Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Blainletter #87b | Happy New Year | Return of the Blues Campfire | New songs in the works

*Addendum to the Blainletter:  For those who read to the end and saw my prediction of how the Runes would predict my fate for the coming's what I got (just like I said). My current situation is Isa (Ice, That Which Impedes) which tells me "Positive Accomplishment is unlikely now. Do not rely on help or friendly support."  Argh!  The action recommended is Nauthiz (Constraint) "When the fishermen can't go to sea, they repair nets."  Well, maybe that's a nudge to more songwriting. As I mentioned below, I've got a couple of tunes in the works and I had forgotten to mention a piece I started to work on with my son the DJ.  It's called "Never Again" and we're using all that electronical craziness so I'm anxious to see how it works out.  You'll be the first to know :-)
A big shout-out to Jan Hall at Folk Roots Radio who just tweeted that mine was one of here favourite interviews of 2016.  It was a great interview, especially considering it was on the Sunday morning after and intense week-end at the Folk Music Ontario conference and we were both cooked! You can hear it here

Blainletter #87b | Happy New Year | Return of the Blues Campfire | New songs in the works
Happy New Year!  The Blainletter lives on another year.  If I didn't keep running into people who tell me how much they enjoy it, I might have abandoned this.  Nor will I abandon playing guitar just because I'm not drawing big crowds or selling loads of CDs because when I do have occasion to play, like at a kitchen party last week, I'm glad to look out and see some smiling faces who seem to enjoy what I'm doing.  More than once in the last year, I've been with musician friends – some far more established than me - but equally discouraged, and we just throw our hands in the air saying "what are we gonna do? We're not going to stop playing guitar."

I'm still working on my "back-up" plan  - an instrumental show for the "non-listening, non-interested" crowd with my "hyper looper," aka Robot Johnson. I had really pulled out the stops to get it presentable for some special events in the new year but it's still not stable or ready for prime time.  And just this week the MIDI pedalboard broke down so I'm going to have to deal with that.  What are you gonna do… – it's a lifetime project and nobody ever accused me of being in a rush. Things might move along a little quicker now that I'm hooked up with a world-wide open-source project by the Google Brain Team called Magenta which is focused on using Artificial Intelligence and "machine learning" technologies to create tools for musicians.

On a positive note, it looks like I broke through my writer's block (3 or 4 years since I wrote a song) but now I've got a tune and a half in the works.  The new one is called "I'm not 50 anymore."

And on the homefront, Linda was up from the Cape so we had a nice little family turkey dinner – can't remember ever having Xmas dinner at home since I've been in Toronto.  New Year's Eve I had an early (vegan) dinner with friends and was in bed by midnight.  2016 was discharged by a ritual squeezing of the last bit of toothpaste from the tube and archiving a hard drive that was 90% full.  End of year is when I used to clean out all my email folders and start with a fresh in-box but since I started with Gmail, where nothing gets thrown away, now I've got an inbox with 4000 unread messages (Maybe I should do a little purging there too…)


Return of the Campfire Jam

Over the last year, I've been asked regularly "when are you going to have another Campfire Jam?" and my usual answer was that I was just getting too old to schlepp my bass, a couple of guitars, amp(s) and all or part of a PA system through proverbial sleet and snow.  How well I remember trying to dodge the traffic as I made my way across Bayview while carrying way too much gear.  And what started out as a decent payday for me and a complimentary beverage for the jammers worked its way down to everybody playing for free and and an expectation that they would bring along some paying customers. The final existential blow was an underlying attitude from "industry" people that jamming was a frivolous waste of time for any musician who was serious about building a career/business.

But lo and behold, the Campfire has been given a new lease on life by an unlikely angel – the venerable Old Mill which has been presenting jazz, and nothing but jazz, for 3+ nights a week in their cozy Home Smith Bar for the last few years.  After I did a couple of shows there (the only blues shows on their calendar), I have been invited to have a monthly Campfire Jam starting March 11 'til June on the "Second Saturdays." 
In addition to the invitation to bring the Blues Campfire to the Old Mill following our CD re-launch in October, it turns out there was a lawyer in the audience who invited us to play his company Christmas party and this is the band I put together.  What a delight playing with the legendary Michael Fonfara (we had recorded together but never played a gig) as well as my dream-team rhythm section, George Koller and Michelle Josef.
The Old Mill Campfire will be a little different from the traditional campfire jams. My marching orders are "nothing resembling an open mic" which kinda runs counter to the original Campfire philosophy that "everyone is welcome and long, self-indulgent solos are encouraged".  They want the A-list of blues artists and are providing the budget to book them.  Much as I enjoyed jamming around the campfire with stars like Matt Andersen and David Gogo, the real magic for me was bringing up a guy who hadn't taken his Larivee guitar out of the closet for 20 years (and came back the next week to tell me he had started playing it again) or that ten-year old kid named Charlie who got to jam with another Charlie (A'Court) who had some kind words of encouragement for him that I'm sure meant a lot.  Or hooking up Terry Gillespie with Max Cann from the UK and having them go on to collaborate on tours and recordings. These are the times I felt like I'm doing something worthwhile.

Ahead of the Old Mill residency, we will be kicking off the 2017 Campfire season with a campfire jam at Winterfolk where we will gather together some of the blues artists that Brian Gladstone is bringing up to the Danforth February 17-19.  And maybe down the line we'll find a home for a more casual campfire like the old days.  But it will take a supportive venue and maybe a sidekick to do the heavy lifting.

Well, that will be it for this Blainletter.  I did get out to some shows and have posted some Instagram clips on my  blog. And while it's still the first day of the year, I'm going to go upstairs and cast my Runes and I bet you anything they will tell me the same thing they have every year..."plant the seed and wait for the harvest,"  "do not rush into battle" ...stuff like that. We'll see.

Thanks for reading and see you out there, BrianB (aka Butch, Bucky, Buddha of the Blues, Stringbuster, Colorblind Blain, Whining Brine :-)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends though I dare say most are not feeling very thankful these days. Is it any consolation that it probably won't be as bad as we expect. A special greeting to my biggest fan in the states, Alice Brock, who will probably be the subject of more interviews and articles this week because she's been the poster-gal for Thanksgiving ever since Arlo put out "Alice's Restaurant."

There are no gigs coming up in December but I had to get out this Blainletter because there's so much else to write about starting with all the great musicians who passed away this month - Leonard, Leon, Mose Allison and now Sharon Jones.

Meanwhile, a local favourite, Brian Cober, is having a serious health crisis and a tribute concert was held last Friday at Grossman's, where he's had an 11-year run of his weekly jam.  Most of the Grossman's regulars were joined by some top notch players including Daniel Lanois who rode in on a motorcycle did a couple of tunes on Mike Daley's Telecaster, playing it so hard that someone said there was blood on the floor.  I wasn't there but I watched it on Facebook Live.  It was not as smooth as watching something on TV but it was quite manageable. It was amazing watching Lanois getting all these out-of-this-world sounds from a borrowed guitar and no fancy pedals and gadgetry.  It's all in the fingers, like they say.

My fingers were practically bleeding the last couple of times I played (I did a couple of Mondays at Wolf Like Me but alas, they've decided to get some big screen TVs and turn it into a sports bar.  Another one bites the dust - everybody that played there loved it! Just down the road on College, it seems Fat City Blues is back on their feet.  It's a terrific room - I may have been a bit premature when I announced their demise in the MapleBlues, but its was just a "hiatus".  Get out there and encourage them (and any other live music venues that are still standing).

Nowadays everybody's quite curious about Toronto's glory days as a music city, and it still is a great music city - just not the kind of music I'm playing.  But I am still having fun making music on the old laptop and we're going to get that out one of these days.  I have a new collaborator that I got together with while Joel is in the States and I can hardly wait to see what kind of sounds we can put out when it's the three of us.  Stand by for Stringbuster.

Speaking of the glory days, I'm sitting on a big box of ten-inch reels of recordings from the early days of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks.  And I think some the Hawks without Ronnie.  It was Paul Benedict who gave them to me - he was on the road with Ronnie for ten years.  He passed away this year and we had a nice musical celebration of his life out in Stratford a few months back.

Here's a little treasure that was restored from the community television (cable) station where I did a weekly show for a while.  They put up one show with me interviewing this old couple and here's one of me playing with my "one-man-band" rig featuring the sought-after Roland TB-303 Bassline.

I've told you all about the Fraser & DeBolt double album that Roaratorio Records just put out but I never told you the story of how one song got left off (and ironically was left off the album it was originally recorded for, Fraser & DeBolt With Pleasure). I was the producer and we had to leave it off and there was simply no room - you had 22 min per side and any more than that, you would be risking skips in the record. James at Roaratorio loved the tune and considered it a real centerpiece of the album but at the last minute, after the album was mastered, the author declined permission to use it and we had to find a couple of tunes to replace it.  Then, wouldn't ya know, he changed his mind and granted permission and, because he thought this was such an important part of the F & DeB dicography, James decided to put it out as an EP.  You can buy/hear it here:

Sunday, November 13, 2016

What a week, cont'd

Two amazing musicians died this week. Leon Russel blew my mind when I picked up his debut album.  I was not a record collector.  I did not own a lot of records and I don't know how I came to own that album but I remember that blue cover like yesterday and I played the shit out of it.  I loved his playing and his attack on the piano and I think it was a big influence on my guitar playing.

Then there's Leonard Cohen. The opposite of the slickness and drive that Leon put out and he was not really my cup of tea. Though I saw a couple of his shows and I was even in the same room as him a couple of times I never really met him. But I dare say that I was a bit of an influence on him.  Let me tell you the story.

In 72-73 I was performing with 3 female back up singers. Just me and the girls (the original Blainettes, sue Lothrop, Joanne Smith and Estelle St-Croix) This is when I had just signed with Good Noise Records and they were giving us the big push. We had some choice gigs opening for Lou Reed and Seals & Crofts and were first on in a huge benefit concert in Montreal for the displaced natives of James Bay.  Joni Mitchell, Loudon Wainwright and many big Quebec stars were on the bill.

Anyway, one day I get a call while I was back in Sherbrooke at my parents' place from Lewis Furey who I had played with briefly and who was always hanging around the Good Noise offices - he was quite smitten with our receptionist but also expecting that sooner or later Andre Perry would recognize his talent and sign him up too.  I seem to remember him saying to my face " How come he won't sign me and he signed YOU??"  He was a pretty straightforward guy, and a bit "entitled" but he certainly proved that he was a big (multi)talent and had a great career in Quebec and France, even though he was just too precious to make it in the states.

But back to that phone call, it was Lewis calling to say he hoped I didn't mind but he had just hired 2 of my 3 back-up singers to work with him. Well there wasn't much to say but I felt a little put off by that and didn't really have a lot of work at that point. But then it was only a few months later that I heard Leonard Cohen had scooped 2 of the three singers from Lewis (who was a friend and collaborator of Cohen's - they wrote a musical together. So that's my rather distant "influence" on Leonard Cohen. He had never used backup singers till then and they became an essential part of his sound forevermore.

As I sidebar to this story, I just learned this week as I was reading about Cohen's passing that his most famous song, "Hallelujah" was produced and arranged by John Lissauer, who was the arranger on my sessions in Montreal. In fact, these may have been the first sessions he worked on when he was brought up from New York by Frazier Mohawk, who was producing. John went on to produce a couple of albums for Lewis and that classic album for Leonard, which I just learned was initially rejected by Cohen's label, and ended up being released on a small independent label. Walter Yetnikoff, the head of Columbia did not like the synthesizers (never before used on a Cohen album) and thought it wasn't commercial enough. Columbia later bought back the master when they released all Cohen's work on CD. But since the record had been rejected, no contract was ever signed by Lissauer and he never saw a penny from that recording. He's quite stoic about the whole thing, even though it became one of the most covered songs in history...and though he would never claim any authorship, some of those chords were a bit beyond what Leonard was used to strumming on that old classical guitar of his.  Lissauer never pursued it and never worked with Cohen again.  He even stated that he felt a little guilty that his production had derailed Cohen's career. And if even a classic like "Hallelujah" could be rejected by the biggest label of the day, maybe some of my songwriter friends reading this can have a little hope that their dismissed masterpiece might one day be a classic, too.

Friday, November 11, 2016

What a Week

It's Remembrance Day and I just took a break from my croissant and coffee at 11 for a moment of silence for the veterans. I don't have a lot of early childhood memories but I do remember being taken to the ceremonies at the Cenotaph in Sherbrooke standing by my dad in his full military regalia. Then there would be some socializing at the Armoury of the Sherbrooke Regiment. PTSD is not a term that existed in those days but surely my father suffered from it. My mother said many times that when he came back from the war he was not the same man. And I dare say that I was also a victim of his PTSD. There were lots of good things in my childhood - I had it quite easy, but no matter how much love or attention I surely received from him, it was always overlaid with a sense of fear that never went away. I guess I could have tried harder to gain his approval, or had the courage to stand up to him, but I just kept my head low and got out of there as soon as I could and never looked back.

As I try to be a better Buddhist I had an interesting experience a couple of days ago at the Tim Hortons. I had ordered my breakfast sandwich and set my coffee down at a table that was free. As I waited at the counter, I watched as an elderly, rather scruffy, Chinese gentleman shuffled over to my table, sat down and removed the top off my coffee. I stopped him before he could get his first swig, saying that was my coffee, and he just stood up and left. I then sat eating my breakfast thinking "I should have just bought the old boy a coffee." And then I had a moment of self-satisfaction thinking "well, at least I realized that I should have had a little compassion" so maybe that was a small step towards being a Boddhisattva. Intention is everything, right? Then as I was finishing my sandwich, lo and behold, he walks back in right past me and sits at a table behind me reading the Chinese newspaper and trying to look like he belongs. And I'm thinking, "that's Buddha who just walked in and I have a second chance to do the right thing." (he did look a lot like an old Buddhist monk). There was still lots of coffee left in my cardboard cup so as I left, I set it down on his table. He said "Thank You, Thank You very much." And now I'm just left with the thought, "I should have bought him his own coffee...and maybe a donut...he was probably hungry..." but, hey, we do what we can and hope for the best.

Speaking of hoping for the best, I had trouble getting to sleep on election night...and I never have trouble getting to sleep! What have they wrought upon themselves, those poor Americans. I remember a quote from Adlai Stevenson when he was running for President. After one of his stump speeches, a supporter told him "Every thinking American will vote for your" and Stevenson replied, "yes, but I need a majority!" Some people are calling it a "white-lash" and maybe a Trump presidency will sustain the last vestiges of white supremacy for another generation by making anyone who isn't white and Christian feel less welcome at the table. Why is it that human nature makes people feel better about themselves by feeling that they're better than someone else? Religion just reinforces that tendency, even when it is cloaked in love and compassion. "God loves you sinners, too." Though there are probably as many God-fearing Christians who think the unfaithful will burn in hell. That's still not as bad as the fundamentalist Muslims who think infidels should be killed and are willing to die trying. Yikes! So glad I found a spiritual practice that has no God, no priests and no judgement but still provides a way to elevate our life condition and remind us that there is more to our life than the mundane day-to-day existence, no matter how comfortable.