Along the pavement in front of the music bars of New Orleans’ Frenchmen Street they weave, the silly hatted, boozed-up detritus of a holiday weekend. They talk loudly and don’t want to call it a night. They push past a bearded, lean-limbed, tattooed man holding court with a group of guys. Nader Mansour, finance degree graduate and the visceral frontman of a Lebanese blues band, is cracking jokes in Arabic and English, and keeping an eye on the crowd making its way into the club. Nearby is his bandmate Eddy Ghossein, who, with his mod haircut and Nehru jacket, looks like he’s walked in off a ’60s album cover.
Together they’re called the Wanton Bishops and they’ve been spending the last week getting their asses kicked. “We’ve needed an ass-whooping,” says Mansour. Being the number one blues band in cheesy pop and electro-heavy Beirut is one thing. Being a blues band in the country where the blues was born is something else entirely. “They’re on a very high level here, musically,” he continues. “Our asses are blue.” But this was the point of the journey. Bandmates for four years, the pair had spent their 30-something years on this earth having never made it to the country that gave birth to the music they fell in love with.
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Now they were on a journey of discovery, from South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, to New Orleans, Louisiana, then up the blues corridor through the cities of Jackson and Clarksdale in Mississippi, before ending up in a recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
The point of the trip is to understand the music that carried in it the primal pulse of the human condition: the blues, a genre they studied through books and recordings and music lessons, learning enough to record an album of hard-charging blues-rock songs that would win fans throughout Europe. But one they hadn’t yet truly understood. The duo sit on an old church pew in a side room off the stage of d.b.a., a club on Frenchmen Street. Glen David Andrews, part of one of New Orleans’ many musical dynasties, is turning the hits of today into rolling funk lines on stage. His baritone voice and trombone solos are granting the Monday night crowd an audience with second line sassing and gospel call-and-response traditions. Mansour and Ghossein are nervous about performing with Andrews. They’re shuffling around and fiddling with their instruments. Earlier on they confessed that they’ll be playing funk for the first time tonight, but Andrews laughed them off, saying, “It’s the universal language!”
Then it’s time and they hit the stage. The first song doesn’t get a harmonica solo because Mansour’s is in the wrong key, owing to a bit of miscommunication. But the Beirut boys loosen up at Ghossein’s guitar solo. Mansour’s growling vocals on a Junior Wells standard, Messing With The Kid, earn whoops from the crowd and Andrews leans back and takes it in, occasionally swooping forward to back him up. At one point, he looks at his saxophone player with a tight-lipped open-eyed smile, as if to say, ‘Hey, this is working.’
The second song gets the crowd fully onboard, and as the chaos of the funk/blues/gospel music winds down to loud cheers, Andrews shouts out “THE BISHOPS WON-TON!” It’s not technically right, but the two couldn’t care less. After years of dreaming about it, they have jammed with some bona-fide New Orleans musicians and held their own. It was a good reminder for Mansour. “Just shut up, close your eyes, and play,” he says in the side room. “It’s not mathematics. If your brain works then you’re doing it wrong.”
Highway 55 skirts along Lake Ponchartrain and its swamps before entering an undulating pattern through forests on the way to Jackson. At first the road is lined with truck stops and the corporate-looking facades of churches: Pentecostal this, First Adventist that. Houses burnt out from Hurricane Katrina dot the outer ring of residential streets, as do empty shop fronts – chicken takeaway franchises along with small general stores made redundant by recently built superstores. Once the Wanton Bishops arrive at Jackson, they head for the home of local journalist Charlie Braxton on a quiet, well-kept road in the Mississippi city’s suburbs.
They’re here to meet Vasti Jackson, an accomplished musician who tours extensively in the US and abroad. The 52-year-old bluesman is from McComb, 120km south of here, and he is as eloquent on the history of the blues as he is skilled in its musical nuances. The three sit with Braxton and discuss the change in the music as it moved from the more rhythmic drum-led south in New Orleans, through the slower and syncopated sound in the middle of the Delta region, on up to Chicago’s electric crowd-pleasing blues. “I like to talk about the triumph of the blues,” says Jackson. “Looking at struggle and rising above it. It’s an art form derived from the necessities of life, having to navigate oppression.”
Though they didn’t always admit it, Mansour and Ghossein had reservations about how they would be received by people like Andrews and Jackson. They had only been playing together for a few years, after all, and had reached a level of commercial success that many had never achieved despite working at it for years. There were sold-out shows at home and invitations to play across Europe and America.
Now here they were, plucking at strings in the overgrown backyard of Braxton’s house with a fifth-generation bluesman, trying to find their groove, their story, in simple 12-bar chord progressions. At Jackson’s behest, Ghossein strummed out the melody of an old Middle Eastern song, with its haunting minor chords.
Jackson immediately took it and made it his own, taking the half-tones of the song and turning them into full tones; taking the music of a faraway place and bluesifying it. And in his playing was a suggestion, an idea of how the Wanton Bishops could put their own twist on the genre. “Tonight you’re gonna watch Vasti, yesterday you watched Glen David,” says Mansour at a soul food joint after the jam session. “You see these guys, and this is the calibre that, as musicians, we’re not at yet. We try and keep it honest and we try to play. If people like it, that’s beautiful. We try to get better every day, but it doesn’t have the pretension of representing someone, or some place.” Maybe that’s because where they’re from doesn’t embrace the music they love.
Beirut’s war-torn past has created a heightened sense of danger, an aversion to risk. The sons and daughters of the middle and upper classes study law, medicine and finance. As soon as they can score a visa, they’re off to Europe and the US to study and work in places that offer more opportunities. Though just a piece of paper, Mansour says his French finance degree reassures his mother, who knows her musician son has something to fall back on.
“His mother thinks exactly like my mother or every other mother because they lived through the war,” says Ghossein, who is 30. “They saw how easily people can end up living on the streets and be f**ked because of the war. If you have a good diploma, it will act like a passport for you.” “Our mothers are not big fans of uncertainty,” says Mansour, 31. “And the artist’s life is always uncertain.”
But they chose uncertain career paths regardless. Ghossein did it early on, when, as a fledgling guitarist, he saw a blues musician play with his eyes closed and his head thrown back, and he wanted to do the same. Mansour came to it a bit later, in Paris, picking up the harmonica after hearing The Doors song Road House Blues. After returning to Beirut, Mansour began to host jam sessions at the now-defunct Bar Louie. It was there he met Ghossein and they bonded after getting into a fight with a group of angry car valets. Together they studied and practised in a country with no blues tradition, picking up skills and mentors along the way. Three years and 6,667 miles away, the two are musing on what it is about the blues that captivates them.
“It’s not pretentious music,” says Ghossein. “It’s limited musically, but you are able to express a lot of feeling.” He stops and thinks for a minute after finishing his portion of black-eyed peas. “It feels nice to be able to discuss the blues,” he continues. “You can’t go into a bar at home and talk about the blues.” Later that night, they’ve got a gig at the CrossRoads Bar & Lounge. The club is literally on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. For the hour or so before their set, Mansour is pacing nervously, annoyed that only a handful of people have shown up. Hip-hop’s chokehold on youth culture has put the blues in the backseat, even in its birthplace. Finally Ghossein and Mansour and their two session musicians take the stage and launch into a standard 12-bar blues progression. They get some nods and smiles immediately. They build the intensity measure for measure and Mansour kicks in with a couple of guitar solos and then gets on the mic: “We’re the Wanton Bishops from Beirut,” he says. “We hope you like it. If you don’t, we’ve got Vasti Jackson to come in and kill it.”
Resplendent in an embroidered shirt and red fedora, Jackson eventually plays his way onto the stage from the back of the venue. Preening and peacocking, he peels off minutes-long solos as he moves around the tables. Especially responsive is a small table of white people which, improbably, includes both the former drummer for the band Chicago and an inebriated Mississippi state senator. But the Wanton Bishops are keeping pace. Mansour’s harmonica, especially, is sounding inspired. And Ghossein, who doesn’t usually like solos, plays a few at Jackson’s request. The large crowd the band wanted never materialises, but they focus their energy on who’s there. “I didn’t see anything missing,” says local music promoter James Dixon. “The harmonica player is amazing. He played just as well as Vasti played the guitar. That astonished me. Eddy looked like one of The Beatles, but played like he was with Chuck Berry.” Later, the compliment will be relaid to Ghossein and his eyes will grow wide: “Really?”
The next day will take them on Highway 61 through the old cotton plantations of Mississippi through to Clarksdale, where John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters learned their craft. The van makes its way over the ruts of a gnarled dirt road, riven by the rains and hardened into that legendary Mississippi mud that Ray Charles loved to croon about. Mansour talks about how the trip’s changed them.
“Now we’re legit, singing about all these places,” he says. “Now if I write a song that says I went down from New Orleans to Mississippi… I did. I’m not just a Lebanese douche trying to name drop in a song, you know? I’ve done that, as a matter of fact.”