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No, don't ask where to buy your concert tickets. This unique story, by Charley Sifaoui, goes back to the time when original Hot Rize members - Peter Wernick, Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster and Charles Sawtelle - first came to France.
Fourty years ago...
And Peter Wernick (Dr Banjo) at the bottom.
The story takes place in the year 1980 during the French golden era of Bluegrass in France. At that time, Victor Woronov, an American citizen, had established himself as an import records and high quality instruments seller, rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. This shop quickly became a strategic and social Bluegrass music base in the French capital. It was the place to be when you were playing Bluegrass.
Victor was a nice pal and a pro (and a fine banjo picker too ¡-). He knew each of us, our tastes in music, the bands we loved, etc. One day, he came to me while I was taking a look at the import discs he had just received. He had a new disc in hands. ‘Take this one, Charley’ he nearly whispered. ‘ And just listen ‘. These few words with a strange smile... And in his hands, the first Hot Rize’s record with behind the cover we all know a photograph showing four pickers elegantly dressed. I recognized Dr. Banjo Peter Wernick at once, being a banjo player myself. His companions were unknown to me. Not for long.
As I usually trusted Victor’s musical taste, I brought the record back home. And today I can say that I never feel sorry for having done this purchase. The first notes of ‘Blue Night ‘ were like a storm ! I was not a beginner in the French Bluegrass community at that time but Hot Rize literally let me discover this music again. Unbelievable ! The record didn’t leave my turntable and my car radio for weeks !
I was not the only one to feel that way. Every friendpal I had in this community had a similar experience. With this record, I even converted a couple of friends who were complete neophytes to Bluegrass. Since then, the eruption of Hot Rize onto the Bluegrass scene has often been described as a sudden and total earth quake. This is true. We had no word to tell how great our pleasure was listening to these four extremely talented and strong personalities. I deeply think that there is a before and an after Hot Rize in Bluegrass music. Pete, Tim, Nick and Charles changed all Bluegrass perspectives.
With such a welcome from the French fans to Hot Rize’s first album, Victor Woronov started thinking about organizing a visit in France for the band. Having such a talented American Bluegrass band visiting was an extremely big event for us. The dream came true and we soon learned Hot Rize would cross over in the spring of 1980 for a limited number of dates throughout Europe.
A few days before Hot Rize’s arrival, I was in Victor’s shop, having a chat with him. Would I like to come with him to the airport and welcome the band the day of their arrival ? What a question !? Yes, of course, and a morning in May I found myself with Victor in a small truck driving to Paris Charles-de-Gaulle Airport. When we entered the airport site, Victor began to look after the most convenient car-park but he took the wrong path. He had to stop in order to consider the problem. But time was passing quickly and being late and missing our visitors was out of question. So he asked me to play scout and go ahead to try to find the boys in time. What a responsibility ! May I refuse it ? No way ! I was on my way to Glory. I had the privilege to represent the French Bluegrass Community. No less. The Community could trust me; I would make it proud !
Once in the airport arrival hall, I consciously tried to locate our visitors. I could see the luggage delivery hall through the glass. And I saw them ! I mean : I saw Pete first. Wow ! How fortunate I was ! By hand signs I made him notice my presence and he came immediately to me. The chat we got through the very thin space between two glass panels was short :
« Hi, I am Pete ».
« I’m Charley. Welcome ». And I briefly informed the band Victor should not be long.
Despite the long flight, the band had big smiles on their faces. Victor joined up later on (the truck was safe eventually) and things were doing well. Pete, Tim, Nick and Charles were at the beginning of a stay which would have them meet a lot of people but one thing was certain : I was the first French resident Hot Rize members talked with when they first visited France. They were not the first Bluegrass icons from America I have met in France – having met Jim & Jesse, Bill Keith, Tony Rice, David Grisman, Tony Trischka and many others – but these moments could be as a milestone in my life, for sure !
Hot Rize got their first date a week after - May 10, 1980 - at the Traditional Music Festival of Ris-Orangis near Paris. A memorable concert. These guys were able to play their tunes with the same studio’s work quality and intensity ! Master artists ! Then they played in Coulommiers some days later on May 12th. This small town not far from Paris above all internationally renowned for its quality cheese production. This time my Bluegrass band mates and I had organized a Bluegrass night with the big help of the city mayor. It was the second Hot Rize’s concert in Europe.
Another reason to feel proud (note that the band in which I played guitar and sung lead was named after a small US Bluegrass progressive band we deeply loved and called... ‘Country Cooking’. In French translate to... ‘Buffet Campagnard’.
The Coulommiers concert was something very special. It was held in a highly historical place : a Middle Age site of the Templars knights called ‘Commanderie’. Before the concert a reception was organized in the Templars chapel with the Commanderie’s top curator and where Pete, Tim, Nick and Charles were given a book about the Commanderie. I remember they were impressed by the site. The concert was a big success despite recurrent problems in the sound systems.
Hot Rize has come back several times to France since then. These four nice persons made friends everywhere they stayed. One year, they arrived with Red Knuckles and his Trailblaizers - nice guys and hot players too !
Video : Hot Rize plays Blue Night, en 2015.
I have never laughed so much during a concert than during the Red Knuckle’s sets. But one thing is sure : I am THE man who had the privilege to welcome Hot Rize in France for their first visit ! And that, nobody can take that away from me !
In loving memory of Charles Sawtelle, who died of leukemia the 20th of March 1999, aged 53.
Article rédigé par Charley Sifaoui
To complete this post and as usual, we sent Peter Wernick four short questions. The answer came less than twenty four hours later. It was joyful and lively.
Ti' Pierre : This tour really made an impression on French bluegrass lovers, and your concerts changed a lot of things for them. What memories do you have of that ?
Peter Wernick : It's 40 years ago now, but I still remember a lot. It was the first time in Europe for three of us (Nick had gone to school in Switzerland and could even speak French!). So it was quite a special thing for me and Charles and Tim, a dream come true. Charley took a photo of us with Victor at the airport when we arrived, and though it was a very long trip from Colorado (4 hours just to get to New York, and then cross the ocean), we felt excited!
The Ris Orangis festival was wonderful (so much good music), and Coulommiers was very special to us. We had never been in such an old building in our lives, the old church where the concert was. I now remember the sound problems (as it says in the article), but also that the audience was very nice to us and we were honored to receive a formal presentation.
Another thing I remember well: a banjo workshop I did at Victor's store, Anarchie Des Accords (I think I have the name right!). Though I had taken SEVEN years of French in school, I had never had a chance to converse with any actual French people, and I was very shy. Victor told me to just speak English and someone would translate. But it was taking so long, I started to try my French, and with some help (some new words for me: peau and entrainement), I made myself understood. There were 12 or more banjo pickers there, I think, and I had a good time though I was nervous. The wine helped!
TP : Any anecdotes on that tour ? Or another one in France ?
PW : We loved the hospitality we received. We had some wonderful meals, though after the tour we joked to each other about the one not-so-good meal, when we were taken to a Mexican restaurant in Paris. We were appreciative of the thoughtfulness ("Coloradans like Mexican food -- of course!"), but it was not like what we were used to back home. But we were (and still are) BIG fans of French food and in other places we dined (and wined) very well. I loved walking around Paris and observing the stylish French women -- it seemed every female in France knew how to dress well and look good!
As you can see from the photos Charley took, I was playing steel guitar with the Hot Rize band sometimes (and Nick would play electric guitar) back in 1980, before we "discovered" Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers and had them play instead of us at our shows.
By the time of our return in 1984 to play the wonderful Toulouse Festival (thanks to Joel and Paula), Red and the boys were part of our show, and were even asked to play a gig at a music venue/bar in the countryside near Toulouse before the festival. When the band drove up to go to the venue that night, it was strange to see a huge number of cars creating a traffic jam. We wondered what the problem was -- then found out that these were people coming to see Red and the Trailblazers! That was a shock. They were not that popular in the U.S., but this was France! That was a pretty crowded place that night, and a very fun time.
TP : Many of us still remember Charles Sawtelle's performance. What made his playing so special ?
PW : Charles was extremely concerned with clear and beautiful guitar tone, and was proud to play a Martin Herringbone D-28 from 1937 -- his most special guitar, which made a sound "like a cannon" as he liked to say. Back then many guitarists tried to sound like Tony Rice or Doc Watson. Charles highly respected those players (and especially Clarence White) but could ONLY sound like himself. He had a style of his own, which included often taking chances by roaming into "uncharted territory" and then saving himself at the last second. High drama! That and his strong but restrained rhythm playing was a big part of our sound.
TP : How did you come to create the Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers?
PW : As indicated above, we first started without Red, and would just do the old western music ourselves, as at Coulommiers. But it seemed wrong for us to be playing that music, so when we "discovered" Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers -- in the little border town of Wyoming, Montana -- it was better for us to leave the stage and have them come on instead. Their wild western outfits set them apart, but it was still strange when some people asked if "they" were really "us" in disguise! Of course we would laugh about that, since we would be relaxing backstage while Red and the boys entertained the crowd.
We have not heard about Victor for quite a long time. He was so helpful to us, and we considered him a friend. He even traveled with us to Holland, Sweden, and Denmark on our first tour, and brought us again in 1982, and on our third trip had us come to Normandy to a recording studio, where the Trailblazers cut their album "The French Way" in June 1984, during the 40-year celebration of D-Day (now *80* years ago -- a great day in history!). The album is still available on CD from our website, hotrize.com.
If anyone else has photos of Hot Rize or the Trailblazers playing France, I hope they'll send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
I hope someone can tell us if Victor is still in communication. Last we heard, he was in Japan, but that was a long time ago. Victor made a lot of things possible for us. As did Rienk Janssen, and Joel and Paula in Toulouse. I think of all the places our band traveled to, France was our favorite. We met a lot of good musicians (spent a night in Holland all sleeping on the floor in one small room with members of Crazy Duck, w. Philippe Bourgeois). A little funky back then but great memories! Thank you so much, Charley for your enthusiasm and all your help.