Various Artists: American Folk Blues Festival: Live In Paris

A stellar snapshot from ’62, as God’s own festival bill rolls into Paris.

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When the inaugural American Folk Blues Festival touched down on the tarmac at Paris Airport on October 19, 1962, the cynicism in the air was palpable. Among the French capital’s tastemakers, predictions were rife that when the touring package played the Olympia Theatre the following night, the venue would either be empty or populated by jeering jazz purists. Furthermore, promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau were widely expected to take a financial kicking. As a senior executive for Jazz Hot Magazine reportedly asked his reviewer: “Who the hell wants to listen to this?”

In the event, a packed house of lucky-bastard French fans witnessed two sets that – if not quite as mythologised as the UK jaunt to follow – are still electrifying on this previously unreleased three-CD set. At 6pm sharp, John Lee Hooker took to the stage for his first show in Paris, and although Fremeaux’s (smart) decision to leave this material unedited means a good few minutes of ‘one-two’s and enquiries as to whether the mic is indeed working, there’s real intimacy as the Boogie Man breaks into I’m In The Mood, his slimline Gibson electric thrubbing and jabbing, and his vocal crinkling like parchment.

According to the release’s fine liner notes, Hooker was put on first to win over the jazzers, and the reverential response suggests he managed to do that most emphatically when his Richter-scale speaking voice takes flight on I Don’t Want To Lose You. His stream-of-consciousness asides, too, are magnetic: “The blues was the first shit. It’s getting bigger by the hour…” How do you follow that? Quite simply, with a steady procession of the genre’s greatest exponents. Memphis Slim pounds the keys and Willie Dixon the bass on an effervescent Rockin’ The House, the two titans masterfully working the dynamics to both scrape the rafters and take it down to pin-drop volume. Later, Dixon supplies another gem with Nervous, his faux-stuttering ode to a failed lothario that’s lapped up by the Paris audience.

They’re not always so receptive. Following the intermission, we welcome the LA showman T-Bone Walker, who enrages the Olympia’s sniffier patrons with his proto-Hendrix routine of performing the splits and playing behind his back at the end of You Don’t Love Me, prompting audible boos among the whoops. His response alone is worth the admission fee: “I’m used to a few boos. This is the first time that I ever had a boo in a theatre – but it’s nice. I think it’s nice, because they like it when they boo. If they didn’t like it, they’d have got up and walked out of the theatre. So they loved it – and I love them. They made a good friend out of me.”

Fairly dripping atmosphere from the speakers, Live In Paris is a wonderful document, not just of a crackling concert, but also of the moment when blues in mainland Europe became much more than jazz’s stunted cousin. All involved might be dead and gone now, but the thrill of that October night has been caught in the bottle.

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.