Saturday, March 3, 2018

Scandinavian Night - Thorbjorn Risager & The Black Tornado live and in conversation, 23 February 2018

Copenhagen may be wonderful wonderful, as the song puts it, but in February it’s cold, damned cold, even coming from Scotland.  Bugger that though, we’re on a mission to see European Blues Award winners Thorbjorn Risager & The Black Tornado on their home turf.
The first challenge though, is finding the gig.  You see, we thought Taastrup was the name of the venue, like Barrowlands or Empire.  But after consulting with the ever helpful front desk in the Bertrams Guldsmoden Hotel, we discover that Taastrup is actually the location of the Teater and Musikhus – and it’s about ten miles from the city centre.  So armed with directions we head off into the Baltic temperatures for some early grub, and then on to catch an S-Tog train to the ‘burbs.
Thorbjorn Risager - cool on a bar stool
Out in the sticks, we find we’re not the only ones making a special excursion.  There are Danes too who are visiting Taastrup for the first time, so we tag along as one of them navigates with the aid of Google Maps, crossing a bridge over an icy lake to the Musikhus.  It’s a modern venue, seated and raked, which could be a bit sterile.  It is, however, full.
Thorbjorn Risager and pals stroll onstage promptly at 8pm, the man himself perching his lanky frame against a bar stool, and they immediately launch into the kind of rousing R’n'B that’s their stock in trade.  And there’s plenty of it to come on belters like ‘Maybe It’s Alright’, the chugging ‘If You Wanna Leave’, and ‘All I Want’.  With two guitars in the hands of Risager and Peter Skjerning, plus horns and keyboards, when The Black Tornado dig in, the sound they produce is heavyweight and gutsy, like a locomotive irresistibly powering you along.  It’s an interesting experience attending a gig where you don’t understand a word of the between songs chat – Danish not being one of my languages, you’ll be shocked to hear – but the groove of this band is a universal lingo.
This isn’t heads down, no nonsense, mindless boogie though.  And however polished the band may be as a whole, however strong Risager’s songs, a fair amount of credit has to go to drummer Martin Seidelin.  Sporting a red bowler hat that could come from a clown troupe, Seidelin effortlessly varies the rhythms underpinning the songs, and comes up with percussive twists that give them additional character, even if it’s something as simple as a fresh way of conveying the clacking on the rails of ‘Train’.
And there’s variety in more ways than one.  If the funk of ‘Change My Game’ is just a hop and a skip away from the blues – raising whoops of delight and dancing from one well-oiled lady at the front - Risager is also happy to explore different horizons.  The sparse and mournful ‘China Gate’ is taken from a 1957 film set in French Indo-China, directed by B-Movie great Sam Fuller.  Which isn’t, you know, your typical ‘My baby done left me’ territory.  It’s indicative of the literacy, both musical and verbal, that Risager and co bring to songs like
Taastrup - venue for a tasty show
 'Long Forgotten Track' with its dreamy 'Riders In The Sky' mood, and ‘Drowning’, which sounds as if it originated in a Parisian jazz cellar rather than New Orleans.  And there’s their neat reworking of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ too, close enough to be familiar, different enough to be – well, different.

Risager hops up from his stool now and then to groove along to a sax solo from Hans Nybo or some bar-room piano from Emil Baalsgard, but also to contribute the occasional solo himself.  Which leads to one of the highlights of an all round excellent show in the form of ‘All My Love’, on which he conjures up the spirit of BB King beautifully on guitar, while the band similarly nail the kind of big sound that BB brought to the blues.
They close out with ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, and an audience that clapped, swayed and sang enthusiastically in their seats is evidence that they did just that.
Afterwards I was able to catch up with Thorbjorn Risager, and ask him the obligatory question about how he’d been drawn to the blues.
“It was through my neighbours,” he says.  “Not so much my parents because they were into classical music.  But I’d go over to my neighbours’ house, and they’d be playing Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, and rock’n’roll.  I was about 10 years old, and I’d take my little tape recorder over there and record their music.  Of course I didn’t know it was blues – it was just music I liked.  And then a few years later I started going to a music school, and somebody played me Stevie Ray Vaughan, and then I began to understand that this was blues music.”
It’s interesting that Stevie Ray Vaughan played a key role, I suggest, because he’s a classic example of the strain in blues music that’s heavily inclined towards big guitar solos – which isn’t really Risager’s approach at all.  He nods.
“I tend to think of myself as a singer rather than a guitarist.  One of my favourite artists is Ray Charles, which isn’t about the guitar.  So I started off singing, and then after a while I thought it would be good to play along with the guitar, which I started to play when I was about twelve.”
Martin Seidelin hits his rhythm sticks as Hans Nybo blows that horn
I mention that I’d intended to ask him what had encouraged him to form a big band with horns, but that hearing them play the BB King inspired ‘All I Want’ again tonight seemed to provide an answer to that question.  Risager agrees right away.
“BB King was the inspiration for this band,” he says.  “It was when I heard one of his albums, the Kent Singles collection, that I thought ‘This is what the blues should sound like’.  So I wanted to try that.”
En route to another question, I mention in passing that the Black Tornado’s sound often conjures up a Stones-like muscular R’n’B sound, and it’s evidently an observation he’s heard before, but one that doesn’t resonate with him.
“People talk about the Stones, but I don’t really hear it.  For me ZZ Top were an inspiration, more of a soul-blues-rock thing than 12 bars.  Billy Gibbons is a great guitar player of course, but I liked the way he tried to make his guitar sing.”  Which is an amusing musical loop, I reckon – a three-piece being an influence on the sound of a seven-strong band.  Although listening to the vocal whoops and very Keef-like ringing guitar on the likes of Gibbons and co’s ‘Francene’, you could say that the Stones influence goes around to come around.
There’s also a distinctly European side to Thorbjorn’s writing though, I venture.  ‘Drowning’ may be swinging jazz, but it has a European flavour to it, while the likes of ‘I Used To Love You’ and ‘Lay My Burden Down’ could be drawing on traditions like chanson and lieder.
“Well ‘Drowning’ is actually influenced by East European gypsy folk music,” says Risager, acknowledging the breadth of influences.  “I love that kind of stuff – if I wasn’t playing the blues that’s what I’d want to do, be a clarinet player in an East European gypsy folk group,” he laughs.
“It always been important to have variety,” he goes on, “although it’s not always on purpose.”  As Martin Seidelin wanders past we touch on how drummers like him, who bring flexibility to the party, increase the range of options available.
“Yes,” says Risager, “Sometimes I’ll work out the beginnings of a song myself, with my guitar, and then I bring it to the band at rehearsals, and different things happen with it.  But I tend not to write many 12 bar blues songs anyway.  It’s not easy to write a 12 bar blues – it’s harder to write within that simple formula.  Much of it is just three chords, and if you use more chords it’s easier.”
As a final topic for discussion, there’s Risager’s voice, which is a gravelly phenomenon. Are there other singers he’s listened to in order to work out how to get the best out of it, I wonder?
“Well, most blues singers are tenors,” he says, “and I’m a bass.  So sometimes I have to take advantage of that, and make use of it.  I’d say the big influences on my singing are really Ray Charles and BB King, that soulful kind of voice.”
Talking to Thorbjorn Risager, it’s easy to discern a real musical intelligence at work behind the Black Tornado.  This is a guy who knows his onions, as they probably never say in Denmark, and he’s put together a band and a repertoire that bring something distinctive to the European blues scene.  Go get their latest album Change My Game, or their live album Songs From The Road, and find out for yourself.

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