Usually, I wrap these Tours with some hard facts like: eight months, thirty-five thousand kilometres, $6000 in gasoline, how many gallons of red wine, how many tires replaced, how many provinces (all of 'em), how many territories, how many states. Pictures of tour jacket winners, roadside diners, storms, wrecks, venues, and thanks to the many friends and promoters without whom this adventure could not be possible. People. Places. Things. Then I say something about the Art and the Business.
This year, as the daily blog posts became Facebook entries, this old school, Tour Blog (remember when Blogging was the Next Big Thing?) devolved to be firstly, a link and material source for media and promoters, and secondly, a more personal journal than ever before. Each year tends to have it's own theme.
As the Tour moved beyond 10 years and 1000 shows, I had moments of great fatigue, moments of exhilaration, times of despair, and times of optimism. I'm not feeling any younger this year. Knowing that I'll be attempting to assemble the past decade of Tour Blog into a book also encouraged me to be more introspective. Yes, the Blues Highway. If you want to know how I see it from the front of the Big Lincoln, read and ride along. If that's not what you're here for, I invite you to scroll through and look at the pictures, the shorter posts, the sidebar. The other Tours are linked here- some with a sharper musical focus. This is a long, long, closing post for the 2015, Big X Blues Tour- a coast to coast scroll that might be best enjoyed with a glass of wine, or two...
The irony of "finishing" a Tour. Or even thinking that one had reached the end of a "Tour." The long hours of driving, turning to long days, long months, and then long years alone at the wheel. More than ever it is clear that the journey is everything. This road is still mysterious, still beckoning, still seductive, still promising. Still less than clear with me. This road: has it been less than honest with me– or entirely devoid of intention? Life lived like a river, tossed along, tossed along to the final surprise, the great and terrible solitude of the sea. A place where one disappears into the world. Or out of it. Emotions breaking like the tide. We struggle at first, and then give way to the arms of the water. We let go. Sometimes heartbreaking. Sometimes redemptive. Not a moment to be wasted, for as it begins to anticipate it's end- the River rages ever closer beneath us.
Gassed up, polished, and out with the melting snow. The first gigs on this year's first Tour poster. The first Blogs and postings. One or two last storms somewhere. The wet and dusty distances. The hum of the tires on the blacktop. The crunch on the gravel. These wheels will take you anywhere. Almost anywhere. Anywhere you've got the courage to go. Anywhere you point that wheel. And you better go. Touch it. Drink it in, or you may be hungry later. Sorry you missed it. On this, National Steel "Big X" Blues Tour, I'm now counting ten years of more or less unbroken travel. Over 1000 shows under the National Steel banner, and maybe twice as many around the edges. I've travelled for most of the last forty years, but riding the National Steel I've noticed that it is becoming more difficult to stop. I thought about that when I had a bad wreck a few years ago. One day you're riding high in a nice Lincoln. A couple of days later you're riding a Greyhound Bus with a guitar and a duffle bag. As that bus lurched eastward across the Canadian prairie I wrote three or four songs with the same title: "Only Death Can Stop This Train."
If I can figure out how to play one of those, bus written songs, maybe it will be on my next album. Yeah, my next CD, my next recording. I'm old enough to like the phrase "album," and to use it. The previous, "Narrow House" recording was actually the trigger for the last ten years of hard touring. As I failed to secure a label deal or distribution for Narrow House I was left with what was- for me- a massive debt. It was a well calculated gamble that simply did not play out as was hoped. The Tour evolved as a means of selling, distributing, and paying for that project. For a long time, I vowed I would never make another recording until Narrow House was paid for. Due to the miracle of compound interest that still hasn't happened- in spite of selling thousands of units! But I am going to make another recording. Or two. I hope.
I'm Beyond the Giant, on the shores of Lake Superior. A great, inland, fresh water sea. Off-grid, I curl up next to a woodstove, drink red wine, read Dante's Inferno. I don't remember if I am tired. I like sleeping, too. It's just that I'm no longer very good at it. Olivia Laing recently said that being alone was an Art. I don't know if that's true, either. Not that I don't remember, it's just that I can't decide. It's true we aren't really born into it. Alone. But somewhere along the line our minds develop a capacity for it. When you are not a cog that fits well to the grinding of the wheel, perhaps it is easy to succumb to the guilty pleasures of solitude. No longer guilty, I can put another log on the fire, touch the cold steel of the guitar. The Giant sleeps alone behind the roar of the waves.
It's the sheer size of the place: Canada, and the North American continent. Between the towns and cities with names that show up in big print: big spaces, forgotten places, small print names that sometimes don't make the map. Roads like this one. I don't mean to be vulgar, but you can stop and piss where you please. There's a little chill down your spine when you switch off the motor. It's dead quiet, but sometimes there's a taste of smoke in the air, a chainsaw perhaps, in the distance. On this continent you can drive for days and hardly see a soul, unless you want to.
Thunder Bay. A big festival for a little city. Plenty of blues radio. Active blues and folk societies. Plenty of local music. The arts seem to thrive in these smaller centres where there is less greed, a bigger sense of community, and often- more bums in seats. Thunder Bay, like other towns this size has been very good to me over the last decade.
The rocks and trees vanish suddenly as you head west on the TransCanada Highway.
Winnipeg, MB. The middle of Canada. The East of the West. A thriving music scene, dominated by the Winnipeg Folk Festival. It tends to overshadow the rest of the things that go on here. I played WFF frequently in the 1970s, when I was a young hot shot. Colin Linden and I- the BBQ Boys- backed up Blind John Davis, Roosevelt Sykes and many others on those stages. Mitch Podolak- the AD and founder of the whole thing- once squared us up against another young duo, Big Dave McLean and Gord Kidder. In a land populated by great harmonica players, Kidder was a giant. Regrettably, he had little time for the music business and rarely left town. Music was always much more important than the business. One of the highlights of my many visits to Winnipeg over the last decade was to have had Gord sit in with me a couple of times. Big Dave has, of course, accompanied me on a few hundred National Steel shows. Dave remains a close friend- we've had a lot of fun. Even if they cut me out of his movie to save money! What was the name of that film, anyway?
When I woke up in the Saskatoon, SK truckstop, winter had caught up to me.
A cold day near North Battleford, SK
Breaking sky as the Lincoln finds dry roads into Alberta.
Edmonton, AB. Blues on Whyte. The Commercial Hotel. You haven't played Canada until you've played here. One of the very last of the big old blues bars. Seven nights, plus a matinee show and a jam. Touring acts. Live upstairs. When I come to town I stay here even if my gigs are elsewhere. Hot in the summer. Cold in the winter. Loud on the street. Battered. But you can't beat the price. At three in the morning there was pounding on my door. "I know you're in there," said Slurred Voice. "I'm going to kill you when I get in. Kill you, man..." Just another case of mistaken identity. If Big Dave had been on the gig, I would of sent the guy over to his room. As it was, Voice lost interest and wandered away.
Lloydminster, AB. Oil country. They like me here. I do well. Now, there are five things in the picture... which one is different?
House concert in Red Deer, AB. For my solo, indy show, these continue to be a blessing.
Making a run for the mountains. 100 Mile House. Jasper. These roads are all mine today, and I make some time in rural Alberta. Back on the TransCanada, actually, I guess it's the Yellowhead up here, Sweet Hwy 16, not yet the Highway of Tears- but it will become that as it twists through the mountains of British Columbia. I've played the Club Zero at Mile Zero on Haida Gwaii. This time I'm playing Jasper, then dodging south into the High Desert region. Usually it's a chain of stops out to Prince Rupert, and then the BC ferry to Vancouver Island. I'd lose a prime night on the boat this season, so I've elected to take my chances through cowboy country instead. Six of One, as some would say. Late to the plate with fewer towns on the inland route.
I've got a down day in Jasper, AB, so I get out the maps and suit up to run some trail. The maps aren't good. My GPS dies. My 10 km run turns into 20 odd. No, it's not well marked. The weather switches up as it will do in the mountains in spring. I'm glad I've got gloves, matches, and plenty of layers. I know running alone isn't really smart. Well, it's not that it's not smart, it's just not safe- and I know that. So I chose the risk, freely. I had a feather with me that day. I was going to do something else with it, but somehow we both made it back to the trailhead. Luck and determination. It didn't feel like I was running alone. Fitness is my pension plan. I'm not fast anymore, but it feels good to work the body. Vain bastard that I am, I was hurtin' the next day! I wasn't ready for that kind of distance on mountain trails, but life is a great incentive. It drives this Tour, too. No shortcuts on the Blues Highway, and the map is far from clear.
Sound check in Quesnel, BC. Yeah, that's my view from the stage in the afternoon. Later, when they turn on those big lights– the room will shrink to arm's length. What I do between the rest of the stuff I talk about here! No, no DIs. Two boom stands, SM58 on top. SM57 on the bottom. Turn the monitors off. Mains first. Lots of gain, I want these mics hot. More, more, Hey! EQ 'em about the same. Give me 10% more gain on the 57. OK, let's bring in the monitors. Easy! I just want to imagine that they are probably on. Are they on? Ok, a hair more. Alright. Thanks, Pete, I'm good to go if you are.
Williams Lake, BC. Most of the neon is gone, so I sit out back and watch the eagles watching the river below.
The Railway Club, Vancouver, BC. The only girl in the place that night had a wooden heart.
Up- Island. Vancouver Island. I sleep on the stage here after my show. In spite of coming to play all the little places for 10 years, none of the festivals here have ever hired me. I'm not really bitter about it, just a little disappointed that life hasn't got much easier. I could play to more people in 45 minutes than I'd reach in a month of small shows. I do love playing the small venues, but I'm not thrilled about sleeping in parking lots and getting shaken down by the cops. But plenty of friends out here, too. Every day is different. Certainly I've got some special friends in parts of the Island- and the Gulf Islands- that always go the extra mile to see that I am comfortable, rested, well fed, and well taken care of. I really could not do what I do without friends all up and down the line.
My pal Dr. Dave and I go bombing around Genoa Bay, near Duncan, BC. We'll lay in some crab traps, and later we'll feast by an open fire.
I've now got a little band on Canada's west coast, McKinleyWolf. Bassist and band leader Ian Walls has also been doing some duo shows with me around the Victoria, BC area. We both drink the same, almost cheap red wine, and it was Ian that helped me build the special Lincoln for the Bad Boy Blues Tour several years ago. Here, we've come to visit Big Charlie and play some songs for him in his new, elder living facility. Charlie supported Victoria blues musicians for many years, and now they come to him. A blues purist like few others, I was always surprised- and flattered- that he not only came to many of my shows, but stayed!
I don't get much downtime on the Tour, but springtime on the coast is always fine. Where distances between shows are short, I try to get in a run or two on some world class trails. I say this because the Tour will be different in 2016. I'm hoping to do some more running- bigger distances than I can manage when I'm playing shows every night. I've been running half marathon distances sometimes in recent years, but the full marathon is on my bucket list and requires different training- plus recovery time. I'm tired after 10 km sometimes! Especially during the Tour!
My view from the seawall trail of Vancouver's Stanley Park. It's the only reason I play Vancouver. Well, one of the only reasons. I do it as a 10 km run.
I slept in the car behind the club in Abbotsford, BC, but the Salvation Army woke me up in the pre-dawn hours. I'll be moving on today for shows in the high desert region.
High desert, near Spence's Bridge, BC.
This part of the Tour is unusually riddled with downtime, so I stop in to stay with friends in the Nicola Valley. While they get ready to plant 10,000 tomatoes, I do my taxes on the farmhouse table. It's a great place for guitar playing, too. I run a fabulous trail. Drink red wine. Work on some songs. I could disappear into a place like this. People have. I've met them. I could work the harvest, live in a little trailer by the water, play the local open stage from time to time. There's just so much pretending in the music business. And I'm really not part of the music business anyway. In the Six- there's an accountant opening for a university professor. Born to sing the blues. Stories cut out from the newspaper, and pasted onto the music like a thin veneer. Folk music, too. Now, it's an Alliance. I remember seeing Pete Seeger chopping wood at a festival one time. Chopping and singing. Woody might of laughed, or he might of moaned. I guess there's nothing wrong with that. But I don't have to buy a ticket either. In today's world it's all too easy to live life vicariously through social media, the internet. Stories, I think, like life itself, are richer for being lived. Maybe I just prefer a different kind of story.
Over the Crowsnest Pass, I'm into the badlands of southern Alberta. The folk club is in the back room of a motorcycle shop. It's a sold out show, but I'm short on cash so I sleep in the Lincoln anyway.
My view in the early morning hours. Lethbridge, AB, parked in the alley.
I set the cruise and drive careful. Left to it's own devices, the Big Lincoln would gladly settle into 140 kmh! I make a lot of stops out here anyway. At least when I find a town. Thrift stores and pawn shops. Coffees I don't want from places I want to sit in. And the venues: big old bars, austere little community halls, house concerts, cafes. Springtime in Saskatchewan. A whole different colour pallet than the autumn months. Already dusty in spite of the floods.
Down into the border areas of south-eastern Saskatchewan. Zigging and zagging to fill dates.
I run on the backroads as much as I can. The road less travelled can keep it interesting... Guys out here have figured out how to drain their sloughs- prairie ponds and marshes, really. They can get a few more acres into production, run straighter rows. The combines navigate by GPS on these wide spaces. Trouble is all that water runs down onto somebody else's land. And they suddenly have fewer acres, or their homes are flooded.
Into Regina, SK, where a young band from the coast opens for me. I don't know why you'd want to have a band open for a solo artist, but it happens fairly often now. I enjoy the unspoiled enthusiasm of these young acts- and most of them are pretty good musicians, too. Where will they all be in four years? Or forty years? How we compose music, deliver it, and consume it continues to evolve rapidly. As does the music itself. What will it be? And where is it all going? I feel the loss of some of the iconic figures of my own generation. Now there will be- and are- new icons, new idols of the tribe.
The Canadian prairie used to look like this. Still does- but the big, grain elevators are disappearing from the horizon. There is always a train somewhere in the distance- sometimes miles long, I'd guess. I stop by the old cars, rusting on the sidings. Tags on trains. Who drew these? And where? If I was fourteen and living in Milestone, SK, maybe I'd leave my mark on these trains. Send myself out, beyond the edge of the sky, out to the World. Part of me going all day and all night across provinces, state lines, stopping short of the Rio. Maybe I'd jump that train. Or go away to college and never come back. I wouldn't be the first one to take the old farm truck to Vancouver. As the bright ones get away, the towns get smaller. A couple of teens drink between the containers on Friday night. I'd smash the bottles on the tracks, too. And I'd piss on the side of the boxcar before staggering away, up the abandoned Main St., to the Seven Eleven. Tags on trains. Maybe they roll in from the big cities- Chicago, New York, Toronto- mysterious spray paint codes that say "come, join us- you don't need to be alone and different." There's a way of life swirling away as the family farms dwindle. Change is dancing in the wind, always moving, not always pretty. The life of a town. The lives of men and women.
Connie took this picture- which is why we all look so good. Here we are with Paul Reddick at the Orangeville, ON Blues and Jazz Festival. I played the old Opera House Theatre, and did not have to sleep in the Lincoln!
My Mom dropped by to play a couple of sets in my Toronto, ON kitchen. As the Tour continues it's eastward journey, I'm very grateful for her encouragement. I think I'm living the life she would of wanted- and had- for herself, in another place and time.
Quebec City. I speak some french, but I don't write it- so I won't tell you what I said. I've played Quebec for over 40 years now, and it is still mysterious, different, romantic, unique. They love the blues, yet over the last twenty years the scene has become more and more insular. Fewer touring acts, and more Quebec based artists playing the same places over and over again.
South shore, riding along the widening St. Lawrence River. Sometimes there are pods of whales off shore...
Alberton, Prince Edward Island. My friend Matchstick Mike joined the Tour for a couple of weeks of shows across New Brunswick and PEI. We shoot guns. Eat moose. Drink beer. Play house parties, pool halls, tattoo joints. The Big Lincoln does a slow dance on these small town roads. I bring the Blues to Your Town.
We joined Catherine MacLellan at the VIP lounge of the Dunk, near Breadalbane, PEI. The Canadian Folk Music Awards were going on that night- and she took two! In Canada, that's called a Hat Trick. I'll be playing South Africa next year at this time, and thinking of my dear friend, the late Hal Mills. He built this place, hosted the shows, brought the music orphans into his cabin, fed us, inspired us, followed us, cheered us on. He would have been very proud of Catherine's awards! I used to set up a week of shows in this little corner of the world as an excuse to hang out with Hal. On our last evening together, last year, he put South Africa in my ear. He would have been thrilled to know that I'm actually going. I even learned "Sugarman" for him, for the two of us to enjoy over pie in his kitchen, a date that managed to escape us in life. I doubt that I'll ever play Sugarman in public, but I may play it some dark night up on the Dixon Road, in the red dirt hills of Prince Edward Island.
Off- Island. There are strange things to be found in the dark woods of New Brunswick. I take Mike to visit this little voodoo shrine. There are also strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for Gold. Yet here, with the wind murmuring in the scruffy pines, there's enough to raise a chill, to make your blood run cold.
Windsor, Nova Scotia. My pal Lindsay and I bomb around the province for a couple of days in his 1939 Ford. I do some cafes, bars and house concerts in the fruit belt before heading out to the coast for the Big Attraction. Meanwhile, another of my pals gives me 50 lbs of local apples...
My gig in the Halifax area was close to the old Africville townsite, in a boxing club, out on the old, Bedford Highway. It turned out to be a wonderful night. The only show I've ever played where people could buy ringside seats. And backstage, in my little dressing room, this poster. And I thought, yes, this is like music, like art, making this stuff, telling these stories, playing these shows, what I've been trying to say. Ali. This could of been his dressing room. We could of been talking. I could of said this about my show, about my life. About the Blues. What it is. Ali said it. Truth. Dancing under the lights.
I thought I might need a personal bodyguard for a show in a boxing club, so my pal Andy volunteered. Great job, Andy. He got me and my gear in and out without so much as a scratch.
East. East. How far east can you go? The Big Lincoln rocks in the high winds as we wait for the night boat to Newfoundland.
St. John's, Newfoundland. A city full of pubs and clubs and theatres and music. I thought the cover charge to some of my shows was a little on the low side, but then I noticed that tickets to Alanis were only $10. Of course, she sells a whole lotta, whole lotta jagged little tickets.
It's a thin strip of blacktop to tie a nation together. Life blood. Like the veins on my hand. Or the back of your leg. It's possible that I've been in every coffee joint from Victoria or Haida Gwaii to St. John's. More than once, too. I dream this map, the thousands of km, the smell of gas and diesel, the moaning of the wheels in the distance. Over time, my life has been stretched from one end of it to the other. I've played to every kind of Canadian there is. I'm pretty sure. And this symbol, the TransCanada Highway, maybe I'll have it carved on my stone someday.
Winter catches up to the Tour. Snow was melting when this Big Lincoln rolled out. Part of a gradual effort to evolve the Tour routes so as to avoid the dangerous winter conditions. A skiff of snow, here in the high ground. That's all. That's fine. Winter is coming, but me– and this Big Lincoln– will be gone before she really sets in.
Kenny Rogers doesn't fly. So he got caught here in the storm, too. Port aux Basque. I lost a couple of shows on the mainland, and ended up making nothing on Newfoundland. Nine shows, 2000 kms. At least I didn't lose any money! On a small venue tour, you're often close to the line on the margins, and sometimes it rains at the wrong time. And it did. So bless those theatres down the road that ended up carrying the freight! As always, I was well fed and cared for across the Rock. It's a nation of storytellers, and although my crowds are small here– I feel that they really bond with me and understand what I do. Now, if that big, summer festival would hire me, I'd be much happier...
North Sydney, Nova Scotia.
And the Tour winds it's way west, through Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec... to park at Toronto, Ontario.
There's nothing like rolling into The Six. Within forty-eight hours I'm on the street, busking. I'm a working musician, and soon the Salvation Army will be catering my shows at Osgoode Station. Tea and socks. Guys who piss next to you while you're playing. Three, four, five, six hour sets. It depends on the bill that needs to be paid. The Lincoln wants tires. It wants oil. In a city where authenticity floods in from all corners, I'm lucky to book a couple of indoor shows each year. As the big venues have vanished, there is no longer much focus beyond some festivals, concerts, and awards events. It's a problem common to the larger centres in changing times.
One of the few Toronto venues I've played recently is this small, west end club. Fat City Blues. I've scheduled the closing show of the National Steel Big X Blues Tour here. Not only does this show wrap the Tour, but it also represents the 1000th show under my National Steel banner. On a rainy, Wednesday night– with no cover charge– there is some walk-in traffic. Five fans I can identify on a personal basis. I move from table to table on break to say hello. The gig didn't make many of the key listings, either. So there it is, the 2015 Tour ending pretty much as it started, pretty much as expected. I've got upcoming, return gigs in some of the best venues in Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Clarksdale, Jackson, Mobile. Meanwhile, I need to to busk up enough money to buy my ticket into the Maple Blues Awards, at Toronto in just a couple of weeks time. My disconnect with this town may not be resolved without moving elsewhere– but I am going to spend more time here, and make more of an effort to reach out in the coming year.
The Maples. Not really part of the Tour, but I thought I'd leave you here. Life is good. Most of the nominees and winners this year are personal friends. Some are not, but you can't know everybody- and don't want to. Big Dave won Acoustic Performer of the Year. When Dave gets nominated, or wins, it always feels like a personal victory for me. Colin Linden, whom I have worked with since we were teenagers, took two trophies home to Nashville. He'll be producing my next album there later this spring. Like I said to one young player, paying dues is investing in yourself. If you don't pay in, you can't expect the lack of effort to grow into anything. And if you do pay in, you get to play the stock market of life. And not every investor will strike it rich. That's not the way it works, so don't beat yourself up about what you lost at the Crossroads. In the blues, the real rewards are most often in the paying of the dues, in the living of life. Everything that has value will be won or lost without witnesses, behind your eyes, between the lines, and out there on the road, long before you try and dance beneath the lights.