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They say that you should never meet your heroes; well, they’re wrong. This reporter (and lifelong-fan) had the huge good fortune of meeting Mungo Jerry (aka Ray Dorset) at a gig in Berlin in August. Having reached a significant number in earth years, our family had organised a trip for me to see Mungo in Berlin as a special birthday present. My previous MJ gigs included meeting Ray backstage at Dublin gigs in 1973 and in 1987. In 1973, he gave me a Schimellpenninck cigar which I treasured for years before succumbing to smoking it in a moment of weakness in 1976. Well, I was skint and it was the day before payday.
I stayed in contact over the decades through the goods offices of Derek Wadeson who kept fans abreast of all releases, gigs and band news in the simple days before the internet. During this period I had the considerable honour of being asked to write a piece for the book “Beyond the Summertime” as well as being asked to contribute to the sleeve notes on Snakebite (1990).
The Berlin gig took place in a perfect setting for the more (ahem) vintage but discerning Mungo Jerry fan in a tree-lined open air amphitheatre in the Biesdorf park in east Berlin. A semi circle of terraced benches faced an enclosed and generous-sized stage where the sound quality was perfect, no matter where you sat. Think economy size Hollywood Bowl and you get the picture. Canvas awnings provided some cover from the elements that threatened (in vain) to ruin the evening with heavy showers.
A decent gathering had populated the venue nicely where the hugely-entertaining and manic Andy Frasco Band put them through their paces. Andy ‘got’ the MJ vibe completely and he was an excellent choice as support act to an evening with Mungo Jerry. His band took crowd participation to a new level by playing their brass and tubas in the body of the audience as Andy sprinted around the perimeter roaring into his mic. Ah!, the undiscerning energy of youth…
When he’d finished, there was a delay to allow the band to relocate their gear safely in the dry part of the bowl. Nobody minded; people were there to enjoy themselves and appetites had been nicely stoked by Andy Frasco who by the way, had cheekily informed the audience that Mungo Jerry was his father.
I spotted Ray’s wife and introduced myself and I expressed my hope to her of getting a selfie with Ray to mark my own special occasion. “Fingers crossed” I thought sitting back down beside my wife who had cleverly inched her way under the cover of the central awning as the rain came down in stair rods. I of course, was sitting at the very edge of the dry/wet divide and got royally soaked. The former Berlin Wall couldn’t have done a neater division job. Most people had the good sense to buy the disposable rainmacs on sale at the entrance but by the time it occurred to me, staying dry was no longer an option. Still, after a day that had risen to 28 degrees at least the rain was warm.
Then amid warm cheers and whistles, the Side-burned One came on-stage for a tune-up. Looking as fit as a fiddle and not carrying an ounce more than when he was 26, Ray’s fingers slid over the frets as he plucked out an effortless riff that revved his guitar to the limit. He acknowledged his audience with his trademark grin and laugh and he apologised for the weather. “We’ll make our own summertime this evening” he laughed, stabbing out the first few tell-tale bars of In the Summertime as the crowd roared appreciatively.
The band slipped seamlessly into a solid set of MJ’s recent rock and blues numbers and the crowd rose to their feet, oblivious to the rain. Looking around, I saw people shed years (if not decades) as they danced and bopped along to the infectious blues beat.
There’s a note on Cold Blues Excursion where Ray quotes a Woody Guthrie definition of the blues and popular music in general. This was in 1972 when the music industry was stringent about categorising every artist into a genre to direct the right sound to the right crowd – “it’s rock, it’s pop, it’s progressive rock” and so on. As the Monty Python mob says in the Life of Brian “Yes, we are all individuals”.
You got the feeling from the notes on that 1972 album that Ray was being forced to justify his brand of music back then. He’s way past all that now. He worked a rock and blues medley around demanding but slick delta blues riffs that stated how he’s paid his dues to the blues. You wondered where his fingers ended and the guitar began. Standing at the edge of the stage in Berlin, one could grasp the scale of his unique talent and his utter mastery of the idiom. On that wet Berlin night, the Blues was still a ferocious beast, tamed but growling under the lash of this maestro’s guitar. Seeing Mungo Jerry in complete control of this energy was like watching a lion tamer. You can’t pigeon-hole that.
I was still marvelling at Ray’s virtuosity when he gave me a “shout-out” from the stage. “I just got a nice surprise to hear there’s someone who’s come all the way from Dublin to be here tonight. Hello Mick O’Hanlon! Give him a cheer everyone!”
Best. Birthday. Present. Ever.
This is a really good Mungo Jerry line-up with Bob Whyte (more than) keeping beat on drums, Toby Hounhsam on keyboards and John Playle playing an astonishing neon bass. Each is a seasoned master of his instruments and they fit together perfectly to fuel the energy that is Mungo Jerry.
Having enlivened and rejuvenated the audience with recent Mungo material, the band gave true-tone studio quality renditions of a medley of the hits that included Lady Rose (and segued nicely into Hello Nadine), Baby Jump, Alright Alright Alright and others including In the Summertime It was a joy to hear Ray hold a note over a full eight bars as the audience whistled and whooped at the strength of his voice. The crowd demanded an encore and at the end you could see in the exchanges between Ray and the band members that they knew it had been a good night’s work.
Before the gig I found myself wondering why Ray Dorset continues to gig around Europe in the same way as he did in the earliest days. After this gig I knew the answer: Because he can. The man exuded a raw energy that found full expression in his music and the Berlin fans loved it and gave it straight back to him. I’d say he possibly went off stage more energised than when he came on, having created a great evening for his audience. We were buzzing on our way home. It was almost hippie-like, what we used to call a “happening” back in the day. And he made no bones in singing about being a hippie ‘til he dies, in the number of the same name. Not a gentle, flowery, peaceful hippie but a raucous, bawdy rocker who’ll do as he please. Now where have we all heard that before…
Ray remained in the small merchandising tent signing teeshirts, posing for selfies and talking and laughing with fans until everyone had gone. I was like a kid waiting for my turn outside Santa’s grotto. Musical magic apart, he is a genuinely nice guy with a truly astonishing memory for detail and events. I could have stayed there all night and I just hope I didn’t overstay my welcome. He keeps on rockin’.