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Bluesman Hans Olson.
Bluesman Hans Olson.
Benjamin Leatherman

Hans Olson Brings the Blues Into the Digital Age

When is a video not just a video? When it bridges past, present, and future with a few slick camera angles.

The clip is a recently uploaded 1994 mini-documentary (below) on Phoenix bluesman Hans Olson. The program is part of the Blues Spotlight series, which aired across 50-plus PBS stations throughout the 1990s. In it, Olson can be seen performing and answering questions, demonstrating equal parts down-home charm and musical virtuosity. It's a snapshot of what's made him an integral part of local blues for all these years.

It's also a nice birthday present for Olson, who turned 68 on July 3.

The man behind the doc is J. Paul Duplantis. After finishing college in Colorado, Duplantis moved to the Valley in the late '80s in search of "something to dig into as a younger person." He eventually became involved with the Phoenix Blues Society, where he helped co-produce the Olson video and several other projects.

Duplantis recalls some rather special moments from this period, but mostly he remembers the volunteers. Each person, he says, worked tirelessly to elevate blues across Phoenix and the larger state. However, all the passion in the world didn't always translate to ample resources.  He says he self-financed many of his projects.

"I did a couple of shows in a warehouse," he says. "Almost blew up the place. Back then, you know, you were guerrilla filmmaking."

Eventually, Duplantis and company met with Catherine McCabe, formerly of Fox 10, who offered proper studio space to record the videos. The added quality is essential, and it's the proper studio audio and camera work that really plays up Olson's status as a genuine star.

For his part, Olson says 1994 was an interesting time. Even as he was playing more frequently across Europe, he says the blues scene was flourishing across the Valley. Like Duplantis, Olson believes it was the work of PBS and its stakeholders that made such a huge difference.

As much as Olson enjoyed watching these old clips, he also recognizes that they're something of a time capsule for a foregone era.

"I don't know if it can ever be like that again," Olson says of Phoenix's blues scene. "This town is just so big now. There aren't any more clubs going on. So that's a whole different world."

Duplantis says that, in part, he finally uploaded the Olson clip because "a lot of these local blues musicians are really suffering now. Some of these musicians I've dealt with are just so gracious and so cool, and they're having to work day jobs and still struggling."

Given the downturn of blues in general, further hastened by the ongoing global pandemic, elder statesmen like Olson are leaning into technology to flourish.

"I just started a regular webcast, so that'll be my main gig," Olson says. "I'm gonna do it every Tuesday at 7 p.m. on Facebook. Last week, it was all original material and I mentioned that I'll probably do themes: a blues hour, a country hour, a [Bob] Dylan hour."

Olson says the transition has already paid off, and he's making "three times as much money as I normally do" for these digital gigs. Perhaps that will serve as further motivation for Duplantis to expand his digital library, including masters for shows with Big Pete Pearson and The Hoodoo Kings.

Olson says the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall Of Fame faces a similar opportunity. The group has 15-plus years of tapes from a variety show produced by Joel Samuel that they could someday digitize.

"It's like the greatest video collection of local music," Olson says.

Regardless, the Olson doc is more than just a video: It's a conversation starter about how we consume media and how that process is always changing. Or, what we have to do to ensure art survives the march of time. Luckily, some elements of these conversations never change, like the value of true showmanship.

"I realized when you finish a song, it's just a weird moment when nobody's clapping," Olson says of his first live stream. "So I got a clap track and I would play it after each song and go, 'Thank you. Thank you so much.'"

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