Q&A with Austrian director/producer Wolfgang Almer, the driving force behind the movie LATE BLOSSOM BLUES

"Today, with most of the real blues guys getting older and eventually passing away, I’m not sure if the blues that we’ve all come to love can survive in that quality. The world and the society where blues developed as a way to cope with segregation and other injustices and difficulties is – luckily – not existing anymore, so the authenticity is simply not possible anymore. And without authenticity, the blues might lose what it’s all about."

Wolfgang Almer: Screen, Blossoms & Blues

When 81 year-old Leo “Bud” Welch from the Mississippi backwoods released his debut record “Sabougla Voices” in 2014, he took the Blues world by surprise: Where has this guy been for the past 60 years? Why has nobody ever heard of him before? When he started playing 10-15 shows every month, even getting invitations to Europe and Africa, more questions arose: How is this possible for a guy his age? Who makes all these shows happen? Answers are given in LATE BLOSSOM BLUES, a feature-length Documentary about Leo “Bud” Welch and his very late rise to stardom. It’s the quintessential Blues story – a story about poverty, about work in the cotton fields and the woods, about The Lord and The Devil, and of course a story about life that reminds us that it’s never too late to live your dream.                                           Wolfgang Almer / Photo by Viktor Schaider

LATE BLOSSOM BLUES follows Leo and his manager Vencie Varnado, a Gulf War Veteran, as they balance the tight rope between business and geriatrics, between jet lag and sound check. It also paints a heart-warming portrait of Leo’s small hometown Bruce, MS where Leo’s daily life is still untouched by his late global fame. Documenting the most exciting times in the life of one of the last real Bluesmen, LATE BLOSSOM BLUES is a film of historic dimension for all music-lovers. It’s a moving account of a hard working man, who, despite all the adversaries, never wavered from his passion and waited more than 70 years to finally live his dream. The “Music Documentary of the Year” – now available on DVD and online streaming! Director/Producer Wolfgang Almer is the driving force behind the movie. He is also the artistic director of an Austrian festival called LINZFEST and has a long track record of premiering incredible artists in Europe – just like he did with Leo.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues people and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Making this film, and meeting all these wonderful people in the South who are one way or another connected the Blues has given me a much deeper understanding of what the Blues actually is. It's much more than a music genre, it's a way of living your life. So many people today, me included, are always, you know, kind of tense, always concerned about how they look or how their next Facebook post will perform. The Blues tells you to relax, tells you that everything is going to be alright - even if it doesn't look alright right now. It's a very relaxed and therefore very healthy way of living your life. I like that.

How started the thought of documentary movie about The Story of Leo “Bud” Welch?

I am artistic director of a rather big open air festival called LINZFEST in Linz/Austria. This festival has a topic every year, and 2014, the topic was OLD IS THE NEW NEW. So we were looking for old but still relevant music, for new music based on old music and also for really old artists. On this quest, I remembered Cedell Davies who I saw at a club across the corner from where I live in Vienna some time back. Since I couldn’t find a booking agency, I contacted his lable Fat Possum. And the guys from Fat Possum told me that Cedell is available, but there’s this other guy, Leo Welch. He has never really left Mississippi, but he has a new album coming out, and maybe he’d be up to play at our festival. So, I contacted his manager Vencie Varnado and we very quickly came to an agreement to do this.

His shows at our festival were great (he played three shows, one of them until 1:30 in the morning, rocking a small clubs like it has never been rocked before), and I was really impressed by his energy and by his quality as a performer. But I still had no thought of making a movie about him. However, I started to read his story after the festival. I read about the cotton picking, the lumber jacking, his hard and rather poor life and how he had only started out as a professional musician right now, at age 81. I thought, wow, what a story. And that’s when it hit me – we have to make a movie about this guy. So I opened my computer and wanted to contact Vencie to ask him about this idea, and the second I opened my computer Vencie contacted me totally out of the blue to ask me how I was. This seemed like a very good omen to me. We have to do this!

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Well, Black people have been treated VERY bad in the US for centuries, and even though Segregation has been abolished for a long time, not a lot has changed.

I think until something like the 1970s, the Blues was a very important way for Black people to let off steam, to deal with their frustration about all these injustices. So for a long time, the Blues had a very important function in society. But then, HipHop and Rap developed and many young Black people started using these new, much more direct ways of screaming out their frustration. So now the Blues doesn't really have this function anymore. However, the Blues is still a very strong reminder of some very tough times and a lot of suffering. But since the Blues has been the basis for nearly every form of popular music in the last 60 years one way or another, it's a monument of the creative power and cultural importance of Black people.                                         

"The Blues tells you to relax, tells you that everything is going to be alright - even if it doesn't look alright right now. It's a very relaxed and therefore very healthy way of living your life. I like that."  (Wolfgang Almer / Photo by Enlumen)

What would you say characterizes your work in comparison to other filmmakers? What characterizes your work?

Well, when I started out, I wasn't a filmmaker. I had no idea what I was doing. Luckily, I had some professionals around me who did know their business. But I guess my work is characterized by a very strong dislike of bullshit - so I only try to do things that are real, that are authentic and powerful. And I always listen to my gut feeling and my common sense. Having hardly any formal education in filmmaking, these are my only guidelines in making a film. So maybe I do some things different because I don't know how things are "normally" done, and sometimes this produces some new ideas and approaches. And my common sense then tells me which of these ideas and approaches are good and which are crap.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from "Bud" and your experience with him?

Leo has taught me a couple of things. The most obvious lesson to learn from him is that it's never too late to live your dream. But there's more, a certain light-heartedness about everything. His life was a very hard one for a looong time, but he just shrugged all problems off and never turned cynical or depressed - he was a good man all his life. And when Leo suddenly became famous in his eighties, he also shrugged off the fame and never turned into an big-headed star who felt superior to other people. He just stayed the same guy, he didn't change at all. He never even bought anything with the money he earned. He didn't need anything, he was content, even happy with what the little he had.

Are there any memories from the late great bluesman which you’d like to share with us? What is the best advice ever given you?

I haven’t really spent a lot of time with Leo yet because I just met him at those 3 festival days and then mainly communicated with his manager Vencie, but one thing I learned from Leo is that life is never over, that you can always start new things, no matter how old you are or how difficult the situation might be. So we all should always stay curious, stay foolish and open for everything. Life is not that difficult. You just do what you do, or, as Leo puts it: I don’t know what you’ve come to do – I’ve come to kneel and pray.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Leo Bud Welch?

While researching, I stumbled across the following quote from Leo: “I like my electric guitar because I can cut up the volume to where I can hear it.” This is just so him, it really made me laugh. What really touched me is the community Leo’s part of. There were so many people reaching out to help us, also very many people were contacting us to ask if we’re good people and not trying to take advantage of Leo (we’re of course good people – but his manager Vencie would nobody take advantage of Leo anyway). This sounds like a really strong and good community.

"The most obvious lesson to learn from him is that it's never too late to live your dream."

Where would you really wanna go via a time machine and what memorabilia would you put in?

In terms of blues, I would love to see Muddy Waters live, so probably go back some 50 years. But generally, I’m more of future guy – so I’d probably use the time machine to go forward, maybe see our movie in a cinema in about a year or two.

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

Today, with most of the real blues guys getting older and eventually passing away, I’m not sure if the blues that we’ve all come to love can survive in that quality. The world and the society where blues developed as a way to cope with segregation and other injustices and difficulties is – luckily – not existing anymore, so the authenticity is simply not possible anymore. And without authenticity, the blues might lose what it’s all about.

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

I really can’t say a lot about that. There are a couple of quite good blues acts over here, but what’s very interesting over here is the Wienerlied, a typically Viennese music that’s very similar to the blues (and very often technically is blues) and also deals with life’s big and small problems and melanchoiies. There has been a big revival of the Wienerlied in the last couple of years with a lot of great artists like Martin Spengler & Die foischn Wiener, Die Strottern or 5/8erl in Ehren. This is very much blues music, even though it doesn’t call itself blues.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from United States and UK to Austria?

As I said before, the Wienerlied is very similar to the blues and it very often sounds like blues music. The Viennese mentality is very often very melancholy, so it kind of connects to the blues, and that’s probably why the music is also connected.

How do you describe LINZFEST philosophy and mission? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

LINZFEST was the festival that I directed and where I invited Leo to play his first concert outside the US - that's where this whole film project started, after meeting him there. Now sadly, LINZFEST doesn't exist anymore. It was killed by local politics in a really shady move, so there's no more LINZFEST. I'm now working as managing director of Central Europe's biggest trade fair for ecological and sustainable products called WearFair (wearfair.at), that's also great. LINZFEST was organized by the City of Linz/Austria, and it was a free open air festival with 4-6 stages in a beautiful park in the very center, directly at the river Danube with up to 43.000 visitors. I was artistic director from 2009-2016. I always chose a topic for each year and tried to work on that topic in a very multidimensional way. In 2014 when I invited Leo, our topic was OLD IS THE NEW NEW, so we were working with Retro Trends, we invited many initiatives that worked with repairing, recycling and upcycling, and we also invited really old people from a local nursing home to tell their life stories. And of course, we invited really old artists, and Leo was the oldest and greatest among them. So it was a pretty unique festival, very open with a very broad program range.

Memories... the best memory next to Leo's shows (the story of his LINZFEST shows is told in the Bonus Features of our DVD) was probably 2013, when I invited Tucson local legend Billy Sedlmayer who spent some years in prison after a typical drug addict career and was really a broken man at the time. My festival was the first time ever for him to play outside of the US, and it was a HUGE thing for him (for me, too). But then, 1 hour before his show, a big storm came through with a lot of rain and strong winds, and it looked like we had to cancel his show or even the whole festival day. And he was really devastated when we told him. So we tried to fix the stage again after the storm was gone and somehow make his show possible, and it worked out in the end. So he played, and his show was something really special, for him, for the audience that came back after this crazy storm, and also for me - I think I had tears in my eyes. Billy and myself hold each other in very high regards since that day. Some parts of this show are on youtube, just look for Billy Sedlmayer and LINZFEST.

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues culture and what does the “Blues” mean to you?

I’ve discovered the Blues when I was something like 18 years old, so about 20 years ago. It started with a Levis commercial in the early 90s that had Muddy Water’s Mannish Boy as a soundtrack. Me and my best buddie, we totally fell into this song and started digging for more blues, and we found out that a super market close by had but one record shelve with nothing but blues records. So we bought it all up over time – John Lee Hooker, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Buddy Guy, … all of them, and we totally fell into it. It was wonderful. But then, somehow Grunge started to happen for me and then all the other music that I’ve learned to love popped up to me, and I kind of forgot about the Blues. It’s really wonderful that the Blues is coming back to me now with this project. I guess what I can learn from the Blues is that authenticity is really the key to good music. A guy like Leo who has played the Blues his whole life, not for commercial reasons but just for himself can easily blow away any big, perfectly produced music project a record company could think of.

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

It’s – again – authenticity. We’re all looking for real things, and in our times, real things are getting rare. Everything is made for us to consume, very few things are made just for the sake of doing it. Now if somebody like Leo comes across, we all just have to love him because he’s so real, he gets us in touch with life itself.

Late Blossom Blues - Home

Photo: Leo “Bud” Welch & Wolfgang Almer

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