriers of the blues tradition, like Little Willie Williefield. At the same time they have presented artists like The Blues Brothers, Walter Trout, Carolyn Wonderland and this year’s headliner, Devon Allman.
The Blues in Hell festival is a festival for all ages, and during the festival week there are concerts for children and for old people plus a church concert. But the main event is Friday and Saturday night at the hotel. This year they had four stages, two big ones, one acoustic, plus a small stage by the bar. I chose to alternate between the two bigger stages where the main artists performed.
Friday I started out late afternoon in the stage by the bar with Reidar Larsen and Arne Skage. Reidar Larsen is a piano man who has specialized in New Orleans style blues, and has been around since the early 80’s with his raspy voice and groovy music. Arne Skage is his side kick, both in his band and when they perform as a duo. Listen to the title song form his album Robbery from 1993, and you’ll get a taste of his quality.
After Reidar Larsen and Arne Skage, I saw Aki Kumar, Hans Bollandsaas and Dr. Bekken. Aki Kumar is an Indian harmonica player, living in California, while Bollandsaas and Dr. Bekken are seasoned Norwegian musicians. The concert was good, kind of a chamber concert with the three musicians sharing the limelight equally between them.
Ruf Records, lead by Thomas Ruf, is Europe’s leading independent record company specializing in blues. They have a tradition of putting together new artist and sending them on extended tour. This year’s tour, The Blues Sisters, are Ina Forsman from Finland, Layla Zoe from Canada and Tasha Taylor from Dallas, Texas. Together with a solid rhythm section the three ladies showed us that the blues isn’t dying out with the old blues men. There are new artists coming up, taking with them the tradition and expanding it. All three of these ladies are already great performers, carrying the blues with them.
Next out was Johnny Hoy & The Bluefish. I saw them at Blues in Hell four years ago, and was sold to their energetic live set. It doesn’t hurt that they are also one of president Bill Clinton’s favorite bands. I really like this band. Johnny Hoy sings with a gritty voice, and he plays the harminica like the masters. His band has the somewhat unusual set up of guitar, drums and keyboard and no bass, but it sounds like I don’t miss it.
The next band out is another friend of the festival, British Nine Below Zero. They were formed in 1977, and after several personal changes, they are back with as good as their original line-up from the early days. The band is one of England’s most successful blues rock bands, and they do a very tight and powerful set with Dennis Greaves and Mark Feltham in front on guitar and harmonica.
After Nine Below Zero I went over to the second stage to see JT Lauritsen & Buckshot Hunters. JT plays accordion, and he and the band are the foremost Norwegian interpreters of zydeco and Luisianna style blues. In 2014 the band got the prestigious Notodden Blues Price, and they represented Norway in the following European Blues Challenge, taking home a third price.
From JT Lauritsen, it was back to the biggest stage to see the first night’s headliner, Sugar Ray & The Bluetones. Usually bluesmen are from Chicago, New Orleans, Mississippi, Texas or LA, but Johnny Hoy is from Martha’s Vineyard, Sugar Ray Norcia is from Providence, Rhode Island, places not associated with the blues. He started out with his band, The Bluetones, backing blues singers like Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner and Ronnie Earle in the 70’s, while also releasing their own albums. In 1991 he joined Roomful of Blues, staying with them for seven years. As a harmonica player, Sugar Ray is in the top league, and the concert with The Bluetones was good, with hard swinging blues and good solos.
On Saturday I started with Melvia “Chick” Rodgers & The South Side Blues Revue. I like all kinds of band line-ups, but there is something special about a band with horns and backup vocals. The South Side Blues Revue backed Melvia’s soul music in an exemplary way, creating a good old 70’s atmosphere at the venue. Her voice is also big, and her gospel background shines through when she sings. The concert was one of my highlights from the festival.
Blues in Hell has a long tradition of presenting piano blues, and one of the regulars at the festival is Diz Watson. Together with the Norwegian pianists Reidar Larsen and Dr. Bekken, they had put together a Mardi Gras Nite – New Orleans Special. Strengthened with bass, drums, guitars, horns and Tony Uter on congas, we got one hour of jumping and swinging New Orleans gumbo.
At the same time as the New Orleans night, Eric Slim Zahl & The South West Swingers played the second stage. They are a Norwegian blues band from Stavanger that won the European Blues Challenge this year. The band has been together for 10 years and was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy (Spellemannprisen) in 2010, but this year has so far been the highlight in their career. On stage they are friendly, they write good songs and perform them in a tight and also virtuose style, with Eric as the natural leader with his singing and excellent guitar playing.
It seems that people never get tired of Elvis Presly and his music, and three of Norway’s best musicians have made a cabaret where they celebrate the King. Paal Flaata has a fantastic voice, both when he sings rockabilly and Americana, Stephen Ackles has been singing rockabilly and old Elvis songs for years while Vidar Busk has been one of Norway’s best blues guitarists since the mid 90’s. Together with a band with horns and extra vocals, they gave us a high octane concert version of their cabaret, without the talk, but with 40 Elvis songs in full or shortened versions. The venue was packed, and the audience was ecstatic.
Ida Bang & The Blue Tears are from Sweden, and they were new to me. They won the Swedish Blues Challenge in 2015, and Ida Bang is one of the new generation of Swedish blues artists. The concert was good, and Ida Bang is a more than competent artist that we will hear more from in the future.
Peer Gynt is a Norwegian blues guitarist and singer who has been around for some time. He just released his second full length album, ten years since the last, to good reviews. On stage he has a lot in common with guitar heros like Walter Trout and Eric Sardines with his power blues. I have seen Peer Gynt before, and I was impressed by his playing at Hell.
The big headliner at Blues in Hell, and the definite highlight for me, was the closing concert with Devon Allman Saturday night. The last time I saw him, was with the Royal Southern Brotherhood a couple of years ago, Now he is back with his own band, and he held a concert that had it all. Great songs, great playing, good report with the audience, and an infectious charm. If you don’t know his music, check out his latest album, Ragged & Dirty. And if you have a chance to see him live in concert, do it.
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