Q&A with Israeli band of Blues Rebels (Andy Watts & Dov Hammer) - Hipshakin', heartbreakin', earthquakin'

"I think that as time goes on, it's harder and harder to survive playing live music (not just Blues) – People used to go out to dance to live music, and now people bring a DJ and recorded music for that, there are fewer and fewer venues and lower pay for performing musicians."

The Blues Rebels: Earthquakin' Blues!

In April 2012 guitarist Andy Watts invited singer/harmonica player Dov Hammer to jam with his band. A last minute cancellation of the drummer turned the show into an all-star jam with veteran drummer Alon Hillel and bassist Ilan Hillel. The magical chemistry of that show was undeniable, and by the end of the evening a "Supergroup" had been formed - a gathering of 4 veteran musicians, with plenty of experience, who have paid their dues on hundreds of stages with the finest international artists.

With their soulful and passionate playing, the irresistible groove of the rhythm section and their incendiary stage show, the Blues Rebels have quickly captured the attention of the international Blues community. They have been chosen to play with great international stars such as Lucky Peterson, Joe Louis Walker and Bernard Allison, and were the opening act for Johnny Winter. In January 2015, with a new lineup featuring Amos Springer on bass and Avi Barak on drums, the Blues Rebels entered the studio to record "Open road" - their first album together, featuring 14 new original songs by Dov Hammer and Andy Watts. The album was released in March 2015 and has been receiving rave reviews, and radio play throughout Europe and Israel. "Voodoo land", the new album by the Blues rebels, produced by Joe Louis Walker will be released on May 21st, 2016. 

Interview by Michael Limnios    (Photos by Blues Rebels archive/All rights reserved)

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you? What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

Dov: The Blues is an artform developed by African- Americans, so I have to be honest and say this: when I play Blues, I am expressing my admiration for all the great Black blues artists who inspired me, and I am "using" their language to express myself. When I first heard the Blues I immediately felt such a strong connection to it, and it just feels most comfortable for me to speak in this "language". The Blues is a language, a means of expression. It's a way to tell your story, to unload all the troubles that are on your mind, the frustrations, anger and happiness. The most important ingredient to making good Blues (and any good music) is honesty. You have to be telling your story from the heart; you have to really mean it. You cannot fake it. Every person has a story to tell, and even people who seem, from the outside, to have no troubles – even they feel burdened by something. Songwriting and playing the Blues are just ways to tell your story. Having emigrated from the US to Israel, I experienced the feeling of being a stranger, an outsider in society, and I think that is something that influences my Blues to this day.

Andy: Sometimes you gotta Live The Blues to Play The Blues...My first encounter with the Blues was through The Radio at age 12 and the music appealed to me right away as it pulled me in...The Blues is a great artform that lets you building a bridge between your soul and the fretboard...The Blues let you express yourself fully as it gives a lot of space for improvisation and you can let yourself go ...The Blues also makes you Humble as the more you play and progress you realize how much more there is to it and many more doors waiting to be opened...I have been fortunate to play with a lot of great Blues Cats that have shown that patience is important  and not spilling all the Beans right away is the  way to keep things in Focus...So yes I guess one of my trademarks is not to be afraid to play minimalistic at times...and listen to your fellow musicians, it’s all about Dynamics.

How do you describe your sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Dov: My music is a combination of several styles that I love: Classic Chicago blues, Rock, folk, and soul music. I guess you could say my "philosophy" is to carry on the tradition, but make it your own. In the same way that Muddy Waters learned from Son House, but updated his music to the time and place that HE was in, I love Muddy Waters, but I use his tradition to INFLUENCE my playing, but I don't try to imitate him.

Andy: Sound and your tone is your Soul & Signature, compromise with your wife and friends but never with your Sound....I always walk the extra mile to get the my tone, to inspire my playing. Great Tone gives you the freedom to play easy not running up and down the fretboard where a way to distorted sound drowns out the message...

Tell me about the beginning of the Blues Rebels. How did you choose the name and what characterize band’s philosophy?

Dov: Keeping it real. Playing music that expresses US and doesn't just re-create someone else's sound – and giving the audience some energy and excitement! We want our music to move people emotionally.

Andy: The Blues Rebels was formed as some sort of Super Group in Israel with the top of local musicians getting together and performing all over, we also perform with some of the top names in the world of Blues. I guess as a Blues man you are always rebelling against something so we figured that The Blues Rebels was great name...

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Dov: The most interesting time of my career might just be the present…I am involved in several different projects, playing a lot of good shows, just released a GREAT album ("Something good" by CG & The Hammer), and have a few nice surprises planned for the future. I don’t really think I've had a "worst" moment – there are always ups and downs in life, but I have been very lucky, and I don't ever remember really suffering in music, playing music is ALWAYS good. The best moment? Hopefully it is ahead of me still happy but here are a few that stick out in my mind: Playing at big international festivals (the Rochester international jazz festival in New York 2005 and the "Blues nights" festival in Lithuania in 2007), playing with King Earnest Baker, playing with - and learning from – great harmonica masters like Billy Branch and Paul deLay. My favorite moment recently is from this June when I opened for Johnny Winter. During the sound check I sang "little by Little" (a song by one of my idols, Junior Wells) and when we came off stage Johnny Winter said to me "You sounded great – you sounded just like Junior Wells up there…" – that was a great compliment, from a legendary musician.

Andy: My best and worst time is always now....I always keep on playing that’s what keep things together.

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

Dov: I think people always want to hear honest emotion in music, and the Blues delivers just that, with a very catchy kind of rhythm and basic music. You don't need to be an expert to enjoy the Blues, even people who hear it for the first time immediately connect.

Andy: Blues is timeless....And you are maturing with The Blues as B.B. King once said you start getting the Drift of the blues when you pass the age of 60....I think the younger audience can identify with the blues as it offers more depth and cultural alternative to a 3-4 min hit on the Radio.

Do you remember anything funny spending a year on the road, busking on the streets of USA and Ireland?

Dov: Ireland was a lot of fun – the people are very friendly, and they love good music. We would set up outside a pub and play, and people would come out and bring us beers and throw down money. It worked really well in the smaller towns, but when we got to Dublin it was harder, because you need a license to play on Grafton Street (in the center of Dublin). The police would come by and make us stop, and we'd wait until they left and then we'd start again….but the Dublin police were the most polite policemen I ever met, they'd just ask  us really nicely to pack it up and stop…

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

Dov: Years ago, I played at a really memorable gig – my band "CG & The Hammer" was invited to play for a dance group that wanted to dance to the Blues. We played for about 2 hours, fast, slow, all our regular stuff, but instead of politely sitting and listening, the entire audience was dancing, for the entire show! I wish I could always play for crowds like that.

Andy: Hanging out with Johnny Winter backstage an afternoon before our Show was a great privilege, especially as he blessed my old Les Paul with some serious Mojo playing the real Mississippi stuff....All of the Top Blues Cats I have performed with left an impact and it’s been a blessing to play the Blues with them....

How do you describe “Open Road” sound and songbook?

Dov: The Blues Rebels are a band that mixes blues and Rock in a unique blend. We love the sounds of traditional Blues masters like BB King, Buddy Guy, muddy waters etc, but we don't try to imitate their sound – in the same way that THEY didn’t try to imitate the musicians that they admired. We wrote songs that honestly expressed our feelings and concerns, and you can here the influence of many different artists that we love – black and white, Blues, rock and country, old and new. I think that songwriting is important, and we didn’t want to make an album of Blues cliché's that have been done a million times. We tried to make each song unique and memorable as a SONG, and not just a vehicle to exhibit musicianship.

How do you describe “Don't want you back” sound and songbook?

Andy: The sound is authentic  done live in studio, most solos are one takes with the band for true interaction between the musicians, a cool way to create ambience is to have bleeding between the mikes creating a bigger sound, demands that  the band plays exact though...to create quality and true music avoiding cliché traps and gimmicks.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Dov: First I'd have to mention my mentor, Ted Cooper, a great Canadian Blues and folk musician who lived in Israel for many years. When I was just getting into the music, he was the only one around playing what I wanted to hear, so as a teenager, I'd just go watch him play all the time, and he was the first one who gave me a chance to play, took me to gigs when I was just learning to play. The 4 years I spent in his band were my musical education, even if he never gave me any formal lessons. I learned how to sing, jam, write songs, arrange a setlist, many important lessons from him, but the MOST important lesson was to LISTEN, all the time, to the singer and to the band. He never told me what to play, but sometimes, in the middle of a song, if I was playing too many notes (as young musicians often do) he'd just turn around and put his finger to his lips:"Shh…" – that was the best lesson: don't play too much. To this day, the most important quality I look for in a musician is if he listens.

Andy: To Be Humble....

Are there any memories from Willie Kent, Lucky Peterson, and Billy Branch which you’d like to share with us?

Dov: For me playing with Billy Branch was a big learning experience. I was a fairly inexperienced harp player at the time and he is really the top traditional Chicago-style player alive, so I just tried to listen and learn as much as possible. Lucky Peterson is an incredible vocalist and anytime he opens his mouth to sing it just gives me goosebumps, he's that good…as for Willie Kent – that was a true Chicago experience…my friend Guy King was his guitarist so he introduced me to Willie at "Blue Chicago" and Willie got me up to jam with him. It was a traditional Mississippi – Chicago sound, most of the band (like Willie) older men who had moved up from the south, playing in a local Chicago Blues joint…it was the real deal.

Are there any memories from King Earnest Baker which you’d like to share with us?

Dov: After Ted Cooper the most important part of my musical education was the tour I did (it was 8 or 10 shows) with "King" Earnest Baker. He was an INCREDIBLE soul-Blues singer born in Mississippi, raised in Chicago, moved to Los Angeles by time I met him. From him I learned the importance of giving an exciting performance, of respecting your audience, and everyone you meet in the business, always giving 110% even when the gig might seem bad or unimportant, and always dress your best to play. The first night we played with him was unforgettable: The band started a shuffle rhythm, I introduced him, and he cane on, dressed in a flashy suit – and just DANCED for about 2 minutes before he began to sing. He was 60 years old and the best dancer I ever saw. He went down and sang to ladies in the audience, he changed suits between sets – he was just a GREAT performer, as well as a very special person. He died about a year later in a road accident, and I truly miss him.

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

Dov: The Blues scene in Israel has changed a lot in the last few years. It used to be just Americans who immigrated to Israel and played, and now lots of young Israeli-born kids are starting to play. Seems like I hear of a new band each week! There is a Blues society which organizes local Blues jams, and more and more American Blues artists are performing in Israel – Johnny Winter, as I mentioned, and I also had the pleasure of playing (with "The Blues Rebels") with Lucky Peterson and with Joe Louis Walker this year, so I'd say it's a good time for the Blues in Israel.

Andy: The Blues Scene in Israel is in a creative mood and stage at the moment more Clubs are opening and more International artists are coming here to perform so Yes that’s great....But still quite a small scene if you compare to Europe making hard for many Blues Musicians to give up their day time job....I hope that the Blues Boom will get enough people out to see live shows so that the Pros can make a decent Living.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Dov: It's hard times trying to play music nowadays, so I don't know about the "laughing" part of the question - but there are some good Blues artists coming up in Israel, such as Noam Dayan , and "Electric Blue", so those people touch me with their music.

Andy: Being on stage yesterday tearing it up on our album launch and having the audience going nuts over our new album...

Are there any similarities between the blues and the genres of local folk music and forms?

Dov: Like the Blues, most traditional folk genres rely on intense emotional feeling, expressing the troubles of regular peoples' everyday life. This usually means that the vocalists are of great quality and very expressive. In Israel, the "Eastern"-style music that is locally popular (influenced by Arab, Turkish and even Greek music) features some very intense and emotionally captivating vocalists.

Andy: The pentatonic scale works just fine with oriental music and blues...

Are there any memories from Joe Louis Walker, Roy Young and Bernard Allison which you’d like to share with us?

Andy: I found an old 61 Gibson ES 355 that belongs to a friend of mine and it used to belong to Joe Louis Walker so way cool to present him with that guitar for the shows in Israel, very cool to hang out an afternoon with Johnny Winter having him  playing some real Mississippi blues on my Les Paul, he really liked Dov’s voice said it reminded him of Little Walter...he told us that we were one of the best warm up bands he ever had, and that’s a compliment that we valuate very high, we minted an expression together: don’t worry Israel, Johnny Winter is behind you...we met Bernard Allison at the rehearsal and we are used to play a half tone down Eb and Bernard said hi not enough I am playing in d a whole step down and that’s bad ass...so we had to tune down another step...Bernard is a great guitar player and got a heck of tone out of his endorsement squires....

From the musical point of view what are the differences between an American and Israeli blues musician?

Dov: The Blues is an American artform, you really have to hear the source to get the right feel. Many Israeli musicians now travel to the US to hear real Blues, and they are learning the language. As I said before, the most important part is the honesty – learn to "let it all hang out"

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

Dov: I think that as time goes on, it's harder and harder to survive playing live music (not just Blues) – People used to go out to dance to live music, and now people bring a DJ and recorded music for that, there are fewer and fewer venues and lower pay for performing musicians. I am not too worried about "the future of the Blues". Even now, many young people want to play the Blues, and as long as there are good musicians playing the Blues, there is no problem "keeping the Blues alive" – just come out and pay to hear your local Blues artists, and buy their music, so they can keep doing it!

Andy: In the past things were less complicated if you could not perform or play good enough you did not go up on stage to rip the audience off ....the reality shows have created some false confidence in people....some guys are up on the stage today that should not be there. But as Internet have somehow killed the record business the reality shows are pushing things in a diff direction and the main stay today are Live Shows.

Which memory from Charlie Sayles makes you smile?

Dov: Every chance I get to meet a good harp player I do my best to learn from them. I've had the fortune to learn from great players like Billy Branch, Paul delay, Charlie Sayles (among others) and each one gave me something I could use… Charlie Sayles is a really cool guy, a typical Blues man. The first night Charlie Sayles was in Tel Aviv, a friend of mine was in the band and told him he should get me up to play. Charlie wasn't too enthusiastic but did it out of politeness, and we had a good time together. He thought I was just some guy from the neighborhood…that night he went back to his hotel, turned on the TV and at 2 AM Israeli television was broadcasting a concert of my band at that time ("The Daily Blues") from a local festival. The next night when I came to his second show he grabbed me as soon as I came in and said "Why didn't you tell me you were a big star here!" after that he'd get me up to play and introduce me as "A big TV star in Tel Aviv"…

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

Dov: The Harmonica became a favorite instrument for Blues artists, because it was a cheap instrument and easy to carry – early Blues artists had little money and travelled a lot by train or hitch hiking, so they needed small, easy to carry instruments. The harmonica has a warm sound, almost like a human voice that people just love the sound of it. It's relatively easy to learn (at least at a basic level) and you don't need to be a virtuoso genius to make an enjoyable sound on it…

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Reggae and continue to Eric Clapton music and beyond?

Dov: After Ted Cooper left Israel, I had a hard time finding a gig as a Blues harp player, and a friend of mine asked me to join his reggae band. I said "I don't know how to play reggae" and he told me "just come and play the Blues" – and he was right! Both styles come from Black music; African music that was brought to the west, so they share a lot of the same scales etc., just the groove is a bit different. Bob Marley even had some Chicago Blues guitarists in his band sometimes (Donald Kinsey, of The Kinsey Report).

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Dov: It would be nice to bring back the time (as it was in the '60s and 70s) where quality music was also popular music. Musical geniuses like Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling stones, The Allman Brothers succeeded commercially – it seems like today great musicians go unnoticed, while the commercially successful music is pretty forgettable stuff…

Andy: That music counts more and not the all the glitter around, to many reality show stars are getting a stage they don’t deserve.

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

Dov: For a Blues harp player like me, the answer is almost obvious: the south side of Chicago, mid-1950's, where you could go from club to club and hear Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and all those great musicians who invented the music that I love. From what I have read, it was a wide open scene, with people jamming with each other, lots of interaction between bands. I'd have loved to see and learn from all those great musicians!

Andy: As a Bluesman I am always searching for the ultimate tone and what to say with it, in the great company of fellow Musicians.

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