Big Dave McLean
Calgary Bluesfest (2006)
Quintessential blues singer and guitarist Big Dave McLean contributed primarily to the blues frombehind-the-scenes between 1970-98, but it was his 1998 release, For The Blues ... Always, that pushed him more to the forefront of the blues arena. The Canadian-based singer/guitarist released one other album before 1998, titled Muddy Waters For Presiden., It was recorded in 1989 at the Bud's on Broadway club in Saskatoon. Billboard's Larry LeBlanc wrote in 1998, "At 45, the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based singer/guitarist [McLean] has done more to shape western Canada's blues scene than perhaps any other artist. He has been a significant influence on such leading Canadian blues-styled acts as singer guitarist Colin James, who produced For The Blues...Always, and young Atlantic Records trio Wide Mouth Mason." James told LeBlanc, "Dave's so good at the that acoustic [blues] stuff. He's something else with a National Steel (slide guitar)." Wide Mouth Mason singer/guitarist Shaun Verrautt added, "Any aspiring blues musicians from west of Winnipeg has likely seen Big Dave perform several times. He's the real deal."
McLean was born in 1951 in Yorton, Saskatchewan. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and he in lived Moose Jaw, Manitoba, before relocating at the age of ten to Winnipeg. His brother Grant had an extensive record collection, and when McLean was a teenager, his brother introduced him to folk, jazz, and blues music. McLean told LeBlanc, "I was a big Bob Dylan fan and really liked Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly. We also listened to ... Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, and (Rahsaan) Roland Kirk and to Lead Belly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, who did country blues and folk songs. When I heard ... Mance Lipscomb, Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, and Yank Rachell, that's when the door really opened. All my friends would go, `C'mon man, let's go see Led Zeppelin." I'd go, C'mon over my house and listen to Sleepy John Estes or Furry Lewis'."
McLean and his brother went to Toronto to attend the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1969, where American singer John Hammond gave McLean--then 18 years old--an informal guitar lesson. Hammond taught McLean how to play Bo Diddley's 1955 R&B hit "I'm A Man." McLean told LeBlanc, "I drove my parents nuts for the next six months playing it." McLean then worked for several years in folk and blues-styled duos; one duo was with his brother Grant and the other was with guitarist/singer Dave Marnoch, before striking out on his own. He initially performed as a solo acoustic folk and blues act, then he performed with numerous backing bands, including Black Betty, Cross Cut, and the Muddy-Tones. McLean paired up with Calgary-based guitarist Tim Williams in 1998 to record an acoustic blues album titled Fellow Travelers on the Cayuse Records label. McLean told LeBlanc, "I was just getting ready to fly to Vancouver for sessions with Colin [sessions for For The Blues ... Always ] when Tim phoned, offering me this other album. Tim said, `I guess it's a two-album day for you." I said, `It's been a long time since I've had a two-album day. Never, actually'."
McLean plays guitar, slide guitar, and harmonica on Fellow Travelers, and plays a heady mixture of Delta, Piedmont, and early Chicago blues, as well as originals that sound absolutely in sync with the material. "I don't butcher my voice trying to sound like Howlin' Wolf, and I've never learned a Muddy Waters tune the way Muddy Waters did it," McLean told LeBlanc, "I want to take their songs and put my feel into them so people say, `That sounds like McLean' rather than watered-down Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters." Richard Flohill, the director of the Toronto Blues Society, wrote of McLean, "He's a player who gives equal justice to Elmore James, Mississippi John Hurt, and Little Walter. It's the sort of thing he does every week in his home town, sometimes solo, and sometimes with a solid little four-piece band."
Colin James told Flohill, "Dave McLean has been stalwartly keeping up the blues tradition for years. I first heard him when I was nine and he blew me away then, and he still does today. He's one of the great undiscovered blues men and people ought to hear him." James produced McLean's For The Blues ... Always as a result of his great admiration for him. James's mother, a social worker, worked in the kitchen of the Regina Folk Club when James was a child. McLean was often the main attraction and form of entertainment at the club. At the age of nine, James would hang out in the kitchen and flat-pick on own his guitar, sometimes drawing a bigger crowd in the kitchen than in the dining area. They became friends through that experience at the Regina Folk Club and often played together over the years. McLean's release marked James's first experience as a record producer.
McLean told Flohill, "I love those old Delta guys who made their music with one voice, one guitar, and one foot stompin' on the floor. That's very special music, and I love to do it. At the same time, I love the way the band can get people moving.You do what you have to do, and I have to play the blues." McLean resided in Winnipeg throughout his entire career of playing and recording. Winnipeg was described by Flohill as, "one of the most remote cities in western Canada." McLean explained to Flohill that although he loved to play in Vancouver, Toronto, and the larger American cities, he considered Winnipeg home and enjoyed a regular playing circuit there for 28 years. He said to Flohill, "If you play the blues, it's hard to find a place where you can afford to buy a home and raise a family, and I like being home in the day with the kids. And you can do these things [in Winnipeg], you can have a house and a yard and all normal things.... of course ... the next gig is 600 miles away in any direction."
McLean explained to LeBlanc, "Recording wasn't the reason I got into the music business. I just wanted to play the blues. I only put that (Muddy Waters For President ) live album out so fans would have something to listen to when I wasn't around." McLean recorded the 18 songs on For The Blues ... Always in three days at Colin James's home studio in Vancouver, backed by James on acoustic, slide, and electric guitars, as well as by notable Vancouver musicians Norm Fisher on bass, Eric Webster on piano, Chris Norquiest on drums, and Johnny Ferriera on saxophone. The ten songs selected for the album were the McLean track, "Always," Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster"--popularized by Howlin' Wolf and The Rolling Stones-- "Just Your Fool," Elmore James's "Dust My Broom," Jimmy Reed's "Going to New York," Taj Mahal's "Cakewalk Into Town," Muddy Waters' "Rollin' And Tumblin'," and St. Louis Jimmy Oden's "Had My Fun." James told LeBlanc, "Although some of these songs are a little overdone [by the blues artists], Dave has made them his own over the years."
by B. Kimberly Taylor
Dave McLean's Career
Attended Mariposa Folk Festival, 1969, where American singer John Hammond gave McLean an informal guitar lesson setting him on his course; worked for several years in folk and blues-styled duos; performed as a solo acoustic folk and blues act, then performed with numerous backing bands, including Black Betty, Cross Cut, and the Muddy-Tones; released Muddy Waters For President, King Alley Productions, 1989; paired up with Calgary-based guitarist Tim Williams in 1998 to record acoustic blues album Fellow Travelers, Cayuse Records; released For The Blues ... Always, Stony Plain Records, 1998.