Lee Green talks about BluesFest 2018 to writer Pete Sargeant.
We had been fishing for a while for a quick chat with BluesFest director and musician Leo Green and as the 2018 event approaches, it has happened but if we centred on the eternal ‘act choices – what IS Blues ?’ aspects this piece would never end, so we concentrate largely on the nuts and bolts of the festival.
Leo Green – good to catch up!
LG: A pleasure…thank you for your featuring us in your articles.
What we do with these things is have a word around within the teams to see what people would like to pitch in…it’s now an established event of course but there are some basic things which we don’t know and you do…but firstly, Leo on you – what was the first music you heard that really enthused you?
LG: (Ponders) There was so much…I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where music was king (Leo’s father Benny was a jazz star and radio host – PS)
So, on the one hand, I had all the stuff my Dad was playing and listening to for his stage and radio shows…jazz players plus all the singing stars like Sinatra, Bennett, Peggy Lee…plus I had two older brothers who were listening to everything from The Ramones to Bruce Springsteen and more. So I got a bit of everything as I was growing up.
Instant ongoing education!
LG: Yeah – and you don’t really realise it until many years later and you go – how do I know that record? how do I know that song? but of course, you have just heard it in your life, in your travels.
My lad used to enthuse about Will Smith and make me listen to it, but the wise old git in you points out it’s all lifted from James Brown, The Mohawks, Stevie Wonder. He now knows so much about soul and the first gig I took him to was James Brown.
LG: Yes, and these days, whatever your kids are listening to on say, Spotify they then get led on to other related material, there are all kinds of things they can experience and get in to.
At the end of every YouTube video, there’s more to check out.
LG: Exactly! so then they’re saying ‘Wow! Dad – who is this Sam Cooke?’ and so on. But for the earliest I can remember, Pete – I can recall being taken to see the Count Basie Band. When I was about nine or ten and that had such an effect upon me.
Did you see Miles Davis?
LG: Never, no. He didn’t come to Watford very often.
I took my entire band of the day to see Miles at the Royal Festival Hall. He went from someone I bored them to death about to an inspiration. We all played better afterwards, left more space.
LG: Well that’s exactly it, isn’t it! You see a good live show, experience the atmosphere and it will stay with you your entire life, it really will.
Indeed – memorable gigs IS what it’s all about, isn’t it? So here is everyone’s main question now – for Leo Green, what constituents must be there, the elements, the boundaries even, of Blues Music?
LG: (Smiles) Well, we haven’t got all day…that could mean one of about three million things…what is jazz? it’s…I think we’ve moved on musically from the notion that it is always simply a 12-bar sequence, everyone knows that. It’s perhaps a bit like religion in that if you ask ten people that question, you will surely get ten completely different responses.
Yes, if we all went for a meal we wouldn’t all choose the same dishes.
LG: Precisely! We would all make different selections. There can obviously be common musical points across that but I think it’s such a broad church. Especially now.
Are you sticking with the Blues Festival title…as opposed to making it the Blues & Roots or Blues & Soul event?
LG: I don’t think the title of it would make someone either buy a ticket or not…the fact is, it’s artist-led so if it’s an artist they want to see they’ll come, and if not, they won’t.
Leo, talk me through the artist selection and booking process.
LG: It’s an ongoing conundrum! The challenge, sometimes the frustration. We have a period of time for the process to take place…for a couple of years we did do it in the Summer, BUT I found that there was so much else going on.
We went to see and review loads of the shows, at The Royal Albert Hall and before that.
LG: Thank you very much! It’s come a long way since then. So now we take place at the end of October. The first thing is finding out who’s available. Every year, you know, we try people like Bonnie Raitt. Then she’s recording, or she’s not in Europe then, so you are at the mercy of people’s schedules, you start with a big long wishlist and inevitably, reality strikes. And you have to work out what can actually happen.
Is there a panel that selects the acts to approach?
LG: It’s me. (Smiles) I don’t think there have been any crises, to talk about. However, last year, I was really gutted with Walter Becker passing. I’d been trying to get Steely Dan for so long and obviously wanted him to be part of it. We finally got them and…
He wrote to me. It was on one of his solo albums Circus Money which I reviewed. I suddenly got this email from Walter agreeing with my humble thoughts on pluses and minuses and thanking me for listening so closely. I couldn’t believe it. Ahead of your 02 show, I did a piece on their song characters, which you ran.
LG: Yes! I recall that, great article. I don’t think people realise what a key cultural figure Walter was. As time passes, I do think he will be elevated in people’s minds. I was really upset that after four or five years trying to get them he couldn’t be there in the band. It became a kind of celebration in a way of that catalogue of songs. A fantastic band always is. One year we got BB King, so you do get lucky once in a while.
We liked the Ron Wood one, on the Chess label with Sharlene Spiteri, Geraint Watkins.
LG: I was talking about that with a friend earlier today, the Chess Records night. I do love those shows – we had one for Bill Wyman, for his birthday with loads of guests.
I was there! It was nice to sit down in The Indigo downstairs, too.
LG: I know what you mean. Imelda May, Van Morrison, Joe Brown, Mark Knopfler, Joe Brown…wonderful night.
You must punch the air when a night like that comes together.
Yeah – it’s a lovely feeling to walk into a room and see all the punters there enjoying the performances. Including me! cos I count myself as a punter, a fan. On Bill’s birthday show, of course, all these guys know each other BUT they don’t all get together very often so it was a special happening for them and the crowd.
Let’s talk about location for a moment – you’ve got it based now at the 02. In your head is that where you’d like it to stay?
LG: It is what it is. We started off in small clubs as you well know and progressed to bigger venues. With The Royal Albert Hall and with the acts I was after there were not enough seats to make it financially worthwhile. So I had to then think where was the next logical step for a venue.
If I was starting off one now, I’d think about a week at the SouthBank where they’ve just refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall.
LG: We looked at that. It’s so hard getting availability, that’s the problem. They have in-house orchestras and their seasons. To get a run of dates that also coincided with the weekend, it’s terribly difficult.
They have MeltDown there, I always wonder how that comes together!
LG: Yes, I do that! We did look at all kinds of venues, in the exercise. Even a West End theatre. So we ended up at the 02 because it’s a well-established venue, it’s got the sound all set up in there. The main room is acoustically treated for optimum quality, I don’t think Wembley attains that standard, overall. There was one year Van walked away from the mike but kept singing and you could hear every word, still! There are not many venues of that size where you could do that.
True – we heard Tony Bennett do that in the Royal Festival Hall.
LG: (Warmly) He’s amazing, isn’t he? Fantastic guy.
This also meant that we could put two big artists on, on the same night…it’s all about trying to give people a night out that they wouldn’t normally be able to experience.
People may have seen John Fogerty or seen Steve Miller Band, but to see them on the same bill, that’s something else.
What’s happening on the daytime front this year? We have enjoyed seeing the acts in the afternoons.
LG: We can only ever have the daytime acts IF there’s a sponsor for the sessions. You’re not allowed by law to charge people to come into the 02 for the whole complex, so to pay for all that the money has to come from somewhere and when we had American Express aboard we could arrange it all.
It was Prudential one year. But it needs a sponsor for that to happen. I believe in paying the acts, it’s not right to ask them to play for free. At The Royal Albert Hall, we could charge a small daytime fee and pull it off, the Q&A’s etc but not at the 02 as explained.
When reviewing each BluesFest I always end up suggesting a few acts for the future.
LG: Yes! Who would you like to see?
LG: Would love to have him on!
Jonny Lang, The Rides – with Steve Stills, Kenny, Barry – and Steppenwolf, their music lives on in adverts to this day!
LG: Why not?
LG: I still try to get Buddy Guy every year. We’d still love to do that!
Interview by Pete Sargeant
For tickets for this year’s BluesFest shows, go to BLUESFEST2018