- Essays: On The Road (And A Little Off)


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Paris France, August 31, 2005 - - I came to Karel Beer's acquaintance through Bob Neuwirth, an old pal from the Texas Jewboys' Hollywood period. I had gotten in touch with Karel last year sometime and he ultimately invited me to play at a festival he was going to produce in France in August. I said you betcha.

After The Doc dropped me off in Paris I caught a taxi over to Karel's gallery, right next door to the Hotel du Nord, where a famous French movie of the same title was made. It's a movie about a couple of star-crossed lovers who decide to commit suicide. After spending some time in Paris, I can see how they might.

But anyway the taxi pulls up in front of the gallery and this tall, distinguished-looking English dude steps out to help me collect my bag and my guitar, Blackie. Thus began my friendship with Karel Beer, the impresario who for a couple of decades has produced Anglophone acts throughout France and Italy, including until the recent change of management those at the Hotel du Nord. I could go into a long riff about how cool the dude is, but I won't, for a coupla reasons: first off I gotta lot of territory to cover here and secondly Karel's opinion of himself is already at a dizzying altitude, and though I concur privately I still have to deal with the guy once in a while, and he's insufferable enough already.

Karel Beer

Later that night or perhaps the next, I can't remember, Karel had planned a sit-down dinner with a bunch of Babes in attendance. I was lodging at his flat and got a call from him saying that two musician friends of his, Sal Bernardi, an expat from the States and George Wolfheart, a white Namibian with an American Indian-sounding name, were going to pick me up at his flat and that I was to make my way to dinner at the gallery with them. They showed up and we walked over.

George Wolfaardt

A brief note about George and Sal: after dinner we jammed and I learned that George Wolfheart knows every song ever written and plays at least half the instruments, and Sal Bernardi is a co-writer and guitar/harmonica player with Rickie Lee Jones. Playing with them that night was my first taste of what the Rochefort en Accords Festival might be like, and I began to get enthusiastic.
George and Sal were the first participants of the festival I met, and I think that what Karel had in mind was a kind of audition for me to see how I would fit in. Apparently I didn't suck.

The next day I decamped from Karel's flat, and back aboard the Renault Megane, The Doc once again at the helm, we set sail for the wilds of Bretagne and the Mondial Folk Festival.

The Doc

The Mondial Folk Festival is chiefly noted for the exotic dance groups it brings in. The first year we played there they were from Tahiti, the next from the Kamchatka peninsula and this year from Togo. The Doc and I spent a few days playing our gigs and hanging out with our friends Jean-Luc and Felicie from the French band Mary-Lou. We finished our gigs and the Doc left Wednesday, headed back to De Nederlands.


Thursday morning Jean-Luc and Felicie dropped me off at the Quimper railroad station, where I was to catch the train to Nantes, then switch to a train going down to Rochefort. Karel had written that I was to be met in Nantes by his assistant, "Alice", who had been provided a description of me and would facilitate my journey. Unfortunately he didn't provide me with a description of Alice and once I was on the train and had not been recognized I walked up to the front from the middle of the train, back through the whole length and then another pass back up to the middle looking for, I dunno, a matronly librarian-type lady or someone who looked like they might be named Alice. No luck, so I sat back down in my seat and rode to Rochefort all alone. Poor, poor Panama. Apparently Alice had not been told to look for a tall, strikingly handsome young man with reddish hair. That would explain her not recognizing me.


When the train got into Rochefort I was walking into the station and from behind me on the platform heard the cutest English accent ever asking, "Are you Panama Red?" I turned and there was Alice, looking not a bit like a librarian and certainly not a matronly one. Total and I do mean total Bee Ay Bee Ee, dark-haired and blue-eyed with a glorious smile and, unfortunately, young enough to be my granddaughter. This was my introduction to Alice Brennen, Karel Beer's half-French, half-English assistant who was to prove not only achingly lovely but tough as nails when it came to keeping the festival on track and the performers in place and on time. We were to become fast friends over the course of the weekend, because, as Alice said, I take a lot of minding.

Karel was inside the station waiting for us, and in no time flat we were off to assemble with the other early cast and crew members at the Hotel Corderie Royale, which was to be the headquarters for the festival.


A few words about the Corderie Royale:
Behind the Hotel is the Corderie itself. Once the longest building in the world, it was used by the French to twist hemp into ropes for the ships which were also built in Rochefort. In fact, it was from Rochefort that the young marquis de Lafayette sailed to America during our Revolution just so he could say upon disembarking "Lafayette! We are here." I don't have the specifics but late one night I had to walk from the Festival area back to the Hotel and it felt like a couple of miles. Next day, under different chemical circumstances, I estimated it to be about three Midwestern city blocks long.
The building itself is built of stone, but sits on a massive raft floating on top of a bog. The French are also building a reproduction of the Hermione, the ship which carried the young marquis across the pond. Turns out that Lafayette was something of a young rakehell, no need to go into specifics, and that had more than a little to do with his coming over here to champion the American cause.


A little later we set out for what was to become a ritual: the participants getting together over food and wine. A lot of wine.


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Rochefort En Accords Festival Site

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