The Blues TravelersWhat happens when a Lebanese blues band journeys across half a world to the heartland of the music they love.
Along the sidewalk in front of the music bars of New Orleans’ Frenchmen Street they weave, the silly-hatted, drunken detritus of a holiday weekend. They bum smokes and talk loudly and don’t want to call it a night.
They push past a bearded, lean-limbed, tattooed fellow smoking Marlboro Reds and holding court in 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 talent making their way into the club. Nearby stands his bandmate Eddy Ghossein, who, with his mod haircut and Nehru jacket, looks like he walked in off of a ’60s album cover to partner with Mansour. Together they’re 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 No. 1 blues band in cheesy pop and electro-heavy Beirut is one thing. Being a blues band in the country in which the blues was born is something else entirely.
“They’re all on a high level here musically,” he continues. “Our asses are blue.” But this was the whole 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 birthed the music they fell in love with. Now they were on a journey of discovery, from Austin, Texas, to New Orleans, up the blues corridor through Jackson and Clarksdale, Mississippi, before ending up in a recording studio in Memphis. The goal was to understand the music that carried in it the very moans and wails of slavery, the jangling guitar riffs, the primal pulse of the human condition. The blues, in other words: a genre they studied through books and recordings and music lessons and knew enough to record an album of hard- charging tracks that would win fans throughout Europe. But one they hadn’t yet truly understood.
And so they sit on an old church pew in a side room off of the stage of the d.b.a. lounge on Frenchmen Street. On stage Glen David Andrews, part of a New Orleans musical dynasty, is turning the hits of today into rolling funk lines. His booming baritone and brassy trombone solos are granting the blissfully boozed- up Monday-night crowd an audience with second-line sassing and deep gospel.
Mansour blows on each of his three harmonicas to tune them. Ghossein shuffles around and they both break out the side door to sneak cigarettes. They’re playing funk for the first time tonight, something they nervously mentioned to Andrews at the break. “It’s the universal language!” Andrews proclaims, waving them off. Then it’s time and they head on stage.
The first song won’t see a harmonica solo because Mansour’s is in the wrong key owing to a bit of miscommunication. But at Ghossein’s 12-bar guitar solo, the Beirut boys loosen up. Mansour’s growling vocals on a Junior Wells standard, “Messing with the Kid,” get whoops from the crowd while 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, like “Hey, this is working.” The second song gets the crowd fully onboard, and as the chaos of the funk-slash-blues-slash-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 thinking about it, they got down with some bona fide New Orleans musicians and held their own. It was a good reminder for Mansour. “Just shut the f*ck 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 Lake Pontchartrain and its gnarled swamp before entering a slow undulating pattern through forests on the way to Jackson. The road is lined with truck stops and the clean, corporate-looking facades of megachurches: Pentecostal this, First Adventist that. Burned-out houses, the fire-insurance money collected, dot the outer ring of residential streets, as do empty shop fronts—chicken-takeout franchises that will never re-open, small markets made redundant by superstores.
On a quiet, well-kept street—Cedars of Lebanon Road, as it turns out—the two meet up with Vasti Jackson. An accomplished musician who tours extensively in the U.S. and abroad, the 55-year-old is as eloquent on the history of the blues as he is skilled in its musical nuances. The three sit in the home of journalist Charlie Braxton and discuss the change in the music as it moved from the more rhythmic drum-led south in New Orleans, through the slower, gospel-like sound in the middle of the Delta, on up to Chicago’s electrified 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 voice it, Mansour and Ghossein certainly thought about how they’d be received by people like Andrews and Jackson. They’d only been playing together a few years, after all, and the Wanton Bishops had experienced a level of success many who’d toiled here for years never had: Sold-out shows at home; invitations to play in Sweden, Turkey and at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin.
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 the simple, ancient 12-bar progressions. At Jackson’s behest, Ghossein strums out the melody of an old Middle Eastern song, with its haunting minor chords. Jackson immediately picks it up and makes it his own, turning the half-tones of the Arab song into full tones; taking the music of a far-away place and bluesifying it. And in his playing is a suggestion, an idea of how the Wanton Bishops could make the blues their own.
“Tonight you’re gonna watch Vasti, yesterday you watched Glen David,” says Mansour at a soul-food joint after the sunset session. “You see these guys, man, and this is the caliber that, as musicians, we’re not there 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 security, 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 or the U.S., to study and work in places with more opportunity. 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 live on the streets and be f*cked because of the war. If you have a good diploma, it’s like a passport.”
“They’re not a big fan of uncertainty,” says Mansour, now 31. “And the artist’s life is uncertain.”
But it’s one they chose 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, making a spiritual connection, and wanted to do the same. Mansour came a bit later to it, in Paris, picking up the harmonica after hearing The Doors song “Roadhouse Blues.” After returning to Beirut, Mansour began to host jam sessions at the now-defunct Bar Louie. It was there he met Ghossein, and there they bonded after teaming up against a street full of angry car valets that Ghossein and his brother had tussled with.
Three years and 6,667 miles away, the two are at Jackson’s favorite soul-food restaurant, musing on what it is that captivates them about the blues. “It’s not pretentious music,” says Ghossein. “It’s limited musically, and within these limitations you are able to express a lot.”
He stops and thinks for a minute after finishing his first 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.” 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 folks 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 accompanying musicians get up on the stage and launch into a standard 12-bar blues progression. They get some nods and smiles immediately. They build the volume measure for measure and Mansour kicks in 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 that, improbably, includes both the former drummer for the band Chicago and a mostly drunk Mississippi state senator.
But the Wanton Bishops are keeping pace. Mansour’s harmonica, especially, is sounding inspired. And Ghossein, who secretly hates solos, polishes off a few at Jackson’s request. The hoped-for crowd never materializes, but they focus their energy on who’s there. “I didn’t see nothing 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, Ghossein will hear the compliment and his eyes will grow wide: “Really?” The next day will take them on a two-lane road through the old cotton fields 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 has changed them.
“Now we’re legit, talking about a train track,” he says. “Now, if I write a song, ‘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.”