Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gig Review: Stan The Man's Bohemian Blues Band

U Malého Glena
17th August 2009

Edinburgh-born Stanislaw “Stan the Man” Wolarz is a true legend of the Prague live music scene. His Bohemian Blues Band has been in action for over a decade, based here but also touring around Europe. Even those expatriates who have somehow (I blame ignorance and stupidity) managed to remain unromanced by the music of Prague have heard of Stan. Tales of stumbling upon him and his outfit playing in some pub somewhere are part of the standard tale of the “good old days”, along with how cheap the beer used to be and how pretty it all was BT. Before Tesco.

Stan gigs a lot, but his most famous engagement is Monday night at U Malého Glena, the club that boasts “you have never been so close to music”. They have a point: At Little Glen's is a tiny place, with two rows of tables lined up in a semi-claustrophobic tunnel. At my usual seat at my usual table, at the front of course, my feet were only a few inches away from the front of the kick drum. It's a fun little joint, only let down by the fact that you have also probably never been so close to punching people to make them shut up during the sets. And gentlemen, beware the toilet door that opens with a clear view out onto the stairs. You have never been so close to flashing your wang at strangers.

The problem of talking isn't so great during Stan's concerts as it might be with others. Most people are stunned into silence, breaking it only to show their appreciation or express astonishment at the ferocious guitar technique they are seeing. The few remaining chatterers are drowned out, because the Bohemian Blues Band is loud. Seriously loud. Refreshingly loud. Electric guitar from Stan and electric bass from Anton Duratný. Acoustic drums from Kamil Nemec, but hit so hard and placed so close that amplification was unnecessary.

This is a band that sounds raw and real. They do not produce a slick, polished, syrupy “music product” to be played in the background at dinner parties. It is about emotion, it is about having fun, but it is mostly about the blues. Stan's trademark growled vocals are all feeling: even when the words get lost in the wall of sound the meaning is always clear. The meaning comes through his instrument as well, the Telecaster wailing, humming, responding to delicate touches and aggressive strikes alike. His mastery of his axe is staggering. The meaning comes through the man as well. He means it with every inch of his body. There is expression in everything he does.

Even when they played more familiar material it was never ordinary or average. “The Thrill Is Gone”(R. Darnell, R. Hawkins) was darker, dirtier, and spikier than B.B. King's famous version. “Further On Up The Road” (J. Veasey, D. Robey) was unforgiving. “I Just Want To Make Love To You” (W.Dixon) was pure sleaze. “Not Fade Away” (C. Hardin, N. Petty) was a blast, in the middle of which Stan left the stage while his band took their solos. The bass solo was funky, the drum solo was fast and showy; a drumstick-between-the-teeth moment got a loud cheer. It was their only big solo session of the night, the format of the gig being based on songs rather than extended individual extrapolations.

For the last two sets the band was joined by Robin Finesilver on piano. The small size of UMG means that a grand is out of the question, the only choice being an upright against the wall, honky tonk style. It suited the Bohemian Blues Band: a more refined instrument would have been unsatisfyingly out of place. With Finesilver in position the sound was more diverse, his enthusiastic pummelling of the keys sharing solo spots with Stan's six strings. Again the audience loved it, lapping up the action from a close range. Even those attendees who knew nothing about music liked the fact that the band was working hard. It was also fun to watch these guys working together, and at times fooling around. The occasional deliberate false start, the occasional jokey introduction.

We were well into tomorrow morning when the gig finished. “Big Boss Man” (J. Reed) ended the main set. Even though some of the earlier crowd had left during the last break – it always happens with late gigs – there were still more than enough of us to force an encore of “Hound Dog” (J. Leiber, M. Stoller) before the performers were allowed to escape.

Stan Wolarz is an entertainer. He speaks to the audience, will chat with the punters after the gig, and obviously takes pride in putting on a good show. He is also a musician to the core, who loves the blues and plays it with a passion and authenticity that brings it to life in a whole new way. It is not karaoke. It is not blues-lite. It is rough around the edges but in a satisfying way: a roughness that scratches away the itch of everyday life. Take the chance to see him if you can. You will never have been so close to the blues.

No comments: