Something remarkable is stirring in the South West French Blues scene. For in the deepest Dordogne in a hamlet helpfully called Bars, lies an oasis in the blues desert called Le Bistrot Gourmand.
Founded by Marianne and Jeff Gautier (veteran rock drummer with Jean-Jacques Goldman / Paul Personne / Calvin Russell / Johnny Hallyday) it’s an all year round music venue that in the summer throws open its sizable garden to seasonal outdoor gigs, as well as good food naturally!
And if the venue is unique, so is tonight’s band PAPA GROOVE (France). A versatile jam band based in South West France, this fluid 6 piece outfit with occasional extra percussion, boasts a cosmopolitan line-up which brings an unexpected touch of class to bear on deep grooves in the heart of Dordogne.
Fronted by Ken Barrett, an expat Sheffield vocalist and former drummer with Frank White Band, Rod Mayall and sometime Joe Cocker percussionist, the band is anchored by virtuoso Tahitian bass player Mato Rai, who when not studiously locking into some deep grooves and gluing everything together adds some outrageous bass solos.
Everything is illuminated by keyboard player Paul Mouradian (known for his extra curricular film and TV work), who mellifluously shifts from rock-blues and funk embellishments to proggy explorations.
Better still, he throws in some Steve Winwood style B3 organ fills on ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of the City’ which Barrett attacks with gusto.
His first outright proggy moment comes with Ken Barrett penned ‘All We Know’, which starts out as a ballad before the combination Mouradian’s subtle keyboard progression and guitarist Erick Drevot solo provide a thrilling finale to both Ken Barrett’s anthem and the first set as a whole .
But to begin at the beginning, BB King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ serves as the perfect opener, on which vocalist Barrett phrases eloquently. The band quickly hits its stride on a cover of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, on which Barrett adds a few scat lines leading into a deft keyboard and muscular bass solo.
The refreshing thing is that the solos support the song rather than pointlessly dominating it, though Mato Rai’s effortless, but frenetic bass work brings an extra level of intensity that drives the set as a whole.
He’s an equally versatile singer who shifts to a near falsetto on the aptly titled ‘Tahiti Blues’.
Everything flows smoothly and there’s even room for some humorous titular improvisation on John Mayer’s ‘Gravity’, which is re-christened ‘Quarantine’, as Barrett and Rai deliver the first of several flawless harmonies.
There’s neat change of pace on a breathless ‘Big Boss band’, which shows the band as the joyous sum of its parts. Guitarist Erick Drevot for example, switches from fluid rhythmic work to a spiky solo when required, and his subtle shifts in energy bring an extra level of dynamics.
Everything get funky in the second set on ‘Unchain My Heart’, on a meeting of Barrett’s Cocker style earnest phrasing and Trini Lopez rhythmic exuberance.
It sparks the crowd into dancing, while dep drummer Brice Passaroto accents the groove with some crisp cymbal work.
The band’s regular drummer is former Berklee College of Music alumni Emilio Fabrice Leroy who is hard to replace. And given the additional absence of second vocalist Magali Saint Sardos the band have to omit some of their self penned material.
The upside to this is that they lean on a tried and tested bluesy set, with occasional adventurous and unexpected diversions, such as on the funky version of ‘Hall & Oats I Can’t Go For That’ on which the rhythm section stretches out nicely .
Guitarits Drevot combines neatly with Paul Mouradian’s keyboard fills for a funky version of ‘Shaky Ground’. He’s equally good when fleshing out Buddy Guy’s ‘What Kind of Woman Is This’ with a clear tone.
Santana’s ‘Makes Somebody Happy’ finds Barrett and Rai on harmony vocals once more, before the dancers hit the floor again on the up tempo version of ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’.
The set builds imperiously as they rock out on ‘That’s All Right Mama’ and they further funk things up on ‘I Can’t Go for That’ before finishing with a flurry with an Erick Drevot’s guitar showcase which combines the Hendrix version of Dylan’s’ Along the Watchtower ‘with The Doors’ LA Woman’.
Everything is rounded off nicely by a deserved encore which sees Barrett paying homage to his home town hero Joe Cocker. The brace of songs climax’s with the show stopping ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ which brings the crowd to its feet again.
Papa Groove don’t pretend to reinvent the wheel, though their inclusion of original material suggest they are far from complacent.
But tonight in front of capacity crowd and under a starlit sky, you had to pinch yourself to realize you were enjoying a high quality jam band in the middle of the countryside in deepest South West France.
Blues it seems remains an international language.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos: Anne Pioton
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