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Hans Theessink would feature on any reasonable person’s list of top established blues acts, and the audience in Putney was given ample evidence as to why this is the case. They will also have realised, if they hadn’t known it before, that when you get a chance to see someone that good live, you should take it. Seeing people like Hans gives you a genuine chance to forget your woes, celebrate your blessings and revel in the artistry of a real pro. That’s what this kind of music is about, and there really is nothing like experiencing it live. So get out there and do it.
Brook’s Blues Bar, for those who don’t know, is run by Ann and Tony, whose passion for this kind of music has led them to actually do something – set up a venue specialising in high-quality acoustic blues, and often featuring the only London appearances by some of the best international acts you could hope to see. The economics of such an enterprise are probably wince-inducing for them from time to time, but of course if people like them didn’t put their heads above the parapet and put on this kind of thing, there would be no chance at all for anyone in London to see terrific artists like Hans.
Their venue was previously in Hammersmith, and is now the upstairs of a large, pleasant pub in a part of Putney that is more countryside than town. Parking doesn’t seem to be any problem, and the venue is extremely civilised, covering as it does the whole upstairs, with a very well appointed ‘auditorium’ and a kind of reception area. It’s a sit down at tables venue and you can get a meal there too. If there was any justice, it would be a stand-up venue too, with sellout gigs every time and standing room only.
Hans Theessink is a Dutchman who plays country blues and his own songs in the blues/roots vein. He’s been going since the 1970s and made a lot of albums. His two most recent general release albums are Bridges (2004) and this year’s Slow Train. On these albums he generally has a full band providing a mellow groove, and many tracks feature a group of Zimbabwean singers called Insigizi, whose contribution helps to give a totally unique sound to the music. These albums contain mostly original compositions, and if you’ve got any soul, they’ll both make you feel good.
Get at least one of them, and while you’re about it, get Songs From The Southland (2003), which is more of a solo affair and which contains Hans’s take on a variety of numbers by the blues greats whose music inspired him to get started in the first place. He gigs with the band when the economics add up, but on this tour he’s doing his solo act, which contains mostly songs from the three albums mentioned, as well as his versions of other numbers by the greats.
Hans must surely tire of being asked how a Dutchman can be a blues artist, but I’m sure he’s answered the question courteously every one of the many hundreds of times it’s been asked. The correct answer of course is: Why not? Some Europeans have always ‘got’ blues more than some Americans – it’s always spoken to them and they’ve always liked it just for what it is, not for any baggage that may come with it. That’s probably why some major American artists like Taj Mahal are keen to point out that, in the low points of the 1980s, it was European audiences that kept them just about solvent. Hans seems to have had a perfectly viable and successful career mostly in continental Europe for a great many years. He does an enormous number of gigs every year in many countries, including about annual visits to the UK and US. He’s very well-regarded wherever he goes, and rightly so
He played two sets, kicking off on his L’Arrivée 6-string and rack harmonica. Early numbers included Key To The Highway and his own homage to Big Bill Broonzy, whose guitar he was allowed to play on a visit to Chicago way back. After St James Infirmary, his German-made Blazer 12-string came out for a song about Willie McTell. This terrific-sounding Stella-type instrument was then used for Leadbelly’s Bourgeois Blues and Hans’s own song about a trip to the southern states, Mississippi. A bit later, a battered but unbowed Gibson with the sweetest sound came out for three self-penned songs from Slow Train - the title track, Old Man Trouble and Katrina. Hans is an excellent songwriter and his own songs stand up as at least the equals of the traditional material.
Hans is essentially from the laid-back school of blues artists, rather than the hollerin’ school. He has a rich, deep voice that comes over rather like a very loud whisper and creates a warm atmosphere. His guitar playing includes a very effective vibrato style while picking chords, and it’s all unhurried and uncluttered. The whole thing is understated rather than flamboyant, and fits neatly into the category of deceptively simple, meaning that is just sounds right in a way that genuinely simple playing doesn’t. He comes across as an artist at the top of his game, comfortable in his own skin, happy doing what he’s doing and very good at it too. He also has a very nice line in dry wit between numbers.
After an interval in which large numbers of his albums seemed to be getting bought, he was soon unleashing the full range of top quality picking skills, notably on Blind Blake’s Diddy Wah Diddy and Mance Lipscomb’s Sugar Babe Blues. The laid-back approach was briefly replaced by a burst of guitar pyrotechnics of the kind that only the best can do, the sort of playing that reminds everyone of why a real pro gets paid to play. The gulf between the competent and the genuinely excellent opens up at moments like that, and there is a buzz in the audience of recognition of why someone like this can do it for a living.
Some excellent slide playing, a feature of the set, then came to the fore on some entertaining versions of Rufus Thomas’s Walking The Dog and Chuck Berry’s Maybelline. Tucked in between these was some excellent banjo-style playing on Derroll Adams’ Freight Train Blues. The evening closed with an encore, which saw the 12-string wheeled out for a rousing version of Statesboro Blues that did full justice to this greatest of blues songs.
The attentive and enthusiastic audience clearly thoroughly enjoyed the gig. Hans seems to revel in playing and to be having a good time himself - there’s no sense of just going through the motions, each performance is special in its way. The audience engaged with the artist in a way that’s only possible at intimate gigs like this, and there’s a sense of something quite magical happening during the course of the evening. And then we all slope off back into real life, the better for the experience.
So get along to some of Ann and Tony’s gigs. You’ll be doing yourself a big favour and helping to keep something valuable going at the same time.