Friday, October 30, 2015

Eastbound: Quebec, and into the Maritimes

My own kitchen party: my mom fiddling a few sets to launch the next leg of the Tour. She's still pretty quick, and she knows way more tunes than I do! It's been ten years since I've been in Toronto in the autumn. A nice visit, but now the geese are in the sky, and the time has come to point the Lincoln east. Maybe I'll ask mom to play the closing show with me in December...

Meanwhile, it's a clean road. I pick up a $190 ticket for having an out of province plate in an unposted construction zone. Welcome to Quebec...

My first stop is Morin Heights, Quebec. North of Montreal. Up the AutoRoute. Fast Quebec road. A place where the fast lane is European fast through the humpy, worn down mountains of the Laurentians. I last played here in the early 1980s-  a big show with my big band. This time I'm solo to a house concert. Do I miss the trucks of gear, the wardrobe, the road manager, the big sound on the big stage? Well, yes, a little- but I'm focused on tonight's adventure. Shows like this one are much more relaxed. My host used to operate a Cantina on the main street where- back in the 1970s- I was a frequent visitor and performer. It was a busy place. Poets, playwrites, film makers, draft dodgers... musicians. I met Jessie Winchester there, I'm pretty sure. Le Studio was just down the highway, and there was always a little buzz on about who might be recording.

On the wall: pictures of the cafe scene. Pictures of my friends. People I haven't seen since. I can't remember the names. But the faces- frozen forever young. I remember those girls. The young men with long hair and wild clothes. I can't remember the names. Well, maybe a few. And where are they today? Where did they go? What did they do? Then there's the other face. How could I forget the joy and sorrow of having my heart truly broken here, all those years ago?

House concert. My pal Andrew Cowen, from the Stephen Barry Band comes to visit. Plenty of familiar faces. A fun show. In the last set- Tour jacket raffle winner! Genuine satin, white stripe Tour jacket!

Soon, Quebec City looms large...

Little blues bar in the Limoilou district. Here: my view from the Lincoln Hotel outside. I won the blues challenge again today- stayed alive, played a show, got paid. That's the real blues challenge: cut this thing with life, soak in the neon, chase it down. The blues fantasy tour: parallel in the other part of your mind. Crowds. Girls. Laughter in the dressing room. A cab to the Marriott. A tip for the doorman. "Did you have a good show tonight, Sir?" Meanwhile, it's getting cold here. I'll be running the motor on and off until dawn. And then I'll be gone. Eastbound for Atlantic Canada. Big road blues: always good when the wheels are rolling, white lines unfolding behind, opening ahead to the horizon, to the crack in the road where it all disappears, to the edge of the sky where it all starts again. Then stop.

Blues on the river. It's not the Mississippi- it's the St. Lawrence. It's not muddy, or shallow- but it is big and cold. Like all rivers, it is filled with stories. Here they ripple on the surface. Wink. Hide. Part of the impenetrable mystery which is Quebec. More than a different language. A deep culture with deep secrets. Crosses in the distance. The smell of wood smoke, cigarettes. The sound of bells. The silver tin roof. Churches and strip joints. High art and cheap beer served in quart bottles. Crosses in the distance. I love this place. It is welcoming, yet insular, exclusive. I explore it- and sometimes it wraps it's arms around me, whispering over red wine.

Along the Twenty, on the south shore. Then, New Brunswick...

I suit up and run about 10 km from Fredericton to Marysville and back. There's a nice trail system along the Nashwaak which includes this old railway bridge across the St. John river.

Lord Beaverbrook looks down on me in Officer's Square, Fredericton. Not a blues fan, I guess...

Blood mist rising from the early morning river. A fire in the air behind City Hall. Glad to be here, but today I'm taking the back roads north to Miramichi, NB. I'll be back on Saturday for a Halloween show with Matchstick Mike. The Maritimes is busy this month with Watermelon Slim, Big Dave McLean, Joe Murphy, Monkey Junk, and the 24th St. Wailers all doing dates as well. Whole lotta shows for a little area like this! Those are all friends of mine, but it does explain why bookings to the region have been as difficult as they have been this year. The population base is pretty small, and there are only a limited number of venues and entertainment dollars.

Breakfast at Joe's Diner, and then I follow the river north...

The Maritimes in fall. Crisp air. Guns, moose, deer, salmon. I'm not sure who's got tags for what- but they got 'em. Before I know it, I'm up in Red Bank, New Brunswick with my pal Matchstick Mike. When he lived in the big city he was a wild man, guitar hero rocker. Up here, he's a guide and a hunter. For our first rehearsal we go out and shoot guns. I can still hit a target at 100 yards... I get "scoped" a little bit on the first round, but after that I get it together. We go back to the house and play guitar the rest of the night. Dark out here. Cars coming in out of the blackness. Dogs barking. James Ready beer in flimsy cans. I don't ask Mike about the bullet holes in the front window, but I don't sit in front of it either! Mike will be doing some shows with me for the next couple of weeks across New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. I'm looking forward to having him along. I'm a lucky man that the Blues Highway brings me to so many fine people and places. Real music for real people in real time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

End of Summer: Old Questions, New Adventures

Toronto. I've had a long affair with this place, but it's been fleeting, and not always loving. When you are on the road over 200 days a year for over 10 years, it's not easy to call it- or anyplace-  a "home town." Toronto has never tried to claim me for it's own, either. I don't belong to it, and somehow the town knows that. Deep in it's bones. Suspicious. It's a place where authenticity tends to flood in from the suburbs: weekend warriors with the right hats, the right gear, sensible pensions, practical daytime professions. Of course I'm jealous. And not.

No, you don't have to suffer in some specific way to appreciate the blues- one only needs to be human. That's complicated enough. This healing music, these healing stories, the placement of the spirit on the edge of the string, on the edge of the chair, the edge of the world, the edge of my pocket knife. Would you jump off, and not come back? Fall off? Would you risk your life? Not on purpose, but by accident? Some strange twist of fate. Down on your knees like the Wolf. Out of your body like Son. Sometimes that's probably what might save your life. Or my life. Or not. Sometimes it's just being near to it. Like dreaming. The sounds you hear before dawn. Pan slinking by on cloven feet. Waking up in the back seat of your car. Waking up in Mavis Staples' hotel room, watching the mist rising off the water, the early sun full of itself and flushed with opportunity.

But that's not Toronto, a town progress has left without strongly identified blues places. The empty lot where the Colonial Tavern used to be: where Buddy Guy and Junior Wells used to come in and play 5 nights, where I saw Wolf on his hands and knees, where Colin Linden and I opened shows for Muddy Waters... The ghosts of Grossman's Tavern, The Silver Dollar Room, The Victory, the El Mo, the Paramount: the memory of neon and smoke, draft beer and laughter spread down Spadina Ave. The Market: Chickens running around. Old, Jewish businesses not yet pushed out by ChinaTown, not yet retired, not yet willing to leave. Sammy, selling me my hats, steaming the brims. Have you heard of a "hat trick?" Uptown: Coming in the back door of the Riverboat. Two shows a night with Sonny and Brownie. Walking and wheeling my Super Reverb through the Market at 3 AM, showtime at Tiger's. Paper Door. Elephant Walk. All the speaks we'd play until dawn.  Jane and Donnie. Ben banging the drums too loud. Wilcox puts his strat on the gaming table. Bo Diddley coming in for a little jam. But it's all gone. Gone. It's all different now. Like everywhere else, the small shows are getting smaller, while the big shows have more production gear and crew than musicians and instruments. It's all different. And it's always different. Not better, not worse. Different. Live music, the way we used to consume it and make it, has changed.

The scene: always changing. Graffiti: a new generation paints new things on the walls. And that's how it should be. The focal points are more properly some of the players themselves. And even these are shifting, moving about from month to month. This cafe, that bar, which second Tuesday, in this band and that. There was a time when there were great blues rooms here in Toronto. And good blues rooms. There still are some cool rooms- but most are smallish, local affairs. Tip jar rooms with long residencies. Nothing wrong with that. In Canada it is mostly about bass and drums. Toronto, long lost in the red glow of my tail lights. You never know. You might get lucky. You might hear a story you haven't heard before. Or not.

Big times in Hollandale, Mississippi. A new stone for Sam Chatmon, unveiled before the Sam Chatmon Blues Festival. Butch, Libby Rae, Roy... and a whole bunch of other good folks helped make this happen. Sam was a great friend and mentor to so many of us! And look at us over 30 years beyond his passing! It was kind of cool to see the words "Stop and Listen" on the new bench next to the stone. I had suggested that, and I guess everybody ran with it. Back in the day, Sam used to tell me "getting old is good for business." That would of been my number two pick. For the bench, that is. But I sure hope he was right!

Meanwhile I've got the Lincoln pointed towards Atlantic Canada. Quick stop in Ontario where I had hoped to do a Toronto Blues Society showcase event for the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals. Not folked up enough, I guess... No, plenty of good acts- I'm just disappointed that I failed to make the TBS cut for a showcase. I didn't get to play the Blues Summit showcases, either. Simply put, there is now an abundance of authentic blues artists in the region and across the country. Quite a few own high end guitars, cigar boxes, custom made microphones. Some have even been to Chicago. Or Memphis. Or both. Of course, I'm jealous. Or not. I need a fret job, and I could put some of that money into new tires- but I do get to play all the magic places lost in the folds of the maps. Yeah, magic places. 

After ten solid years of the Tour I really need, more than ever, to connect face to face with more of the Canadian folk festival scene movers and shakers. And that's difficult when they don't often come out to independent live shows over ten provinces and two territories. Without access to the Canadian folk and blues festivals it's getting to be pretty difficult to continue working as I have been in Canada. So, next year it may be a little different. Maybe a lot fewer Canadian shows. I won't blow off the European festivals anymore, that's for sure. (Call me, Franz, I no longer need to room with Willie Nelson.) I probably mentioned in an earlier blog that I am working on a book based on my adventures along the National Steel Blues Tour. It's not about the South. It covers 1000 shows in Canada, mostly by road- but also by boat, dogsled and small aircraft. Critics will eventually tell you what they think it's about. Time will tell more stories.

The business may be getting old, but today, in Canada, the National Steel Big X Blues Tour continues. No agents, managers, tour busses, or fancy new guitars. Apparently no showcases, either. Damn! Come to think of it, that's not so bad. At my age, summer is clearly over. Fall is underway. Winter is in the distance. Snow in the color of my hair. Vulgar vagabond! After 42 years of travel and shows, I still stop for coffee, and piss where I please.

On the Atlantic Tour I've got some really fun shows lined up- including a gig at the East Coast Amateur Boxing Club in Halifax.

Rockford, Nova Scotia. Six rounds, pre-show bare knuckle. A place that doesn't Google well. Near Bedford, Nova Scotia. Yeah, just behind the pounders in the picture there is a boxing ring. When the Tour reaches Maritime Canada in a few weeks time- I'll be there. The East Coast Amateur Boxing Club. Hands down, one of the coolest gigs on the Big X Blues Tour. It's the first show in my career where fans can actually get ringside seats. I may tape up before the gig, I don't know. But I will be in the Ring, with my guitars to back me up. Saturday, November 14, 225 Bedford Highway, near the ghost of Africville.

Africville. Do you know about that? They say that used to be one tough town. Now: all sucked into the big city of Halifax. Africville- exotic colours and smells. Gone. All but forgotten now, it's memory like a mirage in the shadow of the big bridge. I've stood there and looked at it. Squinting in the small hours. The tuneless hum of traffic nearby. There was Blues here. Jazz. A black town in Canada. It wasn't rich, and it wasn't pretty- but it was home to perhaps 500 souls. During the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and beyond- waves of escaped slaves and free black Loyalists settled at Africville. Then, between 1964 and 1970, the City of Halifax moved the residents out and levelled the community. House by house. As a sign of respect, garbage trucks were used to help residents move their possessions. Today, the Bedford Highway creeps down the basin, providing suburban commuters with a toll free run around the bridges.

It's my tenth consecutive year of bringing the Tour to the Halifax region, the Maritimes, Atlantic Canada. I'm pleased to be booked solid across Newfoundland again this year. Prince Edward Island. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia. When I turn off the Lincoln in December, that will mark over 1000 shows for the Tour. And only one boxing ring.

The majority of my shows in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island will be played with local guitar hero, Matchstick Mike. We've done some shows together before, so I know it's going to be pretty neat. Yes, he is the heavily tattooed blues rocker guy! But he's also pretty handy on the dobro, mandolin, acoustic guitar. Sings harmony. Writes. We'll have some big fun.

Some of the shows I'm looking forward to with Mike include BarNone, up in the red dirt hills of PEI, and The Factory, in Charlottetown, where we'll guest with a full band. And we've got some house concerts, some pub shows, and possibly a gig in a tattoo joint... Schedule and posters are now in the Links sidebar. We've still got a couple of open dates, so there's no telling where we might end up.

Then, I'll be on the boat to Newfoundland... Life is always good when the wheels are turning.