My recent vacation in Madrid featured many surprises. One of them was in a blues bar.
Suzan and I went to Spain in casual tourist mode. We picked a big city that was full of things to do, had a good transit system and could be navigated by two Americans whose Spanish vocabulary is less comprehensive than a Taco Bell menu. We had ideas, but we didn’t make plans … you can land in Madrid without much of a plan and have a really good time.
Trips to and from Metro stations took us past the shops near Plaza de Sol, a morass of commerce for locals and tourists. Bars, cafes, souvenir shops, bars, drug stores, restaurants, bars, American coffee chains, tapas restaurants (attached to bars), frozen yogurt franchises and discos … which aren’t bars. The ‘disco’ is a record shop. Real ones. Record shops that actually sell records, those giant black discs of analog audio that hip kids tweet about finding in thrift shops and grandparent’s attics. It’s a lot of unsorted second-hand junk surrounded by posters and t-shirts, but buried treasure can be found in stacks of wax.
This thrift shop mentality isn’t a surprise … the modern economy hasn’t been kind to Spain. About a fifth of the country is unemployed, and that number is even higher for folks under 25. There are some brilliant street performers hovering around Madrid’s many bars and bar-like establishments, but there are even more homeless. Diners at fast food restaurants and street-side cafes can count on their meal being interrupted by someone begging for coins, hawking discount merchandise or selling lottery tickets.
Yes, there’s really a Spanish lottery and you can enter it without checking your spam folder. I didn’t spend a lot of time checking e-mail in Spain, because Madrid is filled with so much … well, Madrid. I’m still sorting through about a thousand photos of architecture, art, fountains, palaces, street scenes, botanical gardens and blues musicians.
Right, blues musicians. I did mention something about that earlier. That means I need to talk about bars.
In case you didn’t notice my subtle hints, Madrid is full of bars. If Suzan’s tourist pamphlets are to be believed, the most bars of any city in Europe. Given my experience with European travel, that’s an impressive statistic. Germany and France have shown me a variety of establishments dedicated to the distribution of alcohol. I couldn’t go two blocks in Nantes without tripping over an “Irish Bar” and they were crammed into narrow buildings between other bar-like establishments.
The “Irish Bar” fad hasn’t seemed to invade Madrid. In fact, I saw very little evidence of expatriate establishments in the city. There were the usual set of American-ish restaurants like “Rock and Ribs”, where I had a hamburger with a noticeable absence of rock and/or roll, but nothing that felt like the typical “Irish Bar” staffed by English teachers who didn’t want to go back to Liverpool or Glasgow after their contracts were up.
I thought La Coquette, the “blues bar” with a French-sounding name in the narrow alley near our hotel was one of these expat bars. Saturday night I discovered I was wrong. Terribly wrong. Joyously wrong.
We headed into the basement bar on a whim, expecting to get a beer and someone’s sad mistranslation of American music. Instead we got an awesome atmosphere from someone who loves the blues. A small brick basement bar full of festival posters and deep playlists built from rare tracks on vinyl (thanks, local record shops). A small bar with bands during the week and a jam session on Sundays. The Saturday crowd was a good mix of locals, American exchange students preparing for their last party weekend and trio of Chinese youngsters who were bored or trying to look hip … hard to tell since the first step of being “cool” is looking like you don’t give a damn.
Suzan and I hatched our Sunday plan over draft beers and good whiskey. Sunday afternoon we would be tourists in Madrid. Bus tours, fountain photos, café lunches amongst cheap sunglasses and lottery tickets. Sunday night we would go to La Coquette Blues Bar and see what a Spanish blues jam looks like.
Spoiler alert: it’s heaven. A sweaty heaven with a full bar and acres of talent.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. A city full of unemployed people with access to second-hand record shops is the perfect place for this bar. It’s the perfect place for the blues, period. It’s how the blues were born. Old guys with harmonicas, long-haired teenagers in Led Zeppelin shirts, ordinary people who came alive on stage with people they either play with every week or just met. People filter through the stage every two or three songs. Some had soul, some were technicians, all of them had the blues.
I don’t know the names of the guys that played in my set. I barely got in behind the drums when the guitar player mumbled something to the bass player and counted off a tempo. At that point language barriers go out the window (which we technically didn’t have in a basement bar). Two guitarists, harmonica player and drummer get locked into the bass player’s groove almost instantly … driving, funky, solid four-on-the floor. We lived in that pocket for at least five minutes, while I watched the bass player like a baseball player watches the third base coach for hand signals.
Blues jam session tip: always follow the bass player. Dial it up, guitar takes the lead, steal second, lay back for the bass solo, watch for the bunt. Sometimes signals get crossed, like me trying to figure out if they wanted me to take a drum solo or lay out for something else, but things got dialed in before the second song. The second song that seamlessly blended into the first. The guitar player didn’t have to say anything … put up a stop sign, sing a few words into the microphone, hit a single note … and we all dropped into slow twelve-bar blues.
This is what I love about jam sessions, especially the ones I wander into when traveling. Blues and jazz are a framework, a common language across borders. Some looks across that stage at a group of strangers, mumbles something about a key and instantly connects with the players. The players connect with the room, and the framework spreads. A tone set by a poor man in the American depression travels through time to a room underneath the streets of a rattled country. I wasn’t the best musician in that crowded room, but I could share something I’ve felt every time I’ve turned simple physics into music.
I came to Madrid to take things back with me … photos, memories, a shared experience with my wife. A few hours spent in a basement bar allowed me to leave something as well.