Interview with roots & blues band of Champagne Charlie from the Dutch - focus to sound of 20’s to 50’s

"Blues is an universal language. It is music you can put in a lot of your own personality and emotions. People understand the feeling immediately."

Champagne Charlie: Time Machine

Champagne Charlie is a roots & blues band from the Dutch delta. Unlike many blues bands, they focus on the real blues roots. Their musical inspiration originates from the early blues masters from the 20’s to the 50’s (Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt, Bo Carter, and Robert Johnson to name a few). They started writing their own songs in that same tradition and produced 10 CD's, part Dutch, part English. They have been a favorite at many blues and jazz festivals because of their unique sound with many acoustic stringed instruments and enthusiastic, passionate performances.

Photo by Jan van der Beek

The band performed at festivals (Northsea Jazz festival, The Hague 2002), clubs and bars and in 2008 Champagne Charlie made their 10th album “Waiting on Roosevelt”, commissioned by the Roosevelt Study Center and the Roosevelt Foundation. The band are: Sjef Hermans (vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo), Theo de Koning (vocals, fingerpicking and slide guitar), Geert de Heer (lapsteel, mandolin, banjo, electric guitar), Peter Bout (upright and electric bass), Peter Lenselink (drums, washboard, backing vocals), and Gait Klein Kromhof - Seydel (harmonica, backing vocals).

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Geert: Blues is a feeling. I started playing jazz in the late fifties and I ended up playing blues and American roots music. Mostly musicians go the other way round.

Gait: A musician can express his feelings when he plays the blues. Especially on a harmonica.

Sjef: The blues grabbed me when I was 14 years old and it still does. It has so many faces, styles and colours that it takes a whole life to learn all the chops and tricks of the trade. It is my passion and a perfect way to express myself.  On the other hand I love to listen to the old masters from the twenties and thirties: Frank Stokes, Bo Carter, Blind Willie McTell and a lot of white guys too.

Theo: I learn that a lot of people want to play the blues, but don’t realize the bad, real blues circumstances the old guys had to struggle with. I love to play the blues, but ‘till now I didn’t suffer like the old guys. The first bluesman who influenced to play the blues me was Big Bill Broonzy, because of his emotional singing and superb guitar playing.

"The old blues was more diverse. The music biz changed that. Nowadays it is more about ego, tone and technique. They don’t know the old masters anymore. And I mean the real old masters from the twenties and thirties."

How do you describe Champagne Charlie sound and progress, what characterize band’s philosophy?

Geert: We have a distinguished personal sound which is based on the stringed instruments: guitar, dobro, mandolin, banjo and slide guitar, Gait’s harmonica and the double bass and washboard. We try to play the old songs like they are new.

Sjef: Champagne Charlie is the name, good time music is the game! Blues can be sad, but it can sound happy too! There is more blues than the styles you hear the most during festivals and bar gigs.

Tell me about the beginning of Champagne Charlie. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

Sjef: We started the band in 1988. Before that Theo de Koninng and I had a country blues duo and together with Geert Heer we played in The Down Home String Band. We got the name from Blind Blake’s song “Champagne Charlie Is My Name”. He was a big influence on us. We played all kind of prewar styles: blues, gospel, old time country and bluegrass.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Sjef: We really loved playing together with Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, that was really inspiring. We have played with Hans Theessink a few times. The last time was in Vienna. The show was recorded and Hans will put a live album with these recordings out in April. Hans Theessink is a big influence.

"Champagne Charlie is the name, good time music is the game! Blues can be sad, but it can sound happy too! There is more blues than the styles you hear the most during festivals and bar gigs."

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

Sjef: In November 2013 we had our 25th anniversary and we played songs from all those years. This was great fun. We have recorded a trilogy of Music from the Roosevelt Era. The newest one is “America Through The Eyes Of Woody” and it contains 15 Woody Guthrie songs. To us they are all blues!

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Geert: It can really grab you right by the throat and will not turn you loose for some time.

Gait: People recognize the feeling and can relate to it. It is universal.

Sjef: Blues is an universal language. It is music you can put in a lot of your own personality and emotions. People understand the feeling immediately.

Theo: Because it’s music from the heart…it touches you…

What do you miss most nowadays from the old day of blues? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Geert: I hope that people begin to realize more and more that the old guys with their cheap equipment could really nail a song with their musical skills and taste. First their was the song, then came the show. Now it almost is the other way around.

Gait: The old blues was more diverse. The music biz changed that. Nowadays it is more about ego, tone and technique. They don’t know the old masters anymore. And I mean the real old masters from the twenties and thirties.

Sjef: Too many bands seem to focus only on Tone and Technique and have a lack of Taste. And they all sound the same. How different was that in the old days. The music industry has destroyed a lot!

Theo: I love that pure, good old country blues played on acoustic instruments and nowadays the emphasis is on electric played (12 bar) blues.

"I think the sixties were the best period for the blues. We had both electric blues bands like Cuby & the Blizzards and acoustic string- and jugbands then. These days we are quite unique with our acoustic blues and roost music."

Which memory from Roy Book Binder, Dave MacKenzie, Guy Davis, and Doug MacLeod makes you smile?

Geert: They all had their own interpretation of old blues styles. And most of them had a good story to tell, which I really do like when I go to a concert.

Gait: They were all surprised that these Dutch men knew so much about their American music. And I love their music because they really digged deeper in the well of American folk music and blues.

Theo: The storytelling from Roy and Doug, the shyness from Dave, the knowledge of the Dutch slavery from Guy..

Do you know why the sound of slide, mandolin and resonator are connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

Geert: The people from the old days played everything they could lay their hands on. They tried to sound different. You got so many slide guitar styles. Compare for example the smooth style of Tampa Red to the raw bottleneck style of King Solomon Hill. Playing slide gives you a second voice, just like the harmonica does. The resonator guitar was loud and in the days when you had to play really acoustic that was a good reason to buy one. The high toned mandolin cuts through every band and give san extra dimension to the sound. There were not so many blues mandolin players, but Yank Rachel, who played with Sleepy John Estes was very important for this instrument.

Do you know why the sound of slide is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

Theo: Slide playing is like crying... I suppose play the right notes is the secret..

"It all started with the blues and from that came ragtime, jazz, skiffle and folk but with another rhythm and feel..."

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

Gait: The poor man’s saxophone is an instrument that you play with your whole body and soul. You can make it sing, you can make it moan, you make it wail. It is all about emotion.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Ragtime, Jazz and continue to Skiffle and Folk music?

Gait: There are so many. The real lines were made by people with an open mind and an open ear. Blind Blake, The Mississippi Sheiks, The Memphis Jug Band, The Carter Family, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmie Rodgers, Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan and so on….

Theo: It all started with the blues and from that came ragtime, jazz, skiffle and folk but with another rhythm and feel...

Make an account of the case of the blues in Dutch. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Sjef: I think the sixties were the best period for the blues. We had both electric blues bands like Cuby & the Blizzards and acoustic string- and jugbands then. These days we are quite unique with our acoustic blues and roost music.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Geert: That is a difficult question. In my early days I would have said: I want to go back to see Wes Montgomery play live, but now I think I rather had a workshop with Roy Schmeck  the virtuoso who really played everything with strings.

Gait: Let’s say 80 years back: hear Will Shade and Noah Lewis play in Memphis and of course Deford Bailey. These are my heroes.

Champagne Charlie - Official website

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