Articles

25 May 1995

Domestic Blues Gains Renewed Interest

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Billboard Magazine

Most Canadian blues aficionados will admit, if somewhat reluctantly, that the renewed enthusiasm in Canada for domestic blues music has been sparked by the mainstream success of Eric Clapton's blues roots album "From the Cradle" released last year.

"Some blues purists dis Eric Clapton, but he did a really good job," says singer/guitarist Colin Linden. "Among the several million people who bought that album are going to be a fraction of people who had never heard a blues record before and will now be some of those buying blues records in Canada in the future."

"Support for blues music has never gone away in Canada, but it's certainly being more accepted today at a local grass roots level and national level," says John Small, host of the one hour weekly syndicated radio show "Blues North" which is heard in 12 Canadian markets. "There's always been pockets of support for the blues in Canada. There's taverns in all these small towns which all have their own blues communities."

Among the blues styled Canadian acts recently releasing albums have been the Jeff HealeyBand, King Biscuit Boy, Powder Blues, Harpdog Brown, Blue Willow, Trickbag, Drew Nelson, Black Cat Bone and Big Sugar. Upcoming within the next two monts are releases by Colin James, Colin Linden and the Wailin' Walker Band. "Most ( Canadian based ) record companies don't think the blues is commercial, but if Eric Clapton is doing it, why can't Canadian talent record original blues? We have a history," says Fred Xavier of the 2 year old local independent label Peerless Music, whose roster consists of Blue Willow , Trickbag and the Wailin' Walker Band.

Among the founders of Canadian blues recording is Holger Petersen, president of the 20 year old Stony Plain Records label, based in Edmonton, Alberta, and distributed nationally by Warners Music Canada. Petersen is also host of CBC Radios's influential national blues program "Saturday Night Blues". Among the blues styled artists on Stony Plain are the Canadian based Amos Garrett, Rita Chiarelli and Dutch Mason; British singer Long John Baldry, now living in Vancouver; and American based Jimmy Witherspoon, Maria Muldaur and Duke Robillard.                              

"Releases of Canadian blues have always been pretty steady, but there's been, however, a recent slight increase and more focus recently with newer labels like Peerless and Darklight coming onto the scene," says Petersen, "Also, the fact that (Canadian) independent records have gone through this flurry of popularity in the past few years is being reflected in the number of blues releases today. If anybody can sell records offstage, it's a blues band."  The emergence of such British blues based rock bands as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Animals in the 1960's propelled the growth in popularity of blues based rock in Canada with such Canadian acts as the Band, David Clayton Thomas and the Shays, the McKenna Mendelson Mainline, Hans Staymer, the Ugly Ducklings and Crowbar becoming very popular.

Additionally, many young blues players in the 1960's and 70's listened to blues and R&B on U.S. radio stations in faraway Memphis and border cities such as Detroit, Chicago and Buffalo,N.Y.Also making an impression on those musicians was seeing regular appearances by key American blues figures like Muddy Waters, Howlin'Wolf, Buddy Guy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee at Canadian folk festivals, coffeehouses and nightclubs.

Also, the legendary American singer guitarist Lonnie Johnson spent the last five years of his life in this city, dying in 1970. And the late Clarence "Big" Miller, who began his career as a teenage blues shouter in Kansas City, Mo., and who played with pianist Jay McSann and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, settled in Edmonton, Alberta in 1970 and lived there until his death in 1992.

"Between such clubs as Colonial Tavern, El Mocombo, Le Coq D'or, and (folk club) the Riverboat, there were always blues artists in Toronto back then", says Linden. "I remember Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee playing for three weeks over New Year's at the Riverboat in 1973 or 1974, and I was there almost every night."

"Some of those blues guys then looked like they'd just got off the plantation," recalls guitarist Larry Feudo of the Hamilton, Ontario based Trickbag. "Standing next to(6 foot 6 inch) Howlin' Wolf, you looked like you were sitting down. And he had time to talk to you".

Although popular Canadian blues groups of the era like Whisky Howl, Hot Cottage and Uncle Wiggley's Hot Shoes Band have long since disappeared, many others that got their start in that period are still very active. They include the Downchild Blues Band, Dutch Mason, Amos Garrett, King Biscuit Boy, Powder Blues Band, Matt Minglewood, Morgan Davis, Sam Moon, Ken Whitely, Mose Scarlett and Paul James.

"Canadian artists (in the 1960's and 1970's) got to meet with, play with and hang out with many of the blues greats," says publicist/promoter and blues booster Richard Flohil. "The music and individuals playing it made such an impact; that is what they set out to do. The question is now, What else can they do? They're going to do it until they fall over."

The veteran blues practitioners, however, now face increased  competition from newer blues acts such as Linden, Chiarelli, the Jeff Healey Band, the Sidemen, Drew Nelson, David GoGo, Tony D(DiTeodora), the Cameo Blues Band, Jack Semple, Blue Willow, Jackson Delta, Susie Vinnick, and Bleeker Street.

Many Canadian blues musicians say that while it's possible to eke out a career plaing blues in clubs, it's an awesome task to make the leap like Healey,James or Garrett, to touring or releasing albums outside the country.

"It's hard making a buck here," says Feudo. "There are more musicians out there than ever and bars are paying less than they were a decade ago."

"It's a very tough haul for Canadian blues musicians," agrees Petersen. "Blues fans are passionate music lovers and know what the best is. And, in most cases, blues musicians don't become really good until their 30's and 40's."

Petersen contends that the success of a blues recording will likely be in doing original songs instead of recycling vintage blues tunes. "Like any other music, songwriters make a difference in blues," he says. "There have to be good writers in the band (to be successful )."

Feudo agrees. "If you can listen to Howlin' Wolf do 'Forty Four Blues', why record it yourself? On our album (Trickbag) we tried to make the songs as original as we could while retaining a bluesiness."

Linden says that Canada's blues scene remains far more laid back than elsewhere because it is slightly removed from its source but close enough that players still feel comfortable experimenting with the music.

"The (blues) community here is a lot less geared to blues facism," he says. "There's a little less of the dogma that goes along with loving this king of music than in Europe or in England, to some degree."

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