This was Charlie's fifth band tour in Switzerland, and the third tour with the current line-up. Chuck and the Tigress had their flat in Arosa once again, Devin flew over from Seattle, and local lads Speedy and Gary rounded out the fun.
The tour kicked off with a New Year's gig at the Berghaus Taverne in Jaunpass, a nice little family-run mountain hotel. Next up was Desperado's in Olten, kind of like home territory, as many of the Tigress's relatives and friends live in the area. A packed house made for a really fun gig, which was followed by a late-night jam session at Christian and Beatrice's pad.
The Eisenwerk in Frauenfeld is one of those really cool old factories that's been converted to a culture center, with a concert hall, restaurant, art exhibitions and such. The hall was very large, and we were afraid our little club PA might not cut it, but the personnel assured us that they got to hear quite enough loud bands, and our gear would do just fine!
Next up was the Gwölb in Watt (near Zürich), a cool old stone cellar where they gave us each a schüblig (sausage) with potato salad, and lots of good Swiss wine. The Zürcher Unterlander newspaper sent a reviewer to the show, who took some excellent pictures and wrote a very kind review of the concert. Thanks very much!
Restaurant Kreuz in Nidau (just outside of Biel/Bienne) was quite a fun gig, though perhaps not for Devin, whose back went out in the middle of the show, so he had to sit in a chair and eat a bunch of pills. The Kreuz is the only restaurant in Switzerland I've seen yet with a non-smoking section. Puff those filthies up while you can, ye Swiss! Your turn will come some day.
Biel/Bienne is a pleasant town on a beautiful lake. It's on the border between the French- and German-speaking regions of Switzerland, so it's officially bilingual. Oddly enough though, as we went around town doing errands, nobody in any of the shops seemed to speak French, so Speedy spoke to everyone in English. Later I tried my German, but now everyone we met seemed to be a French speaker, so again we communicated in English. A few days later, I related this to some Swiss friends, who told me that was simply the ways folks were in Biel/Bienne: "If you speak to them in German, they answer in French. If you speak French, they answer you in German." It's little culturally anomalous regions like this that make travel in Europe so fascinating!
Tacos in Lausanne is a very fun place to play. This was our second visit, and once again, this joint was jumpin! Great crowd, great food, excellent selection of beers! Stevie lives!
The Hotel Saratz in Pontresina is a classic elegant old hotel in a spectacular ski resort high in the Alps (getting there over the mountain passes was quite a scene, and part of the reason for the name of this tour). The club was one of those places that's packed every night with waiters, bartenders and service personnel from all the other hotels in town. Huge crowd of young folks who drank a lot and had a great time, but mostly left us alone, bless 'em. Actually, by the last set the local crowd thinned out, doubtless moving on to the next in spot, leaving a couple dozen Blues fans, who hung out until late, bought lots of CDs, and generally dug the Blues.
Next up was our favorite gig of all, the Blues Crew in Oberschan. Werner and Donatella are real Blues fans, and they've assembled a great group of people, who bring a healthy roster of Blues artists to beautiful little Oberschan every winter. They rolled out the red carpet, putting us up in a fine hotel (with spectacular Alpine view) and sitting down with us to a full-course Swiss dinner with all the trimmings.
At the hall, it was a packed house, and these folks were there to party! We must have played about a half hour of encores, and sold an all-time record number of CDs! Our friends Jonny and Karen (members of the St. Pete/Switzerland Posse since way back - Jonny used to own a club nearby, where Sarasota Slim and Dean Germain played years and years ago) came out with a bunch of their local pals. The Oberschan crew is so special, Charlie even brought out his Blues Shoes!
We did a live broadcast for Radio Suisse Romande (the major radio network for French-speaking Switzerland), on which we played "Still got 'em" and "Small Town Blues," Speedy gave an interview, and we plugged our upcoming gig at Au Chat Noir in Geneva.
Au Chat Noir is a classic downstairs music club with an auspicious name, located in Carouge, a beautiful old section of Geneva with a decidedly French flavor. They gave us dinner at a nearby restaurant, which was a perfect example of the good solid fare served at typical local French eateries: roast chicken, pommes frites, bread, and a jug of red wine. The band flat was stocked with French bandes desinées (not "comic books" but "sequential art"), and we all developed a passion for Lucky Luke. Ouaip!
The Black Cat took good care of us, with about the coolest backstage scene we've seen. A funky dressing room was fully stocked with beer, wine, drinks, sandwiches, snacks, candy and all manner of goodies. Every inch of wall and ceiling was decorated with the stickers and scribblings of all the bands that came before us - a decades-long, multilingual chronicle of life on the road, to which we added our modest contribution. The gig was great, with a nice stage, great sound and lights, and a packed house.
This is what we look like to the audience after a few drinks.
The Hotel Basel is an excellent four-star establishment in the middle of Basel's beautiful Old City. They gave us each our own luxurious rooms, right upstairs from the gig, and fed us an excellent dinner of eglifilets (fillet of local perch). Alas, the turnout was modest, as it was a Monday night. Here transpired the biggest bummer of the tour. While loading in, some crumb stole Speedy's suitcase from the front seat of the van. The only thing of value (other than all Speedy's clothes) was the Mojo Bag that Rock Bottom had given him to replace the one that he famously lost (as told in Rock's song "Speedy Done Lost His Mojo Bag"). The Blues can't be silenced however; Maureen has prepared another one for him.
Next up was a change of pace, as we did a seminar/concert at a secondary school in Altdorf. An audience of rowdy teenagers (a tame bunch compared to the usual drunks) heard a selection of songs illustrating the various eras and styles of Blues (Delta, Chicago, Rock n Roll), and Charlie gave a bit of a speech in German about the history of the Blues, followed by a question and answer session. They sure didn't have no Blues concerts at school when I was a boy! All they turned us on to was square stuff like Ballet. I guess nowadays Blues is regarded in the same category.
At Andy's Pub in the lovely Alpine resort of Lenk, we had a disappointingly small crowd, but were housed in a nice hotel and fed with an excellent piccatta milanese.
Bikini Test in La Chaud-de-Fonds is a culture center run by a bunch of hip young kids. Blues was obviously a change from their usual fare, but we had a decent crowd, and made a good live recording, some of which we later included on the (fan club only) live CD Packin n Bitchin. The accomodations were interesting. They sent us with some guy, miles out in the snow-covered forest, to an old farmhouse. Guy proceeded to get whacked out on absinthe, and we ended up on some moldy futons in a damp and freezing room that was oddly reminiscent of summer camp, but much colder. We were up and out of there about 5am, as I recall.
Next, it was time to check off a new country, as we played our first gigs in Germany. At the Hideout in Munich, we played for a small but very lively crowd, and enjoyed a full Bavarian spread: weisswurst mit sauerkraut, leberknödel and of course plenty of the world's finest beer. Speedy had a big time racing down the Autobahn at 100 mph in his Hyundai Minivan.
The Village is a Blues club housed in an old country inn in Habach, south of Munich. Landlord Dieter Uebler is a musician, luthier and serious Blues fan. Many a great Blues act has played here over the years, and the vibes are thick! We had a great gig here. Devin got to play an acoustic piano and rip all his fingernails off (why he loves to do that so much is a mystery).
Chow at the Village was very good and very plentiful. They gave us an enormous breakfast which included a big plate of sausages. The two little puppydogs were mighty cute, and we couldn't resist giving them a few of the wurst. When Devin came down late for breakfast, as is his wont, the sausages were gone, but the doggies were right there at the table to keep him company, and indeed to dog his every move. But don't hound him about it.
At the Neue Welt in Ingolstadt, they remembered our hero, Rock Bottom, fondly, which of course won them big points with us. They fed us well, and put us up in an excellent hotel (but, because Chuck had forgotten to get the address of the hotel, we spent all afternoon wandering around in the cold, and only got to the hotel after the gig, in time to go to bed - Speedy was uptight, perhaps rightly so). Ingolstadt is a beautiful old medieval city, well worth a visit.
La Spirale in Fribourg is another of those classic smoky cellar jazz clubs (actually, in Switzerland, all indoor spaces are smoky). We had a very good crowd and were treated extremely well. Dinner was a local specialty featuring sausage, taters and fresh herbs, followed by an exquisite cheese plate made up of local farmhouse cheeses.
The tour ended with a great gig at La Case à Chocs in Neuchatel, our second visit to this cool club. Another converted industrial edifice (a former brewery, I believe), La Case à Chocs features a great concert hall and a very proper backstage area (which was well-stocked).
Thinking about the many factory-to-music-club conversions I've seen in Europe, I realized that an old industrial facility makes the ideal setup for a culture center. There's generally a great big room with a high ceiling that makes a perfect auditorium (some even have catwalks and cranes and such already), plus an assortment of back rooms of various sizes for scene shops, offices, restaurant, bar, etc. They are located in outlying industrial areas, so rowdy goings-on won't disturb the neighbors. Interestingly, much of the music being played in such places nowadays goes by headings such as Industrial and Techno, so the decor of old derelict industrial machinery gives authenticity to the scene.
Neuchatel is Speedy's home town, and quite a lot of our friends turned out for the finale of our tour, including our buddies Napoleon and Tom Cat. We had a great time talking about old times and new with these gentlemen, and both joined us on stage for a few numbers (we may have even done a number or two backstage as well).
Napoleon Washington is a Swiss Bluesman who played in Rock Bottom's band with Speedy and Gary back in the day.
Tom Cat Blake is a St. Pete guitarist who is also a graduate of the School of Rock Bottom. After touring Europe many times with Rock, he married a local lass and now lives in France, just across the border from Switz.
All in all, the Pack n Bitch Tour was a great success. Every gig went well, a few were stupendous, we got lots of press, sold lots of CDs, had lots of fun and no major nightmares. However, the tour ended on a sad note. Gary Coleman, our bass player for the last three years, decided he wouldn't be joining us for next year's tour. Gary's a wild, woolly and wonderful guy, we've had a lot of good times together, and we'll be staying in touch.
Fittingly, my very last night in Switzerland was spent partying down at the yearly Swiss Carnival (Fassnacht). If you've ever thought the Swiss were a quiet and boring bunch, a night at Carnival will give you a whole new perspective on Swissnes. Remember the Star Trek episode in which a whole planet full of impassive automatons erupted into a weeklong festival of anarchy and debauchery once a year? Yeah. Grown men don outlandish costumes, take up instruments (whether they can play or not) and put on elaborate shows that combine humor, political commentary and plain old drunken craziness. This goes on 24 hours a day for a week or so.
Christian Schenker is a fine singer and songwriter (who has released several CDs), and also one of the stars of the Oltner Fassnacht. We were given the privilege (allowed to very few foreigners) of accompanying Christian to the rehearsal of his Schnitzelbank Clique. This was a companionable affair at the group's underground clubhouse that featured dinner and much wine-bibbing. Then we trooped over to a local club, where Christian and his pals, all dressed as wild boars, performed a bunch of songs they had written for the occassion (incomprehensible to us, hilarious to the Swiss) for a rowdy audience of Carnivalgoers, again accompanied by much libation.
What a scene!