Big Dave McLean is finally getting his recognition, at an age when the rest of us are getting around to contemplating retirement. Only in the last decade or so has there been significant inroads into recording this definitive Canadian bluesman. 'Blues from the Middle' marks the first recording he's done completely in his hometown of Winnipeg.
A masterful guitarist and top notch harpist, McLean's raw and gravelly vocals bespeak of a life lived to the fullest, and a career spent performing in and around those countless small towns that dot the Canadian prairies. When it comes to the blues, however, McLean's heart firmly beats to the ghosts of the delta greats--especially the incomparable Muddy Waters, with whom he toured over two decades ago.
Just how important the Mojo Man was to the development of Big Dave can be gleaned an 11-minute tribute, aptly titled 'Muddy Waters for President'. Actually written for the dean of Chicago bluesmen, Muddy died before getting around to recording it. It's stone blues in the truest sense, a stream of consciousness testifying how the power of one man can touch so many, with Big Dave investing it with such soul, passion, and intensity that it must have left him totally drained.
At least two other original compositions invoked Muddy's name: "Sweet Della Jones" and "Lowdown Dirty Rotten Blues", and another Muddy composition, "Trouble No More", is given an especially torrid interpretation. In each and every case, Dave's whisky-drenched vocals are etched with a raw spirituality that effortlessly summons up the power of the blues to deal with earthly trials. Toss in that simple yet hauntingly effective guitar work of his--especially on the slide-and the impact is completely absorbing.
Big Dave's motivational impetus was the accomplishment of a modern recording session that closely approximated a classic Chess session. A major undertaking for any bluesman to be sure, but in my opinion this venture is a resounding success, with never a less than compelling moment to be found on any of its 14 tracks.
There's a toast to Excello legend Slim Harpo on that greasy classic, "I Got Love If You Want It". There's also a deliciously enchanting detour into country swing, "Johnny Tornado", where Big Dave gets to strum mandolin and engage in some downright old-fashioned harmony along with Sue Foley. However, aside from these morsels, the main dishes served up are musical fruits sturdily planted in the plantations of the Mississippi delta and the juke joints of Chicago circa 1957.
Such as on "B. Meets Bo", a raucous celebration of the famous Bo Diddley beat and moreover a driving instrumental wherein six-stringers Duke Robillard and Sue Foley lead the charge. "Ooh Wee" is a good-natured Howlin' Wolf-like shuffle that could fit in any barroom like a bottle of rye. With rhythms flowing like fine wine from piano man Graham Guest's pumping digits and sympathetic responses from Dave's welcome harp, it pours forth an intoxicating groove.
The punchy "She's Got the Stuff" wouldn't be out of place on an early Fabulous Thunderbird disc, while the deceptively-named "Lowdown Dirty Rotten Blues" is pure rock 'n' roll fun, as McLean and Foley latch onto a Chuck Berry-vibe and have a rollicking fine time with it. Little Walter is feted on the jazzy/blues classic "You Know It Ain't Right", while "Fix'n to Die" is a fine acoustic rendition of the Bukka White chestnut.
For packing the deepest emotional wallop, however, the semi-autobiographical "St. Mary (At Main)" gets the gold medal. Unforgettably poetic blues, it digs deep into the soul--and lingers. Interspersed with a hypnotic Magic Sam-style riff percolating throughout its glorious 8 minutes, it's been giving my repeat button a real workout on the old CD player.
In the liner notes, Big Dave confers effusive praise on band mates: guitarist Jason Nowicki, slide guitarist Chris Carmichael, bassist Ryan Menard, and drummer Ken McMahon. There's lot of truth to that, as talent like this leads one to confidently predict that the future of the blues is in very goods hands. Let's hope they all accompany Big Dave McLean wherever he goes on tour.
'Blues from the Middle' is precisely what the blues is supposed to be all about, thanks primarily to Big Dave McLean. But appreciative acknowledgment is in also order for the wonderful efforts of Stony Plain president Holger Petersen and producer Rick Fenton for believing in this project, and then nurturing it through to completion. All are to be rightfully proud of this major accomplishment. This undertaking practically defines what a memorable traditional/modern blues recording should sound like.
A leading candidate for best Canadian blues cd of 2003, 'Blues from the Middle' is also a very excellent place to be.
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