The Topography of Post-war Blues

All That Jazz: Feb. 2010

It has been snowing in Vienna and the temperature is probably ten below zero. There is a place on Prinz-Eugen-Straße – a guitar pick’s throw south of Schwarzenbergplatz – where the bass, electric guitar, harmonica, and the scratchy, deep voice of a blues singer can warm up the air inside and out:

This is the Louisiana Blues Pub.

The warmth and pulsating sound burst out onto the street as a visitor enters. It’s an astonishingly small room with barely enough space for a crowd, much less a band. Rigor Mortis is playing tonight, blues-tinged rock à la Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton with a dash of funk. The lead singer, Harald Gangl (also a respected Austrian artist) looks like Bruce Springsteen, but the “Born in the USA” mirage disappears when he opens his mouth to talk: not deep New ‘Joisey’, but an unmistakable Viennese dialect. The crowd squeezed in among the five tables and around the bar is a curious mix of family and friends of the artist du jour, regular customers, expatriates and the occasional tourists. On this particular evening, a throng of American students arrives on time, but turns back out into the cold in dismay at the full house.

It might seem there was something off about a blues bar at the heart of Vienna’s embassy quarter with banners from Brazil, Bulgaria, Belgium, France, Spain, Switzerland and beyond recalling diplomats living the lush life.

But even more remarkable is the patchwork of history enveloping the Louisiana Blues Pub on Schwarzenbergplatz — an American-inspired club within eyeshot of the monument to the Russians who “liberated” Vienna, opposite the Belvedere Palace, where Austria declared its independence in 1955, and just a few steps from the French Embassy, festooned with flags lined up along the Prinz-Eugen-Straße. Americans, Russians, British and French – The Four Powers – together in a radius smaller than one kilometer: a logical yet unplanned residue of the Second World War.

The Louisiana Blues Pub itself has been open since 1998, and is one of roughly forty-eight bars and cafés in Vienna where blues bands play live. An elder barman confesses what drives him to work in such loud, smoky environs.

“I have to have the music in my life.”

With music bouncing off the windows into the silent street at night, this hideaway forces passers by to turn and wonder why such a tiny bar is so crowded. From Wednesday to Saturday, local blues bands turn up with their gear and their fans  and their love for the blues. The music varies from uplifting soul to beer-doused blues, sliding acoustic tunes to train-driving harmonica puffing. But blue the patrons are not. In fact no one seems even depressed, as they bob their heads and tap their toes with grins spread across their faces.

Lead singer Harald Gangl dedicates a song to his young teenage daughter, who was seen clamping her ears with her two hands at the sound of her father’s music. She smiles at his gesture and enjoys the evening nonetheless, staying only through the first of two sets. Time to go to bed with a blues instead of a lullaby.

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