As is surely the case for many of TTAC’s readers, cars aren’t my only passion in life. Early on in my college and young adult life, I spent many nights in the addictive limelight that only belongs to the performing musician. Being a saxophonist gave me a sort of versatility that not many other musicians had-R&B band one night, Ska/Punk the next, Jazz the next, and so on.
But the one music that has stayed consistent with me throughout my life has been the Blues. The Blues is present in all forms of American music-it’s the foundation of Rock and Roll, Country, Jazz…everything. One could make the argument that the Blues is America’s Classical music-much like the classical music of Europe, it’s based on folk tunes that have been passed down from generation to generation aurally, and it’s totally unique from region to region. Mississippi, New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago. They each have their own brand of Blues that a true connoisseur can recognize immediately.
Even as a young man, I was drawn to the Blues because of the stories it tells. It was once said of Charlie Parker that he frequently listened to country music, often crying as he absorbed the woes of the songs. The Blues-REAL blues, mind you, not the co-opted electric music that can be heard in nearly every city in the world, but the genuine article- has that same power.
I was also extremely fortunate when I was just nineteen to have been asked by a friend to read a baritone saxophone part on a recording session with a twenty-five year old Blues singer/guitar player named Sean Carney. Sean came from a long line of musicians; the Carney name is well known and respected throughout Ohio and the midwest. The alliance I formed with Sean during that recording session and the gigs that followed has always been a unique and powerful one. Sean went on the win the International Blues Challenge and the Albert King award in 2007, and has been touring the world ever since.
Needless to say, I have had a certain amount of envy, and perhaps even jealousy of Sean’s ability to “live the dream,” as aspiring musicians say. “Living the dream” means that you don’t have to have a day job-that you entirely support yourself through your music. As music became his career, it became my hobby. We stayed in touch over the years, playing a gig or two along the way together if he needed a saxophonist, and I moved on in my career as well.
Then my phone rang one day early this year. Well, not really-it buzzed. And not with a phone call-with a Facebook message from Sean Carney that contained an offer to play several festival and club dates in Europe I’M SORRY DID THAT SAY EUROPE? I hadn’t been to Europe in nearly two decades. I nearly broke the Gorilla Glass on my iPhone replying as quickly as possible as I could to say YES. The details on these things can always be worked out later.
As is typical with the life of a true Bluesman, the details had yet to really be worked out several months later as I boarded my series of flights that would end in Brussels, Belgium. Somebody would be picking me up at the airport-it might be Sean, it might be somebody from the European band he worked with, it might be somebody from the staff from the first festival gig. Who knows. When one accepts a Blues gig, one must let go of the sense that one has in the “real world” that things must go according to some sort of plan, because they virtually never do. Invariably, the location is wrong, the time is wrong, the date is wrong…nobody in the history of the Blues has ever had a gig where everything went according to plan.
Of course, when I arrived at the Belgian airport, my bag was the last one off of the carousel, and my connecting flight from Rome already been delayed. As I put my Bam saxophone case over my shoulder and walked out into the arrival area, I quickly scanned the crowd that stood there beyond the gates, looking for “Bark M.” on one of the tablets being held by the dozens of awaiting chauffeurs. No dice…and then I spotted Sean, looking just like he’d been awarded the role of Blues guitarist by Central Casting-salt and pepper swept back hair, wayfarer sunglasses, silver chain, and blue jeans.
We walked over to a coffee shop inside the airport where the members of Sean’s backing band, the French Blues Explosion, awaited- Sam “Mister Tchang” Tchang on guitar and vocals, Fred Jouglas on bass, and Pascal Delmas on the drums. I was genuinely excited to play with these guys, having listened to their latest recording online. Sam was a master showman, a guitarist in the true tradition of the blues and a fine singer. Fred was laid back, a man of few words and many funky bass lines. Pascal was the brains of the operation and a swinging drummer, to boot.
We had about an hour’s drive to our first gig, a Blues festival in Hamme, Belgium. Pascal led us to the parking garage and to our chariot for the week-a six-speed manual Citroen Jumpy van. My two passions of Cars and Blues had just merged in an incredibly awesome way. The Jumpy was of the post-2006 refresh variety with a 2.0 liter engine and about 100,000 kilometers on the clock. Did I mention that it was a six-speed manual?
It’s a good thing I liked the Jumpy, because I was about to spend a lot of time in it over the next week, and in very close quarters with my musical colleagues. In addition to Sean and the French Blues Explosion, we were also picking up Mississippi bluesman Terry “Harmonica” Bean when we got to Hamme. So, to recap, that’s six bluesmen, two guitars, a bass, a saxophone, a drumset, and four amplifiers in a minivan. This was starting to remind me of why I quit touring back in 2005-and I was eight years younger then.
Upon leaving the airport in Belgium, I was hit with a bit of automotive xenoshock. I’m extremely used to being able to identify every vehicle on the road without much thought. My brain was assaulted with an endless parade of Renault, Peugot, and Citroen vehicles, almost all small-engined hatches, and virtually indistinguishable to the American eye. To help our American readers understand exactly what this is like, let me put together a quick list of some of the vehicles I did NOT see during my eight days in Europe:
In other words, I saw virtually none of the top-selling cars in America. It wasn’t just a different continent- it was a flat-out different automotive planet. To my European and musical friends that I was with, it was no big deal. To a car lover, it was both exciting and overwhelming.
I also began to learn a few things about driving in Europe, which I’ll cover in Part 2.