Photo credits: Lennart Brorsson
Brian Kramer’s Blues Journey
Brian Kramer is a US-born bluesman with a remarkable and genuinely interesting background and pedigree.
Kramer’s own story goes way back to his life in Brooklyn, New York, and his being a bit of a troublemaker as a wayward kid, a minor yet spirited criminal act that had the good-fortune to lead to a lifelong passion: ‘I was with a buddy. We were both teenagers at the time. There was a record store with used albums for sale. We sifted through the bins without paying close attention, sort of looked around and scooped up a bunch, an armful each, and just ran off with them. We didn’t even get chased, the guy never chased us at all,’ Kramer recalls with a devilish glee. ‘We had taken a mixed assortment, we didn’t really know what might be good or bad. We rushed back to my pal’s apartment and looked at the stuff. I remember there was like, John Mayall and Country Joe and the Fish. and a Lightnin’ Hopkins record. At the time, I didn’t know any of these guys or their stuff.’
Words by Iain Patience
But Kramer listened to it all, being immediately gripped by the playing of Texan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, an influence and artist who remains a firm favourite forty years down the line “I hadn’t heard anything like this before, it was a complete shock to the system! All I knew was I wanted more of it.”. Kramer recalls New York having ‘blues music around,’ as he then ventured out from Brooklyn and began to investigate and scoured libraries and used music stores for more interesting stuff. All the while, he was developing his own guitar-picking skills, listening to an increasing batch of true acoustic country-blues greats on LP; Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines, Frankie Lee Sims, whenever he could, pinching licks and riffs, techniques and tricks that now form the backbone of his own playing.
‘Back then, there were no videos. Finding or learning the music was a challenge coming from my background with few reference points. I was influenced and informed by Sam Charters book The Country Blues, it helped as a reference source. It led to other great blues artists, but Lightnin’ Hopkins always stayed pretty central to me. His stories in the blues and spontaneous flurry of riffs and emotional outbursts with his guitar really gripped me. We’d listen to radio, Zeppelin, the Doors and the Dead were pretty cool and had a grip on us, but now I felt like I’d stumbled across the source. I hitched down to New Orleans looking for the music with my friend who I was learning guitar with. We reckoned we could maybe get by playing on the streets, that kind of thing. My buddy, Jon, was a lead picker, I was playing rhythm and we had a few shuffles we could both jam on. We thought it would be cool to be there for Mardi Gras. So we cut out of school and left New York one February, boy was it cold, and we steadily made it down to New Orleans with own thumbs in the air, gradually shedding our winter attire as we headed further South, but missed Mardi Gras by a day! Got there on not-so-fat Wednesday’
But with this seminal trip, a blues expedition of sorts, the bug was sown in Kramer’s heart. The journey, the music and the experience had, as he describes it ‘….made us man-up,’ and from then on, blues music became more than just a fad, it became a positive passion. Kramer discovered a local pub in Union Square, a true blues bar called Dan Lynch’s, which he considers to have been ‘….the only place to really listen to proper blues. It was real seedy dive. If you looked at somebody the wrong way, they’d show you they had a knife. There was not a lot of young white kids hanging out there at that time. It did have a great blues jam every Sunday.’ Another serendipitous discovery that was to play a hugely significant part in Kramer’s life.
It was at Lynch’s that he first saw and heard one of his strongest blues influences; Larry Johnson, a wonderful acoustic-based picker who was taught under the wing of Ragtime virtuoso Reverend Gary Davis. Johnson sadly passed a few years ago in 2016. Larry Johnson was a regular at the seedy bar, a honky-tonk-come-juke joint where blues was clearly king. He also got to know another regular, Bill Dicey, who ran the Sunday blues jam, also a guitar and harp player who was a staple player at Lynch’s: ‘My first time on-stage was with an acoustic guitar, playing with the house band/jammers, trying to muster up what I figured out on my own of a Robert Johnson tune. I’ll never forget the cross looks, the smell of piss and stale beer, the tense egos of the musicians hanging in the air. Dicey was sitting on a stool watching me curiously as I fumbled through the song. He then suddenly jumped up and said, ‘I know what you’re trying to do, (an A7 variant chord), and he carefully shaped my hand onto it. This was the first time anyone bothered to help me out with this stuff.’ Kramer believes this was one of those moments that edged him a little closer to Larry Johnson, who he saw regularly at Lynch’s. ‘I was absorbing it all, so many incredible blues players in that little dive bar. It was a pivotal time.’
And through this developing love and passion for the music, with some small disregard for his personal safety, Kramer began to involve himself, deeply immerse himself even, in more and more blues opportunities. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells were to become as important as Lightnin’ Hopkins, and he dropped everything to see them whenever they were on the road and passed through New York. Whenever any blues greats would come through NYC for that matter; Muddy Waters, Brownie McGee, Robert Junior Lockwood, John Lee Hooker, John Hammond Jr. even eventually meeting Lightnin’ himself, but Buddy Guy and Junior Wells were destined to make a lasting mark on his perdonal musical growth and evolution in ways that most could only dream of.
Photo credits: Marianne Forsell
Buddy Guy and Junior Wells were a pretty inseparable pairing who regularly played The Lone Star Café, a club that Kramer would hang out often, just to sit and watch, sniff and absorb the musical mastery they had to offer. ‘I got to go upstairs, to their dressing-room. I was introduced by a drummer friend who knew them from back in Chicago, got to meet them and they were both really welcoming. I was suddenly upstairs hanging with the band just taking it all in. They could feel my interest in the music, I had worn out my copy of ‘Hoodoo Man Blues,’ pretty much a holy grail of Chicago blues albums. They were just so generous and friendly about the whole thing, though at the time they didn’t know a damn thing about me… Just another young white kid drooling over his idols’
Guy and Wells were to perform again at the club on the following night and Kramer was determined to be there once more and to meet with them both, if possible but this time with a near-trembling ambition: ‘I thought I’d take a chance, so I took along my wood bodied Dobro guitar. I showed the Dobro to Buddy and he said to me `You know, Muddy had a guitar like that?´ and he asked me to play him something, and I nervously played a little ragtime thing I was messing with, aka Reverend Gary Davis. `Man, you play better than me, you use all your fingers´, of course he was just being polite to a kid. We then passed the guitar around between us and Buddy played a beautiful version of catfish Blues, just the three of us in the room; me, Buddy and Junior. It was blues heaven!´
From then on, Kramer’s bond with Wells and Guy strengthened with Buddy once even entrusting his precious Guild Starfire, semi-hollow electric guitar when he popped a string mid performance: ‘I saw him pop the string, then Buddy motioned me to the stage, handed me his guitar and I ran upstairs, three exhausting flights, went through his guitar case, found and changed the string, then rushed back down. But I did sneak a minute to play his guitar. I was enjoying running my hands, my fingers on his guitar, following where his fingers had been. Yeah, I felt that I had a bit of his confidence when he let me do that!’
‘I remember the first time I played with Junior back then. He came into the dressing room absolutely drenched in sweat after the final set and out of breath walking up those three flights. He saw me sitting in a chair positioned patiently with my guitar, eagerly awaiting and he looked a little perplexed. After a moment he just said ‘What do you want to play? He could as easily have said ‘…..Fuck off! But he didn’t. Instead he took out his harps and we just started playing together with Junior guiding me and teaching me about timing and phrasing. When the band downstairs finished, Buddy and the group filtered in, listening to our little performance with hoots and shouts of approval. That was the moment my relationship with those guys really started.’
Muddy Waters also made a significant mark, seeing him live when he was 18 years old, as Kramer describes Waters’ music and influence at the time. ‘….a life changer! I was with a crew of school friends from Brooklyn, getting drunk, stoned and messing around, but the moment I heard Muddy Waters play his slide that night, it went right through me, like a bell went off in my soul! I sobered up instantly and went right into studying everything I could about him.’
By now, Brian had a confidence, ‘….not an arrogance,’ to play with others wherever and whenever or whoever they might be. He wanted to understand the language of the blues from the sources and to have these blues folks feel at ease around him. He began looking out for gigs and was eventually approached by a couple of college students embarking on starting their own record label, while busking in the New York subway and they asked if he might be interested in recording an album. With a degree of caution, Kramer talked it through before agreeing.
‘I phoned Junior (Wells) and asked if he would possibly be part of it. He enthusiastically replied ‘….Brian, you just tell me when and where.’ In this event, another legend, former Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor, also turned up and took part in the recording session. ‘Junior was a real mentor to me. “We’re here for you!”, he said. ‘You’re entitled to these blues just like me, just find your own voice in the music.” Great advice. Everything became a joyful inspiration, and I learned so much in this initial process, even though I was the youngest and least experienced musician involved in these amazing sessions! Yet my name was in the title of the album. It was a dream come true.’
In 1989 the album was released, ‘Brian Kramer & the Blues Masters.’ This was an event that gradually led to Kramer travelling more widely, developing an assurance and eventually reconnecting with Larry Johnson. ‘I was getting more gigs, playing festivals, mostly around New York and the outskirts. But I never seemed to have enough, then around 1990, two things happened. I got a phone call telling me Larry was back in town after a gap of six or seven years living in Europe, and he needed a place to stay. I had been very influenced and attracted to his music so agreed to meet him. He could be pretty intimidating. He was staying in Brooklyn, back where I’d started out. We met up and he greeted me warmly. He was sleeping on a couch at the time. I took along a copy of my album as a gift. He was genuinely delighted, put it on as I was there, told me he liked it and started talking about the guys he’d played with – Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines and others over the years. When the last track of the album came on, just me playing a National Duolian guitar and Junior on harp, Larry turned to me and told me that I understood the music. This in turn led to gigs where Kramer would play with Johnson in New York regularly for over the next six years.
The other pivotal occurrence in 1990 was that Brian was asked to play his first tour in Scandinavia.
Kramer worked, toured and recorded with modern US acoustic favourite, Eric Bibb, after moving to Sweden, something that grew out of an initial chance encounter with Bibb and his music in Stockholm: ‘I had been living in Sweden for a year and still just getting it together. Somehow or other we just connected after we met at a Stockholm music joint, Lilla Maria. I sat in with him and the band, but it wasn’t exactly a favourable experience that first time. The guitar player he was using that night had one of those vast pedal boards and I somehow kept stepping on the wrong one, making awful noises. We then started bumping into each other around town and both from New York. We discovered we both had many musician friends in common and even lived a few streets away from each other, but ten years apart. One day Eric called me out of the blue. He’d had a fall-out with the guitar player he was working with and needed someone to fill in for a two-week tour of the East and West Coast, Eric’s first in the US backed by a record label. He gave me some records, so I could start learning the songs, but we hadn’t officially played together other than that one lousy time and didn’t even know if it would work, so I crashed a private party where he was playing at Mosebacke. This was the first time we played his songs together and it went really well. We just connected right away. Jenny Bohman (wonderful Swedish blues queen who had passed away), was there as his guest and he invited us both up on-stage to play with him. It was magic. It felt like it was all in slow-motion, very, very emotional. The next day we were on a plane to Los Angeles and it all continued with us bopping around the globe for two years or so.’
Kramer has also recorded with Taj Mahal on a special South African music project, a celebration of blues and Afro-music recording Brian’s own composition in a small studio in rural Sweden while he was doing a series of shows as Taj’s opening act. “Firstly, we had an amazing, truly great five hours together out fishing on a boat, myself, Taj and the tour manager, then went right into the recording studio, me with one of my biggest influences and the man who’s signature tune is Fishin’ blues! That was a truly surreal experience. And to be sitting next to Taj Mahal with guitars in our hands. It was just incredible!’
When Kramer moved to Sweden in 1996 with a Swedish wife, one year old son, and a daughter due, he felt the time was right to escape the ‘New York bubble’ and try something new, the New York music scene was already showing signs of diminishing and opportunities were getting harder to come by as a working musician. Kramer was struck by the apparent lack of blues jam opportunities in Stockholm, a watering hole staple on the scene he was so familiar with back home in the US. So, he set about changing that and virtually single-handedly developed a thriving Swedish blues jam culture that still plays an important, if not dominant part in his life.
“It was an uphill battle… Nobody really wanted to embrace or understand the concept of having amateur and pro musicians improvising unrehearsed on their stage.”
From 1998 he developed and expanded the jam scene enormously spanning over these past 20 years, starting at Stampen, in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan, then moving it over to Engelen a few streets away, where his jam has continued to thrive, and is better than ever. “We just celebrated our 20th Year Anniversary from when started up the first blues jam. It was a spectacular milestone event!”
The concept caught on like wildfire and soon blues jams began to pop up all through the Old Town, then throughout the country.
The level of fertile talent that has emerged from this environment under Kramer’s care and watchful eye is staggering; Emil Arvidsson, Daniel Kordelius, Jasmine Kara, Lisa Lystam, Isabella Lundgren, and the more recent rising blues star; Big Rob Svensson are just a handful of the level of acts that are now a part of the Swedish National stage and beyond. They all found their confidence and voice through Kramer’s initiative. More recently, since moving out of the Swedish capital to live in Hedemora, in Dalarna, less than two hours or so to the north-west, he has found the opportunity to kick off another series of blues events, welcoming musician to the stage at the Borlange House of Blues Bar, as well as arranging the artist bookings for the venue, a development he is particularly optimistic about, and another opportunity to keep this flame burning with the power of blues in Scandinavia.
“It been an incredible ride, this blues journey… All I ever really wanted from the start was to understand why I felt this deep connection and passion for blues music and to be accepted by these wonderful musicians I’d admired… to be able to have a real conversation with them through the language of the blues!”
Photo credits: Lennart Brorsson