The time flies fast and the Big Apple Blues European Tour was like a hurricane. To make things even more interesting, the Big Apple Blues musicians landed in Brussels during the week of the city’s lockdown for security and terrorism threat. The hype in the media gave the impression that Belgium was the most dangerous country in the world to be at that time. The band’s experience about the danger of touring in Belgium, however, has been that the only threats were amazingly receptive audiences who would not let us get off the stage, the finely crafted Belgian beer, and delicious Belgian chocolates.
Upon landing at Zaventem International Airport, Zach Zunis, Barry Harrison and Jim Alfredson were picked up by Dr. Blues himself in his Bluesmobile and taken to downtown Leuven in the heart of the Vlaams-Brabant province of Belgium. After a short rest, the obligatory coffee at Koffie Onan and a portion of mussels and fries at the Valck, the band took off in the direction of Ghent for a quick rehearsal before the concert at Missy Sippy.
Missy Sippy is one of the true music shrines in Belgium, owned and operated by true music connoisseurs with undying taste in blues and roots music. Big Apple Blues kicked in at around 9:00 PM and rocked the house until midnight. The two sets were a blast and served as the perfect warm-up for the rest of the tour. The band then had the day off to rest before playing a short set in the Cafe Revuein Leuven as a teaser before the concert on December 1st at the large venue of Blawue Kater.
The concert at the Blauwe Kater was packed with connoisseurs of the Big Apple Blues sound. Both the music and the ample stream of Belgian beer were a blast and a perfect mix. The audience was particularly assertive to Zach Zunis and Jim Alfredson’s amazing solos and stage presence, whereas the Baron of the Blues received a standing ovation for belting Bullfrog Blues. On a couple of numbers the band was joined by an aspiring local harmonica player, Ruben Bertands, who besides being a great harmonica player in the style of Little Walter is also a DJ at the fabled Radio Scorpio Leuven. Ruben in fact leads a weekly blues program on Radio Scorpio called Bluesapalooza. Getting to know Ruben was a cool and fortuitous occurrence as we are now working with Radio Scorpio on establishing a radio score and Big Apple Blues and Leuven Blues and Roots Festival starting in mid-2016.
That Tuesday night was rather short as BAB loaded equipment into Steven’s Mercedes piano transport van and headed southwest towards Clermont-Ferrand, France, where the band had a performance in the well known venue in Studio 112. Upon arrival to Clermont-Ferrand, the band members stretched their legs in this beautiful town in the Massif Central in France. The following day, work started in the early afternoon with the soundcheck at the venue and a cool pre-concert dinner that followed. This venue is a modern and well crafted for musical performances arena with remarkable acoustics. We were particularly impressed by the sound on stage and the acoustics of the room powered by the Bose mains speaker system. During the sound check, the band cut loose and let their stage amplifiers rip through the volume of the cover nose venue. Dr. Blues was spotted smiling throughout this while playing with the ampeg SVT turned up to 11. With his EB3 Bass Guitar plugged straight in on the bridge pick-up, and the tone slightly rolled off and the bass cranked up on the SVTs tone controls, the combination sounded beyond incredible. Dr. Blues still recounts the skate of his pants standing behind the signature SVTs 8×10 speaker cabinet. As was the case throughout this incredible tour, the audience was beyond awesome and tremendously enjoyed the show which wavered between all-out traditional Chicago style blues and the Big Apple Blues unique New York Soul Blues instrumentals from the highly acclaimed “Energy” album. We were particularly surprised by how many people in the audience were familiar with the songs from the Energy album and how many positive comments the band received with the wind change into the Energy direction. During the down time in Clermont-Ferrand, the band spent two half-days in the recording studio fleshing out new material for the upcoming Big Apple Blues instrumental album which we believe will seal the genre that we created as recognized by critics as the Big Apple Blues sound.
Upon return to Belgium, the band played its last concert at the fabled Banana Peel blues club in Ruiselede. The Banana Peel is nestled in the west Flanders part of the country out in the fields. Banana Peel is most certainly the best known blues club in Europe with a history that spans over sixty years. The most discerning audience and a very rich decision making and tight music directorship. A quick glance at Banana Peel’s website reveals the music calendar adorned by the who-is-who in Blues throughout the decades of the club’s existence. Once inside this blues music shrine, immediately apparent is the painstaking efforts taken to transform what on the outside looks like a country barn into a music venue conducive to the most spectacular aural experience. The venue is masterfully sound tempered to avoid boominess and unwanted echoes that plague many music venues. Currently the club is managed by Franky who has been the president for the past ten years having taken over from Francois, the long running president and founder of the club. The board of Banana Peel is very proud of its heritage and prominently features the Banana Peel book with artful photography recollecting some of the shows that span from Big Daddy Wilson to Dana Gillespie & The London Blues Band. Several of the band members of Big Apple Blues have already played at Banana Peel in past gigs. Both Barry Harrison and Admir “Dr. Blues” Hadzic have backed up the great Hugh Pool and the Hugh Pool band a few years back. Barry Harrison has also performed at Banana Peel with the legendary Joanie Copeland and Shemekia Copland during their world tours a few years back. The entire club is nothing short of mystical and inspirational for musicians with its endless posters of the previous shows and autographs of the legendary blues musicians who have shared the stage there.
By the time we returned from the dinner in the neighborhood village, Banana Peel was jam-packed with an audience awaiting the show. Having done a sound check already, we plugged in and Zach Zunis counted in the start of the show with one of our boogies that morphs into a powerful slow blues in the early B. B. King style. I still remember my bass rig provided by the club, consisting of a vintage Trace Elliot bass amp which I absolutely love. It is an incredible, powerful, and natural sounding, no frills amplifier that just keeps going no matter what you throw at it. What made this show memorable was that minutes after the band started playing, there was a power outage in the entire club for a few minutes. It turned out that a glass of water flew off the stand behind Zach Zunis’s amplifier which fried the electrical circuit. However unfortunate this was, this break in the set provided for an extraordinary connection in the audience, who excited by the first few riffs, lit up candles and their cell phones eagerly awaiting the rest of the show. A few minutes later the electricity was restored and it was an absolute blast from the beginning to the end of the two one-hour sets that we played. The crowd called us back a couple of times and we ended the show with several numbers from the Energy instrumental album which everyone on this tour was really digging. The night ended with the band signing autographs for another hour for the crowds who patiently waited in line to get their autograph and super cool new BAB merchandise. We really look forward to coming back to Belgium sometime soon and reconnecting with our growing fan base here in the heart of Europe.