I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy some fantastic blues shows in some remarkable places. Watching the Royal Southern Brotherhood playing on the Legendary Rhythm And Blues Cruise to New Orleans as the moon rose behind them over the Gulf Of Mexico takes some beating, as does dancing to Toronzo Cannon and Danielle Nicole on a sun-soaked beach in the Virgin Islands.
But the most astonishing blues festival I’ve ever experienced might well be Dark Season Blues, accurately described as “the world’s Northernmost Blues Festival,” which has just celebrated its fourteenth year.
It takes place in late October at 78 degrees North in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, where the souvenir mugs remind you that it’s “Next Stop The North Pole”, and marks the beginning of “the dark season” when daylight and the sun leave Svalbard for four long winter months. There’s a blue tinge to the air itself and you’re not unlikely to witness the Northern Lights as you venture back from one or another of the 35 or so concerts, spread across most of Longyearbyen’s venues, including pubs, the school, the church and even the kindergarten.
Over the four days of the most recent event, 15 Norwegian and international blues artists, including hot young guitarist Laurence Jones and the veteran Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack from the U.K., could also be found grooving at blues lunches, a formal blues dinner, and the six-hour Saturday night music marathon with non-stop concerts on the two floors of ‘Huset’. This edge of town venue historically was the only place where, for musical reasons, the, often filthy rich, coal miners would ever mix with any of the good citizens of the town. That’s even though the human population of the entire island was substantially outnumbered by polar bears, and still are, in fact, by a ratio of something like 3:2. Hence the tourist-snap friendly warning signs at the edge of town and the locals all carrying rifles lest they might run into one, an encounter that’s unlikely to end well. Everyone is, though, encouraged to leave their guns, thick outdoor clothing and, often, shoes at the entrance to most establishments, although the only place that actually forbids you from entering if you’re carrying a gun is, understandably, the local bank!
Despite, or maybe because of, the improbability and difficulties of the location, it’s a remarkably inclusive and friendly festival. Organised by the “Longyearbyen Bluesklubb”, staffed by volunteers and supported, financially and otherwise, by the entire 2000-strong community, its intimacy and relaxed atmosphere means artists, audiences and locals can’t help but mingle throughout the weekend.
So by the time Sunday evening rolled around, it seemed as if the polar bears were just about the only inhabitants not trying to get inside the church for the Gospel And Blues Evening, headlined by one of the festival’s big hits Robert “Freightrain” Parker and guests including Laurence Jones.
On the way there (fortuitous timing, as he became entertainingly over-refreshed at the Sunday night blues jam later on!), I grabbed the opportunity to ask Ian Ellis, current bassman with Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack, what he made of it all. A one-time member of prog-rock pioneers Clouds – “we were playing prog-rock before Genesis, before King Crimson, before Yes, and we were at the Marquee every Thursday night,” he remembers (he’s also next to Sandy Denny on the famous cover of the Island Records sampler You Can All Join In!) – as well as a key player in Savoy Brown’s glory years of U.S. success, he’s seen a thing or two.
“I was around in the Sixties and played all the festivals, like the Isle Of Wight and Hyde Park. But this really is the best festival I’ve ever been to in my life,” he enthuses.
“I met this accordionist when we were playing in the Basque Country,” says harmonica wizard Victor Puertas of Spanish blues-ers Victor Puertas & The Mellow Tones. “He said ‘you’ve got to come to Svalbard. You’ll freak out’ and he was right!”
“I’d been to Norway to play but this is my first trip to Svalbard. It’s an incredible place and this has been the experience of a lifetime. Laurence Jones is just great, of course, but these local young kids, like Mighty Magnolias, just have so much energy and love for the music,” says Robert “Freightrain” Parker, who has played with Rock Bottom and Sherman Robertson but brought his own group to Dark Season Blues from Buffalo, New York. With an elegance and economy to her guitar playing that was often reminiscent of her hero BB King, diminutive Grace Lougen was the perfect foil to the sophisticated energy of keyboard player Greg Leech, who was playing even before he was in kindergarten and the extraordinary percussive powerhouse that was the improbably-named Damone A-Miracale Jackson.
But pretty much everybody agreed that British guitarist Laurence Jones stole every show he played, which was quite a few. With his band, bravura bassist Roger Inniss and hard-driving drummer Phil Wilson, they currently have good claim to be just about the most potent blues-rock trio around, and not just in the U.K anymore.
“We didn’t really know how it was going to go at all but we’ve loved it,” Laurence told me. “I love jamming, and it’s amazing how much you can learn at something like this. Walter Trout taught me that music’s not a competition, you know?”
*You can get more information about Dark Season Blues 2017 from:www.svalbardblues.com/en/