It’s been quite a while since the blues was given such a prestigious platform in this country. While the likes of Ronnie Peterson, Dov Hammer and Eli “Dr. Blues” Marcus have done their bit to keep the genre’s flag flying in these parts, over the years, you’d have to go back more than two decades, to the early 1990s Haifa Blues Festival, for the last time the blues was the front liner at its very own event.
Much of the credit for getting the first Tel Aviv Blues Festival together and, indeed, reviving public interest in the music over the last couple of years, must go to Yamit Hagar. Since bringing Mississippi bluesman Robert Belfour here in 2012, Hagar and her compact Nobody’s Fault Productions outfit have treated local blues fans to a string of quality artists. There is clearly an appetite for more blues entertainment here, and the upcoming four-day festival (July 3 to 6) is a welcome development that hopefully will lead to more of the same.
There are around 40 gigs in the festival lineup, which will take place at some 20 venues in Tel Aviv, many of which are free. The big guns from abroad include 40something guitarist-vocalist Lightnin Malcolm and larger-than-life singer Candye Kane, who performed at the Israel Museum along with Peterson around 20 years ago.
The festival also offers a wonderful opportunity for the stalwarts of the local blues scene to strut their stuff, with Peterson, Litani, Mickey Shaviv, Marcus and Yaron Ben-Ami due to perform at such venues as Mike’s Place, Ozen Bar and Bar Giora, as well as Warehouse 2 in the Port of Jaffa.
There are also a bunch of master classes and jam sessions to grab, too.
But the jewel in the festival crown is undoubtedly 83-year-old blues and gospel blues singer guitarist Leo “Bud” Welch.”
Getting Welch over here is yet another feather in Hagar’s burgeoning impresario cap, and his festival closer gig, at the Barby Club on July 6, offers us a rare opportunity to catch the sound and spirit of someone who has lived the blues life in the Deep South, the cradle of the music.
Welch’s love affair with the blues started 70 years ago.
“My first memory of hearing the music is from my first cousin R.C.
Welch, who was eight years older. I heard him play the blues in 1945,” Welch recounts.
The familial source of inspiration was soon augmented by other professional acts.
“In the 1950s, BB King, Bobby Bland, Johnny Ace, Earl Forrest, and Billy Duncan were all in a band together called the Beale Street Blues Boys,” Welch recalls. “They would come to Bruce [Mississippi, near Welch’s hometown of Sabougla] and perform at The Blue Angel Ball Room.
I have always like BB. Me and the local boys would perform during the intermissions.”
After clandestinely practicing on R.C.’s guitar when his cousin was out of the house, Welch took to the blues like a duck to water. Welch says he “was born in the blues” and did his first gig as a teenager.
“When I was 15, I could play as good I as I can now,” he states.
He says he prefers to play electric guitar rather than the acoustic version but is happy to lay his seasoned hands on either model, just as long as the instrument does the business.
“I started in 1945. We did have electric back then. I like the electric guitar because I can turn it up. I play acoustic sometimes. I just play guitar.
I don’t care what kind it is. If it notes good, I will play it,” he says.
Hearing and seeing Welch do his thing, you sense the entire of the blues coursing through his veins. He may not ordinarily be too steady on his feet, but when he gets up onto the stage he sheds the years and merrily shakes a leg while singing and playing the guitar.
Welch has lived the definitive bluesman’s life. He was a manual laborer for many years, logging with a chainsaw or working on a local farm. He primarily played the church circuit and often channeled his blues material through the gospel prism, to make it more palatable for ecclesiastical venues. That meant that his gifts went largely unnoticed by the public at large, and it took him until the age of 81 to put out his debut album, the gospel-oriented Sabougla Voices, with his sophomore effort I Don’t Prefer No Blues coming out in March.
“I did not have anybody to help me, no money,” says Welch in explaining his very late start as a recording artist. “It takes money to make the mare trot. I was playing in the church for many years, and I never even imagined I would have a blues album one day, much less two blues albums! It happened so late in my life, I didn’t even think it will ever happen!” The title of the latest release is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the reaction of Welch’s preacher when Welch explained he was moving from the gospel of his first album.
Typically, Welch says he was not put off by the churchman’s comment.
“He did not know anything about the blues. No, it was not disappointing. He was more surprised than disappointed, that’s for sure. God loves us all,” he says.
Welch performs standards and his own scores, and says the latter take in traditional blues topics.
“It is all about something in life, hard work and women,” he notes.
While that may sound a mite dismal, Welch says that he always has fun at his gigs.
And he has certainly been having fun since blues fan Vencie Varnado began getting his name out there when Welch was already in his 80s. Welch says he’s enjoying every minute of his newfound stardom and is delighted to be heading this way.
“If it was not for Vencie, none of this would be happening. He is my man. It is great – traveling, meeting people and performing. I love it. I got on a plane for the first time at 81 years old, [on] January 15, 2014. This is amazing.
There are so many countries I’ve seen these last few years. And look at that, I’m now coming to Israel!” The Tel Aviv Blues Festival runs from July 3 to 6. For tickets and more information: 054-219-5133 and http://kvish61.org/