Calgary Bluesfest (2009)
When I was six, my father, a radio journalist, brought home some discarded LPs from the radio station. (They played them a certain number of times and then got rid of them, because the grooves would wear out.) One of them was a blues LP called 'The Golden Blues Hour', with 20 tracks, from John Hurt to Buddy Guy. There was a live recording of Big Bill Broonzy doing 'Louise' at the 1938 Spirituals To Swing Concert on that LP, and some live recordings from, I think, the Newport Jazz Festival: John Lee Hooker doing what I still think of as the definitive version of 'Tupelo', Lightnin' Hopkins singing about his father, a "sack-shaker," who made him carry heavy bags of cotton, Muddy Waters praising the skills of a 19-year old girl whom, alas, he can't satisfy, and Otis Spann singing 'Sometimes I Wonder' through a cold. I haven't heard that LP in a long time, but I still hear many of the songs in my head - that's how often I listened to it.
My taste for blues was re-enforced by some radio programmes I heard while my mother was labouring away in the kitchen. One was an adaptation of Paul Oliver's 'The Story Of The Blues', with songs by Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, Bumble Bee Slim and Big Maceo. One Bumble Bee Slim, with a distinctive falsetto howl, appealed to me especially. Although I kept bugging my parents to buy me more blues records, they weren't that readily available then, and certainly the pre-war blues guys were hard to come by. I finally heard the Bumble Bee Slim tune again at Roger Miesewicz place a few years ago: "Here I go, locked up in jail again, whooo-hooo" But Leroy Carr and Big Maceo also entranced me. The other radio programme I remember from those days was one on the songs of black American prisoners. That was some powerful singing. I remember one tune, 'On A Monday', where the singer seems to break down crying with rage while he's singing: "Ain't that enough, boss, to change a poor man's mind?" Again, it took many years before I finally tracked down the recording, but the song rang in my brain all the time.
In short order, one of my dad's aunts died and left him a piano. By then I had discovered Memphis Slim and was avidly listening to everything he recorded that I could get my hands on. Well, of course I started fooling around on the piano, pretending to be Memphis Slim, pounding the keys and hollering songs I could barely understand. I was maybe seven or eight. My father generally encouraged me and brought over some of his friends from the radio station. One was a saxophone player who loved bebop, the other was a folkie who played flute, banjo and guitar. We got together quite often, at least once a week, and spent hours jamming. I also tried my hand at other instruments: harmonica, trumpet and trombone. But I don't remember much of that.
In high school I occasionally played at fund raisers, spaghetti suppers and so on, and also got into some bars. There was a piano player named Don French who sometimes let me sit in with him. An insurance salesman who came to the house turned out to be a blues guitarist named Poor Charley Robertson. We played together often, and he had me play on some of his gigs at a coffee house named the Moondog. I also taught his son a little piano. Then there was 'Fast Eddie' Anderson, a drummer who dated my mom for awhile. He knew how to cook excellent soul food and set up his kit in our basement, so we could jam together. In the 1980s, I used to creep into Pop The Gator, where Mel Brown was hosting a regular Wednesday Night jam. I'd picked up a little guitar by then, making up my own chords and rhythms. The first time I wanted to jam, Mel made me wait till the bitter end. But then he liked my singing so much, he started dancing along with the music and let me play almost half an hour, and said I could come back any time. Which I did.
Then came university and other commitments. I didn't have much time for music, although I occasionally played guitar at the student's pub. But when I came to Toronto in 1996, I hadn't played for quite awhile. I was going through a rough time then, for many reasons I'd prefer to forget, and I sought solace in the beer and the unpretentious, undemanding camaraderie of the bars in Kensington Market. There was always somebody playing something, no matter how inebriated they were, so eventually I got up the nerve to jam. The first time was at Cafˇ Kim on Kensington, which NOW Magazine once described as "a rogue's gallery of assorted riff-raff." The first time I played, I got a lot of free beer; the next time, they asked me if I wanted to do a gig there. I still play at Kim's every Tuesday night. It used to be just guitar, but they recently bought a piano.
Back then, there were two other bars in Kensington Market that got me started. One was Graffiti's, where they let me play piano quite often and occasionally gave me a gig. One day I was playing there when Madagascar Slim happened to drop in. So he jammed with me, although, unfortunately, my guitar was in shitty shape that day. I had broken some strings, and all I could replace them with were very soft electric guitar strings. Well, they bent like wet spaghetti. It was okay for me, because I played mostly piano, but Slim was stuck having to play these things. (Mostly, I play mediums - 13 gauge or so.) But he took it with good humour, and although he's very busy, we remain friends, and he recently recorded some very tasty guitar with me at Ken Whiteley's studio. He's on the CD "The World You Live In," together with Bob Mover on saxophone. (More on him shortly.) Slim is doing very well now. He's won a Juno and is touring all over the world, including a recent two-month tour of Europe with Taj Mahal.
The other major hang-out for me was Robert Khaled's Baldwin Street Restaurant. I first met Robert at Grossman's. I wasn't playing, just listenting, and there was a piano player there. Robert started talking to me and told me he had a bar. So we went there, and they had a piano in the back. He let me play it, and said that he thought I was better than the piano player we'd just heard at Grossman's, and if I wanted, I could play there every Monday night. Of course I wasn't better than that piano player, but Robert loves the old blues and knows more about it than anybody else; he's got an amazing collection of recordings and videos. And I think he heard that old pre-war blues influence in my playing. Robert is an amazing cook and a very good friend. I often hang out till the wee hours of the morning at his place, listening to old blues. Robert's bar was a place where I met many fine musicians. I heard John T. Davis there, and Kingsley Etienne, and saxophonists Doug Richardson, Jim Heineman and Bob Mover. I also met Ken Yoshioka there, playing harmonica with a very good jazz guitar player. Sometime later, I met a guitarist, Mike Robertson, who had a vintage 1934 National steel guitar and knew all sorts of old blues, hillbilly and ragtime songs. Ken, Mike and I eventually formed a trio, called 'Dark Holler' (after an old Clarence Ashely tune). We recorded a little CD called 'Mother Earth' in 1998, but it's all gone now. We still play around town occasionally. And one day, while I was pounding the piano, David Rotundo walked in with his harps. From then on, whenever we met - which was often, because we both lived in Kensington Market - we went to Robert's bar to play. David's band, the Blue Canadians, is doing well now. I played piano on their first CD, and occasionally I join them for a gig. David and I often work as a duo as well.
Gradually I started spreading out to other bars around town. I also did a bit of traveling to Detroit and Chicago. Chicago was great; Mike Robertson and I went there in 1999, and saw Robert Lockwood, Henry Townsend, Honeyboy Edwards and Homesick James, all in their 80s, all playing together at a coffee house called The Hot House. At the end of the show, there was a little jam, and I got to play one tune on the piano. Henry Townsend, who's been recording since 1928, looked over my shoulder and said: "That boy's got the idea." We also got into a private memorial for Willie Dixon at the old Chess Studio on South Michigan Ave., because Mike knew Shirley King (B.B.'s daughter), and she invited us. She didn't show up herself, but we saw many fine blues musicians there, including Billy Branch, who did a song paying tribute to all the old harmonica players who used to "cut" him - Shakey Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, etc.
In 2000, Mike, Ken and I went to a jam at L'Arte, which had just opened up at 2060 Dundas W. We got a regular gig there, and I still play there every Monday night. L'Arte was a hotspot for musicians. There was a virtuoso bass player from Russia, Alex Boldyrev, who played with me (and everybody else) for about a year before returning to Russia. And whenever he was in town, Bob Mover would play at L'Arte, sitting in with me regularly. I'd first heard Bob in Kensington Market, but had been too shy to talk to him. He's got an incredible pedigree, having played with Charles Mingus, Chet Baker and a whole lot of other jazz heavyweights. He also played with Lightnin' Hopkins once, and told me how the bass player had complained to him about Lightnin's idiosyncratic chord changes. "Well," Bob Mover said, " Lightnin's right over there. Why don't YOU go and tell him he don't know how to play the blues." Bob has done some recording with me as well. One day, the owner of the Kiwi Kick (1986 Bloor W.) heard me at L'Arte and liked it so much, he hired me and bought a piano so I could play at his place. I am still there twice a week.
L'Arte isn't just a music venue, it's also a gallery and hosts poetry readings, magic shows and so on. Andrew Demciuch, the owner, is a man with a vision. He wants to start a sort of international musical and artistic exchange. Bringing Alex Boldyrev over from Russia was part of that. In April of 2002, Andrew sponsored a tour of Volgograd and Moscow for me and David Rotundo. We joined up with Alex there, playing 12 gigs in two weeks at a variety of venues, from little places like Hudozhnik, where ordinary Russians could party, to bigger venues, including the great Concert Hall in Volgograd (there were 700 people, and the concert was broadcast live on Russian TV). We also played at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow and at Le Club, an internationally famous jazz bar with outrageous cover charges and high prices, where the audience is correspondlingly well-heeled. It all went very well, and we hope to do it again.
The highlight of the tour, for me, was not musical, though. It was visiting the monument to the Battle of Stalingrad at Mamayev Hill in Volgograd. It's dominated by a towering figure of Mother Russia, calling the people to battle. Nearby is a rotunda with an eternal flame popping out of the ground, and rows upon rows of names of the fallen all along the walls. Further down, there is a long staircase, leading all the way down to the Volga, with sculptures and statues depicting scenes of war, suffering and heroism all along the way. It is one of the most imposing, powerful and moving monuments I've ever seen.
In August of 2002, Andrew also organized a tour of Cuba for me. David couldn't go this time, but he may join me in the future. We went with Livan Castro, a Cuban-born artist based in Toronto, who had an exhibition in Cuba. We went to Havannah, Varadero, Santa Clara and Camajuani. In Varadero, I played at Arenas Blancas, a 5-star resort, together with Los Hurricanes, their regular band. They had me start off the night with a set of solo piano tunes and the joined me on stage. For the rest of the night, we alternated songs, me playing along on piano or guitar with some of their material, and they accompanying me with guitar, trˇs and percussion on some of my blues. Most of the tour, however, took place inland, away from the beaches (and hence, the tourists).
All in all, I played with about 25 different musicians, all of them very good. I played some blues, but also joined them on some Cuban music. It was difficult for me, since I'd never played Cuban music before, and I was afraid there would be a major train wreck, but it all went surprisingly well. In Santa Clara, I was part of a programme hosted by the group Sacramonte, which features an excellent vocalist and a dancer, and which does both Cuban music and Cubanized flamenco. I played along with some of their songs, did a few solo sets and was joined for some blues by a group featuring an excellent young trombonist from the Symphony Orchestra. When the show was over, we all went to a local park and jammed until daybreak.
Camajuani was a sight to see. For 105 years, every year the town holds a festival, with lots of street partying, art and music. The tonn is divided into rival teams - the Chivos (sheep) and the Sappos (frogs) - and each builds an impressive float, several storeys high, complete with paintings, sculptures, light-shows, costumed actors, fireworks and music. Everything is made by hand. They keep their ideas secret from each other until the last minute. Then, on the last day of the carnival, they bring out the floats, at a party which lasts well into the wee hours of the morning. I've never seen anything as creative. As part of the festival, there was a concert at the Casa Cultura, in which I participated as well.
Over the years, some of Toronto's finest blues musicians have sat in with me, and sometimes hired me to play with them. Paul Reddick has come to jam with me a number of times and has done quite a bit of recording with me. He's doing really well, opening up for the likes of B.B. King and Buddy Guy and touring the States with his band, The Sidemen, which has won several awards. Michael Pickett has sat in with me a few times and hired me to do a festival gig with his band. Brian Blain, Rick Zollkower and others have come to jam with me and had me on some of their gigs. I currently play seven or eight gigs a week. At the beginning of October, 2002, I will be in Germany for two weeks. Then it's back to the regular rounds.