Sunday, June 21, 2015

Changing of a String

I've had a couple of people post me recently to ask about my string and guitar set ups, so I thought I'd put something up for guitar players. If you are NOT a guitar player, please enjoy the sidebar, and/or skip down to pick up the previous posts of the road adventure which is the National Steel Blues Tour!

I play a variety of electric and acoustic stringed instruments, but mainly I'm known for my finger picking on resophonic guitars. Nationals. With biscuits. That's what I'm going to discuss here. My playing set-up, on my resonators. All about me.

I grew up playing without thumb picks- and therefore without fingerpicks- partially because there were no left handed thumb picks, and partially because most of my early influences mainly played bare thumb, bare finger. I love the voice of resophonic instruments, coaxed out with the bare fingers. I think you get a bigger range of tone possibilities. LOL, yes, even me on my long declared "dead" strings. All that said, the longer I play, the more I believe that each guitar-player combination is unique. And there are times where I would LIKE to be using a thumb pick. I'm not opposed to it in the least, and I wouldn't be surprised to find myself using one of those fancy, left thumb picks sometime in the future. Do I love Morgan Davis' groove? Fred McDowell? Darn straight I do! But that's not how I play.

It's hard to believe that a player like me is as fussy about strings as I am! Bare fingers on dead strings. I have a reputation for rarely changing strings, but I get the sounds I want out of these guitars, and my fans seem to like the sound of them. That's the only important part. Do you like the way your guitar sounds? There's no right and wrong about it. Unless, of course, you are trying really hard to sound like somebody else. Or more like somebody else. All my guitars are strung in a similar way. For my style of playing I prefer slightly lighter bass strings, and slightly heavier treble strings. I like the bass to thump- often dampened- and the treble to carry most of the melodic weight. Also, I hate it when strings squeak- hence my preference for older or seasoned strings. I don't like bright, new strings on my guitars. New wound strings will also grab at the flesh of your fingers- raise blisters, damage callus. I'm not above taking a file, or a little sandpaper to the region of any new strings that will contact my thumb and fingers- my picking hand. I work almost every night, so I don't want to raise a blister- on, or under, even my big, fat callus! And I don't want the slide to be scratchy either- so I may give the whole string a bit of a polish. Flat or semi-flat wound strings may be a good option for some, but I really don't modify to that extent, and I need to use combinations of string gauges not offered in sets. A heavy slide will smooth the strings out nicely over time, too. I use an 11/16 deep socket most of the time on most of my guitars. It's dense and heavy- I like that. I also use some glass, bottlenecks that I've taken off wine bottles. I've got a shotgun barrel slide I've been playing with recently. It's a little light on it's own, but I've jammed a big bolt in the end of it to give it a bit more grab. If your friends are cutting these sorts of weapons down, there's no point wasting the barrels...

The action on my guitars tends to be fairly low. Not really, really, low- I like to whack these strings pretty hard. But you don't need a crazy, high action to play slide- and you probably want to fret the instrument in a conventional way, too. A slightly heavier treble string at a lower action works well for me, and does not result in fret noise.

I don't like strings to break. It's rare that I break a string, and it's even more uncommon for me to break one on stage. It's an event when that happens! Each guitar in the family has it's own similar, but personalized string set. As has been suggested, you can certainly play with fairly light strings on a National. The resonator is going to be pretty loud regardless. And you can mic it up if you want. But you do want enough string underneath your fingers to control, and to ride a slide. As a rule, I really wouldn't change the high E down to .12 on a resonator- if you play very much at all you may well be breaking these, and you probably won't get as much conversation out of the string. A .13, just a tad heavier, might be a better bet. B might be .16-17. For the G you can mix it up: I use plain, unwound Gs on all but one of my guitars. Try a .24. It will never wear out (unlike the wound, .26 strings that last only a few hours before the windings tear), you can still bend it, and it will sound great with a slide. I sometimes use a .26 plain- but that's like bailing wire to most people. I play a lot... My own, typical set ups for the bass side are pretty light- .36-39, .44-48, 48-52. You can run heavier if you want, but unless you are in a bluegrass band, playing with picks, holding a steel, I don't know why you'd need to. I don't need to, anyway. My sixth string is usually not much heavier than the fifth. Works for me.

So read here: I'd suggest buying and changing your strings individually. Keep the string packs- the wrappers- in your guitar case with the date of change written on them. If you break a particular guage more than once, more often than the others, move that string up by one gauge on that guitar. Did it break at the nut or the bridge? Is it mechanical, or does it have more to do with the way you play? After a few months you will have adjusted the guitar-string combination to your playing style and to the personality of the guitar- and, probably, you will rarely break strings. I also apply a little graphite- from a simple pencil- into the nut and bridge slots when I'm changing a string. I think a little more "slip" in these spots can help avoid, or postpone the breaking of strings.

The same advice goes if you like the sound of brand new strings- nothing wrong with that, and they are easier to tune. They do stretch, though. And why go up on stage to tune a package of spanking new strings over and over again? New, but not brand new. The best time to change out a set of strings is probably AFTER a show! Strings will help make, or break, your show and your sound- but you and your hands are still the most important part of your gear. No rules. Go with what works for you. If you've got the sound in your head, with a little work you can probably get it to come out of your hands using almost any guitar-string combination. If you don't have sounds in your head, it's not going to matter how cool your guitars, or strings are. Through my limited contact with Hubert Sumlin, I observed that he always sounded the same, no matter what guitar he was playing. Hubert was cool. The guitars didn't matter. I've told you what works for me.

 I'm changing out the 5th string today because I've had some tuning concerns with it, and because the string seems to have gone beyond the dead thump I like. Who would of thought that the string would last for eight years! That's a lot of shows on my number one guitar. And thousands of hours of busking in all weather. Finally wore through and wore down the windings over the length of it. Changing it out, I'm seeing that the frets, fretboard, and neck also have substantial wear. The frets are cut down to the wood in a couple of places, and form deep ruts everywhere else. The fretboard has some deep hollows, and is quite scalloped in places along the treble side. The neck has now got a little twist which is a little bigger and a little more twisted than it once was. Like me. If this had happened overnight, the instrument would not be playable. As it is, the guitar is played hours every day, and is usually on stage doing shows. To a point, our playing and tuning adapt to the slow changes of an instrument. After that... guitar hospital.

My 1929 National, Type O has not had any work done to it in about 35 years. Well, I fix a machine head every once in a while, but that's it. Soon, she'll take a break and visit a luthier while her sister- the Dark Angel- my 1935 Duolian, gets the centre stage. Meanwhile,  the Type O will finish this 10th annual, National Steel Blues Tour with me. And probably make the next album. Neither of us have retirement plans. She probably has at least another 86 years left in her career.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Riding Over the Hump: Northern Ontario

How quickly the prairie is lost to the shield. Eastbound from Winnipeg, where I spent the morning with my frequent tour pal, Big Dave McLean. He told me that the producer/director of his recently released bio-pic had cut me out to save money. That's the second time this year I've been able to help this way with a bio-pic, so it gives me a strong, move ahead kind of feeling. Right now I'm moving ahead through the scrub lands north and east of Winnipeg. The roads are good for a while, but they grow rougher as the farmland fades to abandoned properties, as the rocks and trees become more prominent.

How quickly do I reach the edge of Manitoba. The eastern edge- where the flatlands die off. Abandoned fields. Forty years of scrub and brush to blow off a hundred years of labour. Medonites. Magazines with stories about Medonite sex. Big, blonde women who wear dresses and braided hair. Men who buy rye in plastic bottles at 4:30 on a Monday afternoon. Ice. Coffee cups. We sit outside a Ukrainian cemetery and drink. The groaning trains on the main line, just behind the trees, the almost forgotten graves. Clever candle holders cut into some of the stones. When was the last candle lit and burnt here? Never to be Forgotten. Mother. Father. Sister. Burn a candle for me when I'm gone. On my birthday. Until I, too, am forgotten, and the stone, lichen covered, tilts dangerously. Soon this stone will fall to join the other forgotten stones, forgotten souls, smashed and run over by the challenged one who drives the lawn tractor. But now it is the black flies that drive us away: the truck in a storm of dust. My car, into the little church parking lot where I shall sleep tonight.

It's a nice ride out of here in the early morning light. A couple of black bears saunder across the road. My camera is buggered up, so by the time I've stopped the car and got it ready, I'm alone on Hwy 44. From here, it's a pretty quick ride out to Ontario. It has a low speed limit, and a low tolerance, so I set the cruise on "slow," turn up the stereo, and roll towards my gig in Kenora, ON. I'm back on the TransCanada, and desperately seeking coffee.

In Kenora, I hit the coffee joint, work the internet, and then go out to check on the Thrift stores. Nothing today. I'm looking for those china, Queen Elizabeth, Canadian bourbon glasses. Nothing like having the old girl scowl at you while you have a drink. These are pretty popular with my pals on the southern route, so I try to stock up when I can.

Although Kenora, ON has come a long way in the past decade, it still has a tough underbelly of lost and damaged First Nations people. Change is underway. Changing economy. Changing opportunities. Changing mind set of a new, younger population with new dreams and ideas. The mercury poisoned residents of Grassy Narrows no longer stagger up and down these hard slopes. Or not as often. Still, I make sure my car is locked up tight when I'm away from it. Syringes litter the sidewalk of this downtown street. Blue skies overhead, I can smell spring flowers in the air.

Tonight I'll be playing a nice club where most of Canada's touring shows stop. Good stage, good lights, good sound. Folks in this old mill town know a lot about music. Some have come here from other places. It's pretty. It's on a big lake. Everybody agrees it has a future. Change is in the wind.

Soon the rocks and trees will be behind me. The rough Northern Sheild just a memory again. The black and white Ontario Provincial Police cruisers- sleek, souped-up SUVs- behind me and no longer following. They were waiting outside my show in Kenora, ON. I didn't get in or start the motor until he hit the traffic circle. Then my pal Dave and I took off in the opposite direction. We circled around to the top of the hill and looked down to watch them looking for the Lincoln. I was good to drive, I just didn't want to go through another Kenora shakedown. I've been here, and had that happen before. But it's a thin line of blacktop across this land. Every escaping criminal running east of west has got to blow through on this little band of road. There's no telling who you might meet. You might get scared. You might suspend constitutional rights for ordinary citizens. Particularly guys in nice looking Lincolns. I could be a doctor, coming in to operate in the morning. The engineer, to assess your bridge. A musician, to bring the Blues to Your Town. Healing music, to a place that still needs healing.

When we got back to the house we played with this 1940s amp that Dave is preparing for me. A very heavy 30 watts! Life is good! Why is the blues so fine? And why do cops love beautiful Lincolns so much? Now, the Tour takes a right hand turn east, and south. The beginnings of a plunge down the map.

Dryden, the smell of money in the air. The mill doesn't employ as many as it once did, and the young folks are drifting away to Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Toronto. No stop this year- but I've played a few shows in the shadow of these stacks. Last winter my car froze solid in this town. Battery shattered, air suspension locked in the down position. Damn cold ride outta here on black ice, semi trucks pushing on my tail, white knuckles on the wheel. Nice to see this place in spring, but I've got six hours of driving- and a time change- before my show tonight. A quick coffee stop, but no time to check in with any of my people.

A quiet night in Thunder Bay. I leave a tour jacket at the Apollo. Did anyone get a picture? My little camera didn't. There's a core of people in Thunder Bay that come out to all my shows, year after year. The Apollo is a great room anyway, but my friends here make every room a great room. I've yet to play the Thunder Bay Blues Festival. But I think I get the picture there. The big picture. Meanwhile, my pals, the band Carmanah, were playing across the street at another venue. We chat between shows, between loading in and loading out. Their first tour. I wish them well, and safe travels.

With construction, it's a ten hour drive to The Sault, ON for tonight's show. My picture is on the door, which is a good sign. But I have not played a show here in 9 years, so I have no idea what to expect on a Thursday night. They have a nice stage and PA, but I end up sitting at the bar- playing a few tunes to the few people that have wandered in for a drink. I'm in here on a door deal, but thankfully the owner gives me enough to cover a tank of gas, plus a bit more. On this Ride Over the Hump back of the Great Lakes, I continue to be thankful for the smallest kindness. We're all on the edge. We're all trying to figure it out. We've all got to ride the wave, or drown.

Hard rock town. Sudbury, ON. Riding the blacktop. Trains outside. Northern Ontario where I used to play six nights at the Colson Hotel. I think that was here. I think that's how you spell it. These places all torn down now. Boarded over in the boarded over mill towns. Faded "cold beer" signs still up on the walls. Places where there used to be a salt shaker on every table. For the beer.

None of the bikers at my gig tonight wore leather. No disputes with the hard rock miners, now mostly retired. Or the railway crews, in from the bush, drinking elsewhere. No FBIs in for a punch up. That's a joke to some, an insult to others. It depends on who's saying it to who, and when. It's not nice. It's historical. It's the way it was. You might laugh. Or you might be mad about it. Part of the almost worn away fabric that covered the seats of this train side town. A place where some things need to be forgotten, and other things need to be remembered. Tonight, it's a mixed crowd of mostly arty professionals and students. Wine and cheese plates. Designer beer. I start early, end early, meet some facebook friends, an old pal from the rough and tumble days. At the end of the night I'm paid $65 by the bar, and make another $50 in tips. Gas money to the next town. I knew this gig was fuzzy around the edges. Not finding it listed on the web, I wasn't going to stop if my picture wasn't in the window. It was. I did. Now I'm going to sleep in the Lincoln Hotel, parked next to the tracks again. These trains will wake me up once in a while. Just to see if I'm still alive. Maybe it is a dream, and I'll wake up in the old Colson to the sound of my drummer screwing a hooker in the next bed. Or maybe I'll wake up to room service at the Best Western in Mobile, AL, wondering, how the hell did I get to this place? Is this the breakfast I thought it would be? Did I order this? Has there been a mistake?

Something is always for sale in Sudbury...

Down the road to Lavigne, a charming and wonderful gig on the shores of Lake Nipissing. My people. They treat me right. I've been here a few times before. A little, francophone community, so I try out my rough, french language skills. I could stay up all night and swap stories with the owners, but I need to be on the road in just a few hours. Meanwhile, the cops have got a road check set up just over the hill. It's the only bar left in the county, so they have nowhere else left to go. Maybe they can close this place down, too. They'll be long gone by morning, and I'll make some time on these empty, secondary highways.

A soft seater at the Orangeville, ON Opera House this afternoon. Here I am with Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival AD Larry Kurtz. As well as being a harmonica player, wood worker, festival director- he's also a painter! Who knew?! Pre-show we stopped in at a Main St. art gallery to check out this painting. I'm honoured.

Post-show, at the Mississippi Tourism booth with my friends Connie "Mississippi Queen" Rouble, and Paul Reddick. This is my only Canadian festival this year. Of course, this is also a country where Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman headline "blues" and "folk" festivals, and money looks funny. Remember the Guess Who? How about BTO's "Takin' Care of Business?" I could get used to the funny money- if I saw more of it. Canadian money, that is. Randy must be a blues guy at heart- he made a blues album this year, I think. Just like Steve Earle. Peg Leg Sam used to say "funny things happen in this world!" And he was right! I sure do miss those days when we used to drink moonshine and play all night outside his little cabin: the young girls and the old girls dancing, calling out "hey, Doc-Tah, hey..." Never did play Mojo. And the only business we took care of was hogs, late at night.

Back in the "Big Smoke," Toronto, ON. Not a moment too soon, either. Power steering pretty much done. Air not working. Tires looking a little smoother. Engine trouble light flashing. Ignition coils acting up... Back in my own kitchen for a few weeks. A stranger in my own house. All the drawers look strange, nothing is in the right place. Everything is just as I had left it nearly three months ago. Even the stuff in the fridge. I pace around. Thankfully I've got some shows to go and play. A car to fix. A garden to weed. Gigs to book. I've come to realize that I'm now more comfortable on the road than off. Maybe it's the city itself. I don't know. I do know the maps on the table. It's not a town that's ever had it's arms around me. Well, rolling through with my big band, hanging out at the Elephant Walk, The Paper Door, The Paramount, Tiger's... After hour joints crammed full of musicians: Donnie and Jane, Wilcox, show bands out of Detroit, out of work boxers, bouncers, jazz guys I should of known. Albert's Hall, The Horseshoe, The Elmo, The Holiday, The Jarvis House, The Algonquin, The Blackhawk, Grossman's Tavern, The Colonial, The Riverboat, The Silver Dollar, Sneaky Dee's, The Black Bull, Spadina House, The Victory, The Bev, The Rivoli, The Purple Onion, The Cameron House, Edgerton's, The Chimney, King of Hearts, The Isabella... There were other rooms, too. But I can't remember them now. Crazy. Crazy energy. Crazy neon nights. Playing hard, soaked in sweat, playing the blues. I blew harp in those days. The upstairs joint where Ben lost his drums, and Wilcox lost his strat in an all night poker game. I wonder who has that guitar now? I never gambled with money. Just with life. And it's all different now.

Working girl. Blues girl. This guitar will never be bought or sold. It will change players again sometime: gripping somebody else, edging out strange sounds from the dark side, telling new stories, old secrets. Sweat. Sex. Booze. Conversations overheard. Hard rooms. Cash. Late nights in 49 states, 10 provinces, two territories. Oh, if this girl had a tongue instead of a fretboard...

Big Chuck played her twenty-five years ago. Some day she'll leave me for another, younger man. Or woman. As long as you touch her right she doesn't care. Delta songster. Cold, nickel plated steel. National Type O. Built in 1929. I string her pretty heavy on the treble side, a bit lighter on the bass. Bare fingers. Dead strings. 250 shows a year across North America. Thanks for riding with me on this western leg of the adventure. Soon we'll go south for a couple of months- Chicago, St. Louis, Mississippi, Alabama... then up the eastern seaboard into Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland... The National Steel "Big X" Blues Tour. North America's biggest little blues tour. Watch for some very special guests down the line.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Prairie Blues

Alberta! The Tour picked up a little more steam with another sold out show in Lethbridge last night. I parked the Lincoln in the loading dock and this was my view early this morning. Rolling toward Saskatchewan now. It's a great map out here: places with names like Seven Persons, Medicine Hat, Manyberries, Wild Horse, Bow Island, Purple Springs... Upcoming in Saskatchewan over the next few days: Kyle, Saskatoon, Wadena, Weyburn, Regina...

The changing prairie. Not changing. Not changing fast enough. The slow pace of the freight trains beating their way across the sky. The slow pace of paint fading, board leaning one direction or another, opening spaces for winter's quiet fingers. Big land, some of it owned by companies with glass offices far away. The family farm. Rocks picked off in spring. The old Case tractor. Just a cluster of trees, some rusted humps where those dreams were made, cheques written. Where war brides shed their tears and men worked themselves to death in the summer sun.

Oil brought strangers here, progress sucking the marrow from the bones of these towns. That church is for sale: you can't fix the roof, and you can't rent a preacher to talk about it. Just thank God that Saskatoon and Regina are only a few hours away. Escaping youth, escaping the emptiness. Escaping the high price of diesel, escaping to the glitter of lights, the smell of mould in a double wide. Indian mufflers. Bud's on Broadway on a Saturday night. Almost too drunk to climb up the old fire escape and squeeze through the back door. Almost too drunk to remember this tattoo, that girl.

It's way too early in the morning, as it often is when I wake up in the Lincoln. The night was warm enough, but sleep was punctuated by the occasional shuffling of the homeless and intoxicated up and down the alley. I kill a few minutes taking pictures as the sun comes up, then change my clothes, perform my toilet behind the car, pack the bedding, throw out the trash, stretch, and stretch again. Coffee time. I head out onto the silent, golden streets: looking for breakfast, looking for cheap gas.

I've got about four hours of driving to get to tonight's show- a house concert up in Kyle, Saskatchewan. That's north of Swift Current, a town I've driven through at least twice a year for ten years- and only played once. My show tonight will be hosted by a woman who used to be involved with the Calgary Blues Festival. She's retired to this little place, and intends to give the scene a friendly nudge. Meanwhile, I've got eight or ten hours. Time to explore a bit. Stocked up with an extra large coffee and a full tank of cheap, Alberta gas, I'm off. Eastbound. Coaldale. I circle through the residential area, down what's left of the main street. I could of stayed out here last night, if only I'd called Nancy. Or not.

The small towns are mostly getting smaller. Not much like towns anymore. Not like the towns I think I remember. Hollow shells of what once was. Mall sites for the slick, multinational corporations that mine these places and drain the money off to far away shareholders. Drain the money. Take the Tim Horton's coffee franchise, which brings in workers from the Phillipines on temporary visas. Take the Home Depot: it's massive footprint, it's sweltering parking lots and overnight architecture. A place with many millions of dollars of imported inventory, a place with many millions of dollars of annual sales. A place where they want you to use an automated checkout so they can eliminate a couple more, minimum wage positions from the town they have occupied. These companies have no real bond with the communities they dominate, while the communities themselves have fewer and fewer reasons to be communities. There's no glue left. Only gasoline fumes behind the vacant buildings, and tense, out of town RCMP cops patrolling the streets. Here, they drive by me once, twice, three times.

You could say the small towns need to be tough and make better deals, or you could say that times are changing. You could make a good living trying to explain this to college students, or at a boardroom table. These empty town streets: artifacts of a way of life that is gone- evolved into a last stage, end game. What will the new world look like? Who will buy the products sold in the superstores? You can bet that when the life blood is gone, these businesses too, will vanish back into the cities that sent them thirsty and greedy to the prairie. What strange landscape will these little places be in twenty-five, or fifty years?

Alberta- easily the most conservative region in Canada. Or that was their reputation. Now they've just turfed out the government they've had for a generation. It's all about oil, natural resources. It's all about Big. But after years of big pay packets, the place is broken: pockets picked clean by resource companies and those who made the deals for them. Why would you want to build a pipeline across the continent to refine oil in Texas and Louisiana when you could do it in Medicine Hat? Why wouldn't you just ship finished product, instead of buying it back? My fuel costs on the Tour are nearly twice as much on the Canadian side. Anyway, now we'll see what the new, centre left, New Democratic Party brings to the table. Provincially. Maybe nationally as well...

The changing prairie. There was a time when the Hutterites might have walked naked through the streets to burn the Parliament. Now they vote, and vote hard. You can't buy back the ruined little towns, abandoned spurs, fallen elevators and broken farms. But you can always dream.

Over the last 9 years my Canon, Powershot A560 camera has taken nearly 20 thousand pictures of the Tour. Well, I've taken the pictures- and used this camera. Now, it is suffering. I've dropped it off the roof of the car more than a couple of times, it's been through a car wreck, it's been underwater, but it seems to have survived those traumas relatively unscathed. I think it may just be age. Still, when the shutter fails to open, or the flash won't flash, or it just doesn't do what is requested or expected- it can be a little frustrating. I've thrown out more pictures than I've kept on this tour. Pics that just didn't turn out. Beyond salvage. On the up side- I've had to work at the software a little harder to produce images that are at least somewhat presentable. I have friends who take really good pictures (heck, you may be one of them!), so over the last couple of years I've tried a little harder to watch and learn. But, for sure, I've had to work harder to bring images to the Blog this year.

Not a traffic warning. One of my favourite place names anywhere. I'm guessing that more like 100 people may live at Seven Persons. I've never actually seen anybody- but I've driven past their houses, the little bar, and the store.

A stop in Medicine Hat, AB, to visit pawn shops and thrift stores. I buy nothing, and find no temptation. Instead, I find a cafe with internet. Here, I open the virtual office and get down to business. Strangely, I am booking shows in St. Louis, Mississippi and Newfoundland from this dot on the prairie map. Facebook also demands frequent updates- part of the reason my blogs are no longer posted daily.

Here's a mural in downtown Medicine Hat. While it features a quote from R Kipling saying "don't change the name of this place," it also grabs at the fundamentals of the region. Fossil fuels: big oil, big coal, the power of the railways, wheat, the working farmer, and the native American heritage that underpins it all. Fittingly, this is painted on the back of a liquor store. You can see the sign just above the art. Behind the garbage bins, a couple of homeless First Nations people lie sleeping in the shade. There are way too many First Nations people sleeping in the shade across this land. Sleeping in the shade, far from hope, far from salvation. Sleeping in the snow, sometimes forever. Canada's dirty secret is it's 1876 Indian Act, an apartheid-like bill which remains largely in place today. This was Ottawa's attempt to assimilate- or perhaps simply pacify or disable- Canada's native people through the systemic destruction of culture, language, social and political organization. While a reserve system contained- and continues to contain- First Nations people on often remote and always separate lands, well over 150 thousand children were removed from their homes and families and sent away to residential schools. The last of these closed in 1996. This is a dark stain over race relations in Canada, particularly in western Canada. It left a generation damaged and largely dysfunctional. Lost. Canada, like America, is moving on- but in Canada the moving is slow. The after effects linger on the streets and in the prison system like a bad hangover. Ordinary people are going to change this world. The churches and the politicians have had their turn.

The blues itself. The race card. What's that? Not yet color blind after all these years. It depends on who's asking, or hiring. Or why their asking, or hiring. Still fought over, re-invented, stolen, stolen back, made up, remembered and forgotten. The fact that we're still talking about it means we are not yet where we need to be. Ordinary people are going to change this world.

Driving today. Out of Alberta. Saskatchewan. Somebody told me it has more miles of roads than any other province. That might be true.

Small town hotels don't feature many shows anymore- but they sure are good places to connect with local folks. I had a really nice time playing a house concert just a couple of blocks from this old hotel. Good people. Good stories. Good things in small places you might miss in the folds of a map. I'm reminded of how much I enjoy performing in small towns all over Canada and the United States. These are not just shows- they are connections, openings into the mysteries of time and space. Well, the mysterious lives of others, at least. One always returns as a friend of somebody.

Saskatoon. "Toon Town." A city, not a town, really. But a friendly place with deep blues roots. Bud's is one of the last of the big beer joints. Six, sometimes seven nights of music. It used to be six nights of blues. Touring bands. Live upstairs in a couple of band apartments. Live wild. Live. Just for the joy of it. When beer was king. When love was free. When some of us were young and foolish. When others were old and foolish. Climb the fire escape, drunk. And howl at the moon. Now I've got three nights here. Solo. The band apartment is clean, and quiet. I keep it tidy. I've got my choice of beds. No wifi. There's a television, but I never do turn it on- so I don't know if it works or not.

The bar managers here are friendly and experienced. They know what's what, and who's who. And they pour me drinks. So, we're a good little team. If it's quiet, I'll quit early, or start late. If it's busy, I'll work the house. The first night is pretty quiet. The second two nights I play four sets. There's red wine. No driving. A whole bunch of friends from the Saskatoon Blues Society drop by over the three nighter. After ten years of shows, I've got a whole lot of friends and fans here, and it's always great to catch up. Not to mention that this is MY blues society. Every blues fan should join a blues society- and this one is mine. They do such a good job! Role models for so many other organizations. Or they ought to be. This organization has really made a difference over the years, and has helped cultivate some great local, regional, national, and international talent while building a large, well informed audience. Here, in this prairie town. Prairie Blues. On Sunday I go down the block after my gig. There's a blues jam running late. I play a short set with local players backing me up. Lynn Victoria on bass, and C. C. "Che" McGhee on drums. One of Brownie's boys, and a fine player in his own right. Go figure. Small world sometimes, for all the miles and hours, all the years, all the gasoline. Brownie taught me a lot about how to live as a traveller. I have fond memories of him teaching me how to solder wires to fix an amp. A long ago afternoon, before a long ago show in Oakland, California. And now, in a dusty, Canadian prairie town, a bit of that same generous smile behind me. Walk on. Walk on.

The early morning view from my apartment over Bud's on Broadway.

I've got a down day in the middle of Saskatchewan. A Wednesday I couldn't even give away. Funny how that happens sometimes. Prince Albert has never been a blues town. Two kinds of music: Country and Western. My friends Scott and Cathy have got a farm outside Wadena, and they come to my rescue. I'll roll in a day early for my Wadena show. I kill part of the day on the Yellowhead Highway by stopping at the many wrecking yards along the way. Amigo's, just outside of Saskatoon, is a great yard.  My Lincoln needs a couple odds and ends, but Lincoln Row has been picked clean since my last visit. Ford Row is still pretty good- I've got a 63 Galaxie, and I'm always looking for parts for that. Nothing I could pull and carry, so I buy a Coke and hang out in the office for a while. It's a busy yard, and I love the smell of oil and tires. Sometimes they let me walk around yards like this: just looking at the hulks. Who drove this? When? And why? How did it come to be here- with that shoe under the front seat?

By late afternoon I'm on loose, Saskatchewan gravel, rolling up to the farm. Scott is in from working the fields, and it's hot enough to drink beer- so we do. Because we can. He's worked a lot harder and longer than I have today, but I was in a little Saskatoon speak until 3:30 in the morning! After cooling down we go out to check on the cattle. It's calfing time, and there is one cow past due he wants to check on. I stay in the truck as he slowly approaches her, and sits down nearby. Clearly something is happening. It's a standing birth! Not uncommon, but not something I've witnessed before. As we watch, the calf bursts from the mother and lands on the ground with a distinct thud. Within a few minutes the newborn is on it's feet, and we are on our way.

Here's the old Anglican church at Wadena, SK. Soon to be closed. Soon, perhaps, to be torn down. And soon this Tour will move east to Ontario, south to St. Louis, Mississippi, Alabama. Other pictures, other stories. I'm not ready to be torn down yet. But I'll miss this little hall.

Flooding is a growing problem in parts of Saskatchewan. As some people figure out how to drain their lands, others are left with water covered fields. Increased foreign ownership of farm and ranch lands may also be a factor. Investment companies don't have neighbours, but they often have good lawyers.

Down into south Saskatchewan. I think you'd need TWO hands to hold this. Should be a Two Hand Gun Club... I'm heading down to the border area to play a show in Weyburn. Tommy Douglas came from Weyburn, SK... I've got enough in my pocket that I'm going to check in to a motel tonight instead of sleeping behind the venue! Just across the street there is a likely spot...

It's a small show- so I'm glad it is sold out. Nice folks in southern Saskatchewan.

Pointed east now. Just one more true, prairie show on this National Steel Big X Blues Tour. Someday, maybe all these grain elevators will be gone. There was a time when every town had them. And all these well tagged trains. Who are these people? The ones who tag these trains? Are they here, stuck in places like Milestone, SK, watching their tags leave town? Sneaking down to the tracks for a joint, a cigarette, a whiff of the oil soaked ties? Here, under Big Sky, they send their marks away. A surrogate escape, a token freedom, maybe a shout at a bigger world. Maybe they'll write a hit song, or a bad cheque, or hitch hike to Vancouver, looking for the bright lights.

Regina, SK. The opening band, Carmanah, were so good that I invited them to play the rest of the night with me. We had fun. My pals from the Regina Blues Society came out. Dale, who has put me up many times. Redbeard, who has promoted shows for me, played me on his radio shows, and has been a long time supporter. Others. People who bought the Narrow House cd when it was new. People who came to theatre gigs in towns like Moose Jaw, Estevan and Redvers. It means a lot to me. This show didn't get past the small print listings, and the Regina Folk Festival people didn't show up for the 10th consecutive year, but somehow that didn't matter so much this time around. After we packed out, the band invited me back to their digs- the Walmart parking lot. In the early morning, I pulled out alone. Bound for Winnipeg.

Train tag photographed at Indian Head, SK.

Winding up two months of shows across western Canada. The last couple of weeks under big sky- across the badlands and the flatlands of Alberta and Saskatchewan. House concerts in one syllable towns. Community halls. Churches. Classic old blues rooms tracing the ghost roads of the old northern circuit. Back when beer was king, and the bands came up out of Chicago to St. Paul, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmnton, Calgary, Banff... Two months of six night shows for real money. Thick smoke drifting under hot lights. Bourbon. Pinball and pool. Girls living wild and dangerous. Plenty of blues DNA left across the dusty prairie. Maybe some of mine. And now, there's plenty of time to think about all this as I drive the open spaces. A one man show, living in broken rooms, living in my car, living in the shadows of what was, trying to carry a torch for what is, bringing the Blues from town to town. Thanks for riding along with me on the Blues Highway. Next: over the Hump of the Great Lakes.