Since the late 70s, Canada's Powder Blues Band has been vibrantly incorporating swing, blues, rock, and R&B into a sound they proudly call their own. They have endlessly toured Canada, the United States and overseas, sharing a music that forces people to smile and dance. The band has won both Juno (Canadian Grammy) and Handy Awards. For over 35 years, leader Tom Lavin has been singing and playing guitar as a living. He is credited for writing the band's best-known songs. What definitely sets the band apart from all the others is the joyous horns of Dave Woodward (tenor sax) and Bill Clark (trumpet).
Unlike their newest release which includes nothing but swingin' big band style tunes, their live set featured a variety of infectious rhythms. The best way to describe their performance was very tight and completely professional. They seemed to naturally sense each others moves. The set featured a complete retrospective of their career which began in 1978. His long black hair and beard from the 80s may long be gone but Tom's vocals were as strong and clear as ever. His guitar work was very slick yet kicking. The heavy bass of Bill Runge, tingling ivories of Willie MacCalder and solid drumming of Adam Drake were prominent throughout and especially on "Oh Well Oh Well". The band has been performing the song for years and on this particular night, Fulson was surely with them in spirit.
"Same Old Blues" was a little slow-paced but the trumpet, piano and guitar solos were phenomenal. They returned to their second album and played the title track, "Thirsty Ears". To anyone who had listened to Canadian radio through the 80s, the song was recognized instantaneously. "He Knows The Rules" was given a boppin' flavour as on the new disc. Most of the standing room only crowd were singing, dancing and swaying along to "Doin It Right". Overall, it was an incredible display of precise musicianship with songs played exuberantly by the long-time performing band. If you are looking for a fun blues party, catch them when they come to your town.
Since I had recently reviewed the band's new CD for Blues On Stage, after seeing the band perform live, I contacted Tom Lavin to arrange for an interview. What follows is unedited and appears in its entirety.
What was it like growing up in Chicago with the opportunity to learn from the legends?
As a kid growing up in Chicago, back in the early 50's, I was lucky enough to have an aunt who was into 'counter-culture' music. When I was as young as seven or eight, she used to take me to shows in a little theatre at the University of Chicago on the South Side to see the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Lefty Dizz, Hound Dog Taylor, Southside Johnnie Young, Otis Spann, James Cotton, Little Walter and others. In those days blues was regarded in the intellectual community as a form of 'folk' music and in fact, it was, having come up with the black farm workers turned assembly line help from the Deep South after World War II.
I was also a frequent visitor of the famed Chicago Maxwell Street Market, an open-air affair that happened every Sunday except in the winter on the near Southwest Side. If you've seen the Blues Brother's first movie, the scenes with Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles are all shot right there. They had everything there from hubcaps and watermelons to watches and BBQ. Men selling the Black Muslim magazine 'Elijah Speaks' and next to them men selling 'Mojo' sacks you wear around your neck to ward off evil spirits filled with John the Conqueror root, aka John da Conkeroo. There were lots of blues players who are considered legends now that just sat out on the sidewalk with a guitar case open to throw money into and the music went on all day.
I remember the first time I saw Buddy Guy and Junior Wells at a dirt floor gymnasium concert at a college up on the North Shore. I was about 15 at the time. They set up in the middle of the floor and there were bleachers all around. Junior and Buddy plugged into two channels of the same guitar amp because there was no PA and the bass player had his own little rig. The drummer played with no microphones and yet there was enough sound to fill the whole hall. Buddy was wearing a leopard skin blazer and when he soloed with one hand while he removed his jacket and then switched to soloing with the other hand while he took off the other sleeve, never missing a note; I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Right there I knew that's what I wanted to do.
A couple of years later I was at Pepper's Lounge on the South Side of Chicago watching the 43rd Street Snipers, a young R&B outfit when Junior walked in, dressed in an orchid ruffled shirt and cummerbund, dragging a double barreled shotgun by the barrel. It didn't get fired but I spent the next ten minutes hiding in the John thinking 'what the hell am I doing here'. A couple of beers and a few songs later I knew. I was there to hear the blues and I figured it was likely I'd be doing the same thing for the rest of my life. Things were pretty rough and tumble back then in that neighborhood but at least you could still go there. I think I was about the last generation to be able to hang out and see it first hand. The guys doing that just before I was there were, Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield, Boz Skaggs, Steve Miller, Corky Siegel, Jim Schwall and a few others. But after Martin Luther King was shot, the whole white/black blues thing went underground for over ten years.
The first real blues guy I ever played with in a band was South Side Johnny Young. He was born in Mississippi in 1918 and he played the blues on a mandolin and that was pretty rare. He could also sing and play guitar. He worked with Otis Spann, Big Walter Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters but he still had to drive cab to support himself. Johnny was very kind to me and I always felt grateful that he gave a green horn like I was at the time, the chance to sit there and try to play with him. He was a great teacher for phrasing and saying a lot with a few notes, much like B.B. King. He always said he was born to be a musician and hoped that someday he would be able to make enough money to buy his own house. He died in 1974, at 56 still driving cab, still playing and still hoping.
What was it that made you make a career change from filmmaking?
I showed up at the Vancouver School of Art in September of 1969 where I had been accepted into the film school but by the time the program got under way the government had cut back on funding and turned it into an animation school; really pixillation, Norman McClaren, TeleFilm Canada style. I had no interest whatsoever in animation and I needed a job so I got one playing drums with a B-3 player at Isy Walter's Supper Club where they still had Burlesque Girls, the kind with fans and boas and tassels on strings that they would swing in circles. The good ones could get those tassels going in two directions at once. They had a 'cat-walk' where the girls would strut out and take off someone's glasses and breathe on them to get them all steamed up and put them back on the guy. The shtick was as old as Vaudeville and you played 'lunch show' from noon to two then six more sets from eight until two in the morning, six days a week, no lunch show on Saturday. For that they paid $75 a man but it was plenty to live on and it gave you lots of time to practice. I must've played Satin Doll a thousand times.
How is the blues music scene different now from when the band first began playing in Vancouver's Gastown?
I first started playing in Gastown with the Powder Blues in March of 1978. It began as a four piece: piano, bass, drums and me on guitar but I really wanted a horn section. We kept trying different guys and finally settled on a couple of tenor players and a baritone sax man. We started by playing for the door and as it was an Irish pub that no one went to in the first place it was a challenge. But one thing was for sure; whoever came in was definitely there to hear us. We played six nights a weeks, four sets a night and as the band got tighter and enlarged it's repertoire, the crowds got bigger.
Within a couple of months, we had a cover charge and folks would line up in the rain. There was just no blues at all in those days. From there we went half a block down to the Savoy on the second floor because it was bigger and could old more people. Our goal was to work every night and we'd play anywhere we could. I think it's a little different now and there's a bunch of reasons. Baby boomers are growing up so there's not as big a club crowd, drinking and driving has cut down some on how loaded folks want to get, there's 500 channels on TV, a lot of the live venues have gone disco, it's harder making a living playing so players have to do something else and don't get as tight an outfit as fast.
I don't really know for sure what's different about the blues scene now except that you can point to a number of artists and say "What do you mean the blues don't sell? Look at …." And just name a bunch of blues stars. It wasn't like that back then. I like to tell the story about in 1981 when we were on the Capitol label and we'd just returned from playing a tour in Texas with an unknown guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughn. We flew back to Toronto from Houston to do the Juno awards and I said to the Vice President of Capitol Canada, "Hey Dean, I know where Jimmy Hendrix is. His name is Stevie Ray Vaughn and he's living in Austin, Texas and you should sign him to a record contract right away." And Dean said "What does he play?" And I replied, "He plays the blues." And Dean answered, "Blues doesn't sell."
Well John Hammond Senior signed Stevie Ray to a contract and the rest is history but my story goes on. About seven years goes by and I run into Dean again. I said "Hey Dean. Remember when I told you about Stevie Ray Vaughn and you didn't sign him? Well there's another guy that I think could do the same thing and he's right here in your town of Toronto." And Dean asked, "What's his gimmick?" And I replied "He's blind and he plays his guitar on his lap and he burns like Jimi Hendrix." And Dean asked, "What kind of music does he play?" And I said, "Blues." And Dean said, "Blues doesn't sell." And I said, "What about Stevie Ray, what about George Thorogood?" And Dean said, "Those guys are flukes. Blues doesn't sell."
So you tell me. What's changed?
Describe what it was like to win a WC Handy award
Winning the Handy was a real honor as far as awards go. We won for "Band of the Year [Foreign]", the only time that award has ever been given to a non-U.S. based band. The year before we won it, it was given to Albert Collins and the year after, to Robert Cray. Other recipients include Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and Luther Allison so I feel we're in real good company. What could be better than to be lumped in with a bunch of your own heroes?
It's been nearly three years since the last release. What has the band been going through since then?
Powder Blues has never played less than 50 shows in any of the last 23 years, sometimes doing as many as 300+ shows in a year. We've been around long enough that we don't record until we feel there's something else we have to say. Being 'free agents' musically speaking, affords us the freedom to release what we want, when we want. There's no record company or 'star making machinery' that's on our case telling us we have to 'put out more product'.
When we recorded 'Swingin the Blues' our latest release, we also tracked another ten tunes. These were more blues/jazz oriented and they will become our next release, which probably won't come out until early in 2002. At the moment, we're very motivated to get back in the studio. It's not because we're have a quota or a deadline; it's because the band is going through a phase where all the players are really jelling and there's a lot of personal musical growth going on. We're slated to go back in the studio and cut another ten tracks in late September and then again at the end of this year so I figure you'll be seeing Powder Blues new product for some time to come.
Many instruments are used on the CD. What challenges does that pose in the recording studio?
I love the sound of some of my records from the '50s and I wanted to get that fat, warm sound for the Powder Blues 'Swingin the Blues' CD. Most reviewers agree that we've put out our very best sounding album ever. The way we managed to do that is interesting. We reverted to 1950's technology. By this I mean, we recorded everything on analog tape and cut the tape speed down to where it was in the '50's, 15 ips. We used old tube microphones, no noise reduction and kept all other studio gear and processing to an absolute minimum. Our rule of thumb was "How little can we do between the instrument and getting it on tape. In most cases we did nothing; no EQ, no processing of any kind. The results are plain to hear. I know it's the best thing we've ever done, sonically speaking. You make up your own mind and let me know what you think.
The new disc is dedicated to world famous jazz pianist Linton Garner. What kind of impact has he had on you?
Linton is the older brother of Errol Garner, the man who wrote 'Misty'. Linton is not famous like his brother, per se, but he's a star to me. He plays the opposite of his brother who was quite technical and used a great deal of flourish. Linton plays very sparsely but he always plays the notes I want to hear. I often sit for hours behind the piano watching as he plays his gig at the restaurant. I have him over for dinner every month or so and we listen to music and he tells me stories about all the guys he's played with. It really brings heroes of mine that are long gone to life.
His first major recording session was in 1946 and featured then little known trumpeter named Miles Davis. At other times he has played with Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Lester Young, Aretha Franklin and others too numerous to mention. I learned a bunch of stuff from him including how to swing solo by keeping heavy internal time, how to re-voice chords in the horn section to alter the color and he's helped me when it's come to making decisions on a mix; whether the vocal is too loud or soft. I trust him because he has a fantastic ear and because he's been around so much longer than the rest of us and has an extraordinary amount of experience to call upon.
Tore Down features some fantastic guitar work. Describe your obsession with Freddie King.
The first Freddie King record I ever got was 'Freddie King Sings' on King records. I played that thing until there weren't any grooves left in it. That's where I first heard 'Tore Down', Takin Care of Business, If You Believe, Barkin' Up the Wrong Tree and a bunch of other great tunes. I love Freddie's playing and singing because he puts so much emotional content into it. I believe every single note he plays in his solos. It's as though he were singing through his guitar. I aspire to that kind of soloing ever time I pick up mine.
Another thing I liked about Freddie King was that he moved with the times without loosing his connection to the blues. When he started doing some stuff with Leon Russell and Don Nix around the seventies, recording songs in a funky style like Goin Down and Big Legged Woman in a Short, Short Mini Skirt, it sounded up-to-the-minute but also retained that legitimate, down-to-the-bone blues feel. Eric Clapton says "Freddie King taught me how to make love to my guitar." I think he said it well.
Its unusual for an established band like Powder Blues to release a CD that is primarily made up of covers. How did this come about and what were you trying to achieve by this?
Actually, I don't think it's unusual to release an album of cover tunes if they're classics. There are many examples of this but one of the best I can think of is Eric Clapton's 'From the Cradle' CD from 1994 which has only covers of the great blues masters, including stuff by Willie Dixon [who we played shows with], Lowell Fulson [who we recorded an album with], and even 'Tore Down, Freddie King style. Why we did our latest CD this way and, I suspect, why Clapton did his is this; we've played some of these tunes on stage for nearly 25 years and they've taken on a life of their own.
The tunes have given us so much pleasure, we feel it's only right to share them with others [to say nothing of all the requests we've had over the years to record and release these tunes]. We achieve a couple goals through this. First, we have the opportunity to see where a tune has come from and where we've taken it, in this way gaining a better idea of where we've been and where we're headed, musically. Second, as imitation is a sincere form of flattery, it gives us a chance to pay homage to those who've inspired us. Although we're interested in coming up with original tunes, there will undoubtedly be more 'covers' however obscure, emerging from Powder Blues sessions in the future.
A few of the songs on Swingin have been hits for Downchild. Are you not concerned about the 2 bands being compared to each other?
One tune on our current CD has been a Canadian hit for Downchild. That was the Big Joe Turner tune, 'Flip, Flop and Fly' that they had out in 1973. Although I heard the Downchild version [and I'm a big Downchild fan to boot, always have been], I came on the tune twice, honestly. First, no doubt the same way Donnie and Hock discovered it; on a Big Joe Turner record. Second, when we were on tour in NYC in 1981, I saw Big Joe Turner sing it live in a club just down the street from where we were playing. That's when I made the decision to add it to our repertoire.
Since the song came out 28 years ago in Canada and since it had never been a hit in the States [since Big Joe in the 50's on black radio only], or Europe, where most of our airplay is anyways, I had no qualms about releasing it. As far as Powder Blues and Downchild being compared, we used to do shows together back in the early 80's that were billed as 'Battle of the Blues Bands'. I even have a copy of an editorial style cartoon showing Donnie Walsh and me in a boxing ring with our guitars strapped on, duking it out. That's just show biz stuff dreamed up by overzealous management. Powder Blues and Downchild are very dissimilar bands as anybody who has heard us play will know. Although we both use a horn section, Downchild is much more rudimentary, shuffle style blues and we play more rock and R and B in addition to swing and shuffle. They also feature Donnie's harmonica playing quite heavily and we have never had a harmonica.
My fav track is Rockchopper which you co-wrote with Albert Collins. How did that come about?
Back when the band had just formed, the first club we played on a six night a week, four set a night basis was the Spinning Wheel in the old part of Vancouver. It gave us a chance to woodshed and get paid for it and the long hours really tightened things up. But sometimes we'd run short of material and resort to jamming the blues. We started playing this tune as an excuse for everybody in the band to take a long solo. This served a couple of purposes. It was fun to stretch out and take a few musical chances, each guy spurring the other on and it filled the bill for the lack of rehearsed material.
We used a little melodic hook that nobody could quite put his finger on the origin of at the time. I named it the Rockchopper and put it on our debut album. After it started selling well, I got a nice note in the mail with a 45-rpm record from Albert Collins' publisher. It said in so many words, "what you guys are playing under the name 'The Rockchopper" is basically "Frosty" by Albert Collins, but because it's ninety percent you guys soloing, we only want fifty percent of the publishing. Just put Albert Collins' name on as co-writer and send us the money."
After hearing the record I realized we had inadvertently appropriated the main lick and figured we owed Albert so we listed him as co-writer and sent off the royalties due. It was about a year later that I was going through some real old 45's and I found this thing by Gatemouth Brown that I think was called 'The Supernatural'. It preceded the release of 'Frosty' by several years and used the same damn lick. I figured both Albert and us should be paying royalties to Gate.
The band's recent performance at BluesFest International in London, ON was an incredible display of the versatility of the band. It was interesting to note that only a few tracks from the new CD were part of the set and the sound was not so swing-based as on the disc. How did you work out what the band was going to play for the current tour?
We've been recording since 1979 and we have nine albums out [see 'Discography' www.powderblues.net]. Fans that come and see us all have different favorites so I don't think it's fair to just play stuff from the new album, as so many bands these days seem to do. We try to give each era a bit of representation at a concert and that way satisfy as many people as we can. I also like to judge from the type of crowd and their mood, what they might like to hear. I vary the set from night to night according to what I feel is going on out there, because the bottom line to me is "If you give 'em a good time and you have a good time then you're bound to be asked back and that way good times just keep on rolling."
What can we expect musically from Powder Blues in the future?
Musically, from Powder Blues, you can expect more of the same and more different. As Thelonius Monk once said, "Sometimes I play things I haven't heard." The next CD out will have even more horns than this one [sometimes up to 14 horns on a track], and will venture a little more into the jazz sort of thing, without losing the backbeat that has always made the band so danceable. In October we plan on cutting an 'all rock beat' album, reprising some of our older material in the new, more horns, big fidelity, style of 'Swingin the Blues', and also introducing some numbers, both original and cover that we've never recorded. After that, there's plans for a Powder Blues meets funky-beat, about which I'll say no more. Finally next year, with those projects off our plates we'll go back and write an original album just in case anyone wants to know what's really on our minds.
In the meantime and between time, we plan on doing a whole lot more touring both in Canada, the U.S. and over in Europe again, since we haven't toured there since the mid eighties. If you want us in your town just get a hold of us. It's easy. Go to www.powderblues.net and send us an email or try email@example.com and I'll answer it myself. I look forward to hearing from every single one of you. Go ahead, make the old man work.
For more information on Powder Blues, contact: website: www.powderblues.net e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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